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.


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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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Hurricane Irene Knocks On Our Front Door

Hurricane Irene stopped by yesterday to welcome Denene and me to our new neighborhood here in beautiful Coastal Georgia. We love the area here, with all its history, and the scenery is some of the best we’ve encountered. And that says a lot because we’ve lived in some pretty stunning locations—Seattle, San Jose, and Boston to name just a few.

But our little slice of Georgia heaven is really nice. We picked it because we’re a stone’s throw from the ocean, a river is across the street from our house (we love to kayak), and a freshwater lake is our view from the backyard, which, by the way, has an extremely large in-ground pool. Dolphins swim nearby, and, well, you get the picture. So we’re set. BUT…

We’ve been in the new house for three weeks and the power has gone out three times due to powerful storms, you know about what happened earlier this week, and now Irene. So the welcome hasn’t exactly been ideal. Toss a hurricane into the welcome basket and it sort of makes you wonder if the decision to come here was a good one…

Anyway, the picture above is of Tybee Island Beach on Wednesday afternoon (we went there to walk on the beach and collect our thoughts). And here’s what that same beach looked like at 5pm yesterday. Remember, the storm was approximately 200 miles offshore when she passed us. Imagine what things look like for the folks who experience a direct hit.

Apparently Irene can read, because the turtle was fine when she left.

I hope all our friends and family along the coast are okay. Stay safe, everyone.


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Friday’s Heroes: Remembering The Fallen

The Graveyard Shift extends our condolences to the families of these brave officers.

Officer Justin Sollohub

Anniston Alabama Police Department

August 25, 2011 – Officer Justin Sollohub was killed after engaging in a foot pursuit. The suspect rounded the corner of a building with Officer Sollohub close behind. As the officer rounded the same corner, he was shot in the head. The suspect was caught later in the day and has been charged with capital murder. Officer Sollohub is survived by his parents.

Constable Ross R. Potter, 81

Carter County Tennessee Sixth District Constable’s Office

August 19, 2011 – Two weeks earlier, Constable Ross Potter’s department vehicle left the roadway and crashed. He was flown to the hospital where he succumbed to his injuries. Constable Potter is survived by four children, six grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.

Officer Bart Child, 29

United States Department of Defense – Fort Huachuca Police Department

August 18, 2011 – Officer Bart Child died as he was completing a 1.5 mile run on the base’s track, a portion of the department’s physical agility test. He is survived by his wife and three children.

*2011 line of duty deaths – 118

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10 Incredible Facts About the Criminal Brain

Whenever a crime happens, the community is left wondering how someone could do such a thing. For most of us, it’s hard to comprehend the urge to harm someone else or steal something, especially when we consider the consequences to the victim, their family, and ourselves. But many criminal brains work differently than the average human’s. Of course, there are people who turn to crime after a tough childhood, but some criminals, especially psychopaths and those with personality disorders, have minds that are wired for crime. Here are 10 unbelievable facts about the criminal brain.

1. Parts of the brain are deformed

All the parts of your brain work together to make you a complete, functioning human being. But for many criminals, some of these parts aren’t the same size as they are in the average person, causing them to act differently than the rest of us. Studies have found that two parts of the brain’s frontal lobe are significantly smaller in people with antisocial personality disorder, who have the tendency to act violently and become repeat offenders. One of those parts was 18% smaller in antisocial people compared to normal people; the other was 9% smaller. The frontal lobe controls our decision making, emotions, and purposeful behaviors, so criminals may have less authority over these functions. A study of psychopaths also found that a portion of the amygdala, a piece of the brain important for human emotion, had a volume of about 18% less than what you would find in a normal person.

2. A tumor could be to blame

While the large majority of criminals don’t have a brain tumor, some criminals have been found to have a cancer that probably contributed to their unthinkable acts. One of the most notable of these is Charles Whitman, who killed 16 people at the University of Texas in 1966 before being killed by police. He had been experiencing terrible headaches and wrote that he was having many irrational thoughts. In the suicide note he wrote before killing his wife and mother and then going on a rampage, he asked that an autopsy be performed on him to see if there was something in his brain causing him to act this way. And there was. Doctors found a glioblastoma tumor that could reasonably have affected his actions.

3. Chemical levels in the brain are off

Neurotransmitters are chemicals in our brains that deliver signals and cause reactions in us, such as arousal or triggering memory. Research has found that some criminal brains have different levels of neurotransmitters like serotonin or dopamine than normal brains. Serotonin at the proper levels keeps people from acting aggressively when they are frustrated, so when someone’s brain has lower amounts of the chemical, the person may react impulsively and violently. Dopamine levels affect whether a person feels rewarded for an action. If dopamine levels increase significantly when someone acts aggressively, he’ll feel good about it and likely do it again.

4. The brain doesn’t respond to facial expressions

Psychopaths, especially those who commit violent crimes, may not have brains that register fearful expressions on others’ faces. In experiments, researchers have found that people with antisocial personality disorder have trouble recognizing faces showing fear and sadness. Antisocial people who fall into the category of psychopath find it significantly more difficult to know when an expression is sad. Psychopaths also have almost no reaction to expressions of fear, while normal people’s brains will become very active when they see a scared expression. This difference may be what keeps psychopaths from feeling remorse since they don’t register that they are causing pain or sadness.

5. They’re fearless

The brain of a psychopath doesn’t react with fear as frequently as ours do. In tests of criminal psychopaths, researchers have found that they lack the fear conditioning that causes the rest of us to be afraid when we know something bad is coming. The average person can be conditioned, much like Pavlov’s dog, to expect a certain thing when they hear a certain sound. In the case of fear conditioning, many researchers play a certain tune before administering an electric shock. As the brain starts to associate the tune with the shock, the normal response to the tune is anxiety. Psychopaths’ brains, however, don’t show any change when the song plays. This lack of anxiety over the future and the consequences of their actions can make psychopaths very dangerous criminals.

6. There are warning signs as early as age three

When researchers tested the reactions of a large group of three-year-olds to certain sounds, they expected them to have a measurable reaction when they knew an unpleasant noise was coming up. About 8% of the children didn’t have any reaction even to the bad or frightening sounds. Twenty years after the experiment, researchers found that this 8% had criminal records for crimes ranging in severity from violent to serious driving infractions. This doesn’t mean that all children whose brains don’t register fear the same as others will be criminals, but it does indicate that they are more likely to act criminally and steps should be taken to raise them in a way that helps them stay out of trouble.

7. The rational side and irrational side communicate too much

The corpus callosum is the bridge in the brain that connects the rational left side with the irrational right side. In criminal psychopaths, this bundle of fibers is longer and thinner than in the average person. It also seems to have more activity, meaning more communication between the two hemispheres, than normal. This seems like it could be a good thing, but while a socially normal person’s mind is controlled by the rational side, the increased communication causes psychopaths to be divided between the rational and irrational. This often leads to more impulsive behavior since they have difficulty thinking through the consequences of their actions in a wholly rational way.

8. They’re genetically predisposed to crime

Nature versus nurture has always been a huge debate among criminologists, but there is research to support the idea that many criminal brains are genetically prone to aggressive or illegal behavior. Some criminals are a product of their environments, coming from abusive homes or bad neighborhoods, but a large number of murderers were raised in relatively conflict-free households. The deficits in their brains were a trait they were born with and gave them a higher likelihood of becoming violent criminals. That’s not to say they were forced to commit these crimes, but their brains were more inclined to them than the brains of average humans. It also explains why criminals from loving, wealthy upbringings can commit horrible, violent crimes.

9. Teens’ brains aren’t fully formed yet

Though many teenagers can be tried as adults in the majority of the U.S., their brains aren’t fully developed yet. Reasoning and judgment are now known to mature throughout the teen years and into a person’s 20s. When compared to adults, teenagers are more impulsive, more susceptible to peer pressure, less likely to look at the long-term consequences of their actions, and less able to think of ways out of bad situations. Aggression also peaks in the teenage years, which means that a violent teen may not be a violent adult; they can actually grow out of it. This is one argument many critics use to prove that the death penalty should never be used for teenagers, since it is likely that their brains will develop further.

10. Smoking while pregnant can lead to children with criminal tendencies

When a mother smokes while pregnant, she may be harming her baby’s brain in a way that will make him more likely to become a criminal. Research has shown that the average adult (meaning those who didn’t come from moms with mental illness or experience deprivation) is 31% more likely to have been arrested at some point if their mother smoked while pregnant. Those with heavy smoker moms were also more likely to be repeat offenders. It seems that the nicotine causes abnormalities in the development of attention and impulse control in the brain. The finding held up for both men and women with mothers who smoked, making it just another reason to add to your list of why smoking is bad for you.

*Today’s article is courtesy of the good folks at http://www.criminaljusticedegreesguide.com/

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Thank you all for the kind words yesterday. There were so many wonderful messages coming from all over that there was no way I could begin to answer them all. So I decided to do it here. Forgive me for not sending a personal message to each of you.

This was my first morning in the house, alone, without Pebbles around. So odd, and so empty.

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Forensics Hall of Fame: 10 Forensic Scientists Who Made History

Forensics Hall of Fame: 10 Forensic Scientists Who Made History

If looking for an education as a forensic science technician, there can be many questions. Issues such as program rankings and average salary are all asked by the average student and can often be answered with a simple Google search. But what about the forensic scientists who came before you?

As part of our Forensics Hall of Fame, we have collected 10 forensic scientists who have made history and are organized by earliest to most recent. They include pioneers in the field and even a few who are still practicing and making contributions today. So set aside the Wikipedia entries and have a look at the inspiration for many true life, and even a few fictional, crime solvers, legal experts, and medical scientists.

Roman Quintilian – It’s okay if you’ve never heard of him. Living in the times of Ancient Rome, he was an attorney who was defending a blind man accused of murdering his mother. During the trial, Quintilian used a bloody palm print found at the scene to acquit his client, and therefore became one of the first forensic scientists in history.

Hsi Duan Yu – The author of this work made a significant contribution to forensic science when he or she showed how insects can be used to solve a murder. The title of the work translates to “the washing away of wrongs” and is still read by many forensic scientists today. Written in the 13th century in China, the country also takes credit for being one of the first to utilize fingerprints.

Mathieu Orfila – In 19th century France, he would compose works that would be the foundations for toxicology, an important part of forensic science. His first book “Traité des Poisons,” or “Treatise on Poisons,” propelled the worlds of medicine, chemistry, physiology, and even the legal arena. Like many of his successors, he would often testify during trials and even introduced new methods to detect arsenic.

John Evangelist Purkinje – He was a professor at the University of Breslau in Czechoslovakia and the first to publish a detailed thesis on the usage of fingerprints in forensic science. Purkinje is also credited with identifying nine specific fingerprint patterns that are still taught today. The Biometrics Task Force has much more on the history of fingerprints and other notable scientists who contributed to the field.

Joseph Bell – Those who haven’t heard of him may have heard of his student Arthur Conan Doyle. He is the famous author of the Sherlock Holmes books, and Dr. Bell was the inspiration for the character. A professor of clinical surgery at Edinburgh University, he was able to diagnose patients and guess their professions at first sight. There is even a video with more on the biography of Dr. Bell.

John Larson – Although not admissible in the United States court system, the polygraph machine has been an invaluable tool to forensic scientists since the early 20th century. In 1921, John Larson, a University of California medical student, improved upon an existing polygraph machine to create what is similar to what we use today. Larson invented the machine that uses several different body responses simultaneously when a witness is being questioned to measure truthfulness.

Bernard Spilsbury – He is Britain’s first forensic scientist, who studied the science for 50 years. Sir Spilsbury was known to chronicle every death from the mundane to the extraordinary including asphyxiation, poisoning, accident, and murder. Before his own mysterious death in 1947, he jotted down all the deaths on thousands of index cards, and his holdings were recently made available to the public in the Wellcome Library in London.

Alec Jeffreys – It may be difficult to believe now, but the use of DNA in forensic science is a fairly new practice. It was discovered in 1984 when Jeffreys, who was attempting to find the matching DNA in families, realized that DNA was individual specific and could be used to identify people, not just families. After publishing a paper, his techniques were first implemented in 1986 to prove, you guessed it, paternity. It would also later be used to help convict and overturn convictions when reliable DNA evidence was introduced.

Bill Bass – Ever heard of The Body Farm? Also known as the University of Tennessee’s Anthropology Research Facility, it has been the subject of both fictional and true forensic stories. Dr. Bill Bass is its founder and has written or co-written over 200 publications on the topic. His research has allowed law enforcement officials to better understand the stages of death.

Jan C. Garavaglia – Better known as Dr. G., she actually does have her own television show where the cutting edge in forensic science is shared. She is also the chief medical examiner for the District Nine Office in Florida and even testified in the Casey Anthony case. Check out her official site to learn more about how autopsies work, get videos, and even podcasts by Dr. G herself.

Bonus! Clea Koff – She is one of the pioneers of forensic anthropology, the practice of determining the details of an individual from their skeleton at the time of death such as gender, age, and even cause of death. Her expertise has been used for bringing justice to such heinous acts as the genocides in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Croatia.

– Today’s article by Tara Forten


– Opening photo – Sirchie Fingerprint Laboratories

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