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

Police References for Writers

A while back I gave a talk at the San Antonio Writer’s Guild on incorporating real life police procedural techniques into your fiction. The talk went well. When I started to write my speech, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to turn them into Joseph Wambaugh in the few minutes I had available, so I decided to give them some broad brushstrokes instead. Basically what I did was to condense an awful lot of information into ten handy rules for writing about cops. You can read those rules here.

But I also wanted to include some references for them as well, so I made up a list of some nonfiction books that I thought might prove useful. I also came up with a second list of some examples of popular fiction writers whose books give a more or less true to reality view of police procedure. With that in mind I thought I would elaborate on those references here. What follows is the first of a two part post on writing references for police procedural writers. Today’s post is the non-fiction reference section. This is by no means a comprehensive list. Instead, I tried to give a sample of what’s out there, both the good and the bad. I hope this list helps some of you. Good luck.

Forensics for Dummies by Douglas A. Lyle.

Inexpensive, easily available, and offering a reasonably good overview of the many different disciplines involved in forensic study, this book is a great place to go to learn the language, so to speak. However, it will definitely not be enough on its own to make you conversant in forensics. Recommended.

Every Contact Leaves a Trace: Crime Scene Experts Talk About Their Work From Discovery Through Verdict by Connie Fletcher.

Again, this book will not make you an expert, but Connie Fletcher does a wonderful job with everything she writes. She collects a huge number of interviews with people actively working in the field, and many of those interviews provide great, personal perspectives on the job’s joys and frustrations. Highly Recommended.

Crime Scene: Inside the World of the Real CSIs by Connie Fletcher.

Once again, Connie Fletcher repeats her winning formula of stringing together numerous interviews from experts in the field. If I had any complaint with this book at all it would be that it focuses too narrowly on violent crimes, ignoring many of the less glamorous areas of forensic study, such as crash investigations and information gathering. The result is a slightly distorted view of the crime laboratory, and might lead people to think that there is little or no overlap between disciplines. For example, the time, distance, and speed calculations a crash investigator uses to investigate car wrecks can also be used by the murder detective to recreate a suspect’s movements through a shooting scene. A rule of thumb is to think of forensics as tools: they can do any number of jobs. What really matters is the person using those tools. Despite that objection, this book, like everything Connie Fletcher writes, is highly recommended.

What Cops Know by Connie Fletcher.

This is my favorite Connie Fletcher book. Compiled from more than 80 interviews with patrol officers, this book gives you one of the best pictures of police life from the street officer’s point of view. The best stories come from where the rubber meets the road, and this book is loaded with them.

Practical Homicide Investigation by Vernon J. Geberth.

This book will set you back a little financially, but if you’re going to be writing crime fiction to any degree at all, go ahead and resign yourself to the fact that you’re going to have to get this book. By far, the best single source textbook for crime scene investigations out there. It will take you step by step from the first officer on scene to testifying in court.

Criminal Investigations by James N. Gilbert.

Of all the many textbooks in the field, this one is probably the worst. Poorly written and loaded with typos, it does offer a certain amount of usable information, but there are far better choices out there. Avoid it like the plague.

Police Field Operations by Thomas F. Adams.

This is another book that fails to live up to its promise. It is too vague to use as a reference. Like many textbooks of this sort, it tries to be applicable to a wide range of potential readers, and as a result it fails to address anybody’s needs in any sort of depth. Not recommended.

Blue Blood by Edward Conlon.

I’m mad at this guy for writing the book I should have written. Conlon is a genuinely talented writer. His observations of life on the job are spot on. The book is not an apology for the profession, either. He tells you the good and the bad. It is a bit long, but there is so much valuable information in there that the added length is perfectly excusable.

The Investigative Reporter’s Handbook: A Guide to Documents, Databases and Techniques by Brant Houston.

An amazing book. While not exclusively about cops and police techniques, this book illustrates the direct relationship between the media and law enforcement. Many of the techniques outlined in this book to aid the investigative reporter are in fact identical to the ones used by modern police detectives.

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