Mystery writers can be a bloodthirsty bunch. We write about death, not just “whodunit” but “howdunit” and why. We may plot murders in our heads—to be expressed on paper. And while plotting, important questions arise:
“How long does nail polish last on a corpse?”‘
“What kind of evidence can you get from a car that’s been underwater?”
“Which poisons can kill a grown man, yet be undetectable after death?”
Enter the Writers’ Police Academy (WPA), which offers classes such as Domestic Murder, The ABCs of Death Investigation, Crime Scene Processing, Suspicious Fire Deaths, Romance Behind the Badge, and Microbial Forensics, among many others. During this annual conference, instructors from all walks of law enforcement teach workshops to help writers “get things right” in their books. The WPA is organized by Lee Lofland and this September, I headed for Greensboro, North Carolina to attend WPA 2014. Here are six lessons I learned:
#1. Real life is not like the movies.
Instructor after instructor hammered this point home—“Just because you’ve seen it on TV, doesn’t mean it’s right.” Cases in point:
- Bullets do not cause people to fly through the air.
- When holding a gun, your finger should not “rest” on the trigger. (No need to put a finger there until you’ve made a conscious decision to fire.)
- Officers do not try to shoot a knife out of a suspect’s hand, but aim for center mass. (See Lesson #2, below.)
- And nobody goes around like in Lethal Weapon, shooting at everyone and everything that moves—if they did, they’d be buried in a mountain of paperwork.
So what is it really like to work in law enforcement? The instructors at WPA gave hundreds of writers an eye-opening glimpse into their careers.
Example: Before WPA, my vision of a building breach was noise: helicopters, explosions, and guns blazing. But the reality was silence and stealth first, as the police set the charges:
#2. Shooting accurately is harder than it looks
When faced with a dangerous situation, officers have mere seconds—under stress—to decide whether to shoot or hold their fire. At WPA, we had the option of signing up for Meggitt firearms training (also called FATS), which involves simulated “shoot/don’t shoot” scenarios. Participants have to decide whether to fire their weapons to protect themselves and other people in the scene.
Our group of four got to try several scenarios. Each time, we were given a small amount of information beforehand, such as: “There’s an active shooter in the hospital. He’s wearing a red jacket” — and then the video simulation began. As a group, we entered the building and walked down the long hospital corridor, hearing the terrified screams of people ahead. My heart pounded as we turned the corner and headed into a new hallway:
Hey! There’s the gunman! But, wait … is the shooter the guy standing up—or the one on the ground? They’re both wearing red. Who has the gun? Or is that even a gun…
By the time my brain had processed the scene and I’d decided to shoot, another writer in my group had already killed the suspect.
We continued with different scenarios, each presenting a fresh ethical dilemma (Do you shoot a kid holding a knife? A person in a wheelchair? A person who doesn’t have a gun in hand but is reaching toward one?). Ack. It’s very hard to know until afterwards.
And Meggitt taught me one important lesson: I have horrible aim under rushed, stressful conditions (Sorry, wall, file cabinet, van, and bystander… my mistake). Apparently this is a common problem—and it’s something to keep in mind the next time you read about an officer-involved shooting.
#3. The police talk a language of their own.
One of the most interesting things for me at WPA was listening to the instructors talk. They shared valuable insights into “a cop mentality” during their formal presentations, but also revealed it through comments and examples. Nearly everyone described staying on high alert, even when their workday was done. They might check out their house upon arriving home, keep an eye on people behaving suspiciously, or choose a restaurant table where they can sit with a back to a wall, scan the scene, and see who comes in. It’s a different way of thinking about the world.
Three instructors mentioned a sheep/sheepdog/wolf analogy. In short, most of us are good, law-abiding citizens—the “sheep” who need protecting. The bad guys are the “wolves” (predators) and the cops are “sheepdogs” whose job it is to protect the sheep.Photo by Bruce Finlayson
WPA also provided some cool cop slang for use in books – with “holster sniffer” and “badge bunnies” among my favorites. (If you need to expand a character’s vocabulary, Police Chief Scott Silverii mentioned a 99 cent app available at http://www.copslang.com/)
#4. Things have changed in the police world, especially for women.
Retired Lieutenant David Swords gave an interesting talk on how equipment and personnel have changed in police departments over the years.
What really struck me was the changing role of women in law enforcement. Most police departments first began “letting in” female recruits in the 70s and 80s. But Lieutenant Swords described how one of the early hires in his department posed for Playboy and was consequently fired. (She later got her job back with a 45-day suspension.) And during a WPA panel, author/instructor Robin Burcell mentioned that when she became a police officer in the 80s — as her department’s first female officer — she heard, “Hope we’re not going to see you in Playboy.” Ugh.
Today women make up roughly 13 percent of U.S. law enforcement. Interestingly, several WPA instructors mentioned how their female officers were especially skilled at defusing tension during arrests. Even when a petite female officer was matched with a large suspect, the female officer could often talk the male subject into getting cuffed or detained without incident, while male cops and male suspects could get into testosterone battles. 🙂
SCAT instructor Stan Lawhorne and Master Corporal Dee Jackson demonstrated this in a very informative and entertaining Handcuffing and Arrest Techniques class—thank you both for my favorite workshop of WPA. (Shown here with thriller author John Gilstrap.)
#5. Searching a building is more terrifying than you can imagine.
One of the optional workshops I signed up for was Building Search. Led by a sniper, we learned how to enter a building and do a “slow” search (one where it appears something is amiss, not the SWAT version where somebody is in active danger). Still—even when we participants knew there were no real criminals hiding inside the condo complex, it was a frightening experience. During each search, my heart started to race and my hands shook. My vision tunneled until all I could see were the hazards: every door, closet, opening, gap, cupboard, alcove, and window presented a potential danger, places where an armed person could be hiding.
Although we carried plastic guns to protect ourselves while searching, a few of us still got “shot” by the bad guys – because we forgot to check one hiding spot.
#6. Police Diver is a dangerous job.
Another workshop I attended was Underwater Evidence Recovery, where I gleaned several tips for an upcoming novel from the Guilford County Dive Team. This team is responsible for search and rescue of people and cars that have entered the water, as well as recovering bodies, evidence, and stolen goods from rivers, lakes, and detention ponds. (Picture a fleeing suspect tossing his gun into the river as he runs across a bridge.)
The men and women on this dive team work in tough conditions, including diving in cold, dark, and murky water. They must dodge fishing lines, boat motors, aquatic plants, logs, snakes, and geese. And they are more or less “diving blind” because in the low visibility, they usually can’t use sight to find objects—it’s done by touch and following a careful search pattern.
When divers do find an object underwater, they don’t simply pick it up and bring it to the surface (guns would rust). Instead, they use a special PVC container to collect the object, water, and surrounding sediment or silt, and then use an airbag to float it to the surface. (Note the special body bag used for underwater recovery in the photo at left).
I also learned that to recover a car from a deep lake, divers must attach “lift bags” to various spots on the vehicle so it can be raised near the surface and then pulled to shore. Great technical stuff to know!
Yes, mystery/crime authors are a bloodthirsty bunch.
So back to our group of writers attending WPA. Yes, we may be a little more bloodthirsty than your average conference participant, but the Writers Police Academy hits a sweet spot between education, enlightenment, and entertainment. From the opening evening, when we salivated over Barbara Graham’s “dead body quilt” and watched Eli Jackson attack her sister with a knife (a demo about defending from knife attacks), our enthusiasm buzzed through the hotel.
Lee Lofland understands us well. Because at 8 a.m. on our first day at the police academy, he arranged for the re-enactment of a gruesome traffic accident. The scene demonstrated a drunk driver who’d run his car through a group of people at a yard sale, killing several of them, and the subsequent response from police, fire, and emergency staff. We were full of questions as we took in the scene. For crime writers, it was pretty much the perfect way to start the day.
A Sincere Thank You
Thank you to the amazing instructors at WPA 2014 for sharing your expertise and helping us “get it right.” Thank you to Sisters in Crime for paying half my registration and the SinC Guppies for a great pre-conference lunch and new friends to hang out with. And a huge thank you to Lee Lofland, who made the whole experience happen.
Until next year. That is, if I can get out of these cuffs….
— Christine Finlayson is the author of an Oregon coast mystery (2013), and two suspense novels coming in 2017.
Special thanks to H.S. Stavropoulus for sharing her photo of the “dead body” (upper left) and the one of me, cuffed.