This excerpt was taken from a writer’s work in progress that I’m helping critique (and was used with permission). My comment back? Kudos for high-impact action, but you’ll have to change your whole story because this would never happen.
Since finding out I work for a police department (disclaimer: I am NOT a police officer, just an office worker), writers have been coming out of the woodwork to ask me police-related questions or ask me to read their police fiction to advise if their idea is probable. Unfortunately, about 95% of what I’ve seen I’ve had to tell the writer that they needed to go back and make major changes.
I read one about a Chief being the first responder to a call about graffiti and another where the lowest ranked officer at the department was the head investigator for a murder. Poor…or no research leads to huge gaffes like these.
The issue? Most people believe research is for historical fiction writers only. That, and I’ve found that most people believe they have a good handle on the police world so they don’t have to research. I mean, they’ve watched CSI and Hawaii 5-O, and that one mean officer gave them a speeding ticket, so they know how cops roll, right? Please roll your eyes along with me.
So today I’m offering the Do’s and Don’ts of writing about the police.
Do meet and interview an officer. Find a department that is in the same situation as your manuscript, meaning if you are setting your writing in the country where the Sheriff’s department would respond. Don’t interview a Chicago police officer because the information and procedures will be vastly different. If your work is set in a small town, find a small town near you and call up that department and set up an interview. Even small things, like referring to a Sheriff as a Chief (unincorporated areas verse incorporated) will ruin the authenticity of your writing.
Do ask if you can participate in a ride-along. A ride-along is just what it sounds like: you sign a waiver then spend a couple of hours in the squad car going on all the calls with an officer. On dangerous calls you stay in the squad, but on other calls, some departments will let you go out with the officer on investigations and interviews. The whole time you’re driving around you have a captive audience with the officer and can ask questions. It’s an invaluable and easy experience to get tangible research.
Do participate in local citizen’s police academies. Most departments offer citizen’s police academies periodically. It usually means you meet one night a week for 10-12 weeks at the police department. You will be taught by sworn members of the department on many aspects of the police department that no one ever sees. They cover evidence collection and storage, special task forces, K-9 training, and more. If you are a writer interested in having a police officer for a character, this is an opportunity you cannot afford to pass up.
Do send a thank you. If you had an interview or ride-along with an officer, get their name and write a thank you letter. Make sure to send two copies to the department, one addressed to the officer and one addressed to their Chief or Sheriff. Because of their jobs, most officers only ever hear people complaining about them, you have no clue how encouraging it is for them to receive a good letter. If you had a really awesome experience, think of baking some cupcakes or dropping off a little edible thank you that the entire department can share.
Don’t use television shows for research. Even cop shows that use real police footage are off limits. With these clips, sections have been cut out and the policy behind what they are doing isn’t explained.
Don’t craft stupid, bumbling officers. This has, sadly, been the norm in fiction and might have been truer in the days when one lawman ran the town with just his brains and his gun, but with today’s laws and technology, it’s an incorrect, and offensive, portrayal. The police in your manuscript don’t have to be the heroes who solve everything; someone else can swoop in and put the pieces together, but don’t have them missing huge pieces of information.
Don’t call the police department and ask cryptic questions. Well, not unless you want them to track your number and send a nice officer to your front door. If you are going to write about the police, then take a deep breath and build up some courage. Call (or better yet, stop in person – just don’t expect an interview that day) a department and explain that you are a writer and would like to meet with someone and ask questions. Explain yourself. You don’t want them thinking you’re going to use the information for something nefarious.
Don’t get upset if your interview or any other interaction with the police gets postponed. If an emergency comes up, you will drop to the bottom of their priority list. It’s not mean, it’s not a brush off, it’s the police officer doing his job.