Archive for August, 2011

PostHeaderIcon Danger, Danger! A Writer Needs Assistance…Again

I suppose it’s time to reach for the red emergency switch that’s hidden beneath my desk, the switch that sends out a high-voltage shock to the writers who refuse to listen to the experts. You know who you are. You sit on your couches eating popcorn while watching fictional police-type TV shows, scribbling away as fast as your little fingers can write, making notes for your next scene. Well, let me be the first to say…STOP IT! There’s a reason they call that stuff fiction. Yes, someone made it up for our enjoyment. You know, like when you write a book based on the characters who live inside your mind. They’re not real and neither is a lot of the stuff you see on TV.

So, if you’re going for law-enforcement-realism I suggest you ask an expert—someone who’s actually in the business. Not an actor. Not someone who read about the subject matter and then wrote about it. Not someone whose sister’s husband’s cousin is married to a guy who knew a guy who worked in an auto parts store a block over from the police station. No, you need to talk to someone who actually lives the life and has hands-on experience. Think about it…everyone (hopefully) uses a toilet during the course of a day, but that doesn’t make them an expert on plumbing. And when you need someone to work on that toilet you don’t call the guy from the auto parts store, right? Nope, you call a plumber. So why do you insist on relying on actors and screenwriters for your police information?

Actually, attending the Writers’ Police Academy is the absolute best way to learn about police, fire-fighting, EMS, and forensics. But there are many other events out there that offer mini-versions of what you’ll learn at the WPA, including citizens police academies. Take advantage of those events…PLEASE.

Anyway, here’s a few things I’ve seen lately (again) that should never make it into your stories.

1. Cops DO NOT purposely shoot to wound. They’re not trained to do it, and they don’t. Police officers are taught to shoot center mass of their target.

And to be sure you understand where center mass is located, it’s the large hole in the target above. Again, cops do not shoot at arms, hands, guns, legs, and fingers. Not on purpose, anyway.

2. Revolvers DO NOT automatically eject spent brass (cartridges). Pistols (semi-automatics) and automatic weapons do.

3. Cops always keep a round in the chamber of their weapons. Therefore, they DO NOT pull the slide back on their pistol when they’re about to enter a dangerous situation. To do so would eject a live round (bullet) from their weapon, leaving them one bullet shy of a full magazine. And I already know quite a few cops who are one bullet shy of a full magazine. We don’t need more.

4. Cops DO NOT “thumb off” the safety when they’re entering a dangerous situation. Police officers DO NOT carry their weapons with the safeties engaged (on). Their duty weapon must be ready to fire at all times. That extra second it takes to think about flipping off a safety could cost them their life. That’s if they remember to do it at all while under fire. Believe it or not, folks, bullets flying around your head is actually pretty stressful, so you may not be thinking all that clearly. Also, please do a little research about the weapon carried by your protagonist. It may not even have a safety (SIG Sauers do not).

5. Revolvers, as a rule, DO NOT have safeties.

6. Prisons are NOT country clubs. Even the lower-level federal prisons are tough. Sure, there are fewer restrictions and less supervision in the camps, but living in a locked building and having minimal food tossed your way a couple of times a day ain’t exactly living like a king.

7. It’s a rare occurrence, if ever, for an officer to come from one department and go to another and start out as a detective.

8. The FBI does not ride into town and take over cases from small town police departments. They’re not some omniscient “see all” entity that knows when every single crime occurs. Someone from that town would have to call them and ASK for their assistance. Sure, they’ll help, and they’re great about doing so. Besides, as a rule, they don’t work murder cases.

Every officer in every single police department in this country is perfectly capable of investigating their own cases. Yes, their resources may be limited, but they have the knowledge and training to investigate crime. By the way, FBI agents do not have authority over local police officers. So please don’t have them ordering the local sheriff around. It does not happen like that in real life.

9. Yes, there is a provision in the law that allows a police officer to deputize a private citizen in an extreme emergency. Does this happen? Rarely, if ever. Sometimes investigators call on various experts for their assistance and advice, but there’s no need to deputize them, and they don’t. If the officer(s) needs more hands to work a case, they’ll simply call on a neighboring jurisdiction—sheriff’s office, state police, or another town. Now that does happen quite often. But to deputize a private citizen…nope.

10. Finally, please DO NOT give your readers an informational overload. Realism is very important, but to write something that belongs in a gun catalog…not good. Don’t bore your readers. You DO NOT need to show off your extensive knowledge of a particualr subject matter. For example:

Bobbie Sue climbed into the pilot’s seat. She’s never flown a plane before, but she’d seen grownups do it on TV, so how difficult could it be? She glanced around, her eyes taking in all the shiny buttons and gleaming dials and gauges. The 1978 Cessna 185 Skywagon N44TU, with its fixed landing gear, 300 horsepower (for takeoff), and 88 gallon fuel tank, would be perfect for the fun afternoon she had in mind. I mean, what other tiny plane with an overall length of 25ft. 8in. and a wingspan of 35ft. 10in. could tool along at a cruising speed of 145mph with a range of 645 miles. And all for only $130,000. What a deal!

Bobbie Sue giggled, barely able to contain her excitement, as she began to search for the ignition key and CD player. “Hang on, Bucky. Here we go!” she said.

 

PostHeaderIcon A Long Way From Your Bicycle: False Confessions

The shabbily-dressed black man stood beside his battered bicycle outside a rural post office/country store, muttering to himself and acting “downright weird.” So the postmaster/country store-owner reached for the black rotatory phone that hung on the wall beside the shelves of potted meat, pickled pigs feet, pork and beans, and shotgun shells, and dialed the number for the county sheriff, who immediately sent a deputy to pick up the odd man and bring him back to the office for questioning. The officer didn’t ask the man if he wanted to go with him. Instead, he said, “Come with me. The sheriff wants to see you.”

Bicycle Man would be the twentieth black man (all who’d previously been charged with “sex-type” offenses—Bicycle Man had not) to sit in the sheriff’s “hot seat” in the past few days. Why? Because somebody was going to jail for raping and murdering an elderly woman. The victim lived just long enough to call the police and tell them that a black man had just raped and choked her. That’s the only description she could offer before succumbing to her injuries. This poor man, Bicycle Man, had no idea what he was about to endure.

At the sheriff’s office, ten miles from the country store, the “odd man” was ordered to have a seat, where questioning about the woman’s murder began, not about the man’s unusual behavior at the post office. And the questioning went on for hours and hours, and included the sheriff telling the suspect to “Look at me when I’m talking to you. You’re not half as damn nuts as you act like you are, you know that?”

During the interrogation, it was learned that Bicycle Man had recently been released from a hospital for mental issues he’d been experiencing, which easily explained his abnormal behaviors. And it was learned that his mother lived nearby. Bicycle Man asked when he could go home, and was told, “As soon as you tell us about the murder.” He asked for his mother and was told the same thing. In fact, for hours he asked to leave and was told the same thing…over and over again. “As soon as you tell us about killing that woman, you can go.”

The man told the officers (four officers, in addition to the sheriff, were present during the interrogation), he was tired and wanted to go home. He said he was sleepy. He said he didn’t know what they were talking about. And he said he didn’t understand why he was there. He expressed concern over leaving his bicycle at the post office, unprotected. He wanted to go home and he wanted to know how long it would be before his mother picked him up.

And the answer was always the same…”As soon as you tell us about the murder, you can go home.”

At times, the man sang theme songs to western TV shows. His attention wandered. He clearly had no idea of the seriousness of the situation he faced.

At some point during the hours-long interrogation, a tape recorder was switched on, and at no point on the recording was the Miranda warning read to Bicycle Man. The sheriff says he did advise the suspect of his rights but it must have been prior to the start of the recording.

During the questioning, the man admitted to seeing a woman who wore an overcoat and carried a handbag. He also stated that he had had sexual relations with a woman in her home. He didn’t know if it was the woman in question or not, though. Well, that was enough for the sheriff. He arrested Bicycle Man for the murder and rape of the nearly 90-year-old woman.

As a result of his own words, Bicycle Man was convicted of the murder and rape of the woman and was sentenced to serve a lengthy prison sentence.

Thirty-three years later, DNA proved that a convicted sex offender had committed the rape and murder of the elderly woman, not the odd man on the bicycle who merely wanted to go home to watch westerns on TV.

Unfortunately, Bicycle Man died of natural causes a few years before he was vindicated of the crime he didn’t commit.

Sadly, this was a true story. But why did Bicycle Man confess to crimes he didn’t commit? Why does anyone confess to a crime they didn’t commit?

Well, the reasons vary, but in the case of Bicycle Man, studies show that people with mental disabilities, and minors, are prone to confessing to crimes they didn’t commit, especially when under the stress of extremely long and/harsh interrogations.

It’s my belief that these individuals think they’ll get what they want—to go home, have something to drink, get something to eat, to see their parents, etc.) if they simply tell the police what they want to hear. But they don’t think far enough ahead to realize the long-term consequences of those confessions. And, the police investigator’s ultimate goal is to hear that confession, which means the interrogation is almost always over immediately after hearing, “Yes, I did it.” Officers generally do not continue their questioning after hearing or reading a confession, fearing the suspect will try to take back what he’s just said.

Better to leave well-enough alone, right?

Well, not always. The Innocence Project states that approximately 25% of convictions overturned by DNA evidence involved someone who confessed to a crime they didn’t commit.

Kind of makes you wonder just how many innocent people are in jail.

And let’s not forget the people sitting in jail because someone picked them out of a lineup. Well, those things aren’t all that accurate either. In fact, North Carolina has adopted specific new guidelines about lineups. And New Jersey has just passed a law…wait a minute. That’s a topic for another blog. You’ll have to wait on this one.

Until then, make sure you say what you mean, not what you think someone wants to hear. Or you just may find yourself a long way from your bicycle.

 

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