Re-posted from “Rogue Women Writers” from Wednesday, February 13, 2019 this post is originally intended for authors who write about cops. However, I decided to post it on Sunday’s Just the Facts, Ma’am because cop stories must be authentic for cop readers. For you coppers out there: this is the education most writers get telling your stories. I thought you might like to see it. Feel free to comment and/or visit Robin Burcell’s site. By the way, Robin is a former police officer.
How do you make the police procedure in your mysteries or thrillers seem authentic?
Below are some of the mistakes and overused tropes I’ve seen in books that usually pull me out of a story. The good news is that not everyone who reads mysteries are cops, so they might not notice some of what I consider my top pet peeves. More importantly, just because I’ve listed them doesn’t mean that you can’t use them. Just that if you do, know why it is they appear on my list.
The top ten are…
10. Long radio transmissions no cop would ever make. I’ve seen authors write a full paragraph of just one radio call. It’s just not going to happen. Some departments talk all in code, some in plain English, so feel free to throw in a bit of police lingo to mix it up. Just keep it simple and preferably short. And if you do have a long transmission, you have to add a “break” for any emergencies that might arise while you’re hogging the mike.
9. Not knowing the elements of the crime, or what constitutes a crime. Imagine some cop is parked, writing reports. He looks up, sees a man bumping into a young lady who falls to the ground as he runs away. Purse snatch? Robbery? Looks like a good pinch, so he shifts to drive, and races to the rescue. He jumps out, sees the woman is okay, then chases after the suspect, tackles, and cuffs him. See any problems with this? He did not see the crime. He assumed. While it’s okay to assume (good cops make assumptions based on expertise), at least have your cop stop to ask the victim what happened before he gets in a foot chase.
8. The loner alcoholic cop with the rumpled raincoat, whose wife and kids were murdered by the serial killer (who was never caught) while said cop was out eating donuts. This is a twofer. One, we’ve got to come up with better back stories. Two, back in the day, donut shops were the only thing open on graveyard shifts, and that was where the coffee could be found. That cliché would never work in California, where there’s a Starbucks on every corner, and a bagel shop two doors down. Who eats donuts anymore?
7. Having cops hired on a whim, or transferring from a different agency without doing a proper background investigation. Since when is it ever a good idea to hand someone a gun and the keys to the building without knowing who they are or where they came from?
6. Evil or stupid police supervisors. Repeat after me: Only some of the bosses are evil or stupid (and no, they didn’t all work for my department). Even fewer fit both descriptions at once. The standing joke is that to get promoted to sergeant, you have to first have a lobotomy. To make it to lieutenant or captain, you have to have your spine removed. True in all cases? No.
5. The hated, despised Internal Affairs cop, who is usually evil or stupid. See # 6 above.
4. Dirty cops planting phony evidence. I’m not saying you can’t use this trope, but if you surround the premise of your book around this plot point, do it better than anyone else. One of the best examples of a well-done plant was from a (decades-old) movie, where a dirty cop was seen committing a crime on a surveillance video that was then booked into evidence by the investigator. The dirty cop set up a “window smash” of another business, using a very large and highly magnetic device to shatter the window. The device was booked into evidence, and placed next to the surveillance tape, which it then demagnetized, rendering it useless. (Granted, this wouldn’t work in the digital age, but the set up for that time period was brilliant.)
3. Stupid blunders by cops at crime scenes. Just knowing the basics can help, everything from keeping a crime scene log to what constitutes trace evidence and cross-contamination. To keep your cop or amateur sleuth from mucking up good evidence, consider picking up a copy of retired cop Lee Lofland’s most excellent Police Procedure and Investigation: A Guide for Writers.
2. Cops handling major felony investigations alone. These guys are assigned partners for a reason. Safety is one of them, but so, too, is having a second set of eyes and ears for investigative purposes, as well as for testifying later in court.
And the number one pet peeve…? 1. Throwing officer safety out the window. If you’re going to put your cop in danger, at least give them a very good reason why they’re now ignoring every basic rule they were ever taught from day one in the academy. Just because they do it on TV or on the big screen, it does not make it okay for your book. It makes the story unbelievable. For instance, if a cop knows he is going to contact a bad guy in person, or going on any sort of call with the possibility for a confrontation of any type, he/she always waits for back up or takes a partner. And hot call or not, they never pull out their guns and check to see if they’re loaded—or rack a round into the chamber—just before they go chasing after the bad guy. (Yes, you can have your bad guys do this. But not the police.) A cop’s weapon is always loaded and the safety is OFF. And yet, the cops do this in 90% of the TV shows and movies. It sounds cool, and definitely looks cool, but it’s stupid. When the bad guys are firing at you, last thing you want to do is stop to load your weapon then turn off the safety. Wasted seconds equals wasted lives.
No doubt, those of you in other professions have noticed big mistakes in books (and I’ll bet I’ve made a few of my own).
So, Rogue Readers and Just the Facts readers, do you have any professional pet peeves in fiction?
(From Robin: Due to a deadline, this post has been updated and recycled from this 2009 blog post from Mystery Fanfare for this month’s Rogue post. Hope you enjoy!)