Mr. "Smith" speaks

Mr. “Smith” served two years in federal prison for committing a minor drug crime. A first offense after maintaining a squeaky clean record his entire life. A crime for which he takes full responsibility and, quite frankly, lives his life in shame because of it. He says it was totally out of character for him. Federal prosecutors, however, thought otherwise.

Here’s his story as told to me.

Mr. X – Sure, I’d heard all the stories of “Bubba” cornering weaker inmates in the shower, forcing them to do God-knows-what. I’d also heard of guards mistreating prisoners, both physically and mentally. I heard talk of horrible food and practically nonexistent medical care. And, of course, we’ve all heard of prison gangs, racial tensions, filthy, crowded living conditions, shot-callers, fighting to survive, stabbings, shanks, chain gangs, rape, and the rampant use of drugs.

I’d conducted quite a bit of online research about “how to survive” in prison. Well, most of those “helpful” hints only served to enhance my already raw nerves. Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect, but I prepared for the worst. What I found was far different than what I’d read and what I’d been told.

Due to the minor nature of my offense and my lack of a criminal history, I was assigned to a federal prison camp out west. To qualify for a camp the inmate must have less than ten years to serve, no history of violence, and no escape attempts at other institutions. So off I go to “camp,” but I certainly wasn’t expecting marshmallow roasts, smores, and ghost stories. Instead, I was expecting the worst.

My first impression of the place was of the climate and setting—extremely hot, a very large sun directly overhead, bare soil, rolling tumbleweeds, and not a tree in sight. And because of the flat land, I could see for miles and miles to the point where the earth met the deep blue sky at the horizon. Oh, and I certainly don’t want to forget to mention the double rows of fencing topped with miles of looping strands of razor wire. It truly looked like hell on earth. My heart sank.

Then we rounded the curve, and I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was like an oasis in the middle of the desert. The camp lawns were lush and green, beautiful shade trees were scattered about, sprinklers spewed cool water on the grass and onto a variety of well-maintained gardens. Plants of all shapes and sizes added splashes of brilliant color to the landscape. The concrete buildings seemed like centerpieces in Oz. What a stark difference between the camp and the main prison, the gloomy place I first saw as I entered the compound.

I made my way up the sidewalk and marveled at the meticulous way four inmates were hard at work pruning an array of gorgeous rosebushes surrounding the office building. I was also amazed that there were no fences, and not a guard in sight. I was shocked to see two prisoners whiz by on a golf cart, scooting along toward the main prison until they were nothing more than a dot on the horizon. Again, I marveled at the fact that they were alone. No guards, meaning they could have puttered away without a soul to stop them.

I went inside. A man wearing a coat and tie, an expensive ensemble, completed by a flashy blue tie and wingtip shoes, was headed outside. He stopped just long enough to pat me on the shoulder and to say, “Good morning, sir.” He must have thought I was an employee instead of a brand new prisoner who was about to self-surrender to begin a very long two-year sentence. I stepped up to the window and was greeted by a slender woman wearing a gray uniform, the standard attire for the officers working for the private company managing the facility.

She smiled and said, “May I help you, sir?”

I figured the smile would vanish once she learned the purpose of my visit. Instead, she remained friendly and chatted with me about everything from rodeos to the kindergarten play her daughter starred in the preceding weekend. A male guard entered the rear door. I knew the niceties were about to end. Again, to my surprise, he was equally as friendly, and even helped me carry my belongings to my new home, a huge dormitory. He introduced me to the officer in charge of the building to which I was assigned, and he introduced me to my new roommate (the dormitory housed over two hundred men, but was divided into two-man cubicles). There were three TV rooms, a laundry room with washers and dryers, a separate section for microwaves, a multipurpose room with ping pong tables and a large TV for watching Friday night movies. The bathroom was divided into separate, enclosed stalls. Same thing for the showers. And the place was spotless. Not a speck of dirt to be seen. I couldn’t believe my eyes. And, it was so quiet you could almost hear a pin drop.

My bed, the bottom tier of a metal bunk bed wasn’t my bed at home, but it was fairly comfortable, and the pillow was large and fluffy. The blankets were white, and looked like someone’s grandmother had crocheted several hundred of them just for the camp. The sheets were clean, crisp, and smelled of fresh laundry detergent.

Before I had time time to unpack and settle in, a few men stopped by to welcome me, and to ask if I played tennis, bocci, soccer, and one even asked if I played a musical instrument. They asked because each of those things were available and the “guys” were always searching for new talent to round out their teams and bands.

After a brief orientation period I was allowed to put in a request for one of the many jobs available on the compound. I had an assortment to choose from and I was eager to do so since the staff picks for you if you don’t select something. And I didn’t want to get stuck washing dishes or picking up trash. So I signed up to work in the gardens, and within a couple of days I was summoned to the office for an interview with the person in charge of the horticulture program. He hired me on the spot, saying that I’d earn 12 cents per hour with the opportunity to earn small bonuses along the way.

Soon, for less than a dollar a day, I was busy planting and tending to flowers, pruning shrubs, managing a couple of greenhouses, and, it wasn’t long before I was assigned to making fresh flower arrangements for all the prison offices. I also was tasked with delivering my creations to both the camp staff offices and to the main prison, which meant I was given the freedom of traveling, via golf cart, up the road to make my deliveries. Those short jaunts were like a breath of fresh air. I almost felt free again.

I joined four bands, playing bass guitar in a mariachi band, drums in a classic rock band and a gospel/church group, and bass guitar in an extremely good jazz band. The talent in that place was amazing. I also spent a good deal of down time reading every book I could get my hands on. Well, reading for pleasure came second to studying for college courses in business and horticulture. I’d developed quite a knack for gardening and wanted to expand my knowledge as much as possible. In fact, the warden asked me to design and re-landscape the areas around the camp entrance to make the place more appealing to visitors.

I’d lost a lot of weight during my time there in the camp. Actually, I’d gotten into the best shape I’d been in since my high school days. I was up to walking 10 miles around the track, and I could do pushups until the cows came home. I felt good and, since I had access to all the vegetables and fruit I could get my hands on, I ate well, and I ate as much as I wanted. After all, we raised nearly everything under the sun in our gardens, from fresh strawberries to tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, asparagus, and melons.

Sure, camp life was okay, if you had to be in prison, that is. It certainly wasn’t Alcatraz. But not a minute went by when I wasn’t thinking of my family and what I’d done to them and to my life. I had it pretty easy for those 24 months. Back at home, though, my wife was struggling to survive on her meager income. Three kids in school, a mortgage, car payments, summer camps for the children, karate classes, dance, piano, and, well, you get the idea. While I was busy picking strawberries and sitting in the shade snacking on cool watermelon, my poor wife was heading off to work the second of two part-time jobs cleaning houses and waitressing, just so she could keep the lights on. All that, of course, came after working her full-time job as an administrative assistant for a loan company.

I knew she was struggling, yet she never failed to send me $20 each week so I could purchase a few treats, such as ice cream, cookies, and batteries for my radio.

Sure, I was in prison, but she was the one doing all the suffering, and I’ll never forget it. Never.




*By the way, SouthLAnd was given high praise in the Chicago Tribune yesterday. I, and The Graveyard Shift shift were also mentioned in the article. Please take a moment to read the article (click the link below) and while there, show your love for The Graveyard Shift and SouthLAnd by posting a comment. Thanks!

Chicago Tribune SouthLAnd article

Keep safe walking home

If you’re forced to walk home at night, one of the best and most effective ways of ensuring that you reach your destination safely is to have a companion along for the journey. Assailants tend to strike single targets, rather than couples or small groups that can be more difficult for them to successfully subdue on their own. While men should certainly be cautious when they’re walking home at night, it’s especially important for women to understand the dangers of walking alone at night and to be aware of the best ways to reduce their chances of being the victim of violent crime.

Project Confidence

When you’re walking, make sure that you take a well-known and familiar route so you don’t look confused or lost, and that you project plenty of confidence along the way. Violent criminals target potential victims that appear vulnerable, and may choose not to engage with a woman who projects an air of strength and seems to know exactly where she’s going. If you’re so nervous about walking home that you don’t feel you’d be able to project that self-assurance, it may be smarter to opt for mass transit or even spring for a taxi, rather than anxiously making the trek back home.

Avoid Dark Areas

It may seem like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised at how easily some people can be tempted into taking a shortcut through an alley or walking across a dark parking lot to shorten their journey back home. Whether you’re alone or in a group, it’s best to restrict your route to well-lit areas, always try to stay under streetlights and never duck into a shadowy area simply because it will shorten your walk. Attackers want as much seclusion as they can get to lower their chances of being spotted by passersby. If you’re hidden in the shadows with someone who has dangerous intentions, you may not be able to safely attract the attention of anyone passing by.

Wear Sensible Shoes

No matter how excited you are to wear your brand new heels, you should avoid them if you know you’ll be walking home after dark. If you’re insistent upon wearing fashionable but less-than-sensible footwear for an evening out on the town, be sure that you stash a pair of ballet flats into your bag to wear as you walk home. Should you need to outrun a potential attacker, you’ll have far better chances escaping if you’re not wearing precariously high heels that increase your risk of falling, twisting an ankle or just being slowed down dramatically by your lack of balance.

Be Aware of Your Surroundings

When you’re projecting confidence on your way down the street, don’t be so confident that you pop in a pair of earbuds and ignore everything around you. A long walk might be more enjoyable if you’re able to listen to your favorite songs, but it will also make you less likely to hear someone approaching and can distract you enough that you don’t notice a threatening figure until it’s too late. Don’t allow yourself to be distracted so that you’re never unpleasantly surprised.

Keep Your Cell Phone Charged

Talking on your cell phone as you make your way home may seem like an effective way to discourage an attacker, but it can actually distract you enough that you don’t notice their approach. Taking advantage of someone is easier when they’re distracted, so make sure that you have your phone charged and readily available, but don’t spend your walk home chattering away. You should make sure that it’s within a moment’s reach, however, so that you can quickly dial for help if you spot something suspicious.

Carry a Deterrent

Non-violent deterrents like pepper spray or mace can buy you enough time to successfully evade a would-be attacker and seek help, and as such are great tools to keep on hand if you frequently walk home alone. Be sure before purchasing a canister of mace or pepper spray, however, that it’s compliant with all state and local laws. The maximum concentration legally allowable can vary from one state or city to another, so you’ll need to double check before heading out of the house with a deterrent that it isn’t illegal in your area.

Today’s article courtesy of

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Well, it’s that time of the year again, when we begin the countdown to the start of the Writers’ Police Academy. As usual, we’ve outdone ourselves by planning the largest, most exciting WPA ever. I didn’t think that was possible, but we did it.

As they say, we have all our ducks in a row. Speakers and instructors are lined up. The updated WPA website is well underway and should be available for all to see within a couple of weeks. Registration, if all goes as planned, should open in mid-February. And best of all, Sisters in Crime is once again paying well over half of the cost of their members’ registration fees. Not a member? No, problem. Simply join SinC and you’ll instantly receive their generous discounted WPA registration.

*Due to the popularity of the WPA, space for the 2013 event is extremely limited. So please watch for the opening of registration. This one is not to be missed!

To kick things off this year, we’re running a super-easy contest, and here’s how it goes. The first person to guess the name of the 2013 WPA keynote speaker wins a free FATS session (Firearms Simulator Training). I’ll post clues each day, starting today, until Monday when I’ll reveal the names of the winner and of the keynote speaker. You must, however, send your guess to me via email at Please DO NOT post the name on this website!! We want to give everyone a shot at this.

So here goes, and good luck!

The first three clues are:

Clue #1 – One of his/her books was made into a mid-90’s TV movie.

#2 – He/she sold his/her first book at the ripe old age of 20.

#3 – This superstar author used to work in the food service industry.

*Remember, send your guess to me at DO NOT post your answer in the comments section of this blog!  Doing so will automatically disqualify your entry.

The first correct answer receives the free FATS session at the 2013 WPA. The session is for the winner of this contest only, and is not transferable. There is no redeemable cash value.

Rev. John Harth

Rev. John Harth is pastor of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, Jackson, MO. He has been a law enforcement/emergency services chaplain for over 25 years and currently serves several Missouri agencies: State Highway Patrol; Cape Girardeau, Bollinger, and Scott County Sheriff’s Offices; Jackson, Cape Girardeau, and Kelso Police Departments; Jackson Fire/Rescue; and the Cape Girardeau County Emergency Management Agency.

Recently, Judge Bill Hopkins interviewed Fr. Harth about his experiences as a chaplain.

Q: How and why did you become interested in being a chaplain for police, fire, and emergency personnel?

While serving in my first assignment at St. Mary Parish, Joplin, Missouri, I saw a newspaper article about the Joplin Police Department’s chaplain program. Having served as a police beat reporter and a special deputy sheriff, I thought, “I could to that.” I applied and was accepted in December of 1987.

Q: This article explains how one police officer needed someone to talk to. What struck me was that you and the officer visited the crime scene later. Explain how that can help a public servant overcome a trauma.

A: The officer involved was taken aback by the cold-hearted nature of the crime and felt a need to be able to talk it through. He’s the one who suggested we go to the scene, both so that he could explain to me the circumstances of the death and give me a clearer picture of what he’d met and what reactions that prompted in him. I have since received training in Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM), which provides a means to walk through an event to assist the officer in meeting the situation and moving along in a proper fashion.

Q: Have you ever had unexpected confrontations with suspected criminals that turned out differently than you expected?

A: The bulk of my chaplaincy has been with officers and other department personnel. As a priest, I am occasionally called upon to visit someone in jail. Among those few visits the accused have for the most part admitted to their crimes and sought forgiveness. In one case, an accused murderer avoided talking with me about why he was incarcerated and spoke mostly of his family.

Q: What has been the strangest thing that’s ever happened to you as a chaplain?

A: That’s hard to answer. What some folks would find strange to me are part and parcel of chaplaincy. As those involved in emergency services would tell you, you come to expect the unexpected. Nothing comes immediately to mind.

Q: Another chilling article was about the scene in Joplin, Missouri after the tornado in 2011. Explain the most useful things a chaplain would do in such a situation.

A: The answer to that question would need to come from the front-line, first responder chaplains. Those men and women moved from the profound depth of conversations with police/fire/ambulance and rescue personnel describing the horror which they encountered and trying to move through it to simply passing out water and a kind word to those same workers. One chaplain was assigned to remain with a corpse for what turned out to be hours before removal and later did duty at the morgue. By the time of my arrival, operations were being reduced and only local chaplains remained. Part of my mission was to be there for them, hoping to accomplish a little stress management for them. It amused me that about the time I was to return home, they caught on to what I was up to.

Q: The article talks about the unsung heroes–dispatchers. Without excellent dispatchers, a department can quickly fall apart. You said, “I have been especially touched when dispatchers come to take part in Critical Incident Stress Management defusings and debriefings following traumatic incidents. It shows not only that they’re human but also that they care about officers and victims.” Tell us about how dispatchers can affect a situation and also about Critical Incident Stress Management.

A: If a dispatcher messes up, a situation can go south in a heartbeat. Their professionalism and skills are the lifeline for those sent to a scene, and sometimes they don’t end up hearing “the rest of the story.” They care, and so chaplains try to make it a point to visit with them after a critical incident, not only to hear about matters from their perspective, but also to fill them in if they aren’t sure how things ended.

CISM is a process designed to help those involved in these situations to clarify for themselves what went on, is going on with them, and offer suggestions to secure their proper balance. If circumstances such as nightmares, sleep deprivation, lack of appetite, or other symptoms continue, they are encouraged to move on to the next level of care and seek counseling/professional help.

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Bill Hopkins is retired after beginning his legal career in 1971 and serving as a private attorney, prosecuting attorney, an administrative law judge, and a trial court judge, all in Missouri. His poems, short stories, and non-fiction have appeared in many different publications. He’s had several short plays produced. A book of collected poetry, Moving Into Forever, is available on Amazon. Bill is a member of Mystery Writers of America, Dramatists Guild, Horror Writers Association, Missouri Writers Guild, and Sisters In Crime. Bill is also a photographer who has sold work in the United States, Canada, and Europe. He and his wife, Sharon (a mortgage banker who is also a published writer), live in Marble Hill, Missouri, with their dogs and cat. Besides writing, Bill and Sharon are involved in collecting and restoring Camaros. Courting Murder is his first mystery novel.

Courting Murder by Bill Hopkins

When Judge Rosswell Carew makes the gruesome discovery of two corpses on a riverbank in the Missouri Ozarks, he’s plunged into a storm of deadly secrets that threaten both him and his fiancée, Tina Parkmore. Unsatisfied with the way the authorities are conducting the investigation, Rosswell, who’s always nurtured a secret desire to be a detective, teams up with an ex-con, Ollie Groton, to solve the case before the killer can murder again. Rosswell uncovers a maze of crimes so tangled that he must fight his way to a solution or die trying.

Josh Moulin: before blue lights

In my previous blog, The Importance of Traffic Stops, I discussed some of the reasons why law enforcement conducts traffic stops and provided some real-life examples from my career. In this blog I am going to talk about the mechanics of traffic stops and the decision process an officer goes through before ever turning on the emergency lights.

Before ever conducting a traffic stop, an officer must be intimately familiar with their traffic codes, to the point of memorizing them. An officer has to know what is and is not a violation before pulling someone over and that information comes from the traffic law. Officers must also keep up with the ever-changing case law as it relates to traffic-related enforcement and searches. Beyond legal requirements, officers must know their beat and jurisdiction like the back of their hand. If a simple traffic violation becomes a pursuit, the officer must know where to direct other units, how to create a perimeter, and anticipate the offenders next move. Officers must also know where large parking lots are, where roads widen and narrow, and where people congregate. The last thing an officer wants to do is pull over a stolen car or dangerous felon in a school parking lot.

Once an officer finds either probable cause or reasonable suspicion to stop a vehicle, the officer must first decide if they want to take action. An officer has discretion on what to enforce and what not to enforce and officers always notice violations that they don’t take action on. For example, an officer assigned to DUII enforcement that notices a family driving through town that appears lost and failed to signal a turn is most likely not going to stop them. On the other hand, the driver that is traveling ten miles per hour under the posted speed limit and driving without headlights at night is guaranteed to meet the DUII officer very quickly.

As soon as the officer decides they are going to initiate a traffic stop, the officer has to decide whether they want to immediately stop the car, or watch it for a while. Sometimes watching a vehicle to gather additional evidence is advisable as long as it is not putting the general public in further harm. An officer may also need to overtake the vehicle and do so in a manner that the driver does not realize they are about to get pulled over. The element of surprise is very advantageous to the officer; the more time the driver has to think, the more time they may have to plan an assault against the officer. On occasion I have had people just pull over as soon as they saw me either turn around, or pull out of the area I was sitting. They knew they were guilty and they weren’t going to make me chase them down. I always appreciated that and was a little less worried about those individuals than the ones who immediately increased their speed as soon as they noticed me notice them.

The emergency lights have still not been activated yet as there are more decisions to make. The officer must determine where they want the car to stop. Obviously the officer has no control over this, but they will try to wait until the vehicle is in a safe place to conduct a traffic stop. This is generally not on the top of an overpass or in the middle of an “s” curve, but somewhere that provides the officer and violator plenty of room to pull over safely and be out of traffic. This is not always possible and sometimes violators will travel a long distance before they notice the police car behind them, especially with all the distractions like cell phones, iPods, loud stereos, and passengers.

Now that the officer has decided to take enforcement action and is close enough to the vehicle to read the license plate, the officer must pre-plan where the traffic stop will occur and radio in the stop to the dispatch center. I always told dispatch where my stop was going to be before I ever turned on my lights. That way, if things went immediately bad, at least dispatch knew where I was generally. I knew some officers that would pull over a vehicle, make contact with the violator, and then notify dispatch they were on a stop. This is extremely poor officer safety skills; if anything happened to that officer before they radioed out on the stop who knows how long it would take to find them.

                                          Typical dispatch center console

Each jurisdiction is a little different, but for me my radio transmission would be something like this:

Me: “519 traffic stop.” (519 was one of my radio identifiers. Radio ID’s or call signs could be another blog post all its own)

Dispatch: “519.”

Me: “519, Oregon Adam Baker Charles One Two Three, East Main and Mountain.” (This is the state the vehicle is registered to, license plate of the vehicle in phonetics, and the location and cross street of my stop).

Dispatch: “Copy 519.”

At this point, dispatch would be running the license plate as fast as they could to see if there were any officer safety alerts about the vehicle (stolen car, stolen plates, other alerts) and they would also run a check automatically on the registered owner of the vehicle since it is most likely the driver. No news was good news from dispatch on this check and dispatch is trained to leave the officer alone for the first few minutes of the stop. (Side note – If dispatch doesn’t hear anything from the officer within five minutes of the stop they begin to do status checks. If the officer doesn’t answer the status checks, backup officers are sent to check on the officer). If I heard dispatch calling me within one or two minutes, I knew something was wrong with the vehicle or registered owner. Sometimes this message wouldn’t get to me though until I already had the car pulled over.

                 Officer calling into dispatch on their mobile radio

As soon as I radioed in the plate and my location I was ready to turn on my emergency lights. I would activate all of the necessary switches and if at night, would turn on my takedown lights (forward facing white lights on lightbar) and my spotlight as the car was stopping. Notice I never mentioned the siren. Contrary to many shows and movies, an officer doesn’t turn on the siren right away and usually only if the vehicle is failing to yield to the officer. Proper lighting at night allows an officer to see into the vehicle better and blinds the vehicle occupants so they don’t know where the officer is standing.

Once the lights are activated, this becomes the most critical time in the stop. The reaction of the driver is completely unpredictable and the officer must be ready for anything. Will the driver speed up and the chase is on? Will they immediately slam on their brakes and stay in the middle of the road? Will they drive for the next two miles and not even notice the police car even with the siren on? Or, will they calmly pull over to the right and stop? I’ve had every one of these scenarios happen to me. The officer has to be prepared for anything. If the stop actually ends up far away from the original location, the officer should immediately notify dispatch of their updated location.

As the car begins pulling over and slowing down the officer should be getting ready to exit the patrol car as fast as possible. The driver’s seat of a patrol car is called the “coffin” during a traffic stop and no officer should ever sit in the driver’s seat during a stop. It was my practice to take off my seatbelt once we hit ten miles per hour and at five miles per hour I had my hand on the drivers door handle. As soon as we stopped I could position my car, put it in park, set the parking brake, hit the door unlock button and be outside the vehicle all in one smooth motion. If the driver jumped out and started shooting at me or charging me, I was immediately able to protect myself.

Now that the car is stopped things get more serious. At night, I would always pause and watch what is going on. Sometimes I would walk all the way around the trunk of my car and stand on the passenger side and just watch the occupants if I was worried about something. I also did this so I never crossed in front of my headlights or takedown lights, giving the vehicle occupants an idea of where I was. I have had everything from people jumping out of the car and running, drugs being thrown out windows, and people coming out of the car and physically fighting me. I also knew whether or not my offender was “well versed” in police procedure if as soon as the car stopped everyone inside had his or her hands up. If I felt uncomfortable about a traffic stop, I would request a backup unit on the radio.

While I approached the vehicle, my hand was always on my weapon. I wore a triple-retention holster for my Glock model 22, meaning it took three steps to unholster the gun. As I walked up, I always released one of the safety mechanisms so I could draw faster, but it was still relatively safe from getting taken in the event I got into a physical fight with an occupant. My favorite way to approach a vehicle was from the passenger side. In the daytime the vehicle occupants can watch the officer approach the car which is much more dangerous. At night I would try and sneak up on the driver and could usually watch the driver for a few seconds from the passenger window until I knocked on it to get their attention. On several occasions I saw people hiding drugs, guns, and other evidence while they were waiting for me to get up to the vehicle, not knowing I was already there. I also liked mixing it up a bit. I would first approach the passenger side, get their license, registration, and insurance; then after I checked those with dispatch back at my car, I would walk up to the driver’s side. This time I could get a better look at their eyes and could smell them and the vehicle better for things like alcohol and drugs.

This is the style of holster I wore – a level III retention for the Glock with the tactical light attached.

If I returned to my patrol car for any reason during the stop I would stand behind my passenger door to give me some cover. This way I could watch the vehicle while checking for warrants on the vehicle’s occupants and/or while I was writing a citation or waiting for a cover unit. Another option is to get away from the patrol car and take cover behind an object nearby, such as a tree or other barrier.

At the conclusion of my stop I would provide the driver with their information back and either issue the citation or give them a warning. It was always my rule to give a ticket or a lecture, but never both and I always treated offenders with complete dignity and respect. When I walked back to my vehicle after releasing the driver, I would always look over my shoulder while walking back to my car in case the driver or other occupants tried to get out. I would get back in my car and wait for the driver to get back on the road and never drive past the driver, especially if they were extremely upset. This way the driver could not shoot at me while I drove past them. I would advise dispatch that I was clear of the traffic stop and go on my way.

The above scenario is a typical “unknown-risk” traffic stop. A high-risk traffic stop has a few more moving parts and requires some additional tactical planning.

A high-risk traffic stop is used for a variety of reasons, most of which involve the driver being suspected of committing a felony. High-risk stops are most commonly used when stopping stolen vehicles, vehicles occupied by individuals who are wanted for committing a dangerous crime, or at the conclusion of a pursuit. High-risk stops should always be done by at least two officers and preferably with three or more.

When an officer determines they are going to initiate a high-risk traffic stop, the best practice is to follow the suspect vehicle until at least one or two more backup units are behind the first police vehicle. This may mean that the lead officer is following the suspect car as the other units are traveling code-3 (lights and siren) to catch up. The responding back-up officers will make sure to turn off all lights and siren way before the suspect vehicle could see or hear them coming up behind.

The lead officer will announce where the stop is going to take place (again, hoping for the driver’s cooperation) and also let dispatch know they are conducting a high-risk (sometimes referred to as a felony) stop. High-risk stops should be made in large unpopulated areas if possible to minimize collateral damage if shooting takes place. When all of the units are ready, they will activate their lights. If personnel exist to do so, a unit will find a way to block traffic in front of the stop, but out of bullet range so bystanders aren’t driving through the stop.

The radio traffic would be similar to this:

Me: “519, units will be initiating a high-risk traffic stop at 8th and Lincoln, clear the channel.”

Dispatch: “Copy 519. All units, all units, 519 and units are out on a high-risk traffic stop at 8th and Lincoln, channel is emergency traffic only.”

Clearing the channel means that only those involved in the serious emergency can talk on the channel and other units not involved must go to a secondary channel for normal business.

The units would have coordinated on the radio who was going to do what. For example, the lead officer will direct one unit to either come up next to the lead officer’s vehicle at the stop (called a fanning stop) or pull in behind the first car (called a stacked stop). Officers have certain duties and places to stand during a high-risk stop that is drilled into them during training.

                                    Typical fanning approach to a traffic stop

All officers will have their guns drawn and pointed in a “low ready” position toward the vehicle. Some officer may have their handguns and some may have shotguns or rifles. Usually the lead officer will begin giving the vehicle verbal commands either by yelling or using a PA system. Typical commands including “This is the ABC police department, everyone put your hands up.” Commands would continue to have the driver turn off the car, give the driver instructions on what to do with the keys, and then bring each person out one-by-one. After the last know person is out of the car the officers will “challenge” the vehicle again, assuming that someone is hiding in the car. The officers will then advance on the vehicle and search it inside as well as in the trunk for any other suspects.

Hopefully these blogs have been useful and shown that a traffic stop is much more than just driving up behind a vehicle and turning on the emergency lights. Officers not only have to worry about the vehicle occupants, but also about other traffic. In 2011, eleven law enforcement officers were killed in the line of duty from being struck by a vehicle and 140 officers have lost their lives to this in the past ten years.

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Josh Moulin

Josh has a long history of public service, beginning in 1993 as a Firefighter and EMT. After eight years of various assignments, Josh left the fire service with the rank of Lieutenant when he was hired as a police officer.

Josh spent the next eleven years in law enforcement working various assignments. Josh worked as a patrol officer, field training officer, arson investigator, detective, forensic computer examiner, sergeant, lieutenant, and task force commander.

The last seven years of Josh’s law enforcement career was spent as the commander of a regional, multi-jurisdictional, federal cyber crime task force. Josh oversaw cyber crime investigations and digital forensic examinations for over 50 local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies. Under Josh’s leadership, the forensics lab was accredited by the American Society of Crime Lab Directors / Laboratory Accreditation Board (ASCLD/LAB) in 2009.

Josh has been recognized as a national expert in the field of digital evidence and cyber crime and frequently speaks across the nation on various topics. He has testified as an expert witness in digital forensics and cyber crime in both state and federal court on several occasions. He also holds a variety of digital forensic and law enforcement certifications, has an associate’s degree and graduated summa cum laude with his bachelor’s degree.

In 2012 Josh left law enforcement to pursue a full-time career in cyber security, incident response, and forensics supporting a federal agency. Josh now leads the Monitor and Control Team of a Cyber Security Office and his team is responsible for daily cyber security operations such as; incident response, digital forensics, network monitoring, log review, network perimeter protection, and firewall management.

Rick McMahan

As I sit here the day after a heinous act of violence happened in Connecticut, I am still trying to wrap my head around the fact that someone would target young children.  This blog is usually about cops and criminal procedure. Our make belief world of murder and mayhem has been swamped in a tide of terror that isn’t make belief. That isn’t entertainment. That isn’t easy to put aside. 26 people were massacred at a place once thought safe and sacred—an elementary school.

Like everyone else, I’m sure, we all are reading and seeing this event unfold with heavy hearts and even tears in our eyes. Like other cops, when you watch the news, your mind is filtered with your experience and training, so, I found myself focusing on the first responders. Maybe I was trying to look and evaluate based on my professional experience in hopes that this mind game would distract me from a full realization of the evil that had been wrought. If so, I was wrong. My heart broke with each image. Still I focused on the first images of the first responders at the Sandy Hook elementary school.

I wondered why there were so many firemen at the scene. So many trucks, so many of them so quickly in their red shiny trucks and polished helmets and cleaned up turnout gear. Only later, did I learn that this fire station was literally around the corner from this school, and that the firemen were suppose to be selling Christmas trees that evening to raise money.  When I learned that the Sandy Hook was the neighbor of the firehouse, I knew, just KNEW, those firemen knew those kids faces and many by name. I’m sure that with a fire station so close it was an easy trek over, or just a phone call got the shiny truck and smiling firemen to talk to the kids. Those firemen personally knew most of those tiny victims.  Those men and women were watching “their” school wrecked by horror.

Then I saw the ambulances and EMTs. Most of their machines were silent, and there was no frantic rushing around.  I imagine that all of those EMTS wish they could be trying to save lives and not just stand there aching and silent.  If the EMTS are tending people there’s hope of life. They were still, and this told me it was beyond awful in that school.

And of course, there were my brothers and sisters in blue. Oh so many cops came. Uniformed officers, plainclothes. State, local and federal.  Cops with guns drawn moving through the parking lot and the school looking for evil, hunting for people to save. Cops leading lines of little kids out of the school to safety.  A state Trooper holding the hand of a child, the child swaddled in a police jacket. An image of a cop from my own agency in his bullet proof vest, gripping an M4 and a stern set of his jaw as he leads a man and a child down the road.  I don’t know that agent, but the look on his face seemed to say, “No one, no one will harm this child.”  His face was set in a hard line like he was trying to clench his teeth until they cracked.  On TV he looked menacing, but I bet his face belied the pain in his gut and the clenched teeth were to hold back tears.

I’m sure every cop at that school had lines running through their head—

“God, I wish I could have gotten here sooner. I wish I had traffic stopped this guy before he got here and he and I had it out on a roadside. But not here.”

“I wish I could have been here to take a report or to drop off a ham when this guy came.”

“I wish today could have been show and tell with my K-9?”

A cop’s life is full of unfulfilled “I wishes.” We’re not super heroes or have a bravado that we think we’re invincible. On the doors of our patrol cars it says “To Protect and Serve.” That’s not a saying, it’s a belief we hold in our heart.  All of those cops wish they could have been there to protect those teachers and those children. I know to a man and woman that if asked, they would, without hesitation say they would go back and be at that front door and confront that gunman, no questions asked. Knowing full well they might not make it out, every cop would take that chance in the hopes of stopping evil, even if it meant giving up their own life to do so.

Like I said, a cop’s life is full of unfulfilled “I wishes.”

All first responders’ professional lives are full of unfulfilled “I wishes.”

We don’t always get to do what we want to do. But we still have to serve. We do what we can.

The EMTS couldn’t save lives. They took their stretchers with such small burdens and kept the lost ones company on their last ride.  The firefighters weren’t letting smiling kids wear their helmets and sit in the big red trucks. Instead, they offered their home to the families of those children, giving them a place to grieve.

Instead of protecting innocence, the cops in Newtown were left to document terror. They were left to photographed and diagram a crime scene in a place that should never have crime scene tape hung. Their bullet proof vests and guns were of no use. Those stern looking cops who tightly held machineguns now tenderly grip little hands as they walk kids to their loved ones. The cops not knowing how to answer the little one’s questions.  Those cops’ badges and uniforms and even their dark sunglasses couldn’t shield them as they looked into the expectant faces of parents knowing they were issuing a life altering words, even as they opened their mouths and uttered the horrible words.  Those cops spoke soft words and watched as hope fled peoples’ faces to be replaced by a pain no one should feel. The cops could only watch as mother’s world imploded or as a grown man openly wept and collapsed. They cops couldn’t protect. All they could do was serve. Do their duty. And ache.

As a cop and a father, my heart breaks at every image I see of the people terror stricken and overcome with grief as they learn they lost their young angel. I see the dumbfound expressions of ordinary citizens aching for their friends and neighbors and the look of ‘why would anyone do this’ and why would this happen—and in my head it echoes the same.

You’ve read my ramblings. I don’t know if it says much about cops and crime fiction. It does say a lot about evil that visits our world every day in large and small ways and the men and women who see it up close. And it says a lot about victims and families.

Now, go find someone you love.

Hug them.

Hug them tight and keep them close.

Tell them you love them.

God Bless.

*     *     *

ATF Special Agent Rick McMahan

Rick McMahan is a special agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The year 2012 marks his twentieth in law enforcement. Rick’s work wakes him to counties across central and southeastern Kentucky, including Bell County, the area featured in “Moonshiner’s Lament.” His mystery stories have appeared in various publications, including the Mystery Writers of America anthology Death Do Us Part. He also has a story in the International Association of Crime Writers’ forthcoming collection of crime fiction from around the world. In his free time, Rick enjoys writing, and he’s had short stories appear in anthologies such as Techno Noire, Low Down & Derby and the Mystery Writers of America’s Death Do Us Part edited by Harlan Coben.

Josh Moulin: Traffic Stops

Throughout my law enforcement career I made thousands of traffic stops.  Although the words “routine traffic stop” are commonly used in the media, I can say without hesitation that there is nothing routine about a traffic stop. Traffic stops are an extremely effective tool for law enforcement in a variety of situations, but also one of the most dangerous aspects of an officer’s job.  Most of my traffic stops were never an issue, however during my career I was assaulted during a traffic stop, had to use physical force on several of them, and came the closest ever to using lethal force during a traffic stop.

Traffic stops fall into one of two categories: high-risk and unknown-risk, and each are approached differently.  From an outside perspective traffic stops seem relatively simple; get behind the violator, turn on the emergency lights, and make contact with the driver.  In reality, a tactically sound officer must make multiple split-second decisions before ever turning on the emergency lights.

Traffic stops are used by law enforcement for much more than catching speeders on the freeway.  Some of the most common uses of traffic stops include:

*  DUII enforcement

*  Criminal investigations

*  Traffic enforcement

*  Interdiction stops

Depending on the size and composition of a law enforcement agency, they may or may not have a dedicated traffic division.  Police officers assigned to a traffic division are usually on motorcycles or specialized police vehicles that may be marked or unmarked and equipped with moving and handheld radar systems, in-car video systems, and e-citation equipment.  The mission of a traffic unit is to reduce traffic related injuries and deaths by the enforcement of traffic laws.  Traffic officers usually do not get assigned traditional “cases” or investigations with the exception of traffic related crime reports including hit and run, vehicular assaults and deaths, and DUII. Some law enforcement agencies are almost completely traffic oriented, such as a highway patrol office where nearly all of their officers are assigned to traffic enforcement.


Police motorcycle, radar control head in center of console above

Traffic stops are not just limited to officers who are part of a traffic team though.  Officers assigned to regular patrol use traffic stops to also enforce traffic laws as well finding DUII drivers, wanted individuals, or to show police presence in a particular area.  Often, agencies may assign “saturation patrols” to an area that is having crime problems and one aspect of the patrol will be to stop everything moving in that area that can be lawfully stopped.

When I was a brand new officer, I thoroughly enjoyed traffic enforcement and would generally make between 20 and 30 traffic stops per shift and issue around 15 to 20 citations per day.  Using radar/lidar and watching for people running red lights were some of my favorite things to do early in my career.  My agency did have a dedicated traffic team, but on day shift there wasn’t much else to do and often traffic stops led to other, more exciting things (more on this later).

After working my first three months of day shift, I realized I preferred working the graveyard shift and spent the remainder of my patrol career working nights.  I quickly learned that traffic stops at night were much more complex than the daytime and done for an entirely different reason.  Daytime traffic enforcement lends itself well to catching speeders, people that aren’t wearing their seatbelt, and other traffic violations.  It also gives the officer a good view into the vehicle to see the number of occupants and identify the driver.  There were certain “regulars” that I knew had a suspended drivers license so when I saw them behind the wheel it was automatic probable cause (PC) to stop the vehicle.  This was also true for seeing people that have warrants for their arrest.

Night traffic enforcement on the other hand was completely different.  Sure, people still sped and ran red lights, but I didn’t spend my shift sitting and waiting for those to occur.  The graveyard shift was home to a different clientele and one that demanded my full attention.  At night an officer cannot see into the vehicle and it is difficult to see whether or not someone is wearing his or her seatbelt.  Nighttime though brings equipment violations such as inoperable lighting that aren’t available during the day.  As a young officer on graveyard, I played the numbers game.  I would stop as many vehicles as I could in hopes that statistically I could find something bigger, something criminal.  I was less interested in issuing citations and more interested in getting the truly bad people off the streets and traffic enforcement was a great excuse to chat with people and get a look inside their car.  I can’t tell you the number of times I stopped a vehicle for an inoperable license plate light and ended up with a major arrest.


Night stop – notice the curtain of light used by the officer

As I began to get more seasoned and found out what to look for, the number of traffic stops I made reduced greatly as my arrests increased.  I would generally make three or four traffic stops per hour, but almost every one would result in an arrest or criminal investigation.  I also learned patience.  When I would see an unoccupied stolen vehicle or vehicles in front of a bar near closing time, I would sit and wait for those vehicles to go mobile.  As soon as they did I found PC to stop the vehicle and I got my arrest.  This is where my traffic stop focus went from traffic enforcement to a criminal investigation.

An officer has the legal authority to stop a vehicle when he or she believes they have probable cause (PC) that a crime has happened, is happening, or is about to happen or has reasonable suspicion that the driver has committed a traffic violation.  PC and reasonable suspicion are two important legal terms and mean two completely different things (which could be a blog post in itself).  There are also exceptions to the fourth amendment of the U.S. Constitution when it comes to searching vehicles for evidence of a crime when that vehicle recently has been or current is mobile.  All of these issues must be well known to law enforcement officers as traffic stops and evidence seized as the result of a traffic stop are hotly contested issues in court and result in many motions to suppress evidence and case law decisions.

Interdiction stops are another form of traffic stops used by police.  During interdiction stops, police are trained to look for certain things that are known to be consistent with criminal activity (usually narcotics).  This may be a vehicle registered to certain states, time of day for travel, vehicle make/model, driver characteristics, and more.  When an officer finds a vehicle that matches what they are looking for, the officer attempts to find a legal reason to stop the vehicle and then conducts a traffic stop.  The sole purpose of the stop is not to issue a traffic citation, but to get into the vehicle and search for evidence of the crime they are after.

Officers have the legal authority to search a vehicle under many circumstances.  The easiest and most often used tactic to get into a vehicle is through consent.  Amazingly, I rarely had people tell me “no” when I asked if I could search their person and their vehicle.  An officer needs to have an articulable reason for asking to search.  For example, when I stopped a vehicle and noticed the driver was exhibiting signs of recent methamphetamine use, I would ask them to perform Standardized Field Sobriety Tests (SFSTs).  If the driver didn’t have enough physical impairment to arrest for DUII, but still exhibited signs of drug use, I would ask them permission to search their vehicle.  Nine times out of ten I located their drug kit under the seat or somewhere in the vehicle filled with needles, spoons, lighters, pipes, and drugs.  Had the driver been arrested for DUII, I would now have the legal right to search the vehicle based on the search incident to arrest rule.  Officers can also apply for search warrants to search vehicles, or sometimes can just search them without a warrant or consent if they believe the vehicle was just mobile and contains evidence of a crime.  The courts call this the “automobile exception rule” and the searches are allowed because vehicles by their very nature are less private than someone’s home and preserving evidence in a vehicle can be challenging.



Some of my classmates practicing field sobriety tests at the police academy – 2001

This blog hopefully gives you some background on how law enforcement uses traffic stops as a tool to find criminal activity and protect their communities.  In my next blog segment, I will discuss the mechanics of a traffic stop and what is going through the police officer’s mind at the time.

*     *     *

Josh Moulin

Josh has a long history of public service, beginning in 1993 as a Firefighter and EMT. After eight years of various assignments, Josh left the fire service with the rank of Lieutenant when he was hired as a police officer.

Josh spent the next eleven years in law enforcement working various assignments. Josh worked as a patrol officer, field training officer, arson investigator, detective, forensic computer examiner, sergeant, lieutenant, and task force commander.

The last seven years of Josh’s law enforcement career was spent as the commander of a regional, multi-jurisdictional, federal cyber crime task force. Josh oversaw cyber crime investigations and digital forensic examinations for over 50 local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies. Under Josh’s leadership, the forensics lab was accredited by the American Society of Crime Lab Directors / Laboratory Accreditation Board (ASCLD/LAB) in 2009.

Josh has been recognized as a national expert in the field of digital evidence and cyber crime and frequently speaks across the nation on various topics. He has testified as an expert witness in digital forensics and cyber crime in both state and federal court on several occasions. He also holds a variety of digital forensic and law enforcement certifications, has an associate’s degree and graduated summa cum laude with his bachelor’s degree.

In 2012 Josh left law enforcement to pursue a full-time career in cyber security, incident response, and forensics supporting a federal agency. Josh now leads the Monitor and Control Team of a Cyber Security Office and his team is responsible for daily cyber security operations such as; incident response, digital forensics, network monitoring, log review, network perimeter protection, and firewall management.

25 Twitter accounts

We here at the ol’ Online Education Database can’t promise that following these Twitter feeds by periodicals, bloggers, agents, editors, and writers will score you a coveted publishing contract. But we can promise that you’ll more than likely find at least one of them extremely useful when researching the five Ws (and one H) of getting your name out there as an author. And if these don’t work, chances are they link up to a microblog that does. And if that doesn’t work, then the blame probably sits with you.

  1. Writer’s Digest:

    One of the best routinely released resources for authors provides updated information about the state of the publishing industry, generating ideas, self-editing, and everything else they need to know.

  2. Publishers Weekly:

    Follow this absolutely essential Twitter feed for all the latest news and trends regarding the publishing world; after all, knowing how it works is half the battle (Disclaimer: It might be a little more or a little less than half).

  3. GalleyCat:

    Media Bistro’s GalleyCat blog (and, of course, accompanying Twitter) focuses on delivering the headlining stories about publishing today and tomorrow. Also probably the next day and the day after that.

  4. Carole Blake:

    She didn’t write THE book on how to get published, but this literary agent wrote A book on how to get published. Head to her Twitter for expert advice regarding the writing and submission process.

  5. Kevin Smokler:

    Publishing and other media collide in one illuminating resource for writers and wannabe writers trying to make it in the business as it transitions fully into the digital age.

  6. Victoria Strauss:

    As the co-founder of Writer Beware, this veteran writer knows what her fellow artists need to look out for to prevent being preyed upon by publishing scams.

  7. SPR:

    The Self-Publishing Review posts up advice, reviews, and other resources devoted to helping writers launch their careers autonomously.

  8. New Pages:

    New Pages catalogs literary journals looking for submissions, so it would behoove every short-form writer out there to check them out regularly and see what new opportunities pop up.

  9. FreelanceWritingJobs:

    Like the name says, this is one of the top resources where writers head to find themselves some gigs to launch their careers. It might not be about publishing what they want, but it still provides links to numerous opportunities as well as advice.

  10. Writers Write:

    Another fully fab resource where writers turn to for advice and publishing news as well as information about what relevant jobs are currently available around the United States.

  11. Nathan Bransford:

    One of the most popular bloggers on publishing pulls from his extensive experience as a literary agent, author, and social media guru.

  12. Publishing Talk:

    Every publishing topic, from DIY to the latest news and trends from the Big Six, receives thorough coverage at the Publishing Talk blog and magazine.

  13. PublishersLunch:

    One of the biggest resources for professional and wannabe publishers takes to Twitter to exchange news and views from across the industry.

  14. Kassia Krozser:

    Booksquare welds technology to publishing and reading and fearlessly picks apart both with the hopes of unveiling the truths behind them.

  15. Vicki Lame:

    This St. Martin’s Press editor and literary magazine publicist knows quite a bit about what makes a great submission, so pay attention to her advice and commentary.

  16. Michael Hyatt:

    Former CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers Michael Hyatt offers up tips for authors and other professionals to stand out amongst the millions of other Twitter users. Getting noticed means increasing the chances of a contract, after all!

  17. Page-Turner:

    The New Yorker’s book blog provides thrilling insight into “books that matter” in addition to publishing news and trends.

  18. The Paris Review:

    Since 1953, this literary superstar has published interviews with some of the most influential members of the writing world, making it an essential read for hopeful authors looking for a few tips from their favorites.

  19. Digital Book World:

    Interested in publishing through more technological means? Visit Digital Book World’s Twitter and network for an in-depth look at the changing shape of publishing through simple strategizing.

  20. Laurie Abekmeier:

    AGENT OBVIOUS founder Laurie Abekmeier boasts experience as both an agent and an editor, and her site and social media presence bursts with advice for writers, editors, agents, and publishers alike.

  21. Guardian Books:

    Hear what The Guardian’s team of literary buffs have to say about the latest book releases, today’s most successful writers, and other stories relevant to the bibliophile’s dream industry.

  22. New York Times Books:

    Knowledge is power, and while The New York Times can’t hook you up with personalized advice, its respected author interviews, reviews, and news provide opportunities to glean inspiration. Which is knowledge.

  23. L.A. Times Books:

    On the other coast sits this essential resource covering reviews and commentaries of the latest releases and news about all the latest publishing goings-on.

  24. Cheryl Klein:

    Cheryl Klein works as an editor at Scholastic as well as a writer, so she peers into publishing from multiple perspectives.

  25. Mignon Fogarty:

    OK. So she won’t help you get published. But the Grammar Girl’s signature “quick and dirty” advice can help you clean up the errors in your manuscript before submitting it to agents and publishers.

*Today’s article by Online Education Database

Maegan Beaumont

It’s been a month since I attended WPA and I’m already checking the website for news on when the next one is going to be… I’m ready to go back. To tell the truth, I was ready to go back a month ago.

That’s how fantastic this conference is.

I’m relatively new to the conference circuit—WPA was my very first. I’ve been warned that they aren’t all this informative. Or interactive. Or fun. It’s like Disneyland for crime writers, and let me tell you, I was like a six-year-old hopped up on Mountain Dew and sugar cubes, strapped into the Tea Cups the entire time. I’m afraid that WPA has ruined me for all other writers’ conferences.

My plane landed and I was ready to go! My partner in crime (and fellow Lee Child mega-fan) Mary picked me up and we got settled into at the hotel—that means I tossed my suitcase into the corner and splashed some cold water on my face—before I rushed back downstairs to get my ride-along assignment.

Greensboro PD…

I was suddenly nervous. I’m just a goofy writer that makes stuff up about crime and the police. These guys are the real deal—they do for a living what I write about. How are they going to feel about driving a writer around and answering a lot of silly questions?

About 5 minutes after I got my officer assignment, I realized that Officer Henley (a very nice, veteran patrol officer) had no idea who I was or why I was in his car. When I explained to him the who and why, I spent the next 15 minutes answering all sorts of writing questions—my nervousness subsided. He was not only genuinely interested in me and my writing, he answered every single one of my questions without laughing even once. If you happen to read this, Officer Henley, thank you!

The next morning kicked off the first day of the academy—FATS! I loved it! I chased a prison escapee and shot him in the throat (Confession: I also shot the lady he was trying to carjack… but I’ve managed to convince myself she was his accomplice—and I’m 99.9% positive she was going for a gun) and that factory worker that took his boss hostage? He got it in the head—don’t mess with me!

The adrenaline rush stuck with me through the next three days. Lectures on:

Human trafficking (a personal favorite!).

Auto erotic death (creepy and cool).

Finger printing (I can do it!).

Blood evidence (blood is kinda pretty when it glows in the dark). Photo – Patti Phillips

Arrest techniques (another fav!).

A felony traffic stop reenactment (funny and I’m sure scary accurate).

Sniper demo (… is this heaven?)

The shallow grave exercise was like some sort of gruesome Easter egg hunt… which should tell you how awesome it was! There were about fifty of us in the woods, beating the bushes, looking for poor ol’ Tony. And I found him! Poor guy had been tossed into a shallow hole and covered up with some tree branches. Did I mention how awesome it was?

Lectures and demonstrations (K-9s, bomb squad and SWAT EMTs—oh my!) were capped off every afternoon with a guest speaker. Dr. Elizabeth Murray gave a riveting talk on forensic identification. Dr. Katherine Ramsland led us night owls in an interesting discussion on how to sharpen our own observation skills and apply them to our writing.

Marcia Clark (yes—that Marcia Clark!) took us through the judicial process—entertaining and informative…

And then, after the banquet and silent auction (I won a boat load of SIRCHIE swag!) some guy named Lee Child (I guess he’s famous or something… wrote a few books about this guy named Jack Reacher.) took the podium—

Oh, who am I kidding? For me, meeting Lee Child was like meeting Elvis (leather jacket Elvis—not white, sequined jumpsuit Elvis). Listening to him talk—hearing what he was to say about writers and what we do made me proud to be a thriller writer.

Lee Child was gracious and generous with his time. Friendly and engaging… and utterly confused when I declined the offer to take my picture with him. I have no idea why I said no—I think I was momentarily possessed. He signed a book for my mother and I shook his hand (another embarrassing moment… I wasn’t even drunk, so I can’t even use that as an excuse for my kooky behavior!)

Sunday can too quickly. I spent my last few hours in North Carolina (which is beautiful, by the way! I was glued to the bus window each morning, staring at the green… I’m a desert girl. Trees are like unicorns to me.) sitting in on a panel discussion held by all the instructors, feverishly taking notes and writing down story ideas… I’ve got enough to last me a lifetime!

Thank you to Lee Lofland for this labor of love and to all the instructors and officers that were so generous with their time and knowledge. See y’all next year!

**Thank you to my partner in crime, Mary Edelson, for providing the photos!**

*     *     *

Maegan Beaumont is the author of CARVED IN DARKNESS, the first book in the Sabrina Vaughn thriller series (Available through Midnight Ink, spring 2013). A native Phoenician, Maegan’s stories are meant to make you wonder what the guy standing in front of you in the Starbucks line has locked in his basement, and feel a strong desire to sleep with the light on. When she isn’t busy fulfilling her duties as Domestic Goddess for her high school sweetheart turned husband, Joe, and their four children, she is locked in her office with her computer, her coffee pot and her Rhodesian Ridgeback, and one true love, Jade.

She also writes a blog dedicated to helping writers with plot woes and answering writing questions. Check her out –


15 colleges successfully

Familiarity with a canon of essential literary works has historically formed the backbone of what “education” meant. These were the classics, in both senses of the word: until one or two centuries ago, they would all have been in Greek or Latin. Since then, our conception of what rightfully belongs on this lofty list has been stretched: to vernacular languages like English; to prose and not just verse; to American literature and not just British; to neglected groups of people beyond “dead white men”; and even to “low” pop culture artifacts like film and comics. Meanwhile, collegiate study has become ever more specialized and technical, and the very idea of canonicity has received a philosophical dinging from postmodernism, even as its expansion accelerates.

A Renaissance scholar could claim to have read most of what was considered worth reading in the then-small world. But the printing press, and later the Internet, exploded the scope of human communications beyond what any person could hope to absorb even a decent fraction of in a single lifetime. Does that not make it all the more vital, in this techno-tower of Babel, that we nurture a common vocabulary of the most crucial ideas and works that make up our intellectual heritage? Many institutions of higher learning believe so, and have developed “great books” curricula that prioritize a solid grounding in the crown jewels of global human expression. Here are 15 of those colleges standing up for the canon:

  1. Shimer College

    In its very logo, Shimer bills itself as “The Great Books College of Chicago.” In the first year at this four-year liberal arts haven, students will digest Plato, Balzac, Kafka, Shakespeare, Sophocles, Homer, Beckett and many more, plus a panoply of great visual artists and musicians to boot.

  2. Gutenberg College

    The fittingly named Gutenberg College in Eugene, Ore., is another school that builds its entire four-year program around the Great Books, beginning with the Good Book. Gutenberg describes itself as “Christian. Not Dogmatic, Not Squishy.” It has a theological and epistemological manifesto called the Biblical Foundation Statement that faculty sign; students do not, and are encouraged to “Learn How (Not What) to Think.”

  3. Hillsdale College

    Founded in 1844 by Freewill Baptists in Spring Arbor, Mich., under the name of Michigan Central College, this liberal arts school then moved to the town of Hillsdale and took its name. It was barely behind Oberlin in the first wave of U.S. colleges admitting black students and women. Today Hillsdale is non-denominational in terms of religion, but fiercely politically conservative, offering classes like “Constitution 201: The Progressive Rejection of the Founding and the Rise of Bureaucratic Despotism” and taking no federal money for any of its programs. Its core curriculum focuses on “modern man’s intellectual and spiritual inheritance from the Judeo-Christian faith and Greco-Roman culture.”

  4. Columbia University

    The Core Curriculum for Columbia undergraduates was instituted in 1919, and remains a model for other programs that aim to set the groundwork for a basic liberal foundation of study, “considered the necessary general education for students, irrespective of their choice in major.” It began with the Contemporary Civilization course, “intended to prepare students to become active and informed citizens.” Since then, five other classes have been added: Literature Humanities, University Writing, Art Humanities, Music Humanities, and Frontiers of Science.

  5. St. John’s College

    St. John’s College, with two campuses, one in Santa Fe and the other in Annapolis, has followed a true Great Books program since 1937. Despite its name, and unlike many of the strict adherents to the Great Books method, St. John’s has no religious affiliation. The reading list for each year is truly mind-boggling … no wonder that in 2011, Newsweek named the Santa Fe campus the No. 1 Most Rigorous college in the country, and the Annapolis campus No. 8!

  6. The College of Saint Mary Magdalen

    Founded in 1973 in response to Vatican II, this Catholic school moved to its permanent campus in Warner, N.H., in 1991. From the beginning, academics were organized around a Great Books Program. The website lays out the pedagogical design using a neat metaphor, based in a development in ecclesiastical music that was once considered radical, even heretical: each course “may be best understood as a polyphonic composition within which the lines of Philosophy, Literature, History, Music, and Political Philosophy conjoin to form a single Seminar.”

  7. Thomas Aquinas College

    Located in Santa Paula, Calif., Thomas Aquinas is another Catholic liberal arts college, offering only one degree program, a Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Arts. As a result, every student is exposed to the Great Books, with no textbooks, only the original works of history’s great thinkers, including a heavy emphasis on the school’s 13th-century namesake.

  8. Harrison Middleton University

    A recent addition to the annals of Great Books institutions studying the ancient verities, Harrison Middleton University is an online university, founded in 1998 and based in Tempe, Ariz. It is named after two individuals: Arthur Middleton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and Willis Speight Harrison, a 20th century war hero and journalist. HMU is associated with The Great Books Foundation, an education nonprofit that packages the Great Books to help schools at all levels design core curricula.

  9. Wyoming Catholic College

    An even younger educational institution, WCC admitted its first class in 2007 and is on its way to accreditation as the only private four-year college in Wyoming. All graduates receive a Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Arts and immerse themselves in a Catholic-inflected Great Books list from the Bible on down to Flannery O’Connor.

  10. University of Chicago

    In place since the 1930s, Chicago’s Common Core arose from the Great Books movement, although controversially, it has been watered down in recent years … to a mere 15 classes! It takes up about a third of each student’s academic time at the university, in order to “provide the background for any major” and give “every student a common vocabulary of ideas and skills.”

  11. University of Dallas

    Actually located just west of Dallas in Irving, this Catholic university assumed its current form in 1956. In their own words, “The foundation of the undergraduate curriculum is a set of about twenty core courses that are designed to expose all students to the great deeds, ideas, and works of Western Civilization in the belief that these are the surest guides in the search for truth and virtue.”

  12. Mercer University

    Founded by Baptists in 1833, this Georgia university has a Great Books Program with eight required courses, small seminars in which students read everything from Homer to Pascal to Dostoevsky. An annual essay competition is also sponsored by the department.

  13. Yale University

    Yale’s approach to the Great Books is a little different: rather than instituting a requirement, they chose to harness the spirit of competition by establishing a selective Directed Studies program that admits 125 of the school’s freshmen each year. The fall semester takes students from antiquity through the Middle Ages while the spring covers from the Renaissance up to today.

  14. University of Notre Dame

    The home of the Fighting Irish has a Program of Liberal Studies, whose website points out that “the word ‘seminar’ means seedbed; in the seminar the seeds of future reading and reflection are sown.” These Great Books Seminars are organized in a six-course sequence in the sophomore to senior years: the first semester is devoted to ancient Greece; the second, a transition from the classics to the early Christian era; the third, the Middle Ages; the fourth, the High Renaissance to the Enlightenment; the fifth, the nineteenth century (including Eastern texts “discovered” then); and the sixth, the modern era.

  15. Lawrence University

    One of America’s first co-ed universities upon its 1847 founding, this school in Appleton, Wis., has required all first-year students to take its Freshman Studies program since introducing it in 1945. From the very beginning, Freshman Studies was rooted in both Great Books traditionalism and a desire to stretch its limits; the first syllabus included a film, the classic anti-lynching Western The Ox-Bow Incident, and the latest reading list includes Richard Feynman, a graphic novel, music by Stravinsky, and the anti-imperialist arthouse movie The Battle of Algiers, proving the flexibility and lasting relevance of the Great Books approach.

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