A Quick Note on Police Procedure for Writers

Last night, I was reading a novel by a highly respected horror author and I noticed a basic mistake that I see over and over again.  In this novel, which is a sequel to another very good book, a small town has been decimated by vampires.  Of the original 430 residents of this small town, only a dozen are left alive at the beginning of the sequel.  The town’s sheriff was killed in the first book, and the second book starts off with a replacement sheriff coming into the community to take over as the top law enforcement officer.  This new sheriff is of course curious about what happened to all the people, and sets out to solve the mystery.  But unfortunately for the new sheriff, the town’s vampire problem is far from over.

That sounds good, right?

I thought so.  It’s an excellent set up for a sequel.

However, for me at least, the effectiveness of the story was compromised by the glaring mistakes in police procedure.  And I’m not talking about the minutae of investigations and paperwork, either.  I’m talking about the broad brush strokes, the big picture.  And it’s all the more frustrating for me as I know this author.  I’ve had dinner with him.  We’ve talked police procedure before.  This mistake would have been easy to correct.

Well, I can’t do anything for him now, but I can help any future authors out there looking to stick a sheriff into their story.  What follows is a quick and dirty guide to sheriffs, police chiefs, and state police, and when to use them.  I hope it helps you.

I have written before on the critical role police procedure plays in horror stories, but it’s a point that profits from repeating.  Many horror stories are plotted as tales of discovery.  We generally start off with one person (or sometimes a small group) crossing from the comfort of normal existence into a strange and ominous new setting.  This can involve the protagonist traveling to a new place, such as going into the woods or breaking down in a small, weird little town, or by having their familiar world made sinister and claustrophobic by the introduction of some evil force that comes to them, such as having a bloodthirsty vampire coming to town or by having a killer stalking the babysitter.  Once the evil is introduced, a period of discovery ensues.  Here, the character, or characters, begin to realize what they’re up against.  Perhaps they learn the secret that will help them fight the monster, or perhaps they will learn how truly screwed they really are.  Either way, this is the part of the story where the protagonist starts to feel alienated.  The police are a great way to accentuate this isolation.  Consider how easily a horror story would fall apart if the protagonist could simply go to the local cops and say, “There’s a giant gelatinous blob eating the town!” and be believed.  Our protagonist could then step back and let the police do all the work.  But we know from years of reading and watching creature feature flicks that this never happens.  The police either can’t or won’t believe the protagonists, which drives the characters further into isolation and ramps up the scares.  The only thing left for our protagonists to do is resolve the matter on their own, each according to their wits.

The police generally fall into a sort of negative role in horror fiction…or, put another way, have a tendency to become lesser antagonists.  As the authority figure that refuses to provide the needed assistance, they become part of the evil, or another brick in the wall the protagonist must overcome, to borrow a Pink Floydism.  They can even be their own worst enemy, as in the novel that prompted this post.  For example, everything a cop does is a matter of public record.  As the strong arm of the law, a free and just society has every reasonable expectation to know the things the police do in their name.  Furthermore, because a police report to some degree validates an event (i.e. the murder or burglary or car crash or whatever really did happen because it’s contained in a police report), the police fall into the role of fact makers.  But what happens when the very character responsible for reporting the facts confronts something that simply can’t be?  If our protagonist is a police officer, he not only becomes alienated from authority, but from the very authority of which he is a part.  It makes for great drama.

But how do you know what type of cop to use?  Well, hopefully, the following matrix will help answer that question.  And, as always, feel free to write me in the comments section with specific questions.  I’ll try to get you the right answer.

Title How they get their job The extent of their authority Specific duties
Sheriff Elected Top law enforcement officer in the county; jurisdiction throughout their county Manages the jail; in charge of constables; manages court bailiffs and security; conducts criminal investigations; in some counties acts as head of the local militia
Police Chief Appointed by elected municipal-level officials Top law enforcement officer in the town or city where they work; jurisdiction in their municipality Enforces city, county and state laws through criminal investigations
State Police Appointed by elected state-level officials State-wide jurisdiction to include the state capital and ports Manages state crime labs; highway patrol; license and weight regulations for commercial carriers; conducts independent criminal investigations and supports local and county investigations when requested; manages licensing of drivers
Game Wardens Depends on the state, but generally appointed by elected state-level officials State-wide, though usually they are divided into regions within a state; the only law enforcement officer with the legal authority to conduct searches without a search warrant Responsible for enforcing fish and game laws; may also have full police powers of arrest, to include traffic law, depending on the state
Constables Elected Usually limited to a particular precinct or region of a county; generally affiliated with the county sheriff The only law enforcement officer with the power to enforce civil process, such as evictions; conducts independent criminal investigations
Leave a comment


  1. Q the FIRST: So, if I’m inventing a post in a police department as a liaison to a completely fictional, non-official organization, do I also get to invent the powers and jurisdictions that go along with it?

    Q the SECOND: How does the job (or the things you see on the job) affect your faith? Nothing specific, or specific to you. I mean in general. I guess. Is that vague enough?

    • joemckinney

       /  January 30, 2012

      Hey Thom, as to the first question…things like this are done all the time. Most large police departments have liaisons to federal agencies like the FBI, the US Marshals Service, etc. Generally, these officers retain their rights and powers as before, meaning they are no different than the other officers in their department. However, in a few cases, which generally only last for short durations, officers from various departments can be assigned to task force groups, which are usually under a state or federal agency and are convened for a specific purpose, such as to catch a serial killer. When this happens, the members of the task force are usually deputized to the organizing agency and take on the arrest and jurisdictional powers of that parent agency.

      The second question is much more difficult to answer. Certainly the things one experiences on the job have a tendency to change you. For example, my own view of human nature has grown considerably more constrained and pessimistic since becoming a police officer. Also, it is very easy to pick up ghosts, of a sort. Certain things follow you, haunt you, throughout the rest of your life. I think all police officers know that feeling. But that is not to say that it works the same for everybody, or even that it destroys the faith of some. Nearly every cop I know is fairly well grounded and a firm believer that a man can do the right thing in this world. Things can get better, and we can be a part of that change.

  2. Kristie Taylor

     /  January 31, 2012

    I’ve always understood the distinctions the way you describe above (I have relatives that are in law enforcement, although I am not myself). But in the county I live in now, there are both county Sheriff and county Police departments. This hasn’t been the case in other places I’ve lived (or at least I never noticed). I’ve never quite been able to figure out the difference between them. Most importantly, I’ve never been sure if the county Sheriff can give me a speeding ticket. 🙂 I assume that in the chart above, County Police would perform the same functions that city/town police do, only at the county level? And that the Chief of the County Police would have the same functions of the Chief of the Town Police? If it’s helpful, here’s links to my county’s forces:
    I don’t know if it makes a difference, but there is a lot of unincorporated land in my county.

    • joemckinney

       /  January 31, 2012

      Kristie, excellent question. I’m afraid I don’t have a good answer for you, though. Based on what I saw on those websites, it appears the County police would perform the same functions as a city/town municipal agency. It’s a strange setup. Of course, I know of at least two other states with even stranger setups. Connecticut, for example, has no county governments and uses State Marshals instead of sheriffs. And Alaska has no counties at all, so they would rely solely on the state police and municipal police. All I can say is that it seems Montgomery County, MD is doing its own thing.

      • Kristie Taylor

         /  February 1, 2012

        Joe, thanks for answering. I’m actually kind of relieved that it stumps you. That makes me feel better about not being able to figure it out! Very interesting about Alaska. It’s really amazing how different things are when you enter a new jurisdiction. I think that’s one of the coolest things about America.

  3. John Morales

     /  January 31, 2012

    That’s why in some horror books, law enforcement officers are like every one else trying to deal on what is going on. In zombie story lines it is a little differnet, they are just trying to survive much like any one else, and do by what ever by any means. Sad to say it happened in real life after Katrina, there were reports thae law enforcement officers were takeing part of the loting. It was in a documentey called when the levies fell.

    • joemckinney

       /  January 31, 2012

      Yep, exactly. Survival horror, such as zombie fiction, generally works differently than the discovery plot I’ve outlined above. In the survival horror plot, they can be victims just like everybody else. You’re absolutely right about Katrina, I’m afraid. I heard many of the same stories.

  4. Hey, thanks! I appreciate it.

    Ooh, and I hope there’s no eye-rolling at the things I’m going to do with the new novel. =]

    • joemckinney

       /  January 31, 2012

      I doubt there’ll be any eye-rolling! Glad to be of help, though!

  5. Excellent (and very useful) advice, Joe. As always…thanks.

  6. Joe, is your hierarchy basically the same in most states? (Forget Alaska – they’re crazy!)

    Here in L.A. it can get especially confusing, I think, because we have these odd little unincorporated pockets spread around the city; for years, much of Sunset Boulevard was not under city jurisdiction, for example, but rather the sheriff’s. Is jurisdiction always clear-cut to those of you who need to know?

    • joemckinney

       /  February 2, 2012

      Hey Lisa,

      Basically, yeah. Each state has got their own unique (peculiar?) way of doing things, but the matrix I put up should cover most of America. LA would be included in that, though of course LA’s size makes it a bit of a special circumstance. For example, LA has two of the largest and best equipped law enforcement agencies in the country working for it, the LA County Sheriff’s Office and the Los Angeles Police Department. The LAPD would of course have authority over every square inch of the city proper. However, that jurisdictional authority would not extend into unincorporated parts of the county or into some of the smaller jurisdictions in the area, such as North Hollywood. Your Sunset Blvd might very well be an example of this. Parts of the Blvd may be city, and parts of it may be unincorporated. Here in San Antonio we have several examples of this. One of our sports arenas is right next to an SAPD Precinct building, yet the land that arena sits on belongs to the County and was never annexed by San Antonio. That means our cops have no jurisdictional authority over the parking lot directly across from their precinct. Go figure.

      Not to deliberately complicate matters with an exception, but peace officers can pursue outside of their jurisdictions when in fresh pursuit of a fleeing felon (i.e. a car chase that goes all over the place) but only then. The LA County Sheriff’s Office, on the other hand, would be able to operate freely across the entire county, so the jurisdictional boundaries between municipalities within the county wouldn’t apply to them. The California Highway Patrol, as the State police, would have the entire state for their jurisdictional responsibility. A good way to illustrate this is with one of California’s amazing car chases. Say a traffic stop turns into a pursuit. LAPD chases the suspect all over the place before he eventually starts crossing outside of the LA city limits. LAPD could of course continue to pursue based on the principle of fresh pursuit, but if it appears the suspect is going to be heading out of the city, the LA County Sheriff’s Office would probably become the primary pursuit agency. Should the suspect get up onto the highway, the California Highway Patrol would become the primary pursuit agency (Go Ponch and John!).

      How’s that? Clear as mud?

      • Ken

         /  March 22, 2013

        Here in Utah, all police officers have jurisdiction statewide. A few years ago, an officer who was a regular columnist in The Salt Lake Tribune told of a young man who, as the officer was in uniform and in a marked patrol car of a city which is located in Utah’s southern Salt Lake Valley, passed him on the freeway with a friendly wave, which the puzzled officer returned. Then the young man committed a rather blatant violation of the speed limit.

        The officer could not, of course, let this egregious illegality, uuuh, pass (pardon the pun), so he promptly did what any self-respecting officer would do and pulled over the young man. The officer’s confusion over the young man’s blatant illegality was quickly resolved as the young man revealed he knew just enough about local police procedure and law to be dangerous: the young man tried to pull out the, “you-can’t-touch-me-because-you’re-out-of-your-jurisdiction” card, whereupon he learned the statewide jurisdiction lesson the hard way, with a citation for speeding to, uuuuh, drive the lesson home (man, I am just coming up with bad puns right and left; that’s usually not my style; sorry).

  7. chandler1

     /  February 3, 2012

    Hi Joe,

    Sent you an email regarding a book proposal.


  8. bridgetf

     /  May 4, 2012

    Thanks for the clarification on law enforcement officers. Question for you: in a case where a skeleton is found buried after 20 plus years, in an area where the sheriff’s department has jurisdiction and there is a local sheriff deputy assigned to the region, would he be the one to investigate the possible crime? After determining that the victim was intentionally buried although cause of death could have been accidental and after canvasing the usual ways to find a match based on missing person information with out finding a match, how much time would he spend on the case before it was classified as a cold case? Thanks for your help!

    • joemckinney

       /  May 10, 2012

      Hi Bridget,

      There are going to be a lot of variables in your scenario, and most of those depend upon the size of the Sheriff’s Office in question and their resources. For example, a small police department (or, in this case, Sheriff’s Office) will generally have a very small number of personnel assigned to general detective duties. Sometimes, if the agency is small enough, one guy may do all detective-type duties. This person may or may not also have general patrol duties (i.e. answering calls for service from the public, such as disturbances, theft reports, etc.), but he would be responsible for the follow up investigation on crimes. Follow up investigations, as in the case you describe, generally require specialized skills that uniformed patrol officers aren’t trained to perform, such as the proper protocols for collecting, processing, and submitting evidence to the crime labs, obtaining search warrants, arrest warrants and grand jury subpoenas, and other administrative type functions. That said, a found body where the identification is not forthcoming, would generally be turned over to the State Police so that they could bring their larger resources to bear on it. The state police would work hand in hand with the Sheriff’s Office, but detectives from the state police would do most, if not all of the work. Either way, making a formal identification of the body would fall to the County Medical Examiner. The definition of a cold case varies from agency to agency as well. Most, however, start referring to a case as “cold” when all leads have been exhausted and no reasonable expectation of identifying a suspect exist. There’s no time limit on this, as there is no statute of limitations on cases where a death is involved. Detectives have been known to keep cases “open” for their entire careers.

      Oh, and whenever you’re writing about a county agency, call them an “Office,” such as the Sheriff’s Office, or the Office of the Medical Examiner, etc. Whenever you’re writing about municipal agencies, call them Departments, such as the Police Department, or the Department of Solid Waste Disposal, etc.

      Hope that helps!


      • bridgetf

         /  May 21, 2012

        Thanks for the insights and advice! I now know what SO means. Question about the state police, the story takes place in California and I don’t believe there is a state police organization. Highway patrol yet, but I am fairly sure that is all. Would the local SO take care of all aspects of the investigation then? I believe they are county based.

  9. joemckinney

     /  May 22, 2012

    Hi Bridget,

    Actually, the CHP has full police powers. Their primary responsibility is traffic enforcement, true, but they can and do investigate all crimes in every corner of the state. They also have SWAT Teams, border patrol units, etc. I think the local sheriff’s office, provided they’re small enough, would still ask for assistance from the CHP or from the FBI. Either one is a possibility. Then again, if you didn’t want to bring in those larger agencies (remember, they only get involved when asked to do so) you could come up with a probable explanation for why the sheriff’s office is not asking for help. For example, the sheriff is up for reelection and sees this as the case that would clinch his place in county government. That’s just one example, but there could easily be several others just as plausible.

  10. Jay Wilburn

     /  May 26, 2012

    Living in South Carolina, we have a very intricate relationship between game wardens and hunters. Game Wardens, as far as I am aware from career day at the school where I teach, are the only law enforcement that carry a local, state, and federal commission. The federal commission is applied as it extends out into federal waters in a coastal state in enforcing federal fishing laws. They have power to enforce local, state, and federal statutes outside of hunting and fishing as discovered in the course of their investigations, if we were told correctly on career day 😉

    • joemckinney

       /  May 26, 2012

      Excellent! Thanks Jay! I imagine the range and nature of their authority differs from state to state, but it sounds like you’ve added some great depth here. It’s a wonder to me that more writers don’t use Game Wardens in their fiction. The range of their authority, regardless of the state in question, is simply amazing.

  11. Joe, I really hope you still monitor this site. A story I’m planning involves an officer moving from a city in one state to a small town in a completely different state. Is this a thing that happens? If so what is the process for doing this?

    • joemckinney

       /  December 22, 2015

      Hey Matt,

      Only occasionally. I’m going to be moving to a new professional site here in the next month or two. In the meantime, yes, I’m here.

      To answer your question, yes, it does happen. As a matter of fact, one of my officers just went through the application process to leave SAPD and take up a spot in a small department in Minnesota. So, yes, it does happen. Not often, but it does happen. In the case of my officer, he left because he wanted to be closer to his family. He took a $20K a year pay cut to do it, but the family concern made it worth it for him. So, if your character is going to leave a large department and go to a small town somewhere, he or she needs to have a logically consistent reason for doing so. Family is a good one. Inheriting property is another. You get the idea. There needs to be a super special reason for leaving a big department, where there are tons of opportunities, and going to a small one, where there are very few opportunities for advancement and doing interesting things. Hope that helps!

  12. Elizabeth Moravia

     /  March 5, 2016

    Joe, one my characters, Dwain, want to find out if the woman that is being followed by assassins made it home. So he says that he can call the police disguising his voice and that if the police call that number and no one answers it, then the police will have a legal obligation to check the address and make sure everything is okay there.
    Dwain is an FBI agent but he is going solo because it seems that the crime was ordered by one of the Federal Agencies and he wants the police to arrive there first.

    Do the police goes to the address if they call and no one answers the phone and say a cab driver reported that when he was turning his vehicle he he heard some shots?

    • joemckinney

       /  March 8, 2016

      Well, not exactly. They wouldn’t automatically go to the house if no one answers. However, if a 911 call was made from that house, they are obligated to go and check out the call. If you’re looking for them to force entry though, you’d need for something to happen inside the home to alert them to exigent circumstances requiring them to force entry. If they go the house, and no one answers, and after looking around they see no evidence that anything is going on, they’ll just leave.

      • Elizabeth Moravia

         /  March 10, 2016

        Thank you, Joe, I know how to fix the problem, at least, I think I know. The agent can make a call using a computer simulating a 911 call from the victim’s house. Would that fix the problem? Thank you, so much for your time and insights.

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