Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Lucy on Writing Police

LUCY BURDETTE: It’s a strange time to be writing murder mysteries involving police officer characters. Before I post a snippet of what I’m working on (Key West food critic #11, as yet unnamed) I wanted to say a few words about that. 

Steve Torrence on left, Chief Sean Brandenburg on right


I feel very lucky and grateful that my police model for the Key West mysteries is based on information from my friend, former police officer Steve Torrence—who happens to be one of the most ethical, thoughtful people I know. Several years ago, I attended both the Citizens' Police Academy and the Key West ambassadors’ program and learned a lot about traffic stops, the county jail, issues with homelessness, SWAT team maneuvers, police dogs, and many other topics important to policing. I came away from those experiences admiring how the Key West police department handles a very tricky town (many visitors, not all well behaved.)

As a small, older, white woman I have never had reason to fear the police. In Key West, I was only afraid one time, when I was pulled over by a police car for running a stop sign on my bicycle. I was scared because I'd been caught breaking a law, not scared for my life. (You will see that incident used in the next Key West mystery, THE KEY LIME CRIME, coming August 11.) 

My experience is a different universe than that of George Floyd and many others, particularly people of color. Should this change the way I write mysteries? I don’t know the answer. But I intend to listen as hard as I can to figure out how to be a part of the positive change that needs to happen in our country. And maybe that includes taking a hard look at how I write my police characters…

Now on with the book in progress…Right before this scene, Hayley Snow is doing some foodie research on Duval Street, when the sound of gunshots rings out.

Chapter Two 

My face ended up smooshed near the white-stenciled words on the curb above the drain that warned potential litterers “anything discarded here will wash into the ocean.” 

The gutter smelled of stale beer, and cigarette butts, and pizza, but strongest of all, the stink of my own fear. I curled into the smallest human ball possible, knowing that I could still be an open target for a crazed shooter. Should I get up and run to help Miss Gloria? Nathan had drilled the same safety information into her head as he had mine, with great patience. I had to think she’d be hunkered down behind the art gallery furniture. Or maybe she’d been smart and quick enough to run inside. 

Hearing more muffled shouts but no gunshots, I crab-walked toward the better cover of a nearby trash can. I peered around the edge to see what was going on. I heard the sound of footsteps pounding and two different voices yelling, “Drop the gun! Hands above your head! Police!”  

Then I heard the clatter of gun on pavement and saw two hands stretched high above the heads of the crowd. Tourists and bystanders had begun to push toward the scene while two fierce police yelled at them to move back. More officers came running down the street, some with guns drawn and some with police dogs loping beside them. 

“Stand back,” a tall officer shouted to the crowd. “You need to clear the area.” 

Miss Gloria came up behind me and tapped my shoulder. “I think you’re okay to come out from behind the trashcan now. The only bad guy they seem to have trapped is Ray.”  

“Ray?” I stood up and brushed the grit off my knees, realizing I had scraped them raw in the flurry of activity. Ray was my dear friend Connie’s husband, father of the adorable baby Claire, and a very talented and peace-loving artist. I could not imagine him getting into an altercation with the cops, especially over a gun. 

She took my elbow and we moved to the sidewalk, close enough that we could hear the men talking. Shouting was more like it. 

“I panicked,” Ray was explaining. “I heard gunshots and got spooked. I would never shoot anyone, I swear. My gallery manager was there--she saw everything—" 

“You’ll need to come to the station,” said the biggest cop, the same man who had pulled me over for running through a stop sign on my scooter after Christmas. He was intimidating because of his size and his bald head, but he seemed like a nice enough man. If you liked tough police personas. Which being married to one, I supposed I did. Before migrating to Key West, I didn’t know one single policeman. I’d never imagined I’d end up with so many police officers in my life. 


What do you think Reds? Should recent current events change the way we write mysteries?

And please don't forget--DEATH ON THE MENU will be out in mass market paperback on July 28, and THE KEY LIME CRIME will be published in hardcover, ebook, and audio book on August 11!

66 comments:

  1. What a scary thing, having gunshots ring out when you’re walking down the street. Hayley’s fear certainly comes through here . . . .

    As for changing the way you write the police . . . . I agree that writers should be conversant with current events, but I’m not certain it always requires changing the way they write their mysteries. Certainly, mystery writers have written stories in which police officers are criminals or are acting in ways that are inappropriate.
    And we have certainly seen examples of that on the evening news.

    However, there are still many police officers who will risk their lives to pull the motorist out of the burning car, who will run toward the shooter when everyone else is trying to get away, who will do whatever is necessary to ensure the safety of the citizens. So I think you should write the police officers in the way you envision them behaving in the story you are telling. While it would be wrong to overlook the behaviors that must change, it would also be wrong to paint all police officers with that broad brush of brutality. Most of them are still laying their lives on the line, proud to protect and serve . . .

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  2. I think how you write your police officers depends on your story, or the world of your story. I’m not saying that there can’t be any issues with police behavior in your books, Lucy, because you have dealt with some serious issues in the series, such as homelessness and Key West politics. But, I certainly don’t think you have to insert problems with the police because it’s become an issue we have to address as a nation. If it’s organic to the storyline, then fine, but as you say, the Key West police seems to do a pretty good job with the challenges they face. Of course, I’m saying that without researching it, so I am prepared to be corrected, but I trust your connection and knowledge of the Key West police.

    I hope to be reading Key Lime Crime very soon. July is supposed to be my month to catch up. We’ll see. I know that I need a Haley Snow fix though.

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    1. Kathy, I agree that it depends on the world of the story too.

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  3. Lucy, you are indeed lucky to have Steve Torrence as a real resource in your Key West mysteries.

    What happened to George Floyd resonated not only in American cities but around the world. Sadly, there have been recent high-profile incidents involving police brutality on Black as well as indigenous people in Toronto and Ottawa. The police reaction to these recent tragic events have also been in the spotlight since both cities have black police chiefs (Chiefs Mark Saunders and Peter Stoly) for the first time in their respective history. Of course, both Chief Saunders and Stoly have condemned inappropriate behaviour and use of excessive force within their ranks. But again, both police chiefs emphasized that very few officers are "bad" or behave in the brutal manner that is often highlighted in the news.

    As a white woman writing about a white female protagonist, I don't think you should change how Hayley interacts with the Key West police. With the help of Steve Torrence, you have insight into how the Key West police deals with its citizens, visitors and criminals, and you should continue to write the series in way that makes sense and is authentic to the city.

    I am looking forward to reading the ARC of The Key Lime Crime next month.

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    1. Grace, you are in for a treat. I read a digital ARC of the Key Lime Crime and loved it! Your story about police in Toronto made me wonder what it was like for Meghan and other Black actors living in Toronto while filming Suits?

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  4. These are hard questions for an author, for sure. As always, writing deeply drawn characters who act in real ways is key. The department could have an issue with one or two officers who act badly. Or a group of protesters (protesting any issue) comes to town and you could see them interact. But I don't think it will change the way I write the mystery itself.

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    1. Edith, I agree that these are hard questions. I remember that there were several Black characters in your Quaker Midwife books who were free?

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    2. I have Black characters in all my series, and I have gay characters. They are part of everyday life, even though I am neither.

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  5. I think what you have been doing, the way you are portraying the police in Key West is just fine. Don't put something in unless it works with the story.

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    1. Judi, agreed. Someone else above commented that it depends on the story.

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  6. Whoa, your description of Haley hitting the ground and not knowing what's going on hits the mark, Roberta. In the mid-70s I worked at Merrill Lynch, in what they called the "bull pen"--an open office of stockbrokers and their assistants (I assisted five brokers). The office was right on Fountain Square in Cincinnati (there's a brewery there now), with one set of doors opening onto the Square, and another onto the Arcade between Fifth and Sixth Streets.

    Someone robbed the bank upstairs and was chased onto the Square. He was shot dead just outside our (glass) Arcade doors, but we didn't know that. All we knew was that there were loud noises, just on the other side of the glass, and echoing in the Arcade. I knew they were gunshots, since I'd taken a firearms class in college, and had been to the range with my cop husband many times, so I hit the deck under my desk, although other people did not react as quickly. You described that terror, helplessness, and confusion well.

    Also, in the 1970s brokerage firms routinely got bomb threats. The first day I worked there I was given a sheet of paper to keep in my desk drawer, in case I received one when I answered the phone. I was to hold it up: "I am receiving a bomb threat", so action could be taken.

    Just a couple years later Merrill Lynch moved their offices to a higher floor in another building, and they no longer had a bull pen.

    I said all that to say that police work has already changed since 1977, quite a bit. Not all of it good, but most of it is. Instead of relying on former military, or high school graduates, now policing is a real profession, with academies, but also four-year college programs from which cadets are chosen. When I took the Citizen's Police Academy about 7-8 years ago I was amazed at how much more technological stuff beat cops carry with them. Back in the day, they had a gun, a badge, a billy, and that was about it. No mobile radios, for instance. No mace, no tasers, no body cameras. No emergency drugs to counteract overdoses. Their cars are now equipped with all kinds of gear that was unimaginable even forty years ago.

    Obviously, I keep forgetting how old I am.

    And now more change is coming, with what seems to be a re-evaluation of the role of the police. So, yes, the writing will change, it has to, as police work continues to evolve.

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    1. What a terrifying experience! I’m not sure whether it would be worse to know that it was gunshots or to have no idea?

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    2. Karen, agreed. There was a time when the police were suspicious of anyone with long hair. When I was growing up, I thought of the police as the good guys who protect and serve.

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  7. I think Joan hit it on the head. You have to write the police character the way the story needs. I'm not going to change Jim Duncan. That's not who he is. Will he come into contact with someone not quite as upstanding? Who knows - depends on the story.

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  8. After completing the local citizen's police academy, I'm able to call the community resource officer with questions. We've talked about drug overdoses, human trafficking, domestic abuse, homeless people, and sexual assault. If your facts are consistent with the location of your story, it works.

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  9. This is such a good discussion, and so brave of you to bring it up, Lucy. Writing police in crime fiction can be a mine field, and avoiding the donut-eating-cop cliche is of course the least of it. There are good cops and bad out there, each with his or her own reasons for going into law enforcement.

    Terrific excerpt, Lucy.

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    1. Hallie, agreed that it can be a mine field. There are good cops and bad cops. I was thinking about a bad cop in a recent cozy mystery who hated women. It was still a good escape reading for me anyway. I grew up thinking of the police as good people who protect and serve.

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  10. Thanks for all your thoughtful comments. And I think the problems in a police department come from training and The attitudes of the people at the top. And what real life is showing us is that all cops are not good guys. Those are issues I think we need to look at as human beings and Americans. In crime fiction, I think there’s a tradition of cops being good guys and justice being served at the end. Obviously that’s not the experience of everyone in this country, so I plan To keep my eyes wide open and we shall see if it changes stories or characters in my writing.

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    1. I agree completely. The instructors of the Citizens' Police Academy I attended were super professional, and when their police chief spoke to us it was easy to see why. He has the highest integrity, and such an impressive man who clearly had all the respect of his force. He inspires his department to emulate his professionalism in every way.

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  11. It seems the current wisdom is to demonize _____. LEO's are the flavor of the month. I am so tired of conflict without resolution. Earlier this year I advocated keeping the cozy world in touch with today's reality. In the Key West series, you have presented the department realistically. I found your descriptions have matched my observations when I visited the Keys.

    I have a deep respect for those drawn to the justice profession. While counseling, I had an opportunity to work with both law enforcement people and with public defenders. This work gave me an insight into the grueling tasks of this type of work. I think it would be very challenging for authors to move away from the 'good cop/bad cop' stereotypes. Lucy has done this already. Nuanced writing lasts.

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    1. Thanks very much Coralee. It is a super difficult job to be in that field. And like the field of psychology, I’m certain there are people who are drawn to it for bad reasons as well as good. I could imagine a police officer character who loves the power of the role and cares less about the people. Same as there are psychologists who have No idea that their personal issues are driving their interest.

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  12. What about a bad cop who targets teens, women, the vulnerable? Yep, we had one of those in a small NH town. Experienced it myself. On the other hand, I know some awesome officers and have used one friend as inspiration for a series character. I write cozies, and in this genre, justice prevails. If there is a bad cop in one of my cozies, he or she will be swiftly dealt with. To me, cozies depict life with rose-colored glasses--sweet, fun, and comforting. Despite the murders.

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    1. Cozies definitely are a different world. And because I am compelled to write about realistic problems that aren’t always solved, sometimes I don’t fit that well into my niche LOL. Though I do love a happy ending where the bad Guy skit was coming!

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    2. I meant of course the bad guys get, not THE BAD GUY SKIT:)

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    3. We don't want you to fit perfectly into ANY niche, Lucy!! The fact that you don't is one of the things that makes your books so good!

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  13. I don't know about the pandemic changing the way authors write mysteries, but I do know that as a reader I am hyper sensitive to the era in which the story is set being accurate. These days, I find myself being shocked when I am reading about characters who shake hands or embrace -- and then I realize that the story is pre-pandemic.

    Going forward, if the story's era is not explicitly clear, I think the challenge will be to work into the storyline whether it's in pre- or post-pandemic times. Our society's social norms are changing so rapidly and I don't think I envy the writer's responsibilities in this matter!

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    1. It is so shocking to see people hugging and hand shaking on TV too!

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    2. Oops. My first comment rather missed the mark re. writing police officers. I am learning more and more about how so many of our systems have roots in very problematic power structures (just the other day I was listening to a podcast about the roots of the mortgage system going back to the days of slave owners using "their" slaves as collateral, for example). How a writer brings those truths and associated analysis into their story will depend on what kind of story is being written -- some stories are clearly super-realistic and grounded in fact/reality; others play a bit loose. What the author does will depend on what the story is and how closely it is tied to today's truths. (And isn't the idea of 'truths' challenging for us to contemplate!)

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    3. Really, shocking? That's a little over the top. It's only been a few months that we've been quarantined. Not years!

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    4. It feels like years though, to some of us!

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    5. Yes, it feels like years and I remind myself every now and again of how quickly we went from the old normal to the new normal -- one day, riding the bus, shaking hands, teaching students face to face; almost literally, the next day, definitely not riding the bus, not shaking hands, and teaching students online. Remarkable that so many of us turned on a dime for our collective benefit.

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  14. Good discussion here. As we travel around this country of ours, we have met many caring, ethical, compassionate police officers who work to keep us safe and to help people. However, I remember a few ‘bully’ cops from my childhood that used their position to harass teenagers and young adults for no good reasons. Perhaps you could mix it up a little to reflect our current events without losing the goodness in your Key West cozies.

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  15. I don't want political correctness in my books! I was married to a black police officer (I am Caucasian) and he was super racist and abusive. I read cozies for an escape, not a lesson in politics or race, etc. etc.

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    1. Thanks for that perspective Elizabeth! Unless a book is nonfiction, I don't want lectures either.

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  16. I think Joan and Liz and many of us are skirting around a possible way to handle this issue. Yes, if we're writing about cops, we want our police officers to be the good guys. But I think we can broaden the base of the stories we tell. If the story demands that the officer be a good guy, write the story that way. But think about what possible story you could tell where he's not such a good guy. Or his new partner turns out not to be such a good guy. Or he's a great guy when hanging with the protagonist, who is a white woman, but shows a different face when he's in a more diverse crowd. People have nuances and biases in their personalities. If that's what you want to write about, go for it. But if you, as an author, feel more comfortable exploring safer, happier avenues, do that.

    Personally, I'd love to read Liz's story about an officer who targets women, and see what our good cop characters do about that. Do they call him out? Or stand behind the blue line and cover for him, even if they know he's wrong? If a civilian female protagonist calls him out, what does he cop boyfriend do? Believe her? Or try to hush her up for the sake of peace on his job? Lots to explore in a story like that.

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    1. Gigi, I agree. there's no getting around the fact that for many of us, we have to include cop characters (heck, my second protagonist is a police chief!) But we don't have to whitewash or glorify the police. If, as you suggest, we reflect the reality of people in the job who abuse the position, it would increase dramatic potential and storytelling possibilities - as well as being more accurate to real life.

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  17. Roberta, this is a very good conversation. I really do agree with Joan. On the other hand, you have created a very intelligent and sensitive character and I would not find it unusual for Hayley to see the news one evening and launch into a conversation with her police officer husband about this issue, if you can make it relevant to your story. There would have to be some connection, of course. You have addressed serious topics before. The problem is that this issue is so much larger than can be totally dealt with in any one book.

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    1. I do like that idea Judy--it fits the characters! And in fact, I am remembering that in THE KEY LIME CRIME, Nathan gets mad at Hayley for seeming to ask a favor from him at the KWPD. He tells her that rot at the top, even if it's a small thing, spreads down and out. As others have said, a conversation like this has to fit with the story.

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  18. Brave topic and a great conversation. I agree with Joan, Liz, and Kathy on this topic. We need to write our stories as they affect our characters and through their prism. To impose events to be topical could sound artificial unless the event arose organically from the story. Edith's thought of using events as a sidebar is also an excellent choice.

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  19. It seems to me that current events offer a priceless opportunity for character development. Mysteries, for me, are about justice and questions being raised today are nothing if not about justice. What happens when a good guy discovers that he's got an issue with some people that he didn't recognize until questioned? What happens if said good guy has a well respected and liked superior with a similar, entrenched problem? What happens when the not-so-good guy is confronted by people who think he is rotten by he holds the power? People are complicated. They are products of their environment but characters in a book can also be thoughtful. What happens when a good cop tries to see it from the point of view of people who thing merely by virtue of being a copy, he is complicit in all the evils. What happens to the way the cop thinks? So what do the characters do when they encounter these troubling aspects of themselves and others? What do they learn about themselves, and about the reasons murders are committed and about suspicion and the difference between the law and justice. Seems like mysteries are a great place to explore that. Don't have to be preachy. None of you are preachy. But your books already have a political bent. A cop who recognizes that "rot starts at the top" already represents a political ideology. I don't think you need to change the way the mysteries are written, and I don't think every forthcoming book needs to foreground a good guy/bad guy story - that misses the point anyway -- but I would be disappointed if the questions were ignored.

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    1. Ed, I can assure you the question won't be ignored. This is already a big topic of conversation among writers of crime fiction, and it's going to continue. Will there suddenly be a spate of "racist LEO" fiction next year? Probably not. Will you see more complexity, more problems and more acknowledgment of the way things are for so many Americans? Absolutely.

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    2. I love all these questions--so important for us to ask them as we write

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    3. Julia, thanks for the reply. This issue deserves complexity and thoughtful attention. I look forward to the work

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  20. Such an interesting topic, Lucy, and I love the excerpt. You did a terrific job of putting us in the moment with Hayley, especially with the smells!

    All these are such tough questions. I don't think we should suddenly try to be "topical" and I certainly don't think we should be preachy. But I've written a series of four books that have an ongoing thread of police corruption, and I've never painted all police officers as good guys. I think we have to deal with every plot/situation individually.

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    1. thanks Debs, and you are a great example of a writer who is ahead of the current events!

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  21. Lucy, this is a tough question! Though we like to read cozy mysteries like your books for escape, we still are aware of current events out there. I keep on thinking about Breonna Taylor who was shot while she was sleeping. There are good cops and bad cops who are trigger happy. Have you asked your friends who are Black about their experiences? I STILL cannot wrap my mind around the horrid reality of our sordid history that people OWNED other people in the land of freedom. We had indentured servants in Colonial America who earned their freedom after a number of years if they survived. Then Slave Traders kidnapped people from Africa and sold them into slavery in America. Many Black people living in the USA are descendants of the slaves. Our First Lady Michelle Obama is a descendant of slaves. Though her husband, President Obama, as far as I know, is not a descendant of slaves, since his father was born in Kenya. His mother was White.

    As Deborah said, I think we have to deal with every plot/situation eventually. I find myself becoming aware that I STILL have to listen and learn. We need to make sure that this does not happen again.

    It seems that there are always an oppressed group of people throughout history whether it's Italians or Irish or Jews or Catholics or whatever the oppressed group is at that time.

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  22. This is such a conundrum. I went to the citizen's police academy here in Scottsdale and I still can't get over a ride along where a woman (driving a BMW) let loose a tirade on the poor officer, who stopped her for a broken headlight, that should have embarrassed her down to her soul. It was a "How dare you?" "I'll have your job." Etc and so forth. Honestly, what is wrong with people? That being said, no one should have to raise their child to be fearful of a police officer because of the color of their own skin and that is the truth for any people of color and it sucks. As a writer, I have no idea how to deal with it. Then again, i have no idea how to write about the pandemic either. Not loving 2020 :(

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    1. 2020 has been a bear Jenn, and that's not even counting your terrible loss

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    2. I saw a man wearing a mask in Old Town as he walked down the sidewalk. Then I noticed his T-shirt read, "2020 SUCKS." I'm getting that T-shirt :)

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    3. Oh please if you find them order one for all of us! It can be our blog uniform. Hell we hardly ever go out so why not wear a T-shirt with that logo on it?

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  23. Despite the appearance of some police actions, I still believe in Mr. Rogers' idea to seek the helpers when trouble comes. I also still believe in their innate community commitment. (If we don't have police, we'll have militias--better??)

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  24. I think that if you write about bad cops or racist or sexist behaivor, there should be consequences at the end of the book. While I realize that might not be reality, I think the more people read or see on TV or the movies, that bad behavior is not condoned, the more likely they won't condone it either. Stay safe and well.

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  25. Everyone hates a cop...until they need one.

    I grew up the son of a cop and it was no picnic. Not because my dad was a bad guy, quite the opposite. But people assumed I could get away with stuff because my father was on the job. The fact of the matter was that the truth was my siblings and I got away with LESS.

    First off, people sold us out for the smallest of things. They took a perverse (for the 70's and 80's anyway) glee in reporting if we did something like cross against the light. Well, not really but I used that as an example of how silly it was.

    Plus, we got cut no slack growing up. My dad was a cop and my mother was the chief law enforcement officer of the home. You know how we learned to obey the rules growing up? Imagine getting caught stealing something and after you get punished by your parents, being made to call your grandmother to tell her what you did and then the next day before school being locked in a cell until it was time for class. NEVER did that again, let me tell you.

    Growing up, I knew all the cops on the force. Some of them were great, some of them were gaping A-Holes. In other words, they were like every other walk of life. These days, I don't know many of the cops on the force, but one of them is my concert buddy and some of the stories he tells me...I don't know why he wants to be a cop to be honest. My town seems to echo that line spoken by Sir Alec Guinness in the first Star Wars movie, "You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy".

    My dad was in the hospital and someone he arrested early in his career came to his room and in the course of his visit thanked my dad for helping him turn his life around. My dad cut him a break and it helped the guy get things right. I know it worked because by the time I knew the guy, he was coaching and refereeing in the basketball league in which I used to coach.

    There was another reformed criminal that wanted to take a photo with some of the cops but none of them would do it. My dad took the photo and I still have it here at the house. Of course, then there was someone who wanted my dad to fix a ticket for his daughter. This was back when that kind of thing wasn't frowned upon that much. My dad was willing until the guy mentioned that the daughter had badmouthed the cop. No fixing that ticket!

    I know that people will say, "Well, that's just your dad...he's just one cop." And they'd be right. But there are far more good cops out there than bad. More like my dad than like these idiots doing stupid and criminal things.

    I am always a supporter of the police but I make no bones about this. A cop who commits a crime is not a cop. He or she is nothing more than a common criminal engaging in some weird cosplay thing by wearing a uniform. They should be treated accordingly.

    But just as those who support law enforcement are expected to not paint all criminals with the same wide brush, it would be nice to see that expectation returned in kind to those cops out there doing the job the right way.

    How does all this relate to the notion of writing cops in books? Well, it is simple. When portraying cops in a story, do it right. They can be good, they can be bad. The trick is presenting the character in full and not using it to be some running diatribe against the police. If nothing else, it guarantees I won't read that book.

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    1. You make excellent points Jay from a lot of real world experience. Thanks for all that!

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  26. For a lot of white people this is an issue that's invisible until you witness it yourself. And let me tell you, it ain't pretty. I'd say, Lucy and all other crime writers: Check the statistics for the city/region you're writing about. Mine is seeing about 65% of stops are POC, vs more like 30% of the population. I'd say there is a story there. Maybe not your WIP, but another. Certainly your characters of color are going to be affected and behave a certain way because of racial profiling, brutality and the "thin blue line." Ethical cops have a hard time thriving in a corrupt environment. Let's put it that way!

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