Point Your Tale In A New Direction: Patrol Cops v. Detectives

Point your tale


Why does almost every crime novel feature a muscle-bound, sharpshooting, fast-driving, marathon-running, cool-as-hell detective? What is it about the suit-wearing police officers that attracts a writer’s attention? After all, detectives are normally the last officers to see any real action. They’re rarely in shootouts. They hardly ever chase fleeing suspects. And they almost never get their shiny shoes dirty. In fact, their job is pretty mundane—see a body, collect some evidence, send evidence to a lab, talk to some people, evidence results return from the lab, get a warrant, arrest the suspect (or have a uniform pick him up), testify in court, and then start all over again. And many detectives have been on the job for years and years, NOT doing much more than the above, which may begin to take its toll—flabby muscles, poor shooting skills, slow reaction times, couldn’t run if they wanted to (and they don’t), and hot flashes.

Writers are actually going about this thing all wrong. Bass-ackward, as some of the old-timers on my old beat used to say.

Patrol officers are the guys and gals who see all the excitement—going toe-to-toe with 350lb crooks who refuse to be handcuffed, shooting it out with armed robbers, 110mph vehicle pursuits, chasing armed robbers through dark alleys, getting bitten by dogs, removing unwanted 20-foot-long snakes from beneath mobile homes, rescuing people from burning cars and buildings, performing CPR on unconscious and unresponsive drug addicts, climbing in a window after a burglary suspect, capturing prison escapees, wading into a street filled with drug dealers, gang members, and prostitutes, and rescuing tiny puppies and kittens. Now there’s the complete package—excitement and action along with a tender side. Who doesn’t love puppies and kittens, right?

So let’s explore this concept a bit further. Lots of people are attracted to fit men and women in uniform, right?

But how many people are attracted to older detectives who wear rumpled, out-of-style suits and scruffy facial hair?

Ridiculous to even consider, right?

Patrol officers hit the gym regularly. They have to so they can match muscle-for-muscle with the thugs they arrest on a daily basis. Detectives, well, they do ride by a gym or two while on the way to their colorectal pre-surgery appointments.

Patrol officers hone their skills every single day. They’re out there in the trenches, staying sharp, looking sharp, and acting sharp. Investigators start their day in their offices, drinking a cup of coffee while solving the daily Jumble, using a pencil crudely sharpened with the pocketknife they carry for peeling apples.

Uniformed officers are the front line officers, the “faces of the department.” Therefore, their hair is neatly trimmed, clothing neatly pressed, and shoes shined to glossy perfection. Detectives are often seen wearing t-shirts, old jeans, and sneakers. And the last time their hair saw a set of clippers was the time they spent an entire Saturday morning attempting to groom the family Lhasa Apso.

Patrol officers stare into the face of danger. Detectives work “undercover.”

Patrol officers fight crime. Detectives wait until everything is over before “going in.”

Patrol officers rush into active crime scenes to save the victims. Detectives serve search warrants in the middle of the night, hoping to catch the bad guys while they’re sleeping.

So give this a little thought when you sit down to dream up a character for your next thriller. Do you go with bass-ackward tradition, or will your tale be facing a new direction?

Besides, who do you want saving your puppies, a fit, handsome patrol officer…

Or an out-of-shape, poorly-dressed detective?

20 replies
  1. Mark Phialas
    Mark Phialas says:


    There are are more people who resemble Wally Cox or Woody Allen than Clooney or Pitt.


    Insert head-banging emoticon here.

    PS reading your Howdunnit on police procedure. Excellent.

  2. Marjorie Doering
    Marjorie Doering says:

    Thanks for your help, Lee. I realize that’s a problem with switching a character from cop to detective. I realized making the shift would be an issue. There are some extenuating circumstances in Ray’s case, but I’ll definitely do some more extensive research before tackling the situation.

    Thanks again, Lee!

  3. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Well…I’d still turn to your local officers for answers to your questions. What you see on TV is still TV, not always exactly as it is in real life. 48 Hours is pretty darn close, though.

  4. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Julie – I’m curious. What’s wrong with seeing a detective wearing a suit and gun? That’s what they do. And I dare say that if you’d robbed the place you’d have quickly found yourself like the top on an old mason jar that kids used for collecting fireflies…full of brand new air holes.

  5. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Marjorie – You are entering into a area where many writers have tried to go and almost always get it wrong. Authors, for whatever reason, have their hotshot detectives switch departments starting out immediately as an investigator with the new agency. Well, that rarely, if ever, happens in real life. Everyone must pay their dues. Besides, every single department has scores of qualified officers waiting for the chance to become a detective (many others couldn’t care less about the plainclothes job). So to have a stranger waltz in and take a job away from someone who already knows the laws, rules, territory, the local crooks and their habits, snitches, etc. is, well, almost silly. It’s sort of like having a boy scout leader take over command of a military base. They both wear a uniform, right?

  6. Marjorie Doering
    Marjorie Doering says:

    Super post, Lee, with a heavy dash of humor coming from the pictures. There are always exceptions to the rule, right?

    You’ve made me feel certain I did something really smart. My novel’s main character is a cop! With only a couple of chapters to go, Ray Schiller will be moving on to my next novel.

    The next logical step in his law enforcement career is (gulp! Dare I admit this?) becoming a detective. Of course, moving to another police department and becoming a detective on that force must take some time and certain protocols. Can you clue me in on a time frame and the steps involved?

    Thanks for the terrific post, Lee, as well as for any pointers you might send my way.

  7. Julie D.
    Julie D. says:

    I was leaving a restaurant several years ago, and as I was exiting, three men in suits stood aside to let me pass. All three sported guns and LAPD badges at their hips. The one who held the door looked like actor Peter Dobson, and he had the unmitigated gall to stand there, sans jacket, showing his ‘piece’ to God and country. I considered going back inside and robbing the place, just to see what they would do. Instead, I thanked them, then took to the bed for the remainder of the day. This Peter Dobson look-alike ended up in my detective novel, Testarossa, as Detective Mark Gonzales.

    I love a man in a uniform, but as a woman, a man in a suit with a gun at his side provokes a visceral response in me that is indescribable. As a writer, I can make these gentlemen do my bidding. In real life, all I got was the door held open.

    Great post, Lee, as always.

  8. Jordan
    Jordan says:

    lol, GREAT post! I’m kinda surprised that uniforms come in the sizes they must to fit the officers in those pics. Oiy!

    But thanks for that wakeup call. You know though, I once went to a talk about local gangs and the detective who did the talking was wearing jeans and a sweatshirt, but he wasn’t overweight. Quite good looking, if I say so myself. lol.

    Thankfully, the detectives in my novel get involved in the action because they accidentally walk into it, or they got called to a scene by a victim they’d previously talked to, so nothing too bass-akwards there. Although they did *gulp* get a day off right before the novel starts. lol.

  9. Dave Swords
    Dave Swords says:

    Great post, Lee.

    Uniform patrol is the one thing all officers have in common, because everyone starts there. And it’s a great job, except for the sh…y hours and days off?

  10. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Thanks for stopping by, everyone.

    Texanne. No, not every department requires a physical fitness test. Unfortunately, after some officers leave the police academy they never see another sit up, push up, or mile run. Then, when the day arrives that they get into a serious fight-for-your-life physical altercation, well, the results aren’t always favorable.

  11. Texanne
    Texanne says:

    I got a kick out of this, too. As I was reading the bit about the patrol officer’s day, I thought, “Except for the cool hardware, this sounds about like a day in the life of a mom of a teen-aged kid in the Los Angeles Unified (?!) School (?!) District.” Second thought removed the qualifier “teen-aged.”

    Just realizing that I know nothing at all, I mean nothing, about the PD in my little town. Well, I don’t write about this town, so, …. yeah, you’re right. A citizen should know something about his own city government.

    Out of curiosity–those hefty patrol officers–what department do they work for? Don’t they have fitness tests every quarter?

  12. Carol Ann Erhardt
    Carol Ann Erhardt says:

    LOL!!! I’m still laughing. What a great play on words with pics. I agree that the most action is seen with patrol officers. I think that’s the direction I’ll take for my next wip.

  13. Donnell Bell
    Donnell Bell says:

    Hi, Lee: Great post! I’m a huge fan of police officers on patrol. You’re absolutely right (as if there was any doubt). Police officers are the first line of defense, and the gatekeepers to the public, if you will. On one ridealong I went on with the CSPD, the police officers went out and shoveled an old man’s walk so his sister who was in a walker could get to her car.

    Hero material? I sure think so.

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