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.

capture-prisoner

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?
 
suspect-handcuffed-from-rear
 
*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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Lightweight adjustable tactical belt

Some crime scenes, such as labs used for manufacturing methamphetamine, contain hazardous materials—flammable and toxic chemicals and fumes. When searching those dangerous crime scenes investigators must wear protective gear and clothing. The same precaution is followed when it’s time to destroy drug evidence, such as the found methamphetamine.

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A detective wearing a hazmat suit gathers evidence from a meth lab.

Drug Evidence and Storage

Narcotics officers spend a great deal of time conducting surveillance in some of the worst places imaginable, and they do it while enduring some pretty rough conditions. After all, it’s not pleasant sitting in a patch of poison ivy during a rainstorm while watching a bad guy conducting his business. And, the narcotics officers never know if they’ll be discovered, which could lead to a violent confrontation, possibly even a shootout.

Once the surveillance is over, and officers have established the necessary probable cause for obtaining a search warrant, it’s time to locate and seize the evidence. Tactical teams rehearse for this moment over and over again.

Entry team serving a search warrant

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Bale (or brick) of marijuana discovered during a search.

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Twenty-five pounds of freshly harvested marijuana (more in bags and boxes off screen).

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Yes, that’s me in the photo above, and yes, that was my messy desk. In my defense, it had been a long week of day and night surveillance that led to a very long day of writing and serving search warrants.

Part of the long day included searching a wooded area where I’d previously discovered a fairly large grow operation.

Again, that’s me in the photo above. The “plant” I’m standing behind was one of over 100 marijuana plants I found as a result of the surveillance and subsequent op. The plant above was a mere baby compared to the majority. The young ones were contained in plastic five gallon buckets. The larger plants were in the ground and had reached heights of 14 feet or more.

Remember, this was a while back when marijuana restrictions were much tougher. Still, an illegal operation of well over 100 plants would most likely be sternly frowned upon even today.

Property Room/Storing Drug Evidence

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Above – A property room supervisor seen weighing a bag of marijuana.

No one has access to the evidence except the officers who work inside. If officers need a piece of evidence, they must sign for it, sort of like checking out a library book.

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Scales for weighing narcotics evidence. The weight is recorded on the yellow evidence tag along with other pertinent case information.

Evidence waiting to be cataloged

In some police departments above securely packaging and labeling items, officers deposit the evidence into an evidence safe. Once the items have been placed into the opening on the top of the safe they cannot be removed except by the property room supervisor.

Safes, like the one pictured below, are used during the nighttime hours when the property room officers are off duty. Once the items have been placed into the opening on the top of the safe they cannot be removed except by the property room supervisor.

evidence-safe.jpg

Evidence safe

Each morning property room officers remove the items, catalog them, and then place the evidence into the property room or warehouse, or other secure storage facility. Some large agency evidence rooms are huge, like mini versions of the warehouses that supply big retail outlets such as Amazon, Costco, Walmart, Home Depot and Lowes.

After a drug case has made its way though the courts the evidence is destroyed, often by incineration.

destroy.jpg

Device used for destroying (burning) narcotics

INCINER8 is an example of a portable narcotics incinerator.

It goes without saying that it would not be safe to bring a quantity of a controlled substance into a courtroom. Nor would it be possible, for example, for officer to attempt to bring 5 tons of cocaine they’d seized from a ship or a tractor trailer. Therefore, a laboratory analysis indicating the type of drug, its weight, and level of purity, along with photos/video of the drugs and packaging and how they were transported, are most often presented as evidence in lieu off the actual drug, etc. The laboratory scientist or tech who conducted the analysis is often called upon to testify about the testing and procedure used to certify their findings and conclusions.

As stated above, incineration is a common method used to destroy seized drugs. Large quantities of illegal drugs are often incinerated by private contractors who destroy the narcotics/drugs. The DEA, for example, destroys large quantities of seized marijuana at EPA-approved incinerators.

Before incinerators, back in the day, we hauled hundreds upon hundreds of marijuana plants, some as tall as 12-18 feet, to a landfill where a group of us narcotics agents set the massive piles ablaze after soaking them with kerosene. Then a bulldozer was used to bury the ashes among the other garbage and debris—food waste, trash, old furniture and appliances, etc.

Then, for some odd reason, after the burn was complete, we always had the urge to stop at a local 7-11 to pick up a few bags of Doritos and M&Ms, and maybe a bit of chocolate ice cream, doughnuts, Pringles, onion dip, and maybe a pickled pigs foot or two. I don’t know why …


NARCAN By Noon

Join renowned instructor Sergeant James Yowell in his fascinating MurderCon class called Narcan By Noon.

Class Description – Drugs and death are deeply intertwined. Recent trends in drugs have led to an epidemic of deaths due to overdose, and created a compelling way to conceal a crime. Not all drug deaths are self-induced, and even when they are, they may be related to extraordinary activities by the user. This session will explore drug trends and mortality of drug users, and how can they determine overdose versus foul play.

Sergeant James Yowell is a twenty year veteran of the Fayetteville, North Carolina, Police Department. He was a counter drug investigator for 17 years, and he served as a Task Force Officer with the Drug Enforcement Administration for 9 years. As an undercover officer, Sergeant Yowell investigated international drug trafficking cases targeting Mexican organized crime, including street level drug “buys/sales” to a case agent.

MurderCon!

There’s still time to attend MurderCon, a unique event featuring hands-on workshops that are typically for law enforcement eyes ONLY!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To view MurderCon classes and workshops click HERE.

To sign up to attend this unique event for writers, readers, fans, and anyone who’s interested in attending actual hands-on law enforcement training at a renowned facility,  click HERE. 

Working as a sheriff’s deputy in the patrol division often presents a few unique challenges as opposed to patrolling city streets, such as having lots of miles to cover when responding to various emergencies.

Other issues faced by law enforcement officers who work in rural settings may include dodging roadway hazards such as large, slow-moving farm equipment, loose cows, deer leaping into the path of patrol cars that’re traveling at warp speeds, patches of slippery ice and, at night, the “Popeye” drivers whose cars and pickup trucks have only one working headlight that somehow seems to always remain on the high beam setting.


Popeye – nickname assigned to a car having only one functioning headlight. Named after the squinting, spinach-eating cartoon sailor. Toot, toot.

 

 

 

 


“THAT” Day

I and a fellow deputy began our shift at 0800 that Saturday, and we’d decided to catch up on a bit of paperwork at the office before going our separate ways, making ourselves seen throughout the county. Nothing much happened before noon on Saturdays and that’s why, along with one deputy out sick and another on vacation, there were only two of assigned to work the roads and answer complaints.

It was 0930 when a man called the dispatcher to say he’d just killed his sister-in-law and that the “911 lady” should send “the Po-leece” right away. Then he hung up.

Q-Tips

After receiving the necessary information—location, weapon involved, male suspect—my co-worker and I dropped what we were doing and sprinted to our patrol cars. We left the parking lot with red and blue lights winking, spinning, and blinking and our tires churning up small blackish-blue clouds that reeked of burned rubber.

Throughout the city streets we blasted our sirens at intersections, and when we drove up behind the Saturday morning, slow-moving Q-tips who were on their weekly treks to town.

The “Q-tips,” bless their hearts, are the folks of a certain age. They’re the elderly women who’re on the way to get their hair styled and molded into those blueish-white helmet shapes, and their frail and rickety spouses who stop in the barbershops for a snip here and there and to have the barber apply enough smell-good tonic to keep the snow-white wispy combovers in place while they visit the feed store to browse through the rows of shiny red or green mowers and tractors.

Then, when the appropriate amount of time passes, the tractor-lookers toss their wooden canes into the backseats of their Ramblers or Buicks and head back over to Betty’s Cut and Curl or Donna’s Dipsy-Dos to pick up the wife so together they can do their grocery shopping and perhaps have a bite to eat at the Connie’s Country Diner before traveling at a snail’s pace back to the family farm.

They, the Q-Tips, are the slow drivers who never, not ever, look into their rearview mirrors. Their windows are up to prevent the wind from mussing a new “do,” or blowing the ball cap from old man Johnson’s freshly-slickered eighteen remaining hairs.

So we’d follow behind those rolling boxes of cotton swabs with full lights and sirens until we caught a break in traffic so we could pass.

White-haired retirees are sometimes referred to as Q-tips by traffic officers. This is so because a grouping of them stacked together in a sedan loosely resemble a box of cotton swabs.

That particular Saturday morning, while kids watched cartoons and the mall parking lots began to see the first cars of the day entering their lots, we were pushing the limit, zipping through the city until we reached the main county road that led us in the direction of the alleged murder. The location was 30-40 minutes away when driving the posted speed limit. We reached scene in less than 20. As the truckers’ used to say, it was pedal to the metal all the way. We straightened curves by taking advantage of “the racing line” of the roadway.

For those of you who don’t know, a driver who follows a racing line greatly reduces the angle of a curve by entering it at a the far outside edge of the roadway and then crosses over to the inside edge, the apex. The apex is the point at which you are closest to the inside of the corner. The turn/curve is then completed by moving back to far outside edge of the roadway. This maneuver is sometimes called “hitting the apexes.” Following this tactic reduces braking and “straightens the curve” which allows the officer to drive safely through even deep bends in the roadway at a much faster speed. However, it is a must to constantly remain alert for oncoming traffic, tractors, deer, cows, people on bicycles and motorcycles who sometimes ride three and four wide. Watching out for unexpected obstacle is a must because a bit of the officers’ curve-straightening involves driving on the opposite/wrong side of the road.

The Suspect From Mars

Standing beside a mailbox at the end of a long dirt drive was a man dressed in a red and white striped shirt, white pants, and brown work boots. As we turned into the driveway I noticed what appeared to be a significant amount of blood spatter on his clothing and shoes, so I stopped. He was obviously agitated, excited, and he rambled on incessantly about that fact that he’d just arrived to earth from Mars. I handcuffed him, placed him in the seat beside me (we didn’t have rear cages/compartments back in the day), and hurried to the house.

My coworker and I raced to the door and went inside, yelling “Sheriff’s Department!”

What we found in the home, in the master bedroom, was nothing short of the stuff horror movies are made of.

Blood oozed down the painted drywall in narrow but rapidly drying convoluted trails. Spatter of various sizes and shapes was everywhere—ceiling, walls, the floor. A severed human hand lay next to one wall. I’d later count 13 chop marks in the hardwood next to it. Pools of rusty-red blood separated by drag marks of the same color and substance led to the body of a dead woman, a female who died a brutal death caused by the repeated blows of an ax.

The woman’s forearms were badly cut, signs that she’d attempted to stop dozens of strikes of the ax. A large gash to the right side of her head revealed the white of her skull, bone that had been hacked and chipped away, revealing brain matter. Some of it was found stuck to the ceiling.

Small bits of splintered bone lay scattered across the floor.

Blood spatter found its way to the bedroom furniture, including a king-size bed where its dull brownish-red hue was in sharp contrast to the crisp white sheets. More spatter peppered the faces, hands, legs, and feet of the woman’s four small children who sat huddled together on the center of the mattress. It looked like a random splattering of freckles across their skin. The Winnie the Pooh and Scooby Do cartoon characters that decorated the kids’ pajamas each wore dozens of bloody dots of brownish dry blood along with larger cast-off stains.

Those tiny boys and girls witnessed the entire act. They watched the killing of their mother that occurred for the simple reason that the perpetrator had asked his sister-in-law for enough money to purchase a pack of cigarettes and she didn’t have it. So the man, their “blood” uncle, walked outside to the woodpile where he picked up the ax and went back inside to kill.

The first blow was from behind, to the head. She went down but turned and held up her arms and hands to fend off the onslaught that followed. But there was little she could do once he went to work on her, chop after chop.

When I questioned the killer he claimed to have come to Earth from Mars and that voices from a nearby power-line tower told him to kill the woman. He also said he’d cut off her hand because the fingers kept pointing at him.

He’d been tucked away in a psychiatric care hospital until two weeks prior to the murder. His release came when a sympathetic judge found him competent to return to life outside, placing him in the care of his brother. Fourteen days later the brother’s wife was dead and his four kids were scarred for life.

The killer was found to be not competent to stand trial for the murder and has remained in a psychiatric facility since.


The Art of Blood

To learn how investigators interpret blood evidence, sign up today to attend retired FBI Special Agent David Alford’s hands-on MurderCon class, The Art of Blood.

Special Agent Alford is a retired FBI Special Agent with 21 years of experience investigating violent crimes, terrorism and other cases. He was one of the founding members of the FBI Evidence Response Team (ERT) and conducted crimes scene searches on domestic and international violent crimes and bombings, including the Polly Klaas kidnaping and murder, the Unabomber’s cabin and the 9/11 Pentagon scene. He worked in the Denver and San Francisco field offices and completed his career at Quantico in the FBI Lab ERT Unit. During the 6 years in the FBI Lab, he was primarily responsible for overseeing and teaching basic and advanced crime scene courses throughout the US and many other countries.

In the 6 years before the FBI, David was a Forensic Serologist, Hair and Fibers Examiner and Bloodstain Pattern Analyst for the Kentucky State Police Crime Lab. After retirement, David taught crime scene courses around the world on behalf of the FBI and US State Department. David has been with Sirchie as an instructor and sales representative for Sirchie’s RUVIS and ALS products for the last 10 years. David loves teaching and allowing students to learn through hands-on training.

FBI Special Agent (ret.) David Alford, Sirchie/MurderCon instructor.

Violent crimes and accidents frequently involve the interpretation of blood evidence. This class offers the attendee the opportunity to learn how to determine the velocity and angle in which a bloodstain impacted a surface, and the 3-dimensional point of origin – where injury or bleeding event occurred. The instruction will include presumptive testing techniques of stains thought to be blood, as well as, searching crime scenes for latent blood with luminol when circumstances dictate that the area was cleaned by the perpetrator. Attendees will participate in hands-on activities to reinforce the learning objectives.

MurderCon!

There’s still time to attend MurderCon, an event featuring hands-on workshops that are typically for law enforcement eyes ONLY!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To view MurderCon classes and workshops click HERE.

To sign up to attend this unique event for writers, readers, fans, and anyone who’s interested in attending actual hands-on law enforcement training at a renowned facility,  click HERE. 

Since the topic today is “small town departments” and the officers who work there … well, hold on to your hats because I’m about to make an earth shattering announcement! Ready?

Here goes.

Sure you’re ready? Are you sitting down? Have your nervous medicine in hand? Your doctor on speed dial?

Yes to all of the above? Okay, then. Here it is, and I’m holding nothing back. Not this time.

(One second. I’m taking a deep breath because this is scary).

Okay, here’s the news …

Small town cops are the same as cops in big cities!

Yes, they are. I’ve said it and the secret is OUT!

They receive the same training. They do the same jobs. They go through similar hiring procedures. They enforce the same or similar laws. They use the same or similar equipment.

So why do some writers insist upon writing them differently? Well …

Barney-Fife-Itis

What is Barney-Fife-itis, you ask? Well, lots of writers suffer from it, and it’s a horrible disease. Nasty, in fact.

Do You Have the Symptoms?

Have you ever written small town cops as inferior to officers in large cities?

Have you ever written small town cops as sloppy, stupid human beings?

Have you ever written small town cops as doughnut-eating, ignorant, fat slobs?

Have you ever written small town cops as incompetent officers who must rely on FBI agents to solve every crime that occurs in Tinytown?

Have you ever believed any of the above to be true?

If so, you should immediately take a large dose of reality, rest for a moment, and then continue reading this post because each of the above are things I see in many books and they are not only absolutely and unequivocally wrong, they’re extremely offensive to many police officers.

I want to help you get better. I want to help rid your body and mind of this horrible disease that plagues writers. I want to heal you of this affliction. I want to cure you of Barney-Fife-Itis!

Now, do you agree that you have a problem, that this horrible and festering illness occupies a spot in your mind?

Yes?

Okay, that’s the first step … admitting the problem. Now let’s begin the healing process and to do so you must first address the trouble head-on by facing your negative feelings toward small town officers. So I’d like to take you to a small place, the one you’ve conjured up and now resides somewhere deep inside your imaginations, the spot where those ideas live and breed like the black mold that hides beneath your bathroom vanity.

So lets go there, to that location in your mind where …

Yes, it’s a small red-brick building nestled between Betty Lou’s Cut ‘n Curl and Smilin’ Bob’s Hardware and Wedding Cake Bakery. The lone parking space out front is reserved. A sign atop a steel post next to it reads “Chief’s Parking Only.”

Inside, the hallway to the right takes you to the water department and the office of the building inspector. There, you can also purchase dog tags, yard sale permits, and Girl Scout cookies, all sold by the town clerk, little Susie Jenkins’ mom, Sadie Mae. Her husband is the local letter carrier and her brother Bully Buck runs the feed store out on Route 1. And like most of the town’s business folk, Billy Buck’s a member of the volunteer fire department.

A left turn down the second hallway leads to the town’s police department, a force comprised of five dedicated, hardworking police officers—one chief, one sergeant, two full-time officers, and one part-time guy who’s also the mayor of the next town over.

Complaints can be filed with the dispatcher at the window, or by dialing the local number.

Calling 911 in Tinytown, by the way, works the same as calling 911 in Big City.

There is a tiny difference, though. When you call 911 in Tinytown somebody always shows up to see what’s wrong. Not always so in Big City.

Tinytown dispatchers also work the computer terminals, running criminal history and driver’s license checks. They know CPR and they know everyone in town and the quickest routes to their houses. They know the town drunk and the members of his family, and they know Ms. I. Chart, the wife of the town’s only optometrist. She’s a kleptomaniac and everyone knows about her problem. In fact all the merchants know Ms. Chart. So they keep an eye on her and a running tab of the things she steals so that each of them can present the bills to the good doctor at the end of the month, which he promptly pays.

Officers in Tinytown have an advantage over Big City cops in that they, too, know everyone in town. They know the good, the bad, and the ugly (bless little Junior, Jr’s heart, but he did get that odd-shaped head and dreadful set of cross-eyes from his daddy’s side of the family).

Tinytown cops know the local crooks by name and address and hangouts. They know the names of their mamas, daddies, grandparents, Sunday school teachers, and even the girlfriends and boyfriends they kept time with back in middle school.

A lot can be said about the advantages small town cops have over their big city peers. Another such asset is the above average ability to rapidly solve and close cases. Cops in big cities often must work a bit harder when investigating crimes because they face many unknowns. Small town cops have an edge in this area because they often know who committed a crime simply by the method used. For example, a crook uses a John Deere tractor to break down the doors of businesses, and he does do every Saturday night without fail.

I’ll never understand why so many bad guys repeat the same mistakes time and time again, but they do. Some are so predicable that I sometimes felt as if I should’ve simply driven to a known criminal suspect’s home on a Friday night to wait for him to arrive with stolen goods, and then together we’d wait for the call to come in that a home had been burgled.

Yes, some are practically that predictable

A rowdy drunk goes on regular rampages inside Popcorn Perkins’ juke joint out on the dirt road between Jasper Junction and Hickory Holler. The destruction usually happened sometime during One-Eyed Edith’s drunken and regular banjo solo, an act she performed for anyone who’d watch. Well, if Popcorn Perkin’s didn’t pop a cap in the wild man’s rear end right then and there the local boys in blue would sit in the drunk’s front yard waiting for him when he got home, because every single person in the place knew the guy by his first name, and they’d snitch.

And there’s the guy who robbed the Wiggly Jiggly Club during the middle of hardworking Bertha Leadbottom’s last set of the night. On a good night, after payday at the mill, Bertha sometimes took in  as much as a hundred bucks, or so, all in singles. She needed every dollar she earned because, according to the pharmacist over at the Walgreens, her middle child, Ruby Jean, took three medications that cost darn near three-hundred George Washingtons each month.

It took the locals all of three hours to find the “Jiggly” robber. They would’ve caught him sooner but Bertha’s ride home was a no-show so the sergeant waited until she dressed proper-like and counted her cash, and then he gave her a lift home.

They solved the case so quickly because the masked robber, Jimbo Jenkins, wore his work shirt while holding up the bartender. Jimbo works out on the highway as a tire changer at Big Earl’s Truck Stop, and right there as big as life itself was the name JIMBO” embroidered above his left shirt pocket. On the back of his grease- and oil-stained work-shirt, in great big, bright-red lettering was “BIG EARL’S TRUCK STOP.”

Not as easy in the city, where a crook could be anyone from a long distance truck driver who stopped in off the interstate, to Sammy the Nose of the south-side Baddabing Family.

Why and how?

Why? Again, because in small towns practically everyone knows nearly everyone, and cops in those areas of small populations arrest the same people over and over again, for the same crimes, over and over again. It’s like shooting a small number of fish in a small barrel.

And when the crooks grow older and physically unable to continue along the path of crime, well, their kids take over and follow in their footsteps. I sometimes read my old hometown paper and see where the kids and/or grandchildren of people I’d arrested years ago are now committing the same types of crimes, or worse.

Once in a while though, the stinky stuff hits the fan in Tinytown and in comes an outsider, an interloper who decides to kill one of the locals. Perhaps ol’ Rooster Simpson traveled to Big City one Saturday night and hooked up with Sammy the Nose’s wife during a night of boozing it up at the Rusty Nail Motor Lodge lounge. The two head back to Rooster’s room, the one with the coin operated vibrating bed, where a friend of The Nose sees them smooching it up before entering the pay-by-the-hour love nest. So a week later Sammy sends his best hit man down to whack Rooster. He does the deed, polices his brass, and heads back to the city without leaving a trace.

So how in the heck would these tiny town officers ever hope to solve such a big time case? After all, it’s murder and the last time someone killed someone else in Tinytown was when Jonas Johnson used his double barrel to settle the argument with Homer Wrightway about whose tractor could pull the biggest plow. The gun was meant for show but when Jonas’ prize pig ran outside through the front door of Jonhson’s house with Mabel Johnson directly behind shooing the sow with her best straw broom, the porcine prancer bumped Johnson’s right leg, an action that caused the man to pull the trigger, shooting his buddy Homer dead right then and there.

But there was no need for an investigation. Johnson drove himself down to the police station/water/building inspector/Girl Scout cookie department to turn himself in.

But now there’s been a real killing with real clues to be found and a real murderer to be located. And it’s up to the Tinytown cops to solve the crime. Lawdy, lawdy, and lawdy, whatever should they do?

Well, the answer is simple. They investigate the case just as would any officer in any town or city or county in the country.

All police officers in all police departments and sheriff’s offices (the deputies with police powers—not all are police officers) attend a police academy and they receive the same training and certifications as the officers over in Big City.

No, Tinytown PD doesn’t have all the latest fancy equipment with the shiny, spinning dials and winking, blinking lights. They most likely don’t have special detectives who only work homicides or white collar crime, or have on staff specialized gang units or juvenile divisions. And they don’t have sections dedicated to traffic, vice, narcotics, and internal affairs. Budgets simply don’t allow it.

In many cases, actually, small town police officers have another advantage over the specialized big city cops because officers in Tinytown are cross-trained. They each know how to run radar, direct traffic, dust for fingerprints, interview suspects and witnesses, and they know how to investigate a murder. They work burglaries and assaults. They also arrest drunk drivers, drug dealers, people who abuse their spouses, rapists, pedophiles, kidnappers, and robbers. They break up fights, help kids cross the street safely, and they locate lost pets. If one of their officers  steps out of line they’ll straighten his butt out, too.

Big city detectives may work in one specific area for a very long time; therefore their skills in other areas often become weak and stagnate due to the lack of experience in those other fields of investigation.

Of course, Tinytown is totally fictional, but there are many actual small towns with small police departments. And those small departments, as I stated above but want to re-emphasise, work the same type cases as the departments in larger cities.

No, not all departments are large enough to have officers who serve solely as detectives. But they all employ police officers who are fully capable of investigating any type of crime. And they do, from traffic offenses to murder. Sure, they perform the same work as a detective, but they may do it while wearing a uniform instead of some fancy-smancy suit.

Yep, most small departments operate the same way as the large ones, just on a smaller scale.

If Small Town officers need additional help, or resources, they call on the sheriff’s office or the state police. Sometimes, if warranted, but it’s rare, they may call on the FBI. Please keep in mind that the FBI does not, as a rule, investigate local homicides. That is not what they do. Nor do they ride into town and take over a detective’s office. No, no, and NO!

ATF agents often operate out of small town departments and they’ll assist with various local cases, just as they depend on the assistance and backup from the local cops when needed.

Remember, not all departments operate in the same manner. Some smaller departments DO have detectives and those investigators may or may not wear a uniform. They could dress in a coat and tie, and they could have the title of detective, or investigator. If they’re a detective who wears a uniform their rank would normally remain the same. There is no standard rule. It’s entirely up to the individual department.

By the way, a police department and a sheriff’s office are not the same. Deputy sheriffs work for sheriffs, not police chiefs. But that’s a topic for another day.

I’ve often wondered why some people assume that people who have little are to be considered inferior or less intelligent when compared to those who have a lot. This is also true when considering law enforcement agencies. Those with the shiniest and best equipment are often seen as employing officers who are smarter than their peers who work for small town departments with meager budgets. Of course, this unfair stereotyping occurs throughout most walks of life.

Actually, if comparing apples to apples, try breaking it down in this way:

  • Tinytown, a municipality of 4,000 residents, employs five police officers. Those five officers provide police protection and coverage for those 4,000 citizens.
  • Big City, a city of 100,000 employs 125 officers.
  • Break down the number from Big City into three shifts (day, night, and rotating for the off hours of the other shifts) and you wind up with just over 40 officers per shift.
  • Now, since Big City covers a much larger land area than Tinytown, officials divided Big City into 8 precincts.
  • Each of the eight precincts covers a land area the size of Tinytown.
  • Each precinct employs … wait for it … FIVE officers.
  • Some of those precincts have 4,000 residents, or more, including the extremely high-crime areas. Therefore, these precincts of 4,000 residents are covered by five police officers, which is the same scenario that plays out in every small town and city across the country.
  • Many small town police officers attend the same police academies as their peers in larger cities. In fact, they’re often classmates in the same academy. And, their instructors are the same, their desks are the same, and the equipment used is identical.

Anyway, budget, land area, and location are the major differences. Not intelligence or training. (The above is strictly hypothetical, but very near reality).

Check with Experts

As always, please check with experts in the area where your story takes place. Those are the people who can best help with your research. Not someone who once read a book about how cops work in small towns. Obviously, to read incorrect information and then pass it along is, well, it doesn’t make the details any more accurate. Wrong is wrong.

To do so would be no different than me reading a book on brain surgery and then telling you about it so you can then operate on your readers and fans. Reading a book about something does not make someone a crackerjack on that particular subject. It’s actual experience and training does indeed produce experts who can help you breathe life and emotion into your fiction.

We often see “Guess-perts” (the folks with no real experience or training) telling authors to write small town cops as “Barney Fifes,” when that couldn’t be further from the truth. I know, there are “Barneys” in many departments (other professions as well), but they’re not exclusive to small towns. It’s just that they’re far more obvious when they’re one of only five officers citizens see every single day.

So, if you’re going for accuracy, the best advice for you, my writer friends, is to …

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Speaking of adding realism to you stories …

MurderCon!

There’s still time to attend MurderCon, an event featuring hands-on workshops that are typically for law enforcement eyes ONLY!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To view MurderCon classes and workshops click HERE.

To sign up to attend this unique event for writers, readers, fans, and anyone who’s interested in attending actual hands-on law enforcement training at a renowned facility,  click HERE. 

Before I begin, please know that this post is not an op-ed article. I’m merely presenting facts surrounding suicide investigations involving the book Final Exit. 

If you or anyone you know is in crisis, please call the National Suicide Hotline at 800-273-TALK (8255).

Final Exit, the book

In the early 1990s, Derek Humphry published Final Exit. The book is a “how-to” guide for people seeking a successful suicide.

In the book, Humphries highlighted four types of suicide—passive euthanasia, self-deliverance, assisted suicide, and active euthanasia.

  • Passive euthanasia – the disconnection of life support systems and/or equipment.
  • Self-deliverance – the taking of ones own life.
  • Assisted suicide – a person ingests a deadly dose of medication supplied by a physician.
  • Active euthanasia – death brought about by a physician who personally injects a lethal drug into a person’s bloodstream.

The author encourages people to doctor-shop until they find one who shares the view that suicide could be the proper course of action. He suggests that people considering assisted suicide conduct a bit of surveillance by examining a doctor’s waiting room to see if “magazines are current and that the staff is friendly and helpful,” signs that the doctor could be sympathetic and compassionate, and not simply “running a business.”

Readers of Final Exit learn that it’s a good idea to underline or highlight passages in the book, and even to sign their names inside. Then they’re instructed to place the book nearby when they commit the act. This is to show police that the suicide was an act of euthanasia and not a homicide. However, those who do assist may still be held criminally responsible if they supplied the drug, the plastic bag that covered the head of the victim, or the firearm that killed. By the way, Humphry mentions the use of the plastic bag combined with medication as a highly favored means of suicide.

Humphry instructs those who assist to not touch the dying person. However, if they do he says to lie about it if questioned by authorities, and that you gave absolutely no encouragement. He also went on the say that the person who’s present at the time of the suicide should NOT call 911. The latter instruction is to prevent EMS from initiating lifesaving procedures.

The Police Investigation

The presence of Final Exit at the scene should be noted and its position in the home recorded by photograph or video, as well as in the detective’s written notes. In other words, the presence and placement of the book should be properly documented. It could be an important factor and should be treated as evidence, because it could contain the fingerprints and/or DNA of someone other than the victim, such as a person who assisted in the death.

As previously mentioned, there may be notations or underlined passages within the book. Therefore, officers should thoroughly examine it page by page for comparison to the manner of death and to the instructions found highlighted.

The book recommends that the suicidal person leave a signed note. Officers should search, as always, for written messages that may provide answers about the death. Notes should always be examined for finger and palm prints and for handwriting comparison(s). For comparison, fingerprints and palm prints should also be collected from friends and family members who’re close to the victim. Plastic bags and prescription bottles and medications should be collected. Fingerprint examinations should be conducted on the bags and bottles. Lifted prints are compared to the victim’s and to those of potential suspects. Remember, it is equally as important that police rule out potential suspects as it is for them to include someone as a possible perpetrator of a crime.

In all cases where copies of Final Exit are found, well, there’s the possibility that someone assisted in the death. And, that assistance could be illegal.

*Again, if you or anyone you know is in crisis, please call the National Suicide Hotline at 800-273-TALK (8255).