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.

Ten Rules for Writing about Cops


Here are some rules that I’ve figured out along the way to help me write about cops.  Now I am a cop, so some of these are based on my own experience.  Others are based on what I’ve seen work well on the page.  Keep these in mind even if you don’t write mysteries, because cops turn up in the strangest places.


1.  Keep the lingo to a minimum.


Every job has its own special language.  Your first few days on any job are going to be spent giving your new coworkers blank looks every time they use this new jobspeak.  The police are no exception.  In fact, cops are some of the worst offenders when it comes to having their own peculiar language.  For example, cops were texting on their in-car Mobile Data Terminals, or MDTs, long before there was a word for it among cell phone users.  But when you’re writing about cops, don’t try to introduce the reader to a whole new language.  Anthony Burgess did this in A Clockwork Orange and it worked, but chances are all you’re going to end up doing is making the reader skip ahead to the part they can understand.  Plus, a lot of copspeak is agency specific, so what they say in the LAPD won’t work for the NYPD.  I recommend picking one or two bits of lingo and sticking to that.  It’ll give your story the authenticity you’re looking for without confusing the reader.  A good example of this is Michael Connelly’s novel Echo Park, where we’re introduced to the LAPD’s “51 sheets.”  Not only does Connelly keep the lingo to a minimum, but he makes the lingo that he does use a key plot point, which is very effective.


2.  The police are paramilitary in nature.


Rank is everything; or, as my dad used to say, everybody rises to their highest level of incompetence.  Most agencies–but by no means all–promote their personnel through civil service tests.  This means that just about any fool can get promoted as long as he or she tests well.  Conversely, you might have a Harvard grad stuck in the patrolman rank his whole career.  But regardless of the promotional system used, be it tests or the good ole boy network, rank is everything.  Make sure you understand the rank structure of the department you’re writing about.  A detective may be a supervisor in one department, but a peon in another.  You don’t want to get that wrong.  Also, remember that people hold grudges.  The person you mock today may be your lieutenant in ten years, and petty people tend to have long memories.  See Edward Conlon’s Blue Blood for some great examples of this.


3.  Bigger equals more specialization.


As a general rule, the bigger the police department, the more specialized their personnel become.  For example, the NYPD, with over 55,000 officers in its ranks, has got a 23 man detail assigned to investigate nothing but fine art forgery and theft.  Meanwhile, down in Podunksville, they have ten officers in their whole department, and usually just one of those officers will have detective responsibilities.  He’ll be the poor shmuck tasked with doing the follow up investigation on every crime the agency handles, be it a murder or a rash of graffiti.  Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men and the novels of J.A. Jance are good examples of how this principle applies to smaller agencies.


4.  All cops are jugglers.


If I could give you one metaphor for police work, it would be this.  Imagine standing in the middle of a huge river and being told you have to drink every drop of water that comes by.  Every drop that does get by is a case that goes unsolved.  The reasons for this are legion, but it all boils down to one significant point.  Namely, that cops have to keep a whole bunch of balls in the air at any one given time.  We’ve all seen these shows about the cops who get one case a week and they work it through to the end, hopefully with dramatic, tear-jerking results.  We’ve all read the books about the detective who becomes obsessed with an old murder case, usually at the expense of everything else in his life.  Cops definitely obsess, as we’ll see, but that doesn’t mean his supervisor is going to stop assigning him new cases.  Criminals rarely make appointments to commit their crimes.  Juries may wonder how a detective could possibly forget the details of a case in which a victim has been carved into a canoe with a hatchet, but for a large city homicide detective, that’s just the thing that happened before lunch on any given Tuesday.  The novels and stories of Raymond Chandler, especially where Philip Marlow interacts with the police, are great examples of this.  See also the private eye stories of Loren D. Estleman and Joseph Wambaugh’s The New Centurions for a glimpse of the overworked policeman.


5.  Cops become their jobs.


Earlier I said that cops do obsess about certain cases.  That’s true.  I once knew a detective who handled a twelve year old girl’s murder.  He told me there are times when he looks into a crowd of people, and everybody in that crowd has got that little girl’s face.  He said there are days he wakes up crying.  We hear stories of cops like that and it’s natural to wonder if the line between the cop and the man hasn’t gotten a little blurry.  Is it so strange then that cops find it difficult to shrug off their hard edge of weariness when they’re off duty?  This is where the thin blue line comes from.  If you’re inside the line, you have a map to the emotional wasteland that is the internal landscape of quite a few policemen.  If you’re outside, you’re just part of the problem.  That doesn’t mean that outsiders can’t write believably about cops.  John Updike, for instance, wrote with great empathy about the physical ailments and frustrations of aging women in his recent novel The Widows of Eastwick, and he’s obviously never been an aging woman.  The same can be said about cops.  If you want a handy, less threatening way than the thin blue line to write about cops, think about parenting.  Cops are a lot like parents.  Some are good parents, some are bad parents.  Some of them are nurturers, some of them are abusers.  None of them are perfect.


6.  There are no magic bullets.


Despite what you see on the cop shows, video cameras rarely pick up the crime.  And even if they do, the images are of such poor quality as to be next to useless.  Fancy CSI-style stuff like picking up license plates off ATM machine cameras or getting somebody’s DNA off the rim of a coffee cup are so rare that, should we actually get something like that in real life, we would immediately call the Discovery Channel and have them do a Forensic Files show on us.  It’s true that computers and the Internet and a whole slew of advances in forensic science have opened up a new universe of possibilities for investigators, but you have to remember the way evidence gets deposited in crime scenes.  Burglars are rarely so considerate as to roll out a perfect thumb print on a smooth, non-porous material.  DNA is readily available off an air bag, or in blood left at the scene, but it doesn’t mean a thing if you don’t have a master sample to compare it to.  The same would be true of dental records or ballistics.  The key to good police work remains the low tech art of talking to people.  Far more cases get solved this way than in the laboratory.  Fortunately, this works out for the fiction writer, because the only way to bring your detective to life is to have him talk to people.


7.  Police work is done on the cheap.


While we’re on the subject of CSI stuff, we’d do well to talk about an ugly reality of police work.  Everything is done on a budget.  Remember the famous Arlo Guthrie song, “Alice’s Restaurant?”  You hear it every Thanksgiving Day on the radio.  It’s the one with the twenty-seven eight-by-ten color glossy pictures with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one explaining what each one was.  Well, Arlo Guthrie was making a lot of points in that song–mainly about the draft–but one point I don’t think he intended on making was that police resources are rarely deployed in the way we think they should be.  Consider the case load of the average big city police department.  Every crime can and should be investigated and the evidence collected should be processed through an official crime lab.  Well, every test costs money.  That takes time and equipment and people, and all three of those things mean more money.  Police departments have finite budgets.  So, in reality, while you can do soil samples and shoe print impressions on a burglary, chances are you won’t.  You can run paint samples through a gas chromatograph in a hit and run case, but chances are you won’t.  When your detective heads to lab to see what nifty CSI stuff is getting done, just remember, there’s only so much money available, and it has a lot of ground to cover.


8.  One bullet equals three pounds of paperwork.


This one almost goes without saying.  Do you have any idea how many reports Dirty Harry would have had to write?  One thing I can tell you though is that real police officers live by the creed that you can do anything you want out there, just as long as you can explain why you did it on paper.  A former police chief once told me that he was passed on the highway by two patrolmen driving 95 miles per hour with the windows down and their arms hanging out the open windows.  They saw him as they passed him, recognized him, and immediately cut down the next exit ramp.  When he confronted them with an Internal Affairs investigation, both officers claimed they were experiencing terrible diarrhea and had to get to a bathroom right away to keep from soiling city property.  I leave you to make your own conclusions.


9.  Don’t overexplain how things work.


A famous science fiction writer and editor (I believe it was Hugo Gernsback, but I’m not sure about that) once said, “Don’t tell me how the Farkle Drive works.  Tell me what it feels like to sit behind the controls.”  This is not quite the same thing as the old fiction writer’s adage, show, don’t tell.  The difference is that when you’re writing about technology, you need to make it invisible.  Otherwise you come across like somebody paraphrasing a technical manual.  If you’d like a good example of how not to do this, read Dean Koontz’ Midnight.  In that book, he describes at length the operation of a patrol car’s on-board computer, called an MDT.  The information is all correct, but it sounds like he read a couple of textbooks on police procedure and simply regurgitated it into his own book.  There are better of ways of doing it, such as the three way interview room scene in James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential.


10.  Cops are brilliant; cops are morons.


This is the one rule that sums up all the others.


When I was a young patrolman, I knew an officer with quite a few years experience.  I looked up to this guy because he seemed to really know the streets.  One day, he’s driving through a small neighborhood on the shallow west side and this old woman comes running out of a house, waving her arms in the air, screaming in rapid fire Spanish about something going on inside her house.  The officer doesn’t speak Spanish, but he figures he needs to check it out.  In he goes.  He finds the living room crowded with frantic people.  On the couch is a fourteen year old girl about to give birth.  Well, with all these people screaming and panicking, my friend calms the girl and delivers her baby.  Mother and daughter are fine by the time EMS arrives.  My friend was so cool and collected that he even got on the radio and requested an official time check for the birth of the baby.  He became a god in my eyes.


A few years go by.  Now I’m a detective.  My friend the god is still a patrolman.  One day I’m reviewing a report for lewd conduct written by my friend the god.  In that report, my friend the god wrote, without a trace of irony, “The suspect made sexual in your windows to the complainant.”  It made me think of what Robert Penn Warren said about the giants of our youth becoming the small minded fools of our middle age.


Larry Niven has a famous essay for science fiction writers on building believable ecosystems.  The main trap most beginning writers fall into, he says, is not giving enough detail to their ecosystems, which we all know are diverse, complex things.  He calls the problem the “It was raining on the planet Mongo syndrome.”  I think the same reasoning can be applied on the microscopic scale to individual police officers.  Or anybody for that matter.

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