Friday, July 20, 2012

Police Procedure II: Making It Believable

THE ENVELOPE PLEASE: Yesterday's winners: Karen Cantwell, Meg Gardiner, Marianne in Maine. Send your address to julia "at" juliaspencerfleming dot com.

BREAKING NEWS: Today we're giving away 3 COPIES of the trade paperback of Julia Spencer-Fleming's Agatha & Anthony-winning debut, IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER to lucky commenters!

HALLIE EPHRON: Today we are delighted to welcome back Lee Lofland -- with more sage advice for crime fiction writers and his take on the credibility of TV crime shows.

Lee, is it ever credible that a civilian would get involved in a police investigation, as so many of our novel plots require?

LEE LOFLAND: Maybe, but not to the extent that we see in many books—actively pursuing the bad guys, fighting with suspects, dodging bullets and shooting it out with armed villains. No, that sort of thing doesn’t happen.

Instead, police sometimes ask for assistance from outside experts, such as a forensic psychologist or forensic anthropologist.

A perfect example of a civilian’s involvement in a criminal case was during the investigation into the murder and dismemberment of a young woman in Ohio. Police uncovered a small amount of skeletal remains, possibly human remains, so the lead investigator (Jim Nugent, an investigator I’d consider one of the top homicide detectives in the country) called on world-renowned forensic anthropologist, Dr. Elizabeth Murray. Dr. Murray worked hand-in-hand with Nugent, and it was her expertise that eventually identified the remains and pointed police to the killer.

By the way, I found that case so intriguing that I wrote about it, and another. The combined stories are scheduled for release later this month in a book called Masters of True Crime: Chilling Stories of Murder and the Macabre.

Masters of True Crime features true crime tales written by 17 star-studded true crime authors (well,16 star-studded true crime authors, and me). The book is already available online at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. And, Dr. Murray, the anthropologist in the above mentioned case, is a special guest lecturer at the 2012 Writers’ Police Academy.

Civilians get involved in police investigations through civilian search and rescue teams, psychics (this is rare), microbiologists (anthrax/terrorism-type crimes), etc. But civilians do not get involved like we see in so many books.

However, I think it’s the duty of a good fiction author to write believable make-believe, meaning anything is fair game as long as it sounds or seems realistic. A perfect example of fantasy realism is the TV show Grimm. The officer on the Grimm show faces evil fairytale-like creatures, and he uses fairytale-like weapons and power(s) to stop them. Now that’s believable make-believe.

HALLIE: What television crime show most consistently gets it right? 

LEE: Hands down, there’s not another show out there that comes anywhere near the realism of Southland (TNT). They get it right because the writers, producers, directors, and actors all do their homework, and lots of it. In fact, prior to filming each season the actors portraying police officers attend a mini police academy, including ride-a-longs with LAPD patrol officers.

HALLIE: Any that consistently gets it wrong? 

LEE: Easy answer...Castle. And that brings me back to believable make-believe. In many instances, the show attempts to depict their characters in realistic situations. Unfortunately, they fail miserably.

HALLIE: Darn. I like that show. But I have wondered...

So gentle Reds, what are your favorite crime shows? Have you ever wondered about their "procedures" -- like fail to turn on the lights in a dark house that we debunked yesterday? Now's your chance to find out if it's believable or not. 


  1. Hands down, my favorite “escapist” crime show was “Murder, She Wrote.” What’s not to love with the magnificently-talented Angela Lansbury as a crime-solving mystery writer???

    I liked Poppy Montgomery’s “Unforgettable;” we also enjoy “Bones” with its interplay between the forensic folks and the FBI/police . . . .

  2. Anyone remember Hill Street Blues? It was the first supposedly "realistic" cop show with copes who were human beings, not caped crusaders, and a great ensemble cast. Betty Thomas was unforgettable as the female cop. "Hey, let's be careful out there."

  3. OH, I haven't seen Southland. But I will...

    I adore The Wire. I could watch it over and over..Lee, what did you think about that?

  4. I remember Hill Street Blues. I specifically learned to play the theme song on the piano because of the show.

    Copy shows I have watched: Law & Order (of course), 21 Jump Street (totally not realistic, but Johnny Depp back when he didn't look like a fuzz ball - oh those cheekbones!), most recently Longmire. Western - enough for my husband. =)

  5. I'm a huge fan of Craig Johnson - gotta watch Longmire.

  6. It's my opinion that if you enjoy a TV show then that's a show you should watch. It doesn't matter if the police procedure isn't perfect, or if the the goofy medical examiner does and says things that would make a witch doctor cringe. But, writers shouldn't use those shows as research tools for their books. Well, not if they're going for realism.

  7. Hi Lee! Love your blog and Castle recaps. Poor Lanie. My sister, whose husband is a GA cop, loves your blog too. So would the FBI hire a con man like Neal (White Collar)?

    A writer friend of mine dates an FBI agent (Yeah, they are a story in themselves, mystery writer and her sexy FBI agent boyfriend). Anyway, J is always groaning about Bones and how Booth wouldn't be investigating half those murders. He loves the show, though. Don't get him started on gun fights on TV and in the movies. A ballistic expert, J is great to have around and an awesome editor.

  8. Gosh, Melissa, there's a great premise for a series--cute mystery writer and her sexy FBI boyfriend.

    Hallie, I do remember Hill Street Blues. That was back in the day when I still watched TV.

    I've been talking to my husband about maybe going back to TV. (We'd have to do cable.) They're broadcasting so many series made from mystery novels now. I just don't know where I'd find the time.

    Thanks for giving us so much of your time, Lee. You're obviously a very generous guy!

  9. What gets me lately is how often people wander in and out of morgues when there are bodies on the table being examined. Take "Rizzoli & Isles" (a show that I like) as an example. It's amazing to me that they don't even make an effort to not contaminate the corpse! This can't be true police/medical examiner procedure!

    --Marjorie of Connecticut

  10. Such a good point, Marjorie -- My favorite thing is when the pick up a SINGLE hair off the carpet at the crime scene and it turns out to be, ta dah, the murderer's... Good luck if anyone gets killed in MY living room. I'm sure there's a cast of thousands on my carpet.

  11. Oh, Hallie, that old "leave a lot of people's hairs on the carpet" trick. Ver-ry sneaky.

    Craig Johnson is the best guy. Its fantastic to see the good ones win, isn't it?

    Lee, when the medical examiner gets the body, does it have still have clothes on? Would the medical examiner him/herself ever come to the crime scene of the crime?

  12. Flawed as they may be, I enjoy Castle and NCIS. They're escapist and I'm looking for entertainment, not science. After all, since when does DNA come back i 10 minutes?

  13. Sure, medical examiners and coroners do show up at the scene, sometimes. Whether or not they do depends on the size of the M.E.'s department, their availability, and several other factors.

    In larger offices, the M.E., or coroner, may have investigators who do the field work - have a look at the body, collect medicines, collect the body, speak to family members, try to determine what happened to cause the death, etc.

    I know of numerous medical examiners who are the sole part-time employee (most of these folks are medical doctors who also serve as M.E). In those cases, the M.E. may not visit the crime scene at all. Instead they may opt to call on EMS services to retrieve and transport the body to a hospital morgue.

    For example, in some rural areas of Virginia the local M.E.'s serve as described above - a medical doctor who's been appointed to serve as a branch of the Chief Medical Examiner's Office in Richmond. I know of one who rarely, if ever, visited a crime scene. Bodies were transported to the hospital morgue where the M.E. would have a look the following day. Then, the body is transported to Richmond (or the nearest of the four district offices) for an autopsy conducted by a pathologist on the Chief M.E.'s staff.

    In my day, the chief M.E. was Dr. Marcella Fierro, the inspiration for Patricia Cornwell's lead character Kay Scarpetta. I truly admired Dr. Fierro. She's brilliant, funny, and a completely genuine person. Her assistant at the the time was married to a deputy sheriff (a very unlikely pair, but that's another story).

    Anyway, these were the two who verified that it was indeed my five bullets that killed a bank robber back in 1995. Even though I already knew, it was still very surreal to hear it from the real-life Kay Scarpetta that four of the five rounds I'd fired were fatal wounds.

    Anyway, Dr. Marcella retired in 2008, I believe, and during her send-off party she had this to say about Scarpetta.

    "Kay is blond, blue-eyed and 115 pounds. I've never been blond, I have brown eyes, and I haven't weighed 115 pounds since I was 12."

    So, as you see, there are many different ways to handle the M.E. aspect of your stories. If your town/city is fictional then feel free to make the M.E.'s office and procedures fit the scenario.

    By the way, there's a chapter on autopsy in my police procedure book. It's squeamishly detailed.

  14. I used to love "Murder She Wrote" but I never thought, oh, so that's how it's done out there in the big, bad world. ;) Plus I LOVE Angela Lansbury - what class!

    "Law & Order" (especially the early shows) was my favorite.

    I'm thinking of checking out the new TNT show, "Perception." Neuroscience professor with paranoid schizophrenia helping the FBI solve cases? Hmm...

  15. Thank you, Lee!

    (You are so amazing..)

  16. You are reminding me of so many old and new favorites . . . I'll add Harry's Law, not for realism, but for its outrageous divergence from reality, like a "tall tale."
    Even in Murder She Wrote and Miss Marple, reality wouldn't have so very many murders happening in the path of one person . . . and not televised but perhaps should be, Mrs. Halifax . . . surmounting the most amazing odds . . . Yeah, I'd like to be like that!

  17. I guess you can see that I didn't proofread my last comment.

    Hank, in nearly every autopsy I've attended, including a few in the recent past), the bodies are wheeled into the autopsy suite sans clothing. They're totally ready for the autopsy to begin. In fact, in some places, some of the exam has begun prior to the body arriving in the autopsy room (drawing the fluid from the eyes, etc.).

    Again, though, it varies on a case by case basis.

  18. I'm a Castle and NCIS girl, but I do also watch Southland and a host of other LE shows. I follow Lee's blog and have since its inception so I try to catch the errors so I won't make them in my writing.

    I also realize the difference between what I can fit into a short story vs. novel and why writers have to fit things into an hour TV program.

  19. I think we're all willing to allow a degree of suspension of disbelief, as long as we know the shows aren't trying to be realistic. I watch Castle and Bones, but it's pure fun--I never think anyone would conduct real investigations like that. What draws us is the characters, and it's true in fiction as well. I'm not saying that writers shouldn't make every attempt to get their details right, but if the characters don't work, no one will care.

  20. I find myself growing impatient with cozies, particularly if they develop into a series. I can buy an amateur poking into a crime that involves him/her personally, and I'm completely okay with setups like Julia's series, where her priest has contact with victims and their families, or the crime impacts her flock (or her lover) somehow. Miss Marple took an understandable interest in her community. But when Sally the dog groomer decides to put down her clippers and go hunt for criminals? Nuh-uh. I'm not buying it. And I really don't like the old "The cops are stupid and don't care, so I will find the killer" rationale. I've worked with too many police officers to buy that one.

  21. I love Midsomer Murders. If you love British Police shows, you should check it out.

  22. Believable make-believe should be the goal of fiction writers.

    I like Castle, but only when the episodes are light, a bit funny, and quirky, like it was in the beginning. However, when they go for dark and serious, it's almost always a failed attempt. And it fails because the things they try to portray as factual are all too often unbelievable and sometimes downright silly, and not silly in a good way. Still, I like the show...

  23. Woo - I get Julia's new book!

    As for shows that get it wrong... don't get me started on Boston Legal or NCIS. I love both shows, but I tend to yell at the TV so much that my family picks up the remote, points it at me, and pushes Mute.

  24. My favorite show used to be 'Law and Order - Special Victims Unit' until 'NCIS' came along. Also watch 'Murder She Wrote', but Angela's overacting bothers me sometimes. She was trained as a stage actress to play to the back row in the balcony, which doesn't work on the closeup views of TV. Since I've begun writing mysteries, I am much more critical of the attempts at reality.

  25. Good point, Anne - I so agree that BEING a mystery writer takes a lot of the fun out of them. That carping in the back of my head just won't shut up. But when they're good and believable, boy do I appreciate it!

  26. I am a big "The Closer" fan. Love me some Brenda Lee. But I know police procedure doesn't happen that way. I do have to admit to using her interrogation techniques on my kids though.

    Sometimes I get so mad at "Rizzoli and Isles" because it is so unrealistic. They don't stay in one place long enough to find clues. They are constantly popping in and out of places. And police officers running around in high heels...puhleeze!

    Also like "Current Affairs" about the CIA agent, but really, she solves international crimes in a single show?

    @Tracy, I've been watching "Perception"'s interesting if you suspend your disbelief.

    @Meg Gardiner....just finished "Ransom River". Loved it. :)

  27. Linda, you can watch a lot of shows on line or from Netflix -- the previous season becomes available on DVD about the time the new season starts.

    Lee, thanks! "Believable make-believe:" I think you've just coined the new mantra of the JRW world!

  28. And the fabulous Meg Gardiner will be right here on Jungle Red next...Thursday! Mark your calendars!

  29. I'm sure mine isn't "realistic", but one of my all time favorites is Criminal Minds!

    Another one I like is The Glades - I'm sure that's not realistic either, but I think the detective is SO cute!

    Thanks, Lee, for another informative day!


  30. I'm into cozies such as Agatha Christie and not into grittier fare, but I do like Body of Proof (Dana Delany stars in it) and Murdoch Mysteries, a Canadian Victorian detective show, which is a great show available on D.V.D.

    I like Murder, She Wrote too and Sherlock Holmes (not the new, modern version currently on P.B.S.).

  31. My favorites are from the past..Law & Order (the original),Columbo, Homicide: Life on the Streets, Hill Street Blues...but currently like NCIS and The Mentalist. I ALWAYS question police procedures on TV (just like the teenage girl who goes for a midnight stroll when there's a maniac on the loose in a slasher movie) but if everything was followed to the letter, the bad guys would be too easily caught and convicted.

  32. This comes to us from Rene Paley Bain who, with her husband, write the Jessica Fletcher books!
    "Don and I write the "Murder, She Wrote" books, so of course we were big fans of the show. What we love to watch now, however, is Masterpiece Mystery, especially Inspector Lewis. The Brits always do such a wonderful job."

  33. I love Masterpiece Mystery, too, Renee -- old and new. So glad to see Inspector Lewis is back. And I'm mad about Benedict Cumberbatch as the new Sherlock.

  34. OK, I have to admit to a fondness for "NCIS," though I know it's not very realistic. Fun characters, though!

    But my newest favorites are the BBC's "Sherlock" (love the interplay between Benjamin Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, and the brilliant writing) and "Foyle's War", an extremely well-written and well-acted (Michael Kitchener in particular is amazingly good) period mystery series set in World War II England.

  35. My retired-from-the-Navy husband really likes NCIS, too, even though he says not everything is depicted accurately. He had a fondness for JAG, too . . . .

    So . . . any predictions on whether or not Benedict Cumberbatch will win the Emmy for Lead Actor in a Miniseries or Movie????

  36. Oooh, I hope he wins! And also Maggie Smith for Downton Abbey. And Archie Panjabi for my current favorite show The Good Wife.

    I like NCIS, too -- love that character with the pigtails and spiked dog collar. Gibbs is great. Ziva and Tony annoying. Chemistry? Feh!

  37. Well, you favorite TV cop show is The Andy Griffith Show.

    By the way, we had a brutal thunderstorm rip across the island, so I've been offline for quite a while removing debris from the yard and pool. Back to normal now. Whew!

  38. I've been watching (re-watching in some cases) British crime shows. "Midsomer Murder", "Inspector Morse", "Inspector Lewis", "Old Tricks", "Blue Murder." Just started "Vera" with Brenda Blethyn as the DCI.

    And I'm thrilled I won Julia's book. Thanks so much!

  39. The entire premise of Castle seems totally unrealistic - but that did not keep me from enjoying the program back when I was watching TV!

    Some of us used to watch Murder She Wrote partly because it was not gruesome, partly because we enjoyed the characters,and partly to laugh over how many of Jessica Fletcher's relatives and friends managed to find themselves being investigated for murder. We used to joke that if Jessica moved next door to one of us, we could probably expect the murder count to start going up! Gee, people would get murdered wherever she went for vacation. However much we might laugh at the story lines, we did enjoy the program and I think the fact that the "regulars"were likeable characters and cared for each other had a lot to do with it.

    This blog post today has me reminiscing about some of the detective programs from way back,such as Dragnet and The Naked City.

    I have a brother-in-law who used to be in law enforcement. He rolls his eyes at a lot of detective programs...but the fact that lots of programs are unrealistic does not seem to stop him from watching the same ones regularly!

    Lee: I hope the storms have moved away from you and are not going to roll back in again. Sounds like you've gotten a lot of unplanned exercise!

  40. The Good Wife is my current legal/crime favorite. I also enjoy Rizzoli & Isles. But I need more SHERLOCK with Benedict Cumberbatch.

  41. @Lora in Florida: Thanks for letting me know you enjoyed Ransom River. I appreciate it.

    @Hank and everybody else: yep, I'll be guest posting on Thursday. I hope to be half as interesting as Lee has been.

  42. Here's a pet peeve. Cops draw their guns on a "perp," yell "freeze," and when he, of course, doesn't freeze, but runs away, they NEVER shoot.

    The Closer is my favorite. It has great acting, great writing and a wonderful ensemble cast. OK, I'm in love with Kyra. That's a factor. But no wonder she gets in trouble for her techniques.

  43. Actually, Steve, it's not a good idea for police to shoot fleeing felons, or anyone else who's running away from them. Why? Well, the threat is over the second the guy turns and runs. So, no threat, no shooting. Unless, of course, the officer suspects the guy would be endangering the lives of others if he continues a deadly action (running toward a school with a gun in his hand, etc.). In that event, BANG! However, if there are others nearby who could possibly be hit with a stray round, then no shooting until the officer is sure there's no danger to civilians.

    Here's the Supreme Court ruling that basically says cops can't shoot fleeing suspects. Of course, there are exceptions.

    TENNESSEE v. GARNER, 471 U.S. 1 (1985)

    The use of deadly force to prevent the escape of all felony suspects, whatever the circumstances, is constitutionally unreasonable.

  44. Lee,
    I fully understand about not shooting, but it's still so annoying on TV. It happens every time and is boring and predictable. Thanks for all your help with writers. I have your "Howdunit Book..." and love it. It's a great tool. I have my first novel coming out soon, about a Boston Police detective in the 1970s.


  45. I agree, it's annoying. But the most annoying part is when they yell, "Freeze!" Cops aren't taught to use that sort of command. It's too confusing.

    To help everyone understand the fleeing felon/shooting and verbal commands given by officers, here's a link to a great article on my blog written by police academy use of force instructor Jerry Cooper. Highly recommended reading.

  46. Duh... maybe including the link would help.

  47. My favorites are Inspector Lewis and The Closer. (Ya gotta love the way Brenda always gets a confession!) I love the well-written characters on both shows.

    Cathy AJ