I’ve Seen The Elephant

By Brian Thiem: In my current WIP (that’s Work in Progress for my non-writer friends—the book I’m currently working on), one of my main characters had looked forward to “seeing the elephant,” but once she does, the experience profoundly changes her.elephants

The phrase “seen the elephant” has been around for centuries. It originally meant to experience the world at a significant personal cost. Years ago, people had to travel to Africa to see an elephant, an experience filled with excitement and danger.

More recently, the military coined the phrase to describe the experience of combat, and some police departments use the phrase to define an officer’s experience in a life and death battle.

There are various degrees of seeing the elephant. Some soldiers, especially those who served in Vietnam, only consider soldiers who really saw the elephant as those engaged in close-range firefights, where they could see the faces of the enemy as they traded volleys of bullets. Others qualify anyone who has faced death at the hands of an enemy and prevailed as having seen the elephant.

When I deployed for the Iraq War, I saw how my fellow soldiers experienced their first sighting of the elephant when we were still in Kuwait and the sirens sounded as Scud missiles headed our way. I saw the faces of soldiers preparing to face the elephant when riding in a C-130 amid anti-aircraft fire on a night landing in Baghdad, and when leaving the wire in a HUMVEE to travel along the road to the Green Zone, where roadside bombs, snipers, and suicide bombers killed or wounded soldiers daily.

Some young soldiers and police officers secretly desire to see the elephant. They want to test their courage and skill by facing an opponent determined to kill them. They want to know if they’ll freeze or if they have what it takes to fight and win. However, few cops or soldiers who have faced the elephant in that manner ever want to again. They often end up with more regrets than triumphs.

In my WIP, Simone had spent years in the Army and law enforcement yet had never elephant chargingtruly faced the elephant. When she does, she is like an African hunter who had tracked a rogue bull elephant that rampaged villages and killed dozens of people. When the elephant charges her, she has a split second to summon every bit of courage and skill she possesses. Or die.

Those soldiers and police officers who have never seen the elephant might think that once they face the elephant and prevail, it will be easier the next time. But that is far from reality. Seeing the elephant changes you. Some are hardened by the experience, others suffer enormous regret at having taken a human life, some numb their emotions with alcohol or drugs, and others experience various degrees of PTSD or debilitating anxiety. And some take their own lives, as demonstrated by the higher rates of suicide among police and combat veterans.

Although my WIP is about a murder investigation and stopping bad guys from killing again, it also explores the lives of several characters, one of whom had looked forward to seeing the elephant, and how after she sees and conquers it, her life and the lives of those around her are forever changed.   

My Tribe

In three weeks time I will have been retired from law enforcement for seven years. Seven! Even as I look at the calendar I am unsure how time passed so quickly. But a quick trip into Portland and the sight of another twelve-year-old behind the wheel of a black and white confirms the awful truth. I am officially a dinosaur.

If you’ve followed some of my prior blog posts you already know how much I struggled after leaving my police life behind. The first few weeks were grand. It felt like a vacation. The phone wasn’t ringing constantly, no frantic emails to return, no emergency trips into Portland in the dead of night. It was truly great. But then, after those first few weeks had passed, I noticed something. The phone wasn’t ringing. There were no emails. Nobody needed me. It was as if I’d become obsolete overnight. Worse was the realization that I had lost that decades long connection to my police family. It might be hard for some of you reading this to imagine the feeling of no longer belonging, especially if you’re still approaching retirement from your current occupation. But trust me, it’s an unnerving experience.

I’ve known for some time that my fellow mystery/thriller writers are a welcoming and supportive group of folks. That awareness began in New England, quickly spreading to faraway places like Ireland and Australia. Fellow crime scribes abound. But it wasn’t until a week ago that I realized exactly where I belong.

I was in Tennessee attending my first Killer Nashville mystery writers’ conference. If you are a mystery writer, or hoping to be, this is a can’t miss conference. Similar in size to the New England Crime Bake, Killer Nashville draws writers from far and wide, each of whom are more than willing to share their knowledge, both of writing and the business of writing. I took part in several panels and book signings, but more importantly I got to spend time with old friends and made some new.

On Saturday night the awards banquet was held. A classy event with a fabulous band, great food, some heartfelt speeches, and the presentation of Killer Nashville’s annual awards. As the evening unfolded I had occasion to really observe the people seated at my table, former journalists, musicians, and a cop. While our our prior occupations ran the gamut, each of us shares a love of storytelling and a passion for the written word. Amid the laughter, gaiety, and playful irreverence was the unwavering support and appreciation displayed for their fellow writers. As I watched them interact with one another it occurred to me that these were exactly the same people I had surrounded myself with when I still wore a badge. People from all walks of life, with widely varying backgrounds and experiences, united by a remarkable passion for their chosen career. I realized, with certainty, that I had once again found my tribe.

Militarization of Police

By Brian Thiem
About two months ago, Sacramento Police Officer Tara O’Sullivan was shot during a domestic dispute call by a man with a high-powered rifle. Other officers immediately took cover as the gunman continued shooting, preventing them from rescuing Tara as she lay dying in the back yard of a North Sacramento house.Tara-OSullivan-Life-Mattered[1]

Within minutes, numerous officers responded, but they were unable to get to Tara without subjecting themselves to gunfire.

I can only imagine the sense of utter helplessness felt by Tara and her fellow officers as she lay dying in that backyard while rifle rounds pinged around them, her brother officers wanting to rush to her aid, but knowing that doing so meant certain death.

Those officers were armed with handguns, firearms that are effective out to about 20 yards. They wore concealable Kevlar vests that covered a fraction of their bodies and were only capable of stopping the most common handgun rounds. The rifle bullets the gunman was firing would punch right through them.

It was nearly an hour before the department was able to enter the kill zone with an armored vehicle called a Bearcat and evacuate Tara. Whether Tara was already dead at that time or died en route to the hospital hasn’t been determined or hasn’t been publicly released.Bearcat

I’ve heard and read too many politicians, activists, and media outlets decrying the so-called militarization of law enforcement—the acquisition of armored vehicles and other tools and weapons beyond what a uniformed police officer uses, and related training for major tactical situations.

Earlier this year, the Alameda County (in which Oakland, the city where I worked for 25 years, is located) voted to eliminate SWAT-type scenarios from a regional law enforcement training exercise that is attended by law enforcement agencies from around the state because it “promotes the militarization of police.”

As a tactical commander and the commander of the special operations section for several years toward the end of my police career, I oversaw hundreds of SWAT operations, and through formal Risk Analysis processes, I determined the circumstances under which specialized tactical teams and equipment was appropriate. Those decisions required balancing resources (personnel, overtime) with officer and community safety, while weighing community expectations and concerns.

Therefore, I cringe when I see news reports of heavily armed FBI SWAT teams serving a search warrant at the house of a white-collar crime suspect, or SWAT teams using armored vehicles with a battering ram for routine search warrants.

The debate over police acquiring and deploying heavy tactical equipment and weapons and engaging in training exercises focusing on terrorist attacks and active shooters should continue in our communities. However, I know some Sacramento police officers who wished they had an armored vehicle closer and more specially trained tactical officers with rifles as they were pinned down by a crazed gunman and their sister lay dying nearby.

Still Adapting

Hello all you loyal followers of Murder Books. Bruce Robert Coffin here wishing you a joyous summer.

This month I thought I’d discuss the struggle of moving from one career to a completely different endeavor. In my case that is the ongoing transition from police work to novel writing. I used the word ongoing because it has finally occurred to me that this is a slow process.

As anyone who has ever worn the badge can attest, those old routines and mindsets die hard, if ever. So deeply engrained into my psyche was the necessity of keeping a charged cellphone on the nightstand each night as I crawled into bed, ringer on of course, that shutting it off now seems verboten. Like I’m committing a mortal sin by killing the ringtone. I think “Thou shall not kill the ringtone” was actually contained within the pages of my department’s SOP. This was one of the realities of my job, the twenty-four seven nature of detective work. It was never a question of whether or not the phone ring after I’d called it a night, it usually did. The only question was what time the call would come and would said call necessitate me driving into work.

As a novel writer, I don’t receive many urgent late night communications. Most everything these days can wait until morning, or at least until my 3A.M. muse slaps me upside the head and orders me to get back to the work in progress.

But authoring full time doesn’t let me off the hook from all of my programming. Nope, I still back the vehicle into wherever I’m parking, in case there’s need to respond quickly. I still pick the table or booth that affords me a view of the room with my back to the wall. I still carry things in my left hand, keeping my gun hand free. Still unfasten the seatbelt as I turn into the driveway, allowing for quick exit. Whenever I’m in public I still watch for furtive actions on the part of everyone around me. Hell, I still write about police work. The cop’s sense never goes away, and for safety’s sake I guess I wouldn’t want it to.

I still remember sitting on the beach in Saint Martin, with some fellow law dawgs, watching as three wolves descended on an unsuspecting couple. The middle-aged man and woman were seated on lawn chairs and mesmerized by the brilliant turquoise-colored Caribbean. The woman had stowed her pocketbook and shopping bags behind her chair, in full view to all who passed by, including the three wolves. By now you’re probably wondering how we knew they were wolves. For one they had nothing with them. No towels. No suits. No chairs. No Jimmy Buffet tee-shirts. No adult beverages, although they hardly looked old enough to legally consume anyway. What they did possess were running sneakers on their feet, bodies that looked extremely fleet of foot, and clothes that identify them as locals, not tourists. As we watched they surrounded their mark, moving ever closer to the couple, while trying unsuccessfully to look disinterested. It was obvious to us that they had done this many times before. Finally, before the curtain fell on this little drama, we walked over and let the couple know what was about to go down. Turns out they were on the same cruise ship. They thanked us and the woman moved her valuables around to the front where they could both keep and eye on them. Eventually, the three wolves moved on. One at a time, still trying to look as if they belonged, they rose and wandered away, each one fixing us with a look of contempt. I tell you this story because it’s what every cop does. None of us, regardless of our “after cop life” career, can ever completely shut off that part of us.

So while I may spend my days writing, or traveling to libraries, bookstores, conferences, and colleges to talk about writing, my inner cop still lives. And he still struggles with shutting off the ringtone.

Write on!

Getting the Cop Stuff Right

by Brian Thiem

In the past few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to help four writer friends get the cop stuff right in their novels. My cop friends know this stuff, but unless a crime fiction writer has carried a badge and gun for a living, they can make procedural errors that will make more knowledgeable readers cringe. Glock-23-40S-W_main-1

Most fiction writers these days (although a few are still clueless) know Glocks don’t have manual safeties and police officers carry their pistols with a round in the chamber, so there’s no dramatic racking of the slide before they go into a dangerous situation, as we often see on TV. Therefore, the questions I normally get are more nuanced and complex.

I helped two writers understand crime scene security. On major cases, such as homicides, the mayor, the victim’s mother, and reporters cannot enter the scene. In Oakland, our rule was that as soon as the life threating activities (medical care to the injured, arresting suspects, and searching and securing the scene) were complete, the only people allowed into the scene were the field supervisor (normally a patrol sergeant), homicide investigators, coroner’s deputies, and crime scene technicians.

Since every officer on the scene had to write a report, if some captain tried to pull rank to come in and “take a look,” I would just tell him that per the Report Writing Manual, he must complete a supplemental report detailing everything he did and saw while on the scene and his reasons for entering. I’d remind him he might have to testify in court because defense lawyers love to question everyone present looking for inconsistencies. In my time in Homicide, I never had any brass insist on entering a major crime scene.crime-scene-tape

I helped another writer create a realistic police detective character. Most major police departments require that all new hires start as a uniformed police officer and work their way through the ranks, except for possibly police chiefs, who are sometimes hired from outside the department. After a number of years in uniform, an officer may be promoted to detective. In some departments, detective is a duty position within the same ranks as those in uniform, such as officer or sergeant. In others, such as LAPD and NYPD, officers test for a separate detective rank. And if the detectives (or investigators, as many departments actually call them), work in crime-based units (homicide, robbery, burglary, etc.), they normally have to work their way up to Homicide.

I helped another writer understand the boundaries of an investigator’s legal jurisdiction. Investigators often have to cross jurisdictional lines to do their job. Crooks don’t stay within a particular city’s boundaries, so investigators can’t either. However, states have different laws governing the extent of a police officer’s authority. In California, for instance, a peace officer has police powers anywhere in the state. Even though I worked for Oakland PD, I could legally make an arrest in Los Angeles, although I’d be a fool to do so without the help of LAPD unless I accidentally stumbled on something and was forced to take action. Even if I was going a few blocks outside Oakland to make an arrest, I’d always notify the neighboring city first, and they’d often send their officers to assist.

Even though I had no peace officer authority outside California, I traveled to other states a number of times when investigating homicides. We’d always make contact with the jurisdiction we were visiting, either a city police department, sheriff’s office, or state police, as a matter of courtesy, but also because they knew the locale, the bad guys, and had direct access to a cavalry of blue suits if the feces hit the fan.

One investigation took me to Washington D.C., where the city’s homicide unit assigned two detectives to me and my partner to assist us as we interviewed an Oakland murder suspect they had arrested for us and helped us locate several witnesses in the seedier parts of our nation’s capital. I recall their assistance even included taking us to dinner and drinking with us at the local cop bar. Cop Bar

I worked with another writer whose police detective was getting into a romantic relationship with a crime victim. I won’t say it never happened in real life, but police officers know that’s an ethical no-no. Firstly, the investigator is in a disparate power position with a citizen victim or witness, somewhat like a teacher and a student or a therapist and a patient. Secondly, a personal relationship could taint the investigator’s objectivity and therefore, the investigation. And lastly, if the case goes to trial, the defense attorney will have a field day with the investigator in court, challenging his professionalism, objectivity, and honesty (he probably lied about the affair or at least kept it secret), which will likely damage the case beyond repair.

I’m not telling my author pals not to do it, because it makes for such great drama—the dedicated detective willing to destroy his career for the beautiful heroine or the flawed detective who breaks the rules in the name of justice and love—but understand the consequences in the real world.

I’m impressed with authors who try to get the cop stuff right in their novels, so don’t be afraid to ask if I can assist. And if you’re a writer and going to the Mystery in the Midlands conference next month, I’ll be teaching a masters class on Police Tactics for Writers.

The Worst Day

Brian Thiem 3-21-19: I sat at my computer this morning to draft my blog post for this Sunday. I first went through my normal routine of checking the world news to make sure a huge meteor was not on its way to wipe out the planet or WWIII hadn’t broken out, then scrolled through my emails and deleted 90% of them and briefly visited Facebook OPD Memorial Walland Twitter. My friends and colleagues were sharing their feelings of painful memory.

Today is the 10-year anniversary of the worst day in the history of the Oakland Police Department, the day when four officers were killed in the line of duty. That day, motorcycle Officer John Hege and Sergeant Mark Dunakin stopped a motorist for a traffic violation. Unbeknownst to them at the time, the motorist (I’m intentionally not using his name because he is not deserving of notoriety) was responsible for a recent string of rapes and was wanted on a parole violation warrant. The suspect shot both officers and then stood over them and fired additional bullets into them as they lay on the ground.

Several hours later, the suspect was located in a nearby apartment. An entry team of the department’s Tactical Operations Team (SWAT) entered the residence. The suspect opened fire with a semi-automatic SKS rifle, killing Sergeants Erv Romans and Dan Sakai, before other officers killed the shooter.

Although I had been retired for four years and living in Connecticut, the murders of these four officers hit me as hard as the ten OPD officers previously killed during my 25-year service. Times Four!

I knew these four officers well. I still picture John’s smile as he strolled by the watch commander’s office on his way to the locker room every evening during my final year as a watch commander. I can see Mark’s boyish grin as he sat at his desk in homicide when I commanded the unit. And I visualize both Erv and Dan with their game faces on, dressed in their black BDUs on countless SWAT callouts when I was the tactical commander and commander of Special Operations. OPD Memorial Wall 2

When the news hit ten years ago, I poured over the news reports of the incident from 3000 miles away and spoke to countless OPD brothers and sisters by phone over the next few days. Finally, my wife said, “You need to go back.”

I made my arrangements, retrieved my gold badge from my gun safe, stretched a black band across it, and flew cross-country. I attended two of the wakes on my day of arrival and then spent the evening at the local cop bar, where I got to share my grief with hundreds of brothers and sisters who understood what I was feeling.

The next day, I sat in a special area reserved for retired officers in the Oracle Arena along with 21,000 other people and heard countless speakers talk about the four men who gave their lives protecting and serving citizens and a community that seldom expressed gratitude. I fought back feelings of anger, trying my best to replace those feelings with pride for the way those officers lived their lives and their willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice.

Today, ten years after that tragedy, I’m reading a newspaper article of a church service remembering and honoring these officers, another story about one of their wives who remarried and found happiness, and updates about their children, now young adults, doing okay. But the pain of the officers’ senseless deaths still lingers among my brothersOPD Memorial Wall #2 and sisters in blue, the officers’ families, and parts of the community they served and gave their lives to protect.

Writing this today, I accept the pain I feel from losing a fellow officer to a line-of-duty death will never go away. And I’m convinced it never should.

Face Crimes and Mean-Mugging

During the last week or so, I was fascinated with the mainstream media reporting and social media hubbub over a young man’s facial expression at the Lincoln Memorial. Not because I want to get involved in the national debate over who’s right and who’s wrong smirk emojior when a smile is a smirk (BTW, I refuse to get involved in divisive political debate in this blog or elsewhere in social media).

I followed the reporting because, as a police officer and detective, I have studied body language and facial expressions for decades to figure out what was going on inside people’s heads, and today I try to use it in my fiction writing.

Although high-level detectives (such as homicide detectives who spend thousands of hours interviewing people) are better than the average person at “reading” people based on their expressions, most of us would admit, it’s often guesswork. Even when we feel someone is lying, it’s nearly impossible to identify specific eye, face, or body language as proof.

Many of us young cops in Oakland had been accused of committing “face crimes,” as one of my early sergeants termed them, based on George Orwell’s novel, 1984:george orwell 1984

A nervous tic, an unconscious look of anxiety, a habit of muttering to yourself—anything that carried with it the suggestion of abnormality, of having something to hide. In any case, to wear an improper expression on your face (to look incredulous when a victory was announced, for example) was itself a punishable offense. There was even a word for it in Newspeak: FACECRIME, it was called.

Citizens complained if we smiled and wished a motorist a nice day after issuing them a traffic citation. Although we were trying to be polite and friendly, a smile was sometimes viewed as us taking smug pleasure in the motorists’ misfortune. Other motorists complained if we remained stone-faced during the encounter because it conveyed a “storm trooper” and robot-like mentality that lacked humanity.

I remember being counseled for allowing the expression of the rage I was feeling to show on my face when I once arrested a man who had pressed his son’s hands on an police at protestelectric stove’s burners. Control my emotions, I was told. Another time I had to respond to a complaint for appearing dispassionate toward a sexual assault victim, whom I spent hours interviewing while holding in my emotions to avoid crying along with her.

I also saw a “face crime” turn deadly when investigating a murder where a young man was shot and killed by a street-corner drug dealer. With overwhelming evidence showing he did it, we arrested and interviewed the suspect. Our main question was why. The shooter explained that the victim never said a word to him, but walked by his corner and “mean-mugged” him.

Statisticians at the city and state level mandated we classify every homicide by motive. Some were clear-cut, such as murders committed during a robbery or when a husband killed his wife (domestic), yet my fellow homicide detectives knew many of the senseless murders we investigated defied classification. Still, there was no category for “mean-mugging.”

There was no indication the victim intentionally meant to disrespect the drug dealer (and even if he did, it certainly didn’t justify the killing), and friends and family believed the victim was attempting to appear confident so the local dealers didn’t mess with him. A look of confidence to one person can appear to be arrogance to another.

Detectives have been trying to discover methods to ascertain deception in people for years, hoping for insight into a subject’s mind and true thoughts. I attended training mona smirkabout eye movement, where the instructors said a subject’s eyes move up and right when they lie. Another training course described micro-expressions that supposedly indicated deception. However, recent studies indicate none of these methods is much more accurate than a flip of a coin.

Despite its inherit unreliability, it’s human nature to try to read people’s thoughts based on their body language, so in my novels, I try to incorporate characters’ facial expression with their actions and dialogue to better bring them to life. In my next book, I know I’ll have to make a character smirk to see how the characters around him react.