Thursday, July 19, 2012

Police Procedure: 5 Ways We Get It Wrong

AND THE WINNERS ARE: Congratulations! Copies of the gorgeous new trade paperback edition of Julia Spencer-Fleming's "A Fountain Filled with Blood" are going to (drum roll, please!) Charmaine, Jess, and Darlene! Send your address to julia "at" juliaspencerfleming dot com.

BREAKING NEWS: Today we're giving away 3 COPIES of the trade paperback of "One Was a Soldier" to lucky commenters!

HALLIE EPHRON: I first met writer and former police detective Lee Lofland a few years ago when he and I were on a panel at Bouchercon. Soon after, he and his wife moved all too briefly to the Boston area just after he had finished up his fabulous resource for mystery writers, "Police Procedure & Investigation." I've followed his blog, Graveyard Shift, picking up insights.

He talked then about a dream he had, mounting a Writers' Police Academy that would focus on offering writers/us rubes an in-depth understanding of law enforcement and forensics. Ride alongs. Jail tours. Experts. When Lee moved to North Carolina, another brief stay, he made that dream a reality. 

Registration for this year's Writers' Police Academy, September 20-23, 2012, in Jamestown, NC, is now underway.

Welcome, Lee, to Jungle Red! I do think, thanks to you, we writers are getting smarter about police procedure and forensics. But what mistakes do you still see writers making? 

LEE LOFLAND: You know, I wish I could say the errors I see in books about police procedure and forensics are all mistakes, but they’re not...not all of them. Some of inaccuracies occur due to ill-informed editors who think they know it all because they’ve religiously watched CSI on TV since episode one hit the airwaves. Other mistakes occur because writers fall into the rut of “that’s the way it was done in so-and-so’s book,” therefore it must be right.

Oh, and let’s not forget about the writer who thinks he’s conducted solid research because he went out of his way to contact his friend who is a friend of the barber who cuts the hair of the guy who lives next to the woman whose sister married a guy who’s on a bowling team with a guy who was once interviewed for a job as a police officer. Not exactly the best of resources.

These five are the most common:

1. FBI agent rides into town to take over a murder investigation, or a kidnapping. Well, to begin with, the FBI, as a rule, does NOT work murder investigations, unless it is the killing of one of their own, or the murder of a federal official (senator, congressman, U.S. president, etc.). They also work murders on federal property. But they don’t investigate the murder of Mr. I.B. Dead that occurred Anytown, USA.

Local police investigate their own murder cases. Not the FBI. If local cops do decide to ask for federal assistance on a case, the FBI would act in a supporting role, leaving the local officers in charge of the operation. So, please, at least think twice before sending your FBI agent/protagonist riding into town on a white horse to save the day. It just doesn’t happen that way, unless your story involves art theft or treason.

Also, each state has its own kidnapping statutes, which means any police officer in any state can work a kidnapping case, and they do.

Here’s a link to one of my articles that spells out exactly which cases FBI agents investigate.

2. Cordite. Grrr... Cordite has not been around in decades. Therefore, your hero CANNOT walk into a crime scene and “smell the lingering odor of cordite in the air.” NO, NO, and NO!

Modern ammunition uses smokeless powder to propel the bullet. Smokeless powder has an odor that’s quite similar to the smell that hangs in the air after a 4th of July fireworks show (minus the beer and hotdogs).

3. Cop’s suspended from duty, yet he still continues the investigation on his own time. Another Grrr... I see this all the time in books. In fact, it’s a pretty predictable occurrence, and it’s wrong, not to mention boring.

When an officer is suspended, so are his police powers (usually). He does not have the authority to investigate, arrest, etc. Therefore, if he did make an arrest while on suspension, the case could be tossed out of court. And, he could be held liable for the illegal detention of the suspect. Basically, that’s kidnapping.

4. The karate chop to the back of the neck that knocks the bad guy unconscious. Puhleeze.... The only thing that would do is make the guy really angry.

FYI - Knocking someone unconscious is a bit more of a task than you’d think, and I’m a perfect example of that. A thug once used a wooden baseball bat to try to prevent me from arresting him. The jerk did manage to connect a hefty swing to the back of my head just as I was turning away from the incoming bat. Sure, it knocked me down, and it hurt, a lot, but when I managed to get to my feet, well, let’s just say I “gently” placed him under arrest.

5. A karate chop to the wrist, causing the bad guy drop his gun. Double Puhleeze... If a bad guy points a gun at a cop, well, let’s just say he should feel properly aerated immediately after pulling his weapon on the officer. No karate chops.

And, please don’t make the mistake of having your protagonist shoot the gun or knife from the hand of a bad guy. Unless your officer is a highly skilled sniper, that ain’t happening. Cops are trained to shoot center mass, which means the center of the largest part of the visible target.

Some officers are such poor shots that they’re extremely lucky to hit a man-size target. So hitting a hand would be an extremely huge stroke of luck. In fact, there’s a recent story of a police chief who was fired because he’d failed to shoot qualifying score on the firing range.

HALLIE: I'm embarrassed to say that I've made at least ONE of these mistakes. Not sayin' which.

Writers’ Police Academy has grown so much -- what are some of the exciting goings-on this year?

LEE: Writers’ Police Academy (WPA) is not a typical writers conference. We don’t do author or agent panels. Nor do we do the typical breakout sessions where local cops stand in front of the room to talk shop.WPA is all about learning the behind-the-scenes details and having a ton of fun while you’re doing it.

We are the real deal, a one of a kind event, featuring real police, fire, forensics, and EMS training at an actual police academy with classes and workshops taught by real police academy instructors and top experts from around the country. The only thing you can’t do at the WPA is to see and do it all in a single weekend.

HALLIE: What's on your roster this year?

LEE: Here's just a few of the experts we've got.
  • Marcia Clark (former OJ Simpson prosecutor)
  • Experts from Sirchie Fingerprint Laboratories
  • World-renowned forensic anthropologist Dr. Elizabeth Murray
  • Author Kathy Harris (marketing manager for the Oak Ridge Boys)
  • Cold case and bloodstain pattern expert Dave Pauly
  • Detective Lee Lofland
And workshops:
- Interview and Interrogation.
- Cold Case Investigations.
- Dive teams

- Arson investigation
- Gangs

- Firefighting

- Treating gunshot victims
- Driving simulator
- Arrest techniques and Handcuffing

- Shallow grave investigations
- Explosive and bomb squad
-Jail searches - we have fully-equipped onsite jail cells
- Underwater evidence recovery (we have an onsite pool!)
- Tons of police equipment and dozens of vehicles for demos and for your up-close inspection, including helicopter, command posts, patrol vehicles, bomb

WOW. There is really nothing else quite like it. Anyone who's writing police procedure owes it to themselves to show up.

Lee will be checking back in today to answer questions, and on Friday he'll be back to talk about knotty issues like how an author can credible get their civilian sleuth involved in an investigation. He'll also give thumbs-up and thumbs-down to a few top TV shows.


  1. I'm write traditional mysteries and want to get the police part correct, and am so excited to be attending the academy this year for the first time. Thanks, Lee!

  2. Lucky Edith! When you come back, do share with us ways to get your organic farmer or a Quaker linguistics professor on the inside of a police investigation... Take pictures! Report back!!

  3. Yes I'm so envious Edith! Cannot fit it in this year but dying to attend...

    Lee, what about the problem I always have with writing the amateur sleuth. Under what reasonable circumstances might the cop say to the civilian--keep your eyes open and let me know if you hear anything that has bearing on the murder case?

  4. Jacqueline SheehanJuly 19, 2012 at 7:56 AM

    This was fascinating! I'm going to look for his book. I'd love to go to this conference but I am over-th-top scheduled with reading. Thanks so much for this wonderful lead.

  5. Wow great info and perfect timing. I'm currently writing book #3 in my Rachel Scott series and see that I'm guilty of one of Lee's no no's. Oops. And I would love to attend the WPA this year. Checking my calendar now to see if I can squeeze it in. Thanks Hallie and Lee!

  6. I did an on-line course with Lee and I learned so much. I refer to my notes all the time.

  7. Excellent interview! I have attended the Writers' Police Academy - Lee Lofland is a genuinely nice guy who has put together a fun conference filled with valuable information. I plan to attend another in the future.

  8. I would love to attend WPA, but don't have the time/money this year. Maybe next year. I was, however, fortunate enough to be able to take an online class from Lee, which helped a lot with my PA State Trooper stories. I have the same question that Lucy does regarding amateur sleuths - I've got one of those too.

  9. Thanks for the pet peeves, Lee! It's amazing how often some of those get used.

    Lee, I have a question. On CSI they often show the investigators tramping around the crime scene in the DARK, using flashlights. Surely this cannot be a common, real procedure, right? Please tell me that is done on the show for effect only. Whenever I see them throwing shadows everywhere I want to go throw a light switch somewhere.

    One of my favorite activities ever was the Citizens Police Academy held locally a couple years ago. The shooting simulators were fascinating, and very revealing, especially in how the participants reacted with the guns. The men, some of whom were then enrolled in a college program for peace officers, tended to shoot wildly, while the women were much more apt to get their man with one or two well-placed shots, chosen very deliberately. An eye-opening experience for me.

    The WPA sounds intense, but hugely fun.

  10. That's my question, too, Karen - is that ridiculous or what, not turning on the lights?

  11. Sounds like a great conference - very useful and a lot of fun as well.

  12. Hi, Lee - Great to see you at Jungle Red. That Sisters in Crime Forensics University was one of the best conferences I ever attended. I still use and think about the information I learned there.

    Edith - I'm psyched and a little jealous that you get to attend WPA this year.

  13. I'm a little slow getting started this morning. In fact, I haven't even posted my own blog yet. It's an extremely interesting article too.

    Anyway, on to your questions and comments.

    Edith - You picked a great year to attend the WPA because it's the biggest and best and most action-packed we've ever put together. I probably should've saved half of it for another year.

    Lucy - There's no problem at all with having your officer ask someone to keep their eyes and ears open for any new developments and/or clues. It's done all the time, and, in fact, that's how many cases are solved.

    You have me blushing, Karen. Although, I'm not sure my wife would agree with your "nice guy" comment.

    Mary - If it helps, Sisters in Crime National is paying well over half of their members' WPA registration fee.

    Lights on or off? Yes, the first thing investigators do (after making sure there's no explosive gas lingering in the air is turn on the lights (sparks caused by flipping a light switch and natural gas/propane aren't a good mix). If the lights are left off, it would be highly possible to trip over a dead body.

    Of course, they may need to turn out the lights occasionally while using alternate light sources to detect otherwise invisible evidence.

  14. This comes to me from Molly Swoboda via Facebook: "A shout out to SistersIn Crime for their support that keeps this great event affordable to so many. A second shout out to Lee Lofland and his team for their continued, very tangible, commitment to law enforcement training -- and better writers"

  15. Lee, thanks for being here!!! WPA sounds great. Maybe next year...

    Laughing about the TV detective bumbling around in the dark!

    And since I write British police novels, what do you think about British cop shows? Are they any better about getting it right?

    I loved The Bill (the longest running cop show on British TV, but sadly, gone now) and MIT (Murder Investigation Team) which was a spinoff with two female CID officers on the team.

  16. Hi Rhonda. You know, it was during SinC's Forensic U that the idea first came to me to host a Writers' Police Academy.

    But I'm greedy and perhaps enjoy a challenge, because I wanted to see a hands-on event where writers actually got a chance to train just like real police officers, instead of sitting in a hotel meeting room listening to cop war stories and looking at a fake crime scene set up in the corner of the room. I wanted to expose writers to the real thing.

    ATF Agent Rick McMahan and I sat in the hotel lobby at Forensic U discussing the idea for quite a while...okay we were in the bar, but we were still talking about doing a writers police academy of some kind.

    So what we have today sprouted from that discussion. It took a while and a lot of begging and pleading, but I finally found a real police academy that was foolish enough to allow a bunch of crazy writers to take over the place for an entire weekend. Next, I had to find a few police departments that were willing to help with my wild plan.

    Anyway, the event is far greater than what I ever imagined. It truly is Disneyland for writers!

  17. The writers' conference sounds absolutely fantastic!

    It’s so true about our misconceptions over police procedure as a result of what we see portrayed in television dramas . . . my now-retired police sergeant husband often grumbles over some improper/unrealistic thing we see being portrayed in police investigations on these shows.

  18. Hi Deb - I love British TV, especially the comedies. And, the majority of the police dramas seem to be fairly accurate as far as their police procedure and forensics (which often differs a bit from the U.S.).

    You know, I used to say, "maybe next year," all the time...until the time in my life came when I realized that I've missed out on so many things - opportunities that have come and gone and that now, because I waited, I'll never have a chance to do...just saying. :)

  19. Lee, you're a book god! I've had to talk a number of writers down from the idea that the FBI step in to a local case if it's "big" enough, jurisdiction issues aside.

    Sort of like the tourists who think an elk is just a really big deer. :)

  20. Great article, Lee. I was all set to gloat about getting things right in my novels -- once, a proofreader changed "magazine" to "cylinder" and I went, well, ballistic, because I knew that a Colt .45 automatic doesn't have a cylinder.

    Then you mentioned cordite. Okay... if anybody finds a reference to that scent in one of my books, please assume it refers to a trendy perfume.

  21. Hi Leslie - Speaking of book gods, well, goddess in your case...your book is fantastic. In fact, it's on my desk right now. I was hoping to steal an idea from it. :) would be a Colt .45 "semi-automatic," unless, of course, the weapon had been manually converted to fully automatic, like a machine gun. Just teasing... In fact, a lot of cops call their sidearms "automatics" even though that's not correct.

  22. Bless you, Lee! Looking forward to your advice on writing amateur sleuths!

  23. Heh. I thought a semi was a truck. ;-)

  24. Oy, guns. That's why I do not put them in my books.

  25. I'm envious of you, Edith! I hope to be able to do the Writers Police Academy next year. This year's just booked up, unfortunately.

    And thanks so much for setting this up, Lee! it's a great service for writers--and readers--everywhere.

  26. Thank you for posting this. I have added Lee's blog to my favorites list. Your blog was already on my list.

  27. Lee, sounds like you've put together a program that truly addresses the issue of accuracy in crime writing. I've been fortunate enough to be friends with police officers (who arranged ride outs),forensic folks (spent time with an ME and toured the facility, as well as gawking at the detail work these folks do), and taught classes and tested EMT's at a fire training academy. I was glad to see you've included EMS in your program. My biggest pet peeve is writers--books, TV, movies--who don't check their medical facts. As a retired nurse who spent twenty years as a flight nurse, I've actually put down a book and never picked it up again due to total flouting of the "real world". I'm delighted you mentioned how difficult it is to knock someone out--not only difficult, but if they're truly down for the count, they wake up confused, not ready to jump up and chase after the suspect. Hooray for all you do to keep readers entranced by the accuracy of the writers you educate!

  28. There is only one Lee on the planet! He is a true gem!!! Thelma Straw in less hot Manhotten

  29. Good info, Lee, as always!

    Personal favorites? Deliberately and s l o w l y screwing a sound suppressor ONTO A REVOLVER.

    Police threatening the PI with, "I'll have your license pulled, shamus!" Good luck there, officer.

    And of course, the Ultimate: a computer forensic examination that happens almost *immediately*. I've laughed aloud too many times, especially when the 'forensic expert' commits what amounts to a felony to get the info.

    I tell myself, "It's just TV, no big thing," but it does grate after a while.

  30. In awe. Baseball hat to the back of the head and still up to make an arrest after that? You're a rockstar.
    Might be worth noting that FBI does roll into town and piss local cops off when a kid goes missing ...

  31. Thanks, William.

    Actually, Kristi, the FBI doesn't magically roll into town the second a child is reported missing. Somebody from the local police normally initiates their participation by inviting/asking for their help with the case. Agents have no way of knowing a child is missing until they receive the call. Of course, family members do sometimes call the FBI directly, or in the case of a high-profile family the governor may be the person making that call... :)

    But, in those cases I've never seen or heard of any irritation expressed by local officers because it's always a good thing to have more people working toward finding a missing child.

    However, I was a cop for a long time and have worked numerous abduction cases involving children, as do investigators all across the country, and never once did I call in the FBI.

    I've worked with FBI agents on many cases in my day, and even served on task forces with federal agents, and we always got along just fine, especially with DEA and ATF because they're more familiar with "in the trenches" type of work.

    Most FBI agents work white collar-type crimes, so "street work" is sometimes a bit out of their comfort zone. Still, they're highly trained and their resources are out of this world. And I loved borrowing their toys.

  32. But, I'm sure, Kristi, that agents somewhere have rubbed local officers the wrong way, and local cops have irked the feds as well. I've just not seen it in my dealings across the country.

  33. Great post!! As a former FBI analyst I would like to personally thank you Lee for tip #1. I love reading mysteries and thrillers but as soon as I get to the FBI agent investigating a local murder my eyes roll and I can go no matter how well written the book is. The FBI murder investigation falls right under the badass NSA operative. Nope, doesn't happen. lol Whether you want to or not, you tend to read with a different eye for this stuff when you're in the business.

    I know it's fiction and we have to make things sexy for the readers so we do what we must, but these are GREAT tips if you can take them into account.

  34. I know someone who was planning on going to your workshop and look forward to hearing her take on it! Thanks for the good work, it must be as frustrating for you to read bad investigative work as it is for me to see bad medical info.

  35. Lee, I think you are wonderful. What inspired you to start the Writers Police Academy? Did the idea come to you as a reader? As a writer you have your background to inform your writing. What made you want to put some of that out there for others? How do you keep up with changes. I can't imagine the work that must go into keeping up.

  36. Hi Reine - The idea to do a Writers' Police Academy first came to me while attending Sisters in Crime's Forensic University. And, I'd attended numerous writers conferences, sitting in on police officer-type workshops. While at those events, I noticed that sometimes audience members didn't understand exactly what the instuctors meant, and that's not a good thing.

    Sure, all the information at every single event has been excellent, but it's just not the same as getting your hands dirty with fingerprint powder, smelling the real odors associated with a murder scene, shooting guns, wearing a Kevlar vest, handcuffing a suspect, driving police cars and fire trucks, etc.

    So, that's what I put together in Ohio back in 2009 - a hands-on event -, and man has it grown. This event is absolutely huge. In fact, when our recruits first round the corner and see all the police, CSI, and other emergency vehicles and equipment, well, it's a sight to behold. And, it takes place at an actual police, fire, and EMS academy.

    Why did I do this to mean to help others? Simple, I was truly tired of seeing all the easily-prevented mistakes in so many books!

    I keep my information current by staying in touch with many law enforcement officer-trainers and other experts on a regular basis. Also, I'm a sheriff member of the National Sheriff's Association.

    1. Lee, that is fantastic. Thanks for a great response!

  37. Lee, Lee! Running in after a hard day chasing.well, I can;t tell you.
    Anyway, this is SO terrific!And a real master class. And I use your book all the time.

    And yes, SinC LOVES WPA! Talk about a master class.

    One question--in the mind of a police officer--what does they call him/her self? And what do they call their weapon? "He heard footsteps. He reached for his_____."

    And--off the record--how often do police officers mislead suspects to get info? "Yes, the cab driver recognized you." When he didn't?

    LOVe to you and your dear wife..oxo

  38. I attended last year for the first time and it was a wonderful experience. I'm definitely going back this year!


  39. Hi Hank, my pal and buddy.

    You know, a lot of officers refer to their duty weapons by the brand..."My SIG," "My Smith"(Smith and Wesson), or "My Glock," etc.

    If you're asking if officers lie to suspects, and, if so, how often? Easy answer...Yes, and every single day there're thousands of officers all across the country lying to killers, rapists, or even the guy who's accused of B&E (remember, robbery and burglary are NOT the same), all hoping to get a confession, or some sort of break in a case.

  40. Dropping in to say Hi to Lee, who's one of the most generous guys on the planet. I went to WPA #1 and am going to #3. (I haven't read all the comments, so I don't know if someone's mentioned it, so sorry...)but I expected to see the "thumbing the safety off a Glock" listed in most common errors. Lee has saved my butt more than once when I've asked him a question about procedure. Buy his book. Read the "CSI...don't think so" chapter.


  41. Oh, whew, Lee! You have made my day. (;-) ) Back to the manuscript, where my police officer hero is behaving realistically!

    whoo hoo...xooxo

    And my captcha word is undoodu, which proves it!

  42. And Lee, you know, maybe one year WPA could have a class on what reporters do...? xoo

  43. Wow, what an incredible opportunity! As a reader, I wouldn't know the difference between the workings of a Glock and a Colt .45 (semi)automatic, but I do know enough about shooting to realize those trick shots are possible only in the mind of the writer.

    Lee, I also want to thank you for your years of service in law enforcement. You and your fellow officers put your lives on the line every day, and I know I'm not the only one who appreciates the sacrifices you and your families make.

  44. You are all amazing and, Lee, what a great resource for authors. I stand in awe of you all.

  45. Wow - fascinating! Thank you, Lee, for your time and the information on these common errors!

    Can't wait until I can attend the WPA!


  46. Well, I guess we'll start all over again tomorrow morning.

  47. Lee,
    Sounds like you weren't as crabby as some of the cops I knew! I think, actually, that the ones who complained may have been a little jealous or even threatened when the FBI came to town. Maybe they felt it implied they were incompetent or unable to solve the case on their own. Who knows? Thanks again for a great interview.