More Street Stories Writer's Notes

4 Rules of Writing Cops: Avoiding The WRIAMY (Wouldn’t Read in a Million Years) Pile


re-posted from Lee Lofland’s The Graveyard Shift

If you have any accuracy pet peeves, add them to Lee’s list in the comment section below. I’d particularly like to hear from law enforcement officers, dispatchers, etc. What makes you want to throw a book across the room? –Thonie

1. Use caution when writing cop slang. What you hear on TV may not be the language used by real police officers. And, what is proper terminology and/or slang in one area may be totally unheard of in another. A great example are the slang terms Vic (Victim), Wit (Witness), and Perp (Perpetrator). These shortened words are NOT universally spoken by all cops. In fact, I think I’m fairly safe in saying the use of these is not typical across the U.S.

2. Simply because a law enforcement officer wears a shiny star-shaped badge and drives a car bearing a “Sheriff” logo does not mean they are all “sheriffs.” Please, please, please stop writing this in your stories. A sheriff is an elected official who is in charge of the department, and there’s only one per sheriff’s office. The head honcho. The Boss. All others working there are appointed by the sheriff to assist him/her with their duties. Those appointees are called DEPUTY SHERIFFS. Therefore, unless the boss himself shows up at your door to serve you with a jury summons, which is highly unlikely unless you live in a county populated by only three residents, two dogs, and a mule, the LEO’s you see driving around your county are deputies.

3. The rogue detective who’s pulled from a case yet sets out on his own to solve it anyway. I know, it sounds cool, but it’s highly unlikely that an already overworked detective would drop all other cases (and there are many) to embark on some bizarre quest to take down Mr. Freeze. Believe me, most investigators would gladly lighten their case loads by one, or more. Besides, to disobey orders from a superior officer is an excellent means of landing a fun assignment (back in uniform on the graveyard shift ) directing traffic at the intersection of Dumbass and Mistake.

4. Those of you who’ve written scenes where a cocky FBI agent speeds into town to tell the local chief or sheriff to step aside because she’s taking over the murder case du jour…well, get out the bottle of white-out because it doesn’t happen. The same for those scenes where the FBI agent forces the sheriff out of his office so she can set up shop. No. No. And No. The agent would quickly find herself being escorted back to her guvment vehicle.

The FBI does not investigate local murder cases. I’ll say that again. The FBI does not investigate local murder cases. And, in case you misunderstood…the FBI does not investigate local murder cases. Nor do they have the authority to order a sheriff or chief out of their offices. Yeah, right…that would happen in real life (in case you can’t see me right now I’m giving a big roll of my eyes).

Okay, I understand you’re writing fiction, which means you get to make up stuff. And that’s cool. However, the stuff you make up must be believable. Not necessarily fact, just believable. Write it so your readers can suspend reality, even if only for a few pages. Your fans want to trust you, and they’ll go out of their way to give you the benefit of the doubt. Really, they will. But, for goodness sake, give them something to work with—without an info dump, give readers a reason to believe/understand what they’ve just seen on your pages. A tiny morsel of believability goes a long way.

But if you’re going for realism, then please do some real homework. I say this because I started reading a book this weekend (notice that I said “started”) and I’d barely made it halfway through the first chapter when I tossed it into my WRIAMY pile (Wouldn’t Read In A Million Years). This was a ARC a publisher sent me to review, by the way.

It was obvious the author was going for realism, and it was also painfully obvious the writer’s method of research was a couple of quick visits to the internet and maybe a viewing of one or two of the Police Academy movies.

So, is there a WRIAMY pile in your house?

Ramblings by Hal

Ramblings, Stake Outs, part 1

By Hal Collier, LAPD, Retired

Hal is a thirty-five year veteran of LAPD. We are pleased he is sharing his stories with us.


Stake Outs part 1

"Stakeout" from the 1987 movie with Emilio Estevez and Richard Dreyfuss
“Stakeout” from the 1987 movie with Emilio Estevez and Richard Dreyfuss

The story you are about to read is true. I’ll use the real first names of partners, unless I can’t remember them. This segment will deal with “Stake Outs.” Stake outs are depicted on TV and in the movies all the time. You see these two cops sitting in a warm car, drinking latte coffee and chatting about their latest conquests. I love TV cops–they never have to go to the bathroom and the perp (perpetrator) always shows up and an arrest is made, all within five minutes.

Fact: Most stake outs you sit on a roof top of some business in December for six hours and the only crime you see is a homeless man urinating on your police car. The Watch Commander says it’s a waste of manpower. That’s after you spent two weeks telling him that this stake out was a sure thing. Patrol cops as a rule don’t get to participate in many stake outs. There usually reserved for the elite SPU (Special Problems Units) which are comprised of young cops who still have a drawer full of their Academy T-shirts. I was never assigned to SPU, but I did get a couple of loans and I was also assigned to a hype car for six months.

Stake outs require a lot of preparation. You study crime reports, look for patterns, anything that will increase your chances of success. If you remember I spent nineteen years working Morning Watch, that’s 11 P.M. to 7 A.M. So you plan accordingly. What time of year–do you wear warm clothing? Do you bring binoculars, a thermos of coffee, sunflower seeds, chewing tobacco, a hand-held video game? Most important of all, who is your partner? I been on stake outs with some great partners and the time flew and I’ve been on six-hour stake outs with a partner similar to an in-law you can’t stand.

Once we had a rapist hitting residences in the southeast area of Hollywood. I was told to drive my personal truck and park on this side street for six hours and watch for a tall thin black man who can run faster than any cop. My partner that night was Ron, he was from New York and talked constantly. The constant talking wasn’t what was so annoying but his use of the term “Right, Buddy.” after every sentence. He once got out to pee and I thought of driving off and leaving him, yelling “Right, Buddy.”

Pantages Theater
Pantages Theater

I had a couple of memorable stake outs while working a hype car. My partner was Dave and we could sit through a hail storm and have a good time. The Pantages Theater parking lots were having a rash of car break-ins. We figured we would sit on the roof of the theater and watch the three surrounding parking lots. We arranged for the theater manager to allow us access to the roof. It was December and a little cool. No, it was damn cold with a twenty mph wind from the north. We wore dark, warm clothing and I brought along a pair of binoculars. We both drink coffee, so I had Terri, my wife, make us a thermos of coffee. Unfortunately, Terri doesn’t drink coffee and therefore the coffee poured out like the sludge from that leaking oil well in the Gulf. Sorry Terri, but you can’t change history.

Ok, were ready. We begin our trek up to the roof. The Pantages Theater is about twelve stories and we have to climb up a metal ladder for two stories. We have more equipment than Sir Edmund Hillary had on his climb up Mt. Everest. Of course Sir Edmund wasn’t going to spend six hours on top of Everest. We reach the top and scout the parking lots. We can see four parking lots. We begin our surveillance. The first hour and half flies by. The Capitol Records building to the north is having a Christmas party. What we see going on in the parking lot is not a crime unless you’re a divorce lawyer.

The cold wind makes us both have to pee. The air conditioner for the Pantages Theater is a water cooled-evaporator, with a large water trough on the roof. Well, you can figure out where we peed. Your tax dollars at work. We didn’t catch anything but a bad cold. By the way if you spit tobacco off a twelve story building, the spit turns into a parachute about 2 stories down. More spread, but not good for accuracy.

The next night we commandeered an office inside the Capitol Records building. The office belonged to some bigwig. One of us sat in his huge over-sized chair while the other looked out the window. We were warm and there was a radio which we changed to country music. An hour into our stake out I heard Dave on the telephone. Next thing I hear is the DJ dedicating a Johnny Cash song to Dave and Hal, on a stake out. True story.

I have a few more stake out stories, some of which actually result in the arrest of a bad guy.

Practical Joke

Vine Lodge Hotel
Vine Lodge Hotel

It was some time in the winter. Dave and I got a call to meet another car in the back parking lot of a known dirt bag hotel (Vine Lodge). We figured they needed our expertise. We pulled into the parking lot and the officers were standing at the back of their open car trunk. We got out and walked toward them. We were immediately pelted with snowballs. That’s right snowballs in Hollywood. Ok, picture this, four LAPD officers running around a parking lot in the middle of the night, having a snowball fight. The officers found the snow on a car in the Hollywood hills. They took some and set up an ambush for us. We all laughed and decided the lieutenant should not miss out in the fun. Dave and I went to the station and coaxed the lieutenant to come outside. As soon as he exited the back door he was pelted with snowballs. He thought this was great fun and didn’t want his Assistant Watch Commander (A W/C) to miss out.

The lieutenant walked into the Watch Commanders Office, past the A W/C and closed the door. The A W/C looked up then turned toward us as we walked through the other door. He was suspicious because we all had our hands behind our backs. He jumped up and tried to go through the door the lieutenant was holding closed from the other side. The A W/C was pelted with eight snowballs. We cleaned up the best we could but the custodian wanted to know how the carpet got so wet. Non-cop friends might think this is juvenile, but it relieves the stress and improved moral.
Besides, how many can say they had a snow ball fight in Los Angeles, let alone in the Hollywood Watch Commanders Office?

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