lady luck

 

Each night people from all over the world settle in to watch their favorite television sleuths solve the latest murder. You can’t turn the channel without seeing some sort of well-dressed investigator using fancy tools and equipment that would make the creators of Star Wars and and Star Trek drool with envy.

Shows such as CSI, Law and Order, and House are works of fiction. They’re written for our entertainment, not as research guides. Sure, some of the tools and procedures used on the shows are correct, but they’re often utilized in less-than-real situations. Most of these television shows make many real-life cops, prosecutors, medical examiners, and doctors cringe. I can’t watch any of them. If I want to see real police work in action I watch The Andy Griffith Show, or The First 48. Forensic Files also does a pretty good job of depicting actual law enforcement techniques.

The Andy Griffith Show did a great job of showing the compassionate side of law enforcement officers. They let their audience know that cops are real people, with real emotions, and real everyday problems.

 

The First 48 depicts murder investigations in true form. This is how it’s really done, folks. No fancy tools or equipment, just real detectives doing what they do best – hitting the streets, searching for evidence, knocking on doors, and talking to people.

 

Forensic Files is a very accurate show, portraying real usage of crime-scene tools and equipment. The only drawback is that many police departments do not have access to the equipment that’s used on this show.

Fact v. Fiction

Here are a few examples of what not to believe on television shows about cops and crime scene investigation:

TV – Cops advise suspects of their rights the second they slip a pair of handcuffs on the crook’s wrists.

Fact – Miranda warnings are only read to suspects who are in custody, prior to questioning.

Oops! Wrong Miranda.

TV – Cops fire warning shots.

Fact – False. Officers do not fire warning shots. What goes up must come down.

cat-firing-warning-shotpng2.jpg

TV – Doctors leave the hospital to search a patient’s house looking for clues.

Fact – You can barely get a doctor to check on a patient in their hospital room. They’re certainly not going to someone’s house. (My apologies to Doug Lyle).

 

TV – DNA test results come back in three hours.

Fact – DNA testing normally takes a minimum of three days. More than likely, it will be several weeks before detectives receive the test results.

 

TV – Detectives draw chalk outlines around dead bodies.

Fact – No. Drawing a chalk outline could destroy, or alter, crucial evidence.

No chalk outlines

TV – Cops leave the scene of a crime with lights and sirens going at full blast.

Fact – No. Officers only use lights and siren on the way to emergencies. Leaving a crime scene with the suspect safely cuffed and stuffed in the back seat is not an emergency.

fair.jpg

TV – CSI technicians chase criminals and investigate crimes.

Fact – Although they’re they’re highly-trained experts in their field, many CSI technicians are not sworn police officers. They have no authority to investigate crimes and arrest criminal suspects.

Many CSI technicians are not certified, sworn police officers.

*Please don’t use television as a source for research about police officers. Always contact your local law enforcement officer or other trusted expert in the field for correct information that best suits the needs for your story.

Talk to an actual police officer, not someone whose third cousin was once married to a police officer’s sister’s wife. Unless someone has actually worn the uniform, carried a gun, and actually arrested a criminal, they’re just telling you something they’ve heard, or something they think they may know. After all, when you need information about plumbing, you don’t call an airplane pilot, right?

  1. mnboater
    mnboater says:

    Thank you, thank you for the post–and enlightening us on the few good shows out there. I’ve always bypassed The First 48 Hours and Forensic Files thinking they were like all the others. I’ll give them a try.

  2. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Joyce – I’m waiting for an invitation. 🙂

    Bobby – You know I’m a Barney Fife fan. But, what I said about the show is true.

    Rhonda – It is what it is. 🙂

  3. Rhonda Lane
    Rhonda Lane says:

    Love the photos. Great choices, Lee. Great to see the gang from Mayberry again. And I cracked up at the mad scientists. Plus, Sniper Kitty hits a bullseye.

    And thanks again for telling us like it is.

  4. Bobby M
    Bobby M says:

    Great Post, Lee. I’ve talked with a cop or two and both were very helpful. Niether of them care for CSI. BTW, had to slip in the Andy Griffith show in somehow, huh?

  5. SweetieZ
    SweetieZ says:

    Well, if you stick only to the facts, ma’am , then it is non fiction write ?

    Or, if you are writing as J D Robb, you can really make it all up as it is based in 2059 +. However you then have to deal with some Harlequin Romance mixed in. I still love reading this series.

    I would prefer as factual true as can be, which may mean move it along and use your character plots or crime (which needs to be believable also) to keep the interest.

    Skippin’ spuds along the bay, never told anyone, thought folks would think I was nuts !

  6. Joyce Tremel
    Joyce Tremel says:

    Ramona, being a police secretary is a lot like being a den mother. Most of them act like they’re still 8 years old.

    Lee, if you ever get to Pittsburgh again I’ll have Jerry break out the potato gun for you.

  7. BeckyLevine
    BeckyLevine says:

    The gumbo will be ready. He’s planning an extra big plot, so we can make it a writers’ dinner. A bit of a switch from the usual engineers’ dinners we have around here.

    I figure, if he can design pipes, he can fix ’em! Plus, he’s got this younger plumber-in-training around the house these days.

  8. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Becky – You should mention that the mechanical designer is your husband. By the way, tell that mechanical designer that I’m expecting some of his famous gumbo when I come out there this fall.

  9. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Joyce – I have seen Jim’s videos. They’re hilarious. In fact, on the day he posted the potato cannon video I wrote a bit about my own experiences with one of those spud guns. Here’s what I wrote:

    I haven’t seen a pototao cannon in years. They’re lots of fun to shoot. Your post brought back memories of an odd chain of events that happened during the coal miner’s strike in the Virginia mountains.

    I was in the state police academy doing re-cert training with my narc dog when the first violence erupted. The strike had become a little bit physical, so the state began sending uniformed troopers from all over to quell the violence. A show of force alone was supposed to be effective.

    Upon arrival in the mountains where the strikers had rallied, the troopers were met by bursts of potato-cannon fire coming from all sides. The miners, who were well-hidden by thick woods and brush, were actually blasting away at marked blue and gray units with baseball-size spuds.

    The Potato Platoon didn’t stop there. After the troopers passed by a certain location, the hillbillies loaded the dirt and gravel roadway with jack rocks – large nails/spikes twisted into large jacks (think the game of jacks you played as a child).

    When the troopers attempted to back out of the spudfire they backed over the jacks, flattening their tires.

    Anyway, several of those cannons were confiscated and we got a chance to fire them on the range at the academy. They’re pretty powerful and can actually send a Yukon Gold through a cinder block.

    If anyone would like to see Jim Born’s potato cannon video, here’s the link.
    http://www.nakedauthors.com/archive/2008_02_01_archive.html

  10. ramona
    ramona says:

    This is starting to sound like an Adopt A Cop ad.

    But that show COPS–that’s completely accurate, right? Because it wouldn’t be on TruTV if it was not completely accurate, right?

    Joyce, you crack me up the way you talk about the officers in your township. Sometimes I wonder if you are a police secretary, or a den mother.

  11. Joyce Tremel
    Joyce Tremel says:

    That works unless he’s reaching for his SIG-Sauer P-230 repeatedly. Say what the character is carrying once, then after that just use gun.

    Btw, have you seen Jim Born’s You Tube promos where he’s shooting books? The last one I saw featured a potato cannon. We don’t shoot at books with our potato gun. Just the neighbors.

  12. BeckyLevine
    BeckyLevine says:

    Yes, I’m sure I used police info from TV in my book. BUT…I ran it all by you to make sure it was right! 🙂

    I love this post–I love the details that we have to think about to make sure we get things right. The cool thing is that when you find out a real fact, it often turns out to help with the plot twist you really needed.

    When I need a plumber, I call a mechanical designer. What does that say?

  13. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Jim Born does a really nice job of tucking hard facts into his text without making it sound like he’s teaching a class in the police academy (which he could easily do since he’s a cop).

    By the way, Jim Born will be a guest on The Graveyard Shift as soon as his writing and book tour schedule permits.

    This excerpt is from Jim’s book Field of Fire.

    Looking down at the gym bag, he felt for the SIG-Sauer P-230 pistol he had tucked in between the seats in case of emergency. Really, it was in case of disaster. In an emergency, the six other cops watching him would swoop in and rescue him. If that failed, he might need the little .380 with its eight shots. The last thing he wanted today was a disaster. His first undercover gig since his last disaster. Even though that one had had nothing to do with undercover, or even a fuck-up on his part. He patted the gym bag to reassure himself. It was small scale as far as undercover deals went: five pounds of pot for some supposedly untraceable handguns. But there would be a good payoff. Many times, guns like these were used in homicides. Once they had the firing marks and ballistics, he figured they’d be able to connect one of them to something good. If not, they had a creep willing to trade guns for dope off the street.

  14. Auntieamy71
    Auntieamy71 says:

    One more comment, I swear!

    Terri, it would be completely possible for the character of mixed race you mentioned to have a couple of blue-eyed ancestors. Depending on how far that characters history went back…European explorers (especially the blond haired/blue eyed kid) spread themselves all over the world in the 1600’s, 1700’s and 1800’s.

    Think of Fletcher Christian and Mutiny on the Bounty.

  15. Auntieamy71
    Auntieamy71 says:

    I understand what you mean by not getting your information about cops from a tv show and how you can’t watch cop shows. Boy, your tv must not be on very often! 😉

    I taught high school for 5 years and when the show Boston Public came on, I thought I’d watch it and see how badly it did. Oh My Lord, I never even made it past the intro. I was horrified. Anything of the things shown in that shown would have gotten the teachers fired and arrested in that order.

    And, as irrational as it might sound, I’m one of those people who figure that the police have far more pressing matters to deal with than little ole’ me with my questions. However, now that I’ve read your post, I can see the other side of the arguement. Thanks!

  16. Terry
    Terry says:

    I think I’m willing to suspend some disbelief for a good story. Even writing dialog isn’t real. If we transcribed what people actually said in a conversation, we’d lose the reader at the first, ‘um, well, like, you know…’

    Some time compression seems fair. After all, as Harlan Coben wrote at the beginning of one of his novels…”This is fiction. I get to make stuff up.”

    If I know something is blatantly wrong, it’ll bug me. But if I’m not sure, I’ll usually give the author the benefit of the doubt for the story’s sake. I rarely stop to look things up (although I did Google California restratining orders last night after a scene in a book seemed too easy.) And that’s another caveat. Because you read it in a novel doesn’t make it true, either. And another point — it’ll depend on the book. I’m reading books for a romance contest. Three of them are the short category romances where everything takes a back seat to the romance. However, that’s still no excuse to make up stuff. Even that smattering of b.s. should have a toehold in reality, I think.

    In one of the books, I was more bothered by a character of mixed race (Latina, African American and Filipino, I think) having blue-green eyes than in the liberties she took with what her detective could do on the job. My science background says blue eyes are a recessive trait, and unless there were a couple blue-eyed ancestors, I’m not buying it.

  17. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Totally true, Dave. Real-life stuff is way too boring, so writers have to spice things up to create tension and action. But, I don’t think they should use false information. To me, that slows the reading. For example, when I’m reading an action scene, I certainly don’t want to read about the protagonist flipping off the safety on his Glock, or that he flipped on the switch to his Maglite. That stuff stops me in mid-sentence.

  18. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Terry – I’m for anything that’s realistic. The two things I have problems with are totally false information (you have to stretch things because you’re writing fiction), and factual information that’s forced on a reader, like reading a textbook.

  19. D. Swords
    D. Swords says:

    Here’s a tought, Lee, sort of a counter-intuitive one.

    We all think writer’s should write “like it really is,” but can that go too far? Could the real thing be too boring or to slow, and is the average reader so indoctrinated with TV cop shows that reality would seem, well, unreal?

    Most readers will say they want reality, but do they really? Can a good writer throw in a smattering of b.s. just to make sure things keep moving along?

    What does everyone think?

  20. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Wendy – There’s always a way around something like the time constraints on DNA testing. Everyone in law enforcement (as with any other job) has some pretty good connections who can sometimes move a piece of evidence or two ahead of the mountain that’s waiting to be tested. Same thing with DNA. Unfortunately, DNA can only be rushed so much.

    There are certain steps that must be performed. It’s not a simple matter of tossing a bloody sock in a machine, punch a button, and then wait for some dirtbag’s name to pop up on a computer screen. Doesn’t happen that way. DNA has to be extracted from the sample before the test can even begin. No sooner than two to three days in the best of circumstances. Sorry. Anything quicker is totally unbelievable.

  21. Terry
    Terry says:

    I’m sure you haven’t read my books yet Lee — but I really try to keep things as accurate as I can. There’s always going to be the fiction fudge-factor, though.

    For my first book, I was “lucky” to have a ‘naive citizen heroine’ so my cop could explain how things didn’t work the way she thought. However, when my cop hero was talking to another cop, it was much harder to sneak in the explanations without doing the AYKB bit.

    Would this “pass”?

    “What about Gertie’s clothes? Can’t you use them for DNA or something?”

    Randy smiled. “It’s not quite like television. Pine Hills doesn’t have its own lab, but we could send samples to the state lab if we thought we had something. But they’re busy with murder cases, so a robbery like this one could take a year to process. Plus, nobody has any DNA from Gertie to match it to, so it wouldn’t do us any good. We checked her clothes, but nothing was remarkable enough for us to track down.”

    Or this?

    Randy ran what he had through his head as he went to check on Brody. The key was a start. If they could tie it to the victim. On television, they’d take the key to the lab, stick it in a box, punch a button and in seconds, a computer would spit out what the damn thing unlocked and who owned it. Probably what he’d had for breakfast.

    Why couldn’t it have been a wallet? A nice smooth leather wallet covered with prints and filled with ID.

  22. wendy roberts
    wendy roberts says:

    Great post! I’m lucky to be a member of a great yahoo group that always sets me straight if I’m tempted to use a tv idea 🙂 It’s difficult not to bring those dna test results in sooner because even readers want quick results!

  23. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    I’m curious. How many writers have used information from TV in their books? Come on, be honest. I know you’ve done it because I’ve read your books.

  24. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Sometimes officers may not be willing to help out because they don’t want to say or do something their superiors may not approve of. So, it might be best to schedule a meeting with a chief or sheriff to discuss your project needs and questions. They may even assign someone to help you, and I can guarantee that your questions will be answered if the boss orders it done. You’ll probably get a really nice guided tour of the facility to boot.

    I’m with Elena about the coffee, and that’s especially true about coffee in a sheriff’s office. Sometimes, prisoners do the cooking. Enough said. Oh, it’s great for keeping you awake during the graveyard shift.

  25. Elena
    Elena says:

    Another way to find someone to sit down and chat is to have a few very specific questions ready. Call your local police department, introduce yourself as a writer and say that you have questions in order to portray your police characters accurately.

    I’ve always had a positive response to that approach and have been able to set up an appointment with an officer who not only have answered my questions, but all have gone way beyond.

    They even have offered me coffee, but unless you have experience, and/or a cast iron stomach, I’d advise passing 🙂

  26. D. Swords
    D. Swords says:

    Hi, SweetieZ – A steak dinner at a five star restuarant might be a good idea, too!

    Actually, Terry’s mention of a Citizen’s Police Academy is a great thing for a writer, if your department offers such a thing. It is a course any citizen can take (our local department requires a criminal background check, but hopefully, most writers can pass that) and consists of some of the basics of police procedure.

    It’s really a PR thing, and very effective in that regard. It can also introduce a writer to local officers who can be a resource in later years.

    For someone who lives in a jurisdiction that does not offer such an academy, some departments will allow limited ride-along programs for citizens. Another great way to meet and befriend some local officers.

  27. SweetieZ
    SweetieZ says:

    If you are not in the field, how do you get to sit down and talk to a cop ? Offer them coffee and donuts (delete that) croissants after a shift ?

    Save the kittens !

  28. Terry
    Terry says:

    Buying cops beer helps too, Joyce!

    The tough part is convincing readers your cop characters know what they’re doing when they behave like real cops, not tv cops. I had an edtior tell me if my cop did things a reader thought would be ‘wrong’ I had better explain it.

    Our local Civilian Police Academy has been an invaluable research tool–and fun, too.

  29. Joyce Tremel
    Joyce Tremel says:

    Great post! It’s so easy for writers these days to get the info they need by asking the right person. I’ve actually tossed books out because a writer uses something that’s blatantly incorrect. A writer can stretch things a little for the sake of the story, but she has to get the basics right.

    Even though I’ve worked for a PD for almost ten years, I don’t know everything that goes on because I’m in the station all the time. I’ve only gone to one crime scene–I delivered a camera to the detective because it was on my way home. Besides, it was my brother-in-law’s house. I’ve seen lots of photos and typed lots of reports (about 10,000 a year) and that helps somewhat. The big advantage I have is all I have to do is yell down the hall if I have a question.

    Never be afraid to ask a cop a question. All the ones I work with LOVE to talk. Sometimes it’s hard to get them to shut up!