The year is 1982 and I’m assigned to patrol duty in a town called Peaceful. We’re bordered by the towns Mean and Nasty. Peaceful, where I work, is the county seat.

My name is Officer Hartogold and I work the graveyard shift. I carry a gun and wear a badge. It’s my job to protect and serve.

Peaceful is generally a quiet place with very little crime. The streets are lined with green leafy trees and flowers of every color and scent imaginable. The walks are clean and straight and the air is fresh. People smile and say howdy, even to strangers who pass through on their way to here and there.

Our coffee is hot and soft drinks are ice cold. No one curses and no one argues. Kids are polite and respectful. Parents happily attend school functions and entire families enjoy meals together.

Schools are for learning and children love their teachers. The lake is full of sparkling water and fish “this big” are seen each morning leaping as high as three or four feet into the air to catch a bug or two for their breakfast. The skies are blue and grass is soft and velvety.

Everyone in the area works hard to earn a living. The local university produces top-notch graduates. Many of them move on to become doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, writers, and other such careers. Some finish high school and proudly attend the technical school where they learn to cook, build, design computer systems, and drive big rigs. The dropout rate in Peaceful is very low, and drunk driving charges are nonexistent.

Peaceful is a nice town.

Sure, Billy Buck “Bubba” Johnson occasionally goes off the deep end and tears up his kitchen or living room, and once in a while somebody catches his wife in bed with a neighbor and subsequently uses his trusty 12-gauge to generously aerate her lover’s nude body.

And once, the president of the First Savings and Loan Bank ran off with with one of the tellers, a big-haired woman who, at the time, was married to a local peanut farmer. They’d grabbed a few thousand dollars from the vault before hitting the road. They didn’t get far, though, before the Highway Patrol caught up with the adulterous couple in Happytown, near the state line. The couple gave back the stolen loot, begged forgiveness, and then disappeared again while out on bond.

For the most part, though, Peaceful PD officers answer barking dog and peeping Tom complaints. We write a few traffic tickets, and we keep the undesirables outside the city limits (those Mean and Nasty folks can be downright ornery, especially so on Saturday nights).

Pot smokers and growers—long-hairs we called ’em—were once a bit of a concern for us. Not only was marijuana illegal, our government, and Mexico, had been spraying the weed crops with Paraquat, a chemical linked to cancer and possibly to Parkinson disease. And they’d done so since the time when Nixon was in office.  Pot was a big, illegal business and President Reagan and his wife Nancy were leading the anti-pot crusade.

Next came George Bush, Sr. and Desert Storm, a war that sent a lot of police officers back into active military duty. Some never came home and we eventually filled their positions, sometimes with more former soldiers who managed to survive their deployments.

Occasionally we’d hire a recently discharged soldier whose mind was infiltrated and battered by ghosts and demons from the battlefield. Deep down we knew the odds were in favor of someday finding at least one of those guys sitting inside his patrol car with the barrel of his service weapon jammed tightly against the roof of his mouth.

The poor fellow’d have the hammer cocked and a trembling index finger hooked around the trigger. His face peppered with tiny pearls of sweat and his eyes leaking tears that dropped onto his Class A uniform shirt from a jawline so sharply chiseled that looked as if a stone mason had carved it from a slab of granite. Tough as rusty nails they were, until war turned their emotions and minds to mush.

Sometimes we were able to talk them down, and sometimes the situation ended with bagpipes, a riderless horse, and handing a folded flag to a sobbing, heart-broken spouse.

We kept a close eye on the long-hairs and the people they hung out with, making sure to snag them if we saw them driving while stoned or selling the stuff to little kids. Our narcs where forever finding  and destroying grow operations, but the dopers always popped back up in new locations. As always, drunk drivers added their own special dangers and problems, so we watched for them too.

Then, practically in a flash, crack cocaine entered the picture and things really went sour. That’s also the time when bad guys started carrying semi-automatic pistols instead of cheap pawn shop revolvers. We, however, still had six-shooters sitting in our holsters, which meant the crooks were far better outfitted than the police.

Therefore, to “keep up with the Joneses” we made the switch to the newfangled semi-autos. What a learning curve that was, to go from carrying 18 rounds (6 in the gun and 12 in speed loaders) to 16 in the pistol and an extra 30 in spare magazines worn on our gun belts. The training was a bit intimidating at first, but we got the hang of it. Still, a few of the old-timers opted to keep their old wheel guns in lieu of the semi-autos. Change is tough, especially when it comes swapping a tool you’ve counted on for so long to keep you safe.

With the influx of crack came a drastic increase of criminal activity. Property crimes increased enormously as abusers and addicts began to steal nearly everything that wasn’t nailed down so they could fund their intense, overwhelming cravings for the drug. Assaults were up. The number of robberies increased. Murders and other shootings became commonplace. Shots-fired calls became a regular thing. Stabbings increased. Rapes. Car thefts. Break-ins. They all topped the stat charts.

Small time drug dealers hung out on street corners and in front of “drug houses,” selling to “customers” as they drove up. Curbside service was the preferred method of transaction for the sellers because they only carried a small amount of crack on them that could easily be swallowed or dropped if they saw us coming. Or, they could simply run away before we had time to stop the car and get out. The main stash was inside one the nearby houses, but pinpointing which one required significant surveillance and manpower. Unfortunately, our manpower was usually tied up working on keeping the ever-growing crime rate at a manageable level.

We were simply outnumbered. Crack was ruining our beloved Peaceful.

Not long after crack took hold, criminals began to resist our attempts to arrest them. Prior to crack, it was a rarity to encounter someone who seriously fought with police officers. Yes, there were some, but not every Bill, Chuck, and Susie.

Next they started shooting and lashing out at us with knives. They punched, kicked, and bit and threw rocks and bricks. They tried to hit us with cars as they made their escapes. Then they killed an officer. And then another.

Crime in general grew worse over the years. Criminals grew weirder with each passing week. Along with tho increases in the overall bizarreness came the change in people.

Politicians stole and cheated and lied. Police chiefs and sheriffs were arrested for corruption. Infrastructure started to fail. Kids were texting and driving and crashing their cars. Children were abducted, raped, and killed. Both male and female teachers were caught having sex with students.

Riots, drive-by shootings, property destroyed, mass shootings. School shootings. Arson.

Long gone are the days when I could pull up beside the Billy Buck “Bubba” Johnsons of the world and tell them to get inside my car because they’re under arrest for a crime they’ve committed. And they’d do it, without question. Not today. No, sir. Now you have to chase bad guys. Then when they’re caught you have to wrestle with them while a mob of bystanders kicks and punches you and tosses rocks at your head. And it never fails that a few screaming looky-loos will have their cellphone cameras shoved in your face hoping to record someone delivering a solid kick to your skull. Then, when you are assaulted or beaten those same looky-loos cheer and clap for the man or woman who caused your blood to gush onto the pavement.

Just a few short weeks ago, practically out of nowhere, came “the virus,” and within an instant the entire world changed, again. As a result, cops today are faced with even more challenges. But we’ll save those issues for another day.

In the meantime, someone ought to write a book about this stuff. I’d bet a dollar to donut that it would sell.

Speaking of donuts … A few months ago I offended someone with my use of “donuts” as the spelling of the round sweet treats with the hole in their middles. And the person said I was ignorant to do so. And, that since I was no more than a dumb cop, it was not surprising that I didn’t didn’t know the proper spelling of the word is “doughnut.”

Well, in the old days, back in Peaceful, Dunkin’ Donuts was a pretty popular donut shop. Of course, in 2019 they dropped “Donut” from their name and are now known as “Dunkin’. I wonder if they realize that they’ve also spelled Dunking incorrectly?

Shouldn’t somebody contact these folks right away to tell them their company names are also spelled incorrectly?

Boston Donuts – Leominster, Massachusetts
Casper’s Donuts – Pueblo, Colorado
Country Donuts – Elgin, Illinois
Cravin Donuts  – Tempe, Arizona
Crispy Donuts – Shreveport, Louisiana
Curry’s Donuts – Wilkes-Barre (Kingston), Pennsylvania
Daily Dozen Doughnuts – Warren, Michigan
Daylight Donuts – Tulsa, Oklahoma
Dipping Donuts – Leominster, Massachusetts
Dixie Cream Donuts  – Tulsa, Oklahoma
Donut Bank  – Evansville, Indiana
Donut Bistro – Reno, Nevada
Donut Cafe – Worcester, Massachusetts
Donut Connection – Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Donut Country – Murfreesboro, Tennessee
Donut Crazy – New Haven, Connecticut
Donut Delight – Stamford, Connecticut
Donut Dip – West Springfield, Massachusetts
Do-rite Donuts – Chicago, Illinois
Donut King – Minneola, Florida
Donut King – Massachusetts
Donut Mania – Las Vegas, Nevada
Donut Palace – Van, Texas
Donut Professor – Omaha, Nebraska
Donut Stop – Amarillo, Texas
Donuts, donuts, DONUTS!

“When ignorance gets started it knows no bounds.”

Will Rogers


By the way, there’s still plenty of time to enter your story in the Writers’ Police Academy’s annual Golden Donut Short Story Contest. The winner receives the prestigious Golden Donut Award and free registration to the 2021 Writers’ Police Academy! And, to sweeten the pot, New Arc Books will soon publish a collection of these fabulous 200-word tales. Your story could be included!

All you have to do is to fire up your imagination and write a tale using the image below as the main focus of the story. And, the stories must be told in exactly 200 of your very best words.

The contest judge is Linda Landrigan, editor-in-chief of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine!

During a police academy class many years ago, an instructor stressed to the group of rookie officers the importance of paying close attention to detail. And, he told them that losing focus on matters at hand could result in overlooking evidence that’s vital to a case. Also important to note, he went on to say, was that not seeing the scene as a whole, including individual people within, such as potential suspects, could mean the difference between the officer living to see another day, or not.

This particular instructor was a firm believer in the use of visual aids, feeling that seeing is believing and that when people experience “hands-on” training they tend to remember those experiences.

Activating the senses by using “hands-on” sessions, such as fingerprinting, traffic stops, crime scene investigation, interview and interrogation, etc., definitely helps to imprint details into one’s memory.

Sure, you could attend the most fantastic lecture about blood spatter and spatter pattens, but the session, not matter how wonderful, would not equal seeing someone use a baseball bat to deliver a blow to someone’s head, an action that sends the red stuff and “matter” spurting and gushing toward a wall or other surface.

Sights, sounds, emotions, and odors associated with an experience sticks in the mind far longer than words spoken by even the best of experts.

For example, the video below from a bloodstain pattern workshop at the Writers’ Police Academy.
 


 

One day, the “hands-on” instructor was teaching about eyewitness statements and how reliable they could be, or not, when suddenly a side door opened and in came a line of a dozen people—actors from a college drama class. One held a knife in one hand, another a small handgun, and another carried a notebook. The others were empty-handed. Ten were dressed in typical everyday clothing. Two, a young man and a young woman, were dressed in swim suits. They were both fit. Extremely fit.

The actors walked straight through the front of the room, behind the instructor, and exited through a door on the opposite side of the classroom. The last person through closed the door behind him. The instructor then asked the cadets to write down a description of the people they’d just seen. The results were eye-opening.

Of the entire class only a couple could, with some degree of accuracy, describe four or five of the actors who’d walked past them. A few had a general idea of the peoples’ appearances. But most couldn’t pinpoint exact clothing types and/or hair colors or styles. Shoes? Nope. Gun? No! Knife? No!

But every single male rookie was able to describe, in detail, the woman and the swimsuit she wore. The males in the class were fairly accurate with their descriptions of the man who wore a swimsuit. The two females in the group provided extremely detailed descriptions of the swimsuited man’s arms, legs, and abdominal muscles. Freckles on his back? Check! Biceps? Triple check! They also were equally as accurate regarding the woman’s swimsuit.

The class was astonished at how poorly they’d done with the exercise. Suppose the person with gun had planned to shoot someone? There were many “what-ifs.” Yes, it was a lesson well-learned. Distraction can be a formidable enemy!

Next, during the instructor’s review of what had taken place, he began to question the class members about what they’d witnessed. While doing so he began suggesting things that they could’ve/might’ve seen. Such as one of the actors wearing a Rolex watch (neither actor wore a watch). He spoke about the actor who wore a pair of round eyeglasses (neither of the actors wore glasses of any type). And he discussed with them in detail the tattoo of a bulldog on one of the actor’s forearms. In reality, no tattoos were visible on either of the actors.

This conversation lasted for a several minutes, with the instructor “implanting” those ideas into the minds of the rookie officers. Then the instructor divided the class into smaller groups and then gave them an assignment. Each group was to write a police report that included detailed descriptions of the suspects/witnesses/actors. The results were stunning.

In the last exercise the groups offered far better descriptions of the actors. However, some included the tattoo or the Rolex watch, and/or the round eyeglasses, when in fact those items were absolutely not present.

Some of the rookies unknowingly allowed the instructor to implant the suggestions into their memories. Then, when the groups put their heads together, those who’d “seen” the tattoo, the watch, and/or the glasses, convinced enough of the others so that as a group they incorrectly presented at least one of the items as factual information that was included into their “official report.”

The first exercise was intended to raise officer awareness. They should always pay close attention to everything and everyone in their surrounding area, and as far beyond as possible. And, to not accept as absolute truth everything someone tells them. No two people see everything in the same light, and it’s awfully easy to allow a swimsuit to skew someone’s attention.

The last exercise was to show how easy it is for an officer to sway a witness or suspect’s “memory” during an interrogation. Therefore, law enforcement officers should be aware that their interviews must be based on evidence to avoid planting a false memory.

Remember, if you say something enough times, well, it becomes easy for someone to believe you.

By the way, I was the instructor who led those police academy classes. I was the instructor who led those police academy classes. I was the instructor who led those police academy classes. I was the instructor who led those police academy classes. I was the instructor who led those police academy classes. I was the instructor who led those police academy classes.

The good folks over at crimescenewriter are currently discussing the hired killers, and as it happens I’ve investigated cases where assassins were hired to kill other humans. The “employers'” motives for wanting certain folks to die immediately were the usual sort—jealousy, greed, money, and drugs.

By the way, crimescenewriter is a fabulous Q&A site where writers present questions to member experts (medical examiner, detectives, explosives, weapons, and other top experts in a variety of fields). I learn something new nearly every time I visit.

Since the topic popped up again, I thought today would be a good time to re-post this article. It’s a true story about a low level thief I’ve called Stump Johnson. The alias is to protect the identities of everyone involved in what I’m about to tell you.

As I said above, Stump was not the man’s given name, obviously. But in the area of the south where I worked as a detective, several folks had nicknames they’d “earned” for various reasons.

There was “One-Eye” Pearson (he lost his right eye as a result of a stabbing). “Truck” Turner, a slim, lanky man drove a tractor-trailer for a chicken processing plant. “Backy” Parnell, a man who’d worked at a tobacco plant in Richmond for most of his adult life. “Cotton” Roberts, a farmer’s eldest son. Bill “Jack” Daniels, an avid deer hunter who always, without fail, kept a bottle of Jack Daniels whiskey under the seat of his pickup truck. And we mustn’t forget good ole “Road Runner” Rickert, a form high school football star who enjoyed running from the police even when he’d done nothing wrong. He simply enjoyed seeing cops run in his wake.

Stump didn’t do a thing to earn his nickname other than to be himself. He was short and stocky, and his arms and legs looked like they wanted to be a bit longer but never made it past the appearance of four lengths of chubby, overstuffed linked sausages attached to his torso. He also had a neck that wasn’t visible, as if his head rested squarely on his shoulders. So yeah, he looked like a tree stump. So …

The incident involving Stump started as a simple investigation about stolen property, a cheap copy machine, and it wound up as one of those sorts of investigations where a minor crime snowballed into a convoluted menagerie of criminal activity. One of those crimes involved murder.

Stump broke into a school to steal the copy machine. He did so in order to sell the device, hoping for a return of twenty dollars for very little time and effort invested. Then, after he’d handed over the copier to a local drug dealer in exchange for a small piece of crack cocaine, he’d smoke the drug and then head out to steal something else that could net another twenty-dollar “rock.” It’s a cycle that’s familiar to scores of addicts.

Anyway, Stump stole a copier and, unable to unload it to his regular dealer, sold it to a guy who was known for receiving stolen merchandise. The “guy,” a local businessman, had his “people” transport hot items out of town where they’d resell at a profit. Selling in a location other than where the property was stolen meant the chance of getting caught was less than great.

This time, however, Stump was arrested while purchasing crack cocaine during an undercover narcotics operation. And, to save his own skin, he started singing like a drunk parrot—“So and so sells liquor to kids. Uncle Billy Buck is dating an underage girl. My cousin speeds all the time. My mama once stole a loaf of bread. Aunt Lulla Belle dips snuff. Grandma runs a liquor still.” Anything that he thought would prevent going back to jail.

But the thing that brought me into the picture that night was when he said, “The ‘guy’ who bought the copier I stole is looking for someone he can hire to kill his lover’s husband.”

So we went to work, first by having undercover officers purchase stolen merchandise from the “guy,” who we’ll call Freddie the Fence. During the time of the undercover operation regarding stolen property, I’d also had undercover officers purchase narcotics from Fence’s girlfriend, the wife of the man Fence wanted to kill. I know, the tale’s a bit twisty right now but we’re getting there.

As soon as we had Fence’s adulterous girlfriend in custody, she, too, started snitching on everyone under the sun, including Fence. Miraculously, she’d instantly re-fallen in love with husband and was sorry for the affair with Fence. She said she’d been horrified to learn that Fence planned to have her husband killed. So she said, but feel free to insert a big, fat eye-roll at this point. I didn’t believe it either. Not for a minute. She was in on the plot from the beginning. Actually, the whole thing was her idea.

She told me she was scared of Fence. By the way, we’d recorded the two of them—the woman and Fence—together in their vehicles on numerous occasions and, believe me, the last thing she was, was afraid. If anything, it was Fence who should’ve been frightened of her, with all of the screaming and thrashing about going on during, well, you know.

She finally owned up to being a part of the scheme to murder her husband, hoping for a reduced sentence by being cooperative. She told me the plan was for her to convince her husband to join her on a picnic in a wooded area out in the countryside. The location was hilly with a creek situated where the bottoms of two rolling hills met. It was a place where vegetation was wild and wooly and the tree canopies were thick. It was that deep into the woods.

The specific point where the picnic was to take place was in a clear line of sight, one-hundred yards up to a midway point on the side of one of the hills. At that hillside location, the intended shooter-for-hire fashioned a makeshift hunting blind of branches, limbs, and loose pine straw. If a person didn’t know it was there they’d not have been able to spot it. He was to make the “kill shot” from the blind.

Before the appointed day of the killing, we asked the woman if she’d wear a wire during a meeting with Fence. She agreed and what we heard was as chilling as it gets. Fence detailed the entire plan, including that he’d decided to kill the hired assassin once the killer had murdered the woman’s husband (so many twisty turns). Then he and she would flee to another state where they’d live under assumed identities.

Fence named the assassin and he stated how much he’d already paid as a deposit and the amount of the balance due when the deed was done—$5,000 each time. He described everything, and even spilled the beans about his entire criminal enterprise, including his drug operation and where he bought his supply, and the routes they took when making their runs. He told where they hid stolen property and where they took it to sell, and more. All because he loved and trusted this woman who sold him out in mere seconds. Apparently the love was not reciprocal when a life sentence in state prison was at stake.

So, long story short, with probable cause established, I applied for search warrants for Fence’s business and home, as well as a warrant for the home of the hired gunman. We found stolen property and narcotics at all three places. Fence and Mr. Hitman were arrested and jailed. Both admitted their guilt and settled for a plea agreement.

The girlfriend/wife … sigh …  was welcomed back home by the intended victim of murder. Yes, her husband forgave her for playing a role in what was almost his demise. As far as his wife having an affair with Fence, the husband forgave her for that too. But, less than a year later she was in cahoots with another bad guy and was quite literally caught with her pants down when his place was stormed by police during drug raid. Yes, the goo-goo-eyed husband posted her bond and took her back, again.

You’re working patrol on the west side, the crime hub of your area, with thirty minutes to go on your last graveyard shift of the month. And, as your typical run of bad luck would have it, the only type of luck you’ve ever known, you catch the call. Homicide. Male victim. Multiple gunshot wounds.

Your department’s small, with no crime scene unit and only two detectives. The senior detective is out sick. Doctors say she has a severe case of the Crawling Creepy-Cruds and won’t be able to return to work for several days. Her partner is away attending a weeklong cordite festival, a historical reenactment event where enthusiastic attendees dress up as characters who made the stuff (cordite) back at the end of WWII.

And, to top off this bout of wonderful misfortune, your sergeant is away teaching workshops at the Writers’ Police Academy, a fantastic hands-on training event for writers, readers, fans, journalists, and anyone else who has an interest in seeing how crimes are solved in the real world.

So tag, you’re it! You are the grand prize winner of an entire murder investigation.

Do you even remember the basics? After all, with the exception of the occasional strong-arm robbery and nabbing a few peeping Toms, you’ve mostly done nothing for the past six years but write traffic tickets and respond to B&Es and he-said-she-said calls.

What do you do first?

Well …

  • Call for backup/assistance. If needed, the sheriff’s office and/or state police would probably send someone over to help. Besides, the killer may be waiting at the scene to ambush a cop. Don’t be a hero!
  • Avoid tunnel vision while on the way to the scene. Sometimes the bad guy can be found walking or running away, or hanging around to see the police lights and subsequent activity.

  • Secure the scene. Set up some sort of perimeter. The sheriff’s deputy could help with this duty. If your department is really small, other first-responders, such as firefighters and EMS, could help with stretching and hanging crime scene tape. Otherwise, have fellow officers seal the area to prevent anyone from entering and exiting.
  • Record the names and contact information of everyone in the area.
  • Separate the witnesses.

  • Render first aid, if necessary. Call for EMS and the medical examiner.
  • Survey the scene. Develop a mental picture of what happened.
  • Examine the area for tracks. There may be an identifiable mark, brand, or logo. You may be surprised to see one of the nosy looky-loos wearing that very shoe.
  • If possible, collect or protect items of evidence before the medical examiner’s team and/or EMS enters the scene. Remember, writers, in some rural areas a medical examiner, or coroner, may not visit the scene, opting for EMS to transport the body to the morgue for examination/autopsy.

Trust me, EMS is not kind to evidence. Their priority is to save or revive the victim. Therefore, when the scene is a hot one, where there’s a possibility that they could save a life, they’ll trample, stomp, drag, kick, and move whatever’s in their path.

The aftermath of EMS and fire personnel sometimes has the appearance of the destruction left behind by a small tornado. Stuff—gauze, paper wrappings, IV lines, dropped or discarded bandages, shoe and bootprints—is everywhere and, well, when they’re gone detectives look around and wonder … WTF just happened to my crime scene!

  • Make notes of everything, including the date, time, weather conditions, etc.
  • Document statements made by the M.E.. Record the M.E.’s time of arrival and the time the body is removed. Notes. Notes. And more notes.
  • Chain of custody has begun. Document all evidence collected and who took possession of it, including the body. Was the body bag sealed? Did the medical examiner transport the body to the morgue, or was it transported by the ambulance service?
  • Photograph everything. I mean E.V.E.R.Y.T.H.I.N.G.
  • If you’re lucky enough to have one handy, use a laser scanner to record details of the crime scene

  • Question as many witnesses as possible before calling it a night. It’s best to get statements before they’ve had  chance to talk to anyone, or perhaps get cold feet and not want to get involved. Besides, people tend to forget things in a hurry. They also tend to exaggerate or embellish a story if given the time to do so.
  • Be sure the notes you jot down are things you won’t mind having read aloud in court. Defense attorneys may ask to see your notes, and it would be embarrassing to hear your grocery list, or the beginnings of a mushy poem dedicated to your beloved schnauzer, read aloud to the jury.
  • Develop and use a written crime scene checklist. By doing so your testimony will be consistent in each and every case.
  • Be careful not to contaminate or transfer DNA evidence. Even fingerprint brushes can transfer DNA, so you should use a fresh brush for each crime scene. It would certainly ruin your credibility to have the DNA from the victim in your last case show up in the current one. Fingerprint powder can also become contaminated by dusting a surface and then dipping the brush back into the container for more powder.
  • Collect everything that could be used as evidence. Who knows what you may need later. Remember, it wasn’t all that long ago when scientists began using DNA found in evidence from old cases.
  • The last item on the mental checklist … use common sense.

* This list is not an official, standard checklist. Nor are the steps listed in a particular order. A formal, universal list does not exist. Each agency has its own policy, and each investigator has his/her own method of solving crimes.

So you think you’ve seen and heard it all? Well, think again, because these folks actually picked up the phone and dialed 911 to report …

“Help me, please!”

“Ma’am, calm down and tell me what’s wrong.”

“My house is on fire. I just moved in today and turned on the heat and … and … and, that big metal thing in my living room caught on fire, please huuurrrrryyy! There are flames and  fire, and, and, and … AHHHH!!!! it’s getting hot! Huuurrrryyy!!! Oh, God, oh God, oh God … MY CAT’S GONNA DIE!”

Okay, so I arrive and see the distraught five-foot-tall, three-hundred-pound caller standing there on the front porch with the front door wide open. It’s 20 degrees outside and all she’s wearing is a t-shirt. Nothing but a t-shirt. And she’s crying and screaming and begging me to go inside to rescue her cat, a cat that was trapped inside the inferno.

I saw no flames, no smoke, and, well, nothing. So I stepped inside the small house. The cat was asleep on the sofa.

“See, it’s on fire. Look through that little glass and you can see the flames.”

“Ma’am, that’s your heater. It uses fire to warm your home. It’s perfectly safe.”

That’s when she realized she was wearing nothing “butt” a t-shirt.

I radioed dispatch and told them to cancel the responding fire units. Then I tried to erase from my mind what I’d just seen. It was not a pretty sight.

“I think my house is on fire.”

“You think your house is on fire? Do you see flames or smoke?”

“No, but my wall’s hot. Would you please send someone over to check it out?” Please hurry.

I went to the door, peeked inside through the glass inset, and saw a gentleman sitting on his couch watching Jeopardy.

I knocked.

The door opened quickly and the little man with hoot owl eyes peered out at me. He motioned for me to come inside.

“Thanks for coming officer. My house may be on fire.”

He led me to a fireplace and then placed his hand on the wall just over the center of the mantle.

The wall is hot. See, feel right here.”

“Sir, you have a roaring fire going in the fireplace. Naturally, the wall above it may get a little warm.”

“Thank you, officer. That never occurred to me.”

“Please help me! I’ve been locked inside my bedroom for several hours and can’t get out. I’m getting really hungry, too. And I’m pregnant and I’m really scared. Please help me!”

I broke a glass beside the front door, reached inside and turned the deadbolt latch (See how easy it is for burglars. Use a keyed deadbolt for better security, but remove the key from the lock). Then I opened the front door and went inside. Sure enough, she’s locked inside the master bedroom and she’s crying.

“I think I’m going to lose my baby because I’m so upset.”

More sobbing.

“Ma’am, did you try turning the little button in the center of the knob?”

A beat of silence followed by a faint click.

“I think I have it now. Thank you for coming by.”

“Yeah, um…could you send a cop over here right away, please. I just moved into this apartment and can’t figure out how to turn up the cold water temperature on my kitchen sink. It’s too cold and the landlord won’t help. He just hangs up on me.”

Instead of responding to the residence I used my cellphone to call the gentleman and politely explained that water temperatures are not a true emergency and that cold water temperatures occur naturally. They are what they are because tap water is piped directly from the city. He then proceeded to curse and rant and rave, saying I was a waste of taxpayer money and that I was a huge part of the reason the country was going down the toilet, which, as I explained to the “nice” man, is another place where the water temperature is non-adjustable.

Finally, our once or twice monthly 911 call to the same residence.

 

“You gotta send someone over right away. Elvis is back inside my refrigerator and he won’t stop singing. He keeps up that wild racket all night long.”

And so it goes, night after night after night …

 

Never start a story with the weather. I’ve heard this many times over the years.

Even Elmore Leonard kicked off his “Don’t-do-it” list with a rule about the weather.

  1. Never open a book with the weather.
  2. Avoid prologues.
  3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
  4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said.”
  5. Keep your exclamation points under control!
  6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
  7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  9. Same for places and things.
  10. Leave out the parts readers tend to skip.

Elmore Leonard said it’s taboo!

Now, with that said and with an absolute clear understanding of the rules—NO Weather!—let’s get on with the show … today’s article. And it starts like this … with the weather.

It was a dark and stormy night in our county. A sideways rain driven by the type of wind gusts that TV weather reporters are often seen battling during live hurricane coverage of the really big ones, the storms that send trees toppling and waves crashing onto houses far from the shoreline.

I was hard at work that night, patrolling county roads and checking on businesses and homes, when my headlights reflected from something shiny a ways into in the woods. I stopped, backed up, and turned onto a narrow sloppy-wet dirt path that led me to a clearcut section along a power line, and eventually to the source of the reflection. It was a car parked approximately thirty yards off a dirt road next to a river. I used my spotlight to examine the vehicle and surrounding area.

The driver’s door was open and to my surprise the body of a woman was lying half-in and half-out, with the outside portion getting soaked by the deluge of water falling from the dark sky. I couldn’t tell if she was alive or not.

I turned the spotlight to scan the woods on both sides of the clearing. No sign of anything or anyone. It was one of those scenarios where every single hair on the bak of your neck and arms immediately leap to attention. Spooky, to say the least.

So, in spite of the downpour, thunder, lightning, and those hyper-vigilant hairs (the cop’s sixth sense was in full overdrive), I had to get out to investigate. So I did.

I again scanned the area carefully, again, using my Maglie, making certain this wasn’t an ambush. After another look around, I cautiously plowed forward while the winds drilled raindrops into my face and against my lemon-yellow vinyl raincoat, the one I kept in the trunk of my patrol car just for times like this one. The fury of those oversized drops of water was that of small stones striking at a pace equal to the rat-a-tat-tatty rounds fired from a Chicago typewriter.

The plastic rain protector I’d placed over my felt campaign hat worked well at keeping the hat dry, but the rain hitting it was the sensation of hundreds of tiny mallets hammering all at once, as if an all-xylophone symphony decided to perform a complex syncopated piece on the top of my head. At a time when I truly needed the ability to hear a single pin drop, well, it simple wasn’t happening.

It was a fight to walk headfirst into swirling, stinging winds that tugged and pulled and pushed against my rain coat, sending its tails fluttering and flapping, exposing my brown over tan deputy sheriff uniform. It—the uniform—was not waterproof. Not even close.

The ground surrounding the car was extremely muddy, and with each step my once shiny brown shoes collected gobs of thick, soggy soil until it felt as if gooey, slimy bricks were attached to the bottoms of my feet with large suction cups.

These, during a dark and sorry night, were the deplorable conditions in which I met the crying dead woman.

It was one-on-one—me and the victim.

Raindrops the size of gumdrops pelted the victim’s face, gathering and pooling at the corners of her eyes, eventually spilling out across her cheeks like tiny rivers that followed the contours of her flesh until they poured from her in miniature waterfalls.

Passenger door,

Open.

Bottom half in,

Top half out.

 

Lifeless hand,

Resting in mud,

Palm up.

Face aimed at the sky.

 

Rain falling,

Mouth open.

Dollar-store shoes,

Half-socks.

 

Youngest daughter—the seven-year-old,

Called them baby socks.

Her mother’s favorite,

Hers too.

 

Hair,

Mingled with mud,

And rainwater,

And sticks and leaves.

 

Power lines,

Overhead.

Crackling,

Buzzing.

 

Flashlight,

Bright.

Showcasing

dim, gray eyes.

 

Alone,

And dead.

A life,

Gone.

 

Three rounds.

One to the head,

Two to the torso.

Each a kill shot.

 

Five empty casings,

In the mud.

Pistol.

Not a revolver.

 

Wine bottle.

Beer cans.

Empty.

Scotch.

 

“No, we don’t drink. Neither did she. Except on special occasions. Yep, it must have been something or somebody really special for her to drink that stuff.”

“Was there a somebody special?”

Eyes cast downward.

Blushes all around.

“Well … she did stay after Wednesday night preaching a few times. But they were meetings strictly about church business. After all, he is the Reverend. A good man.”

More blushing.

A stammer, or two.

A good man.

 

The rain comes harder,

Pouring across her cheeks.

Meandering

Through her dark curls.

 

Droplets hammer hard

Against her open eyes.

Pouring in tiny rivers,

To the puddles below.

 

She doesn’t blink.

Can’t.

She’s a dead woman crying,

In the rain.

 

Tire tracks.

A second car.

Footprints.

Two sets.

 

One walking.

Casually?

A sly, stealthy approach?

The other, long strides.

 

Running away, possibly.

Zigzagging toward the woods.

Bullet lodged in spruce pine.

One round left to find.

 

Water inside my collar, down my back.

Shivering.

Cloth snagged on jagged tree branch.

Plaid shirt.

 

Blood?

Still visible?

in the rain?

The missing fifth round?

 

Maglite never fails, even in torrential rain.

Cop’s best friend.

Light catches shoe in underbrush.

Shoe attached to man.

 

Dead.

Bullet in back.

The fifth round.

Coming together, nicely.

 

Church meetings.

Reverend.

Two lovers.

Special wine for special occasion …

 

A good man.

Sure he is.

Police car,

Parks at curb.

 

Morning sunshine.

Tiny face,

Peering from window.

Waiting for Mama?

Scent of frying bacon in the air.

Door swings open.

Worried husband.

“No, she didn’t come home after church. Called friends and family. Nobody knows.”

 

Husband, devastated.

Children crying.

“Yes, I have ideas. 

And I’m so sorry for your loss.”

 

Tire tracks match.

Pistol found.

Preacher,

Hangs head in shame.

 

Special occasion.

To profess love.

But …

Another man.

 

A second lover.

Anger.

Jealousy.

Revenge.

 

Handcuffs.

Click, click.

Murder’s the charge.

No bond.

 

Single, unique plant seed,

Stuck to brake pedal.

Bingo!

Tied him to the scene.

 

Got him.

Prison.

Life.

No parole.

 

A “good man”, a preacher, left the little girl’s mama to cry in the rain.

 


Today, well, raindrops squiggle and worm their way down the panes of my office windows.

And, as it often happens on days like today,

I think of the crying dead woman.

Of her kids,

Her loving husband and,

Of course,

Baby socks.

 

Sometimes it’s the tiniest detail that makes a setting pop, zing, and sizzle. They’re the little things that cause readers to sit up and take notice. They evoke emotion and stir memories of real life experiences. They’re the things that make readers leave everything behind to step into the worlds you’ve created. After all, a well-written and well-crafted setting can be a character in its own right, and it’s equally as important as the fictional people who live within the covers of your books.

A great example of a writer who’s mastered the art of setting is superstar author James Lee Burke. Burke, whose settings are incredibly detailed, are written from the heart, and the details he creates shine through in every letter of every word. His scenes and characters are deeply layered and this is so because he often relies on personal life experiences.

Burke often talks about having worked in the Texas oilfields, and as a surveyor. He taught school and was employed once as a social worker. As a reporter he wrote for a  newspaper. Like many of us in our early years, and even later in life, money was tight back in the day for Burke and his family. They’d lived in a garage, motels, and a trailer. Thirty years ago Burke was an alcoholic.

It is the combination of Burke’s experiences that offers inspiration for his writings. He’s also adamant that writers should be aware of the people around them.

During a 2015 interview with Publishers Weekly, Burke said, “A good writer is a good listener. The great dialog of the world is all around us, if we’ll only listen. In similar fashion, the great stories are in situations we see everyday, just as the great heroes, the real gladiators, are usually standing next to us in the grocery checkout.”

I’vr often heard writers speaking about adding to their next book a bit of information they heard while at a writers conference. A couple of years, for example, at the Writers’ Poilce Academy,  Tod and Lee Goldberg saw a sign featuring a unique business name and both authors immediately claimed “dibs” at using the name in a future book.

Lee Child once asked me about the typical items stored in the trunk of a patrol car. He needed a speck of detail for a Reacher book. J.A. Jance once asked me about driving and skidding on icy roads. The scant bit of information was vital to an opening scene of a book that, as usual with Judy, quickly turned into a bestseller.

Donald and Renee Bain used to contact me often when they needed information for their Murder She Wrote series. Stuart Kaminsky called on both Denene and me for material. Lee Golderg … more of the same—tiny details for a Monk book. James Lee Burke asked me about fingerprints, a very specific but small detail and, like the others who contact various experts, much of the information was needed to “perk-up’ a scene, paragraph, sentence, or dialog. Sometimes all that’s needed is a single word … proper terminology.

So when writing about cops and when you really want to insert something special into your twisted and thrilling tales of mystery, suspense, and/or romance, ask an expert for unique behind the scenes details that will surprise the reader. Show your fans that you’ve done your homework. After all, your goal is to entertain and please the people who spend their hard-earned money to purchase the books you’ve labored over for the past several months, creating something special just for them.

Unique Cop Stuff

To help out, here are a few tiny specks of information you might find intriguing.

  1. A kevlar vest typically doesn’t quite reach the waistband of the wearer, which leaves a gap of a couple of inches between the bottom of the vest and the belt area of the pants. Nothing there but shirt material and flesh. Therefore, when sliding in and out of a police car, the hard and dense material of the vest sometimes catches and pinches a bit of “love handle,” and it feels like you’d imagine. It hurts and causes the officer to wince. Although, if people are around at the time, the officer will suck it up and pretend it didn’t happen. Still, that tiny tear in the corner of the eye is a dead giveaway. OUCH!
  2. While wearing a Kevlar vest, officers typically wear an undershirt of some type. The problem, though, is that the undershirt often “rides up” with all of the climbing in-and-out of patrol cars and scuffling with bad guys that officers do all shift long. So, to avoid the uncomfortable bunching-up of material that you can’t get to without stripping down, some officers tuck the tail of their undershirt into their underwear. The elastic band of the “Fruit of the Looms” holds the t-shirt firmly in place.
  3. Officers sometimes store an extra set of cuffs on the spotlight control arm.While driving along, especially on bumpy and curvy roads, etc., there’s a constant “click” of metal tapping metal as the handcuffs hanging from the spotlight arm sway with the motions of the car. After a while, though, the noise is “tuned out” and simply becomes a part of the cacophony of sounds inside the patrol vehicle—constant police radio chatter, FM radio station, the drunk yelling and singing from the backseat, and even a partner going on and on about his kids or the big fish he caught, or the mangled dead body they’d discovered at a crash scene earlier in the night.

4. Police departments use many symbols of rank designation. Some department supervisors wear white shirts (some departments issue white shirts to all officers), while others issue gold badges to their higher-ranking officers. But the easiest way to tell an officer’s rank is to look at their collar insignia. Each pin is a representation of the officer’s rank.

Collar insignias, beginning with the top ranking officer (chief)

Colonel, or Chief (some chiefs prefer to be addressed as Colonel) – An eagle (birds) on each collar

Sheriffs and chiefs may also wear a series of stars to indicate their rank.

Major – Oak leaf on each collar

Captain – Two bars on each collar (the two bars are often called “railroad tracks,” a great detail to include in a story)

Lieutenant – One bar on each collar

Sergeant hree stripes on the collar and/or the sleeve (photo below)

Sometimes rank is indicated on the badge.

Corporal – Two stripes on the collar and/or the sleeve

Officer – Chevron, or single stripe

 

Hash marks on the sleeve indicate length of service.

For example, each hash mark normally represents five years on the job. Sometimes, to avoid a sleeve fully-covered in long row of hash marks, stars are often used to represent each five years served. In the case of the officer/police chief above, each star in the circle represents five years of service, plus four hash marks, each of which, in this case, indicate a single year. So, 5 stars and 4 hash marks = a total of 29 years on the job.

Other pins and medals worn by officers may include …

Copy (2) of 20150713_092344

Here’s a closer look at the bling.

(from top to bottom):

– Name tag.

– Award ribbons – Community service award, length of service, expert marksman, lifesaving award, medal of valor.

– Pistol expert (to earn this award the officer must consistently shoot an average of 95% or better on the range).

– FTO pin worn by field training officers.

– K9 pin worn by K9 officers.

– Indicates outstanding service, above and beyond.

*Remember, ribbons and pins and other do-dads will vary by individual departments and agencies.

Pins

Pins on the back of name tags, ribbons, etc. are used to attach the insignias to an officer’s uniform. A small clasp (similar to an ear ring backing) is pressed over the pin tips to hold them in place.

Unfortunately, the clasps often fall off during scuffles with rowdy bad guys and, if the officer is not wearing a bullet-resistant vest, which was typical “back in the day,” could result in the pin tips puncturing the officer’s skin.

For a quick fix in the field, lost clasps can be temporarily replaced with pencil erasers.

Okay, that’s the tip of the detail iceberg. Questions?


“The author must know his countryside, whether real or imaginary, like his hand.” ~ Robert Lewis Stevenson

If your goal is realistic police procedure inserted between scenes of suspended disbelief, well, there are a few things you should avoid, much like you’d steer clear of walking through gang turf while wearing a neon green “Gang-Bangers’ Mamas Have Dumbass Kids” t-shirt. By the way, should you decide to take that walk and are subsequently evading the inevitable incoming gunfire, you could use that time to rethink the use of run-on sentences, the Oxford comma … and cordite (say NO to cordite!).

1. Guns, guns, and more guns. Since bad guys are inclined to use weapons when committing their crimes of choice, firearms and ammunition are, out of necessity, a big part of a police officer’s world. As writers it’s up to you to learn the basics about the firearm carried by your protagonist, and the one in the bad guy’s pocket. Four things you should avoid when writing about firearms and use of deadly force are:

a) police officers do not shoot to kill.

b) police officers are not trained to shoot arms, legs, hands, feet, etc.

c) handguns are not accurate at great distances, so please don’t have your hero cop pick off a bad guy who’s merely a dot on the horizon.

d) street criminals often carry cheap, pawnshop-type handguns, or stolen firearms.

2. Donut-eating, beer belly clown. Like dinosaurs, those guys are practically extinct. Present day officers are normally pretty health conscious. They belong to gyms and they exercise regularly (many departments and academies have their own workout rooms/gyms). They eat wisely, and they definitely shy away from what used to be a standard part of the diet … donuts. Weight training is also a regular part of many officers’ daily exercise routine. Criminals of today are often lean and mean, so officers feel that it’s important to be able to handle themselves when the bandits decide to attack or resist arrest.

So please do avoid the “fat officer” cliché. Those of you who’ve attended the Writers’ Police Academy, think back to the uniformed officers you saw there. Did you see any that were overweight? No, you didn’t. Not one. When there were donuts around, did you see any officers lined up to snag one? Nope. In fact, the requests we generally heard from them were for bottled water, salads for lunch, and a healthy choice for dinner, including skipping dessert.

3. Knock, knock. The business of cops and robbers is not a 9-5 job. Unfortunately, murderers don’t choose their time to kill based on what’s convenient for the rest of the world. This means that cops, in the early stages of an investigation, often show up at someone’s front door in the wee hours of the morning. When they do knock at 3 a.m. and Johnny Killer’s mom answers, it’s important that officers develop a rapport with her.

It’s also important that cops are quick on their feet, noticing little things around the house—photos, trophies, etc.—that could help to begin a conversation and to put people at ease by talking about something they know and cherish. It places the officer and the killer’s family members on a bit of common ground. So please do avoid having the detective push his way into a house and start shouting, “Where’s Little Pauly? I know he whacked Tony Earwax!”

That sort of tactic rarely ever works. However, there’s a time and place for everything. Just be sure the time in your story matches that of the scenario.

4. Talk, talk, and more talk. Cops, especially detectives, must be the best used car salesman, ditch digger, auto mechanic, florist, circus dung shoveler, and warehouse box stacker in the world. What I mean by that is that investigators absolutely must be able to fit in by walking the walk and talking the talk no matter where they are and to whom they’re speaking. Dialogue is a huge key to solving crimes. Cops have to be able to “BS the BS’ers. So having the ability to carry on a meaningful conversation with anyone and everyone is an extremely important part of the job.

Where writers often fail is by having their fictional investigators use the same manner of speech throughout the book, no matter the setting. Attitudes and personalities among criminals change, even within the same neighborhoods. Culture plays a huge part in demeanor and personality. When those factors change, so should the manner in which the detective carries herself, and how she speaks (or not) to the various people in the story. In other words, when your hero finds herself at a marina she best be talking about the joy of fishing, not that the level of mercury in seafood is slowly killing everyone on the planet.

So, avoid the detective character who’s not a chameleon. They must have the ability to change when change is needed. Remember, they should have the ability to BS the BSer’s. You do know what I mean by BS, right? If not, take time out of your schedule today and have a nice barefoot walk in a pasture occupied by a couple of bulls. You’ll catch on really fast.

5. The “so-called” expert syndrome. Please use caution when seeking an expert to help with the cop facts in your story. If you want readers to open your book and “see” officers and investigators going about their daily activities, then it is an absolute necessity to have someone who’s lived the life answer your questions. Better still, sit back and let them talk. Listen to the little things they have to say—the ripping sound of Velcro when they remove their Kevlar vests, or the smell of stale beer and cigarette smoke along with the surge of adrenaline felt when wading into a crowded bar to arrest a drug-fueled, angry biker. The feel of your heart slamming against the backside of your breastbone as you search a dark, abandoned warehouse for an armed killer.

These things can only be described by someone who’s actually experienced them. Not someone who’s merely read about it. And especially not when the information is relayed through the family and friend network—“My uncle knows everything about cops because he used to deliver propane to a guy who lived next door to a woman who divorced a man who once played softball on Sunday afternoons with a man who used to live near a police station. Believe me, the stories my uncle can tell. Know what I’m sayin’?”

If you want realism when realism is needed, avoid the “so-called expert syndrome.” Talk to real cops, forensics experts in the field, etc. And for goodness sake, attend the Writers’ Police Academy. It is THE gold standard of hands-on training for writers.

Remember, though, as important as it is to be absolutely realistic when writing certain scenarios, as long as you can effectively show why and how reality has been suspended, then most readers will forgive and understand why your character did what she did. “It” doesn’t have to be true, the reader just has to believe it is, or that it could be true in the hero’s world. In other words, write believable make believe.

 

“To Protect and Preserve.” Those are the words that should be on the mind of every officer who responds to the scene of a homicide.

First responders have an immense responsibility. Not only do they have to assess the situation in a hurry—the victim may still be alive—-, the possibility of the killer still being on scene is quite probable. And, those officers must realize that the key to solving the case—evidence—must be protected. So, while facing the threat of personal harm and saving the life of others, patrol officers practically need to step through the scene as if walking on eggshells. That’s not asking too much of them, right?

Keep in mind, there’s no set-in-stone method of investigating a murder because no two scenes are identical. And, no two officers/crime scene investigators think exactly alike. However, there are certain things that must be done, and there are mistakes that must not me made. Here are a few pointers.

The Dos

1. First responders must proceed to the scene as quickly and safely as possible. Why? Possibly catch the bad guy and to prevent the destruction/removal of evidence.

2. Quickly start the crime-solving wheels in motion by contacting the necessary parties, such as investigators, coroner, EMS, etc.

3. Arrest the suspect, if possible.

4. Document EVERYTHING.

5. Preserve and collect evidence.

6. Assume that EVERYTHING is potential evidence.

7. Secure the scene. Absolutely no one is allowed to enter who’s not a key person in the investigation.

8. Treat every single suspicious death as a homicide until the investigation proves otherwise.

9. Keep an open mind.

10. Photograph, photograph, photograph!

11. Study the victim. Learn everything there is to know about them. Know them. Know what they ate, what they liked to do, where they liked to go, who they liked and disliked, who liked them and who hated them, etc. Uncover every single detail of their life. The victim is often the single most important piece of evidence in the case.

12. Share information with members of your investigative team. Bounce thoughts and ideas around among the group. Talk to everyone involved—patrol officers on the scene, the coroner, other investigators, the crime scene techs, etc.

The Don’ts

1. Do not assume anything. Sure, the call came in as a suicide, but that doesn’t mean that’s what actually happened. That’s merely what a witness told the dispatcher. And definitely do not assume there are no weapons present at the scene simply because that’s what your dispatcher told you. Again, he/she was given that information by someone at the scene who may not know.

2. Do not assume the suspect has left the scene. Treat everyone there as a possible murderer until you learn differently. Be smart and be safe.

3. Do not allow anyone to leave the area until you’ve interviewed them. Treat everyone as a possible witness. Sometimes people don’t realize they’ve seen an important detail.

4. Failing to secure a scene could wind up as a disaster. Family members have a tendency to get in the way, thus destroying vital evidence. They feel the need to be a part of the scene. They want answers. Some are combative and want to blame and fight others. Therefore, absolutely do not allow anyone inside the scene. This includes members of the police department if they’re not part of the investigation. And I mean everyone, including the mayor, the chief, the sheriff, etc. (The last one’s easier said than done, right deputies?). If the boss insists then have them sign the log before stepping beyond the perimeter boundary line.

5. Releasing information to the media. Hold your cards close to your chest until you have an idea of what information can be released to the public. Remember, what you say will be on the evening news!

6. Don’t get a case of tunnelvision. Keep your mind open to everything, at first. Then as the case starts to come together the focus of the investigation will narrow. A murder investigation works like a funnel. First you dump all you’ve found into the large end. Then you keep pushing and pushing until finally the killer’s name pops out of the other, smaller end.

7. Failing to take enough notes and photographs could later haunt you in ways one can only imagine. You only have one shot at this, so take more notes than you think you could possibly need while the scene is still intact. There are no do-overs.

8. Don’t take sloppy notes and keep sloppy records. Remember, what you write down and/or record could/will eventually be seen in court. Your records will be a reflection of how the investigation was conducted. Clean notes = a clean, tight investigation.

9. Don’t discuss a case where members of the general public have an opportunity to hear the conversation! Words are too easy to misunderstand and that can come back to bite a detective in the…well, a place where the sun doesn’t shine. Think about a trial witness who says to the judge and jury, “Yes, I heard the detective say …”

10. Again, a case is not a suicide until the investigation proves it is. How many murderers have “gotten away with it” due to lazy officers conducting slipshod investigations? Sure, it’s easy to take a peek at a victim and assume suicide. But every case should warrant a closer look. You never know, especially if the circumstances are suspicious. And never discount that detective’s “gut feeling,” the investigator’s 6th sense.

11. Do not rush into a crime scene without first taking everything in. Take a moment to assess the area. Are there any dangers, including hidden ones, such as gas leaks, poisonous chemicals, A KILLER WITH A GUN?

12. Don’t assume the victim is dead. Check for vital signs. You certainly don’t want him to lie there suffering while you stand around waiting for the coroner. A few seconds could be the difference between life and death.

13. Don’t assume that the cooperative witness with the happy face is innocent. He could very well be the killer. If so, arrest that clown!

 

Stop and Frisk has once again worked its way into the news by way of politics, with a former presidential candidate apologizing for the use of the practice in a city where he once served as mayor. Those stops, he once vehemently argued, were necessary to help curtail the city’s out of control gun violence.

Since I choose to not dip my toes into political waters, opting only to present factual information which is often on the opposite end of the political truth meter, let’s instead examine “stop and frisk” and the Supreme Court decision that supports its use. We’ll also have a look at why, when properly utilized, its an effective tool.

What is Stop and Frisk?

Here’s how it all began, and it’s not a newfangled practice, not by any means.

In the mid 1960s, when I was still not quite a teenager (yes, this law has been on the books for a long, long time), a Cleveland, Ohio detective named McFadden saw two men, strangers to the area, walking back and forth in front of a store. On each pass the men stopped to look into the store window. McFadden watched the men while they made a dozen or so trips past the storefront. After each trip by the business the two men met at the street corner to chat for a minute or two. Soon, a third man joined the pair at the corner.

Detective McFadden, being quite the observant and proactive officer, had seen enough to send his “cop radar” into overdrive. He was certain the men were “casing” the place, waiting for just the right moment to rob the store owner. Their mannerisms, as do many telltale gestures of criminal behavior, telegraphed their intentions.

McFadden approached the three men, identified himself as a police officer, and then asked for their names. Someone mumbled something but no names were offered. Sensing things could quickly go downhill, McFadden grabbed and spun around one of the mumblers(John W. Terry) and patted the outside of his clothing, feeling a pistol in the man’s coat pocket.

Unable to retrieve the pistol on the street while keeping an eye on all three potential robbers, the detective ordered the men inside the store where he had them face the wall with their hands in the air. McFadden retrieved the pistol from the first suspect’s coat and then patted the clothing of the the other two men. During the searches McFadden located a second pistol. As a result, the three men were detained and taken to the police station. The two men with the guns were charged with possession of a concealed weapon.

On appeal, Terry argued that the officer had violated their constitutional rights according to the 4th amendment (unlawful search and seizure). However, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the officer, stating that his search was the minimum action required to see if the men were armed, a necessary tactic to safeguard his safety and the safety of others. And, that the suspects were indeed acting in a manner consistent with the probability of robbing the store owner.

Basically, the Court did not change or add laws to the books. Instead, they upheld that whenever possible and practicable, a police officer must obtain a warrant to conduct a search and seizure. However, they ruled, an exception must be made when “swift action” is required based on the observations of an officer.

Detective McFadden’s stop and frisk tactic has since been known as a Terry Stop. It’s a proactive tactic that prevents some crime before it happens, and it helps reduce the numbers of illegal weapons often carried by criminals. Without Terry Stops (Stop and Frisks), bad guys have no fear of being caught carrying a gun.

The Terry Stop According to the Supreme Court ruling Terry v. Ohio

A Terry stop is defined as a brief, temporary involuntary detention of a person suspected of being involved in criminal activity for the purpose of investigating the potential criminal violation.

In order to lawfully conduct a Terry stop, a law enforcement officer must have “reasonable suspicion,” which has been defined as “articulable facts (articulable means able to explain in words) that would lead a reasonable officer to conclude that criminal activity is afoot—more than an unsupported hunch but less than probable cause and even less than a preponderance of the evidence.

A police officer may, in appropriate circumstances and in an appropriate manner, approach a person for the purpose of investigating possible criminal behavior even though there is no probable cause to make an arrest.

Also known as the Common Law Right of Inquiry, this section of existing law permits an officer or agent to engage any citizen in a purely voluntary conversation (i.e. “May I speak with you a moment? Do you need any help? How long have you been here?”). In these cases, a citizen must be free to terminate the conversation at any time and go his or her way with no restrictions. This, however, is not a Terry Stop where an officer would conduct a pat-down of the person(s). Remember, this is a voluntary action on the part of the citizen. Terry Stops are not voluntary. In fact, Terry Stops are brief periods of actual detention that may include handcuffing the detained subject for the safety of the officer and others.

*The preceding three paragraphs are excerpted, with some paraphrasing, from FLETC training material. FLETC is the Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers.

Based upon Terry v. Ohio, what are officers permitted to do regarding pat-down searches?

Officers may, even without sufficient cause for arrest, briefly detain someone if …

  •  the officer identifies him/herself as a police officer (either by the uniform and badge, or verbally) and asks reasonable questions regarding the suspect’s current conduct.
  • the officer has knowledge of facts that lead them to believe the suspect is involved in some sort of illegal activity.
  • the person they’ve stopped does not immediately justify his actions in a manner that satisfies the officer’s suspicions.

Officer’s may conduct a pat-down search during a Terry Stop if they have a reasonable suspicion, based on personal knowledge of facts, that the person is armed.

The Terry Stop is a Search for Weapons

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Officers may not, however, go out on “fishing expeditions” under the guise of the Terry Stop. There must be facts supporting their reasons for a “frisk.”

By the way, a pat-down search is exactly as it sounds. Officers may only “pat” the outer surfaces of clothing. They may not reach into a person’s pockets unless they feel a weapon.

There is an exception to the rule, however, and that’s when an officer who has sufficient training and first-hand knowledge of narcotics packaging, “feels” what he/she suspects is a packet of drugs.

The skilled officer, one who’s extremely familiar with narcotics and how the various ways they’re wrapped and contained, may then reach into the pocket to retrieve the packet. To do so, the officer must be able to testify under oath, and verify, that he/she has the sufficient experience and training that would give them the knowledge needed to identify narcotics packaging by feel.

An example would be an officer who worked undercover or on a narcotics task force, like me. I was deemed an expert witness by the courts and, as an expert, was often called upon to testify in various cases.

If an officer’s assignment is to patrol a high crime area of the city, then it should be no problem to spot people who’re engaging in suspicious activity—drug dealers, robbers, rapists, car thieves, etc.

Those are the people, the folks involved in some sort of criminal activity, who warrant being stopped and frisked, if they exhibit signs of criminal intent. Not mom and pop and baby brother who’re on their way to church, school, or the grocery store. And certainly it is not permissible or even ethical to stop someone for a pat-down merely because their skin is a certain color.

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When used properly, Terry Stops/Stop and Frisks are a highly effective means of removing weapons and illegal narcotics from the street. When crooks know officers may approach and search they’re more apt to leave their guns at home or at least keep them hidden, out of their pockets. And, without having a firearm instantly available, the tendency to shoot first and ask questions later is greatly reduced.

Remember, Stop and Frisk/Terry Stops are still absolutely legal and constitutional, and they’re done each and every day all across the country. This, as current law states, is not debatable. Department policy, however, may differ.

In 2013, US District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled that New York’s stop-and-frisk policy was unconstitutional “as applied.”  In her decision, she stated that New York’s stop-and-frisk strategy focused too heavily on black and Hispanic people and was applied far too often without reasonable suspicion. In other words, Judge Scheindlin believed that officers in New York often engaged in racial profiling when determining who to stop and frisk. This, of course, is not how Terry v. Ohio (Terry Stops) are to be applied. Again, no fishing expeditions allowed.
 


 
Still, Terry Stops (Stop and Frisk) are absolutely legal and I can say that without a doubt these stops are an essential part of both proactive and reactive policing, and they save lives. At the very least, the practice helps remove illegal guns from the hands of those who’re likely to injure or kill others.
 

For politicians to use and Terry Stops as part of a political campaign is highly inappropriate, I believe, especially when they do so without first educating the public about the true meaning of the practice. Sure, using Terry Stops to simply and indiscriminately approach every Tom, Dick, and Bubba on the street is definitely unconstitutional, and to do so is morally wrong. But to broadly paint all Terry Stops with the same brush is also wrong.

You’re the Officer

If you, as a police officer, saw an agitated, nervous and sweaty person wearing a long overcoat in the middle of July, a coat with a distinctive bulge on the right side in the shape of a shotgun, who was about to enter a school, church, Walmart, sports stadium, or other location, what would you do?
 
Shouldn’t you be able to act based upon the coat and the mysterious gun-shaped object beneath it, along with the person’s odd appearance and actions? Wouldn’t you want to stop that person and pat them down as a precaution BEFORE he has the chance to encounter the people inside those venues? After all, your suspicions as a trained and experienced officer are reasonable, right?
 
Suppose you didn’t check them for weapons and they went inside and began shooting innocent people?
 
What if you had reasonable suspicion that a person was about to enter a school with a firearm? Would you allow them to go inside without first conducting a lawful Terry Stop/Frisk? A quick pat down to check for weapons and then send them on their way would be appropriate, correct?
 
So why tie the hands of officers? How many victims could/would be spared the horror and trauma of violence associated with gunfire that’s intended to do harm had police been permitted to do their jobs?
 
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*Please do not turn this article into a political discussion. It is meant as a learning tool about Stop and Frisk. Nothing more. Again, PLEASE keep politics as far away from this site as possible. I treat it like the plague. I only mentioned the politician above because they brought this topic to the attention of the media.
 
Politics … BAH, HUMBUG!
 


Friday Shopping With a Cop

 

Need help with the legal aspects of search and seizure? Is the hero of your tale on the fence about whether it’s okay to search?

How do you interpret a person’s behavior during their interview?


 
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