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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

Body armor has come a long way from heavy suits of armor or stylish outfits made from clunky chainmail. Of course, those types of protection served their wearers well against attacks by people swinging swords and axes, but today’s major threat is that of gunfire. Therefore, ballistic vests are the preferred option for law enforcement officers to wear as protection against incoming rounds of ammunition. Besides, getting in and out of a patrol car would be extremely difficult while wearing a steel suit.

Bulletproof or Bullet-Resistant?

Before continuing, we should first clarify that the vests worn by law enforcement officers are NOT totally bulletproof. Not at all. Every single vest can be penetrated by high-powered ammo. In fact, repeated rounds fired into the vest from nearly every type of firearm could eventually break through the material. Therefore, writers, the correct terminology when writing about an officer’s protective armor is “bullet-resistant vest,” not a bulletproof vest.”

There are various types of vests that offer varying levels of protection. The most common level of protection is found in Types II through III-A, the vests typically worn by patrol officers. These are the vests that are commonly worn beneath a uniform shirt. Look closely and you’ll easily see the outline of the vest beneath an officer’s shirt.

The outer front and back coverings of a bullet-resistant vest is called a “carrier.” It serves to contain the protective panels meant to stop bullets from striking the officer’s flesh. Carriers are made from heavy-duty material that can withstand daily use. Some carriers are made from lighter-weight materials/fabrics such as CoolMAX®, Cordura® or Gore-Tex®.

The front and back carrier-covered panels are fastened to the officer’s body by securing Velcro straps tightly in place, over the shoulders and around the torso.

vest-front-and-back.jpg

Front and rear sections of an officer’s vest. Desgned to be worn under the officer’s uniform. Vests are custom-fitted for each officer. The outer blue cover, the carrier, is not made of Kevlar®. It’s also removable from the panel to enable washing. Panels must be cleaned by wiping with a damp cloth and mild detergent. Submerging a Kevlar® panel in water greatly decreases the stopping power of the vest.

Pockets are sewn into carriers for the purpose of inserting and holding the removable protective panels. Without the panels the carrier is simply a thin vest similar to those worn by workers/clerks in big box stores.

Above left is the front panel for a male officer. The portion below the two horizontal Velcro straps is meant to be tucked into the pants just as one would tuck in a shirt tail. The rear panel at the right has a long “tail” that’s also tucked in the pants. The cut-out section in the front panel serves an important purpose. I’ll leave it to your imaginations as to why it’s there. Remember, this vest is designed to be worn by a male officer.

Protective Panels

Kevlar® was first developed in the 1930’s by DuPont™ chemist Stephanie Kwolek. Four decades later Kevlar®was used as a replacement for steel in racing tires. It’s now used in passenger car tires as well. In fact, I recently replaced a set on my personal vehicle.

Composition

Kevlar® Para-Aramid is a polyamide formed by lengthy aromatic crystal-like polymer chains.

“Para” refers to the precise bond point of the aromatic rings. Longitudinal placement of the hydrogen bonds permits high tensile strength.

“Aramids” are made by a reaction among an amine assembly and a carboxylic group, which generates an AABB polymer. This is liquid chemical blend is then transformed into a solid form by spinning it together with sulfuric acid. When the spun mix is cooled it can then be made into a fiber, powder, or pulp. It is the result of this process that allows manufacturers to mold the pulp, fiber, and powder into panels used for flexible and lightweight protective vests worn by officers.

In 1995,Kevlar®® Correctional was introduced as a vest/body armor that could stop attacks from knives and other edged weapons This development was a huge breakthrough since corrections officers are most often subject to attacks by edged weapons, yet sometimes encounter attacks by gunfire.

Vest types I through III-A are capable of stopping rounds fired from small to medium caliber handguns.

Type III and IV panels are capable of stopping high-velocity rifle rounds, such as .223 and .308 rifle rounds. These are the clunkier, bulkier vests seen worn on the outside of SWAT and special ops officers’ uniforms. They’re also worn over the uniform shirts of patrol officers who find themselves engaged in special circumstances, such as an active shooter or sniper/ambush situation.

hamilton-vest-front.jpg

Kevlar® by DuPont is probably the most widely known brand of brand of bullet-stopping para-aramid material (threads). Keep in mind, though, when including bullet-resistant vests in your tales, bullets do not bounce or ricochet off the vest. Instead, the material (Kevlar® or other brand) grabs the bullet and contains it within its tightly-woven layers.

Soft Body Armor

These vests, because of their flexibility, are known as “soft vests.” They’re pliable and somewhat bendable. Each vest should be custom tailored to the individual officer. Men and women obviously have different sizing needs. Vests worn by female officers are designed to accommodate their body shapes.

Soft body armor is basically meant to prevent penetration from handgun rounds. For added protection, metallic or ceramic ballistic trauma plates can be inserted into small pockets in the front and back of a vest. These plates help protect vital organs against rounds fired from rifles and some higher-powered handguns.

vest-panel.jpg

Front Kevlar® panel with rectangular pouch for ceramic or steel trauma plate. Front and rear panels are inserted into a carrier.

Protection Levels

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) sets the standards for body armor manufacturers. Those standards include the following protection levels:

Type II-A

Type II

Type III-A

Type III

Type IV

NIJ image

From the National Institute of Justice:

NIJ has been setting voluntary body armor standards since 1972. The NIJ standard is the only nationally accepted standard for the body armor worn by law enforcement and corrections officers. NIJ also administers a program to test commercially available armor for compliance with the standards to determine whether the vests meet NIJ’s minimum performance standards.

The NIJ ballistic resistance standard classifies body armor by levels of ballistic performance. For any performance level, NIJ’s test protocol requires that the bullet does not perforate the vest and that the vest protects against blunt trauma.

NIJ’s stab resistance body armor standard specifies the minimum performance requirements for body armor to protect the torso against slashes and stabs from knives and spikes; it also describes the associated testing procedures. The standard includes three performance levels, which are based on the armor’s ability to prevent a perforation deep enough to injure an officer’s internal organs at different strike force speeds. The standard also includes two protection classes: one for high-quality, commercially produced knives and another for lower-quality knife blades and improvised spikes that are likely to be present in a corrections environment.

*National Institute of Justice, “Body Armor Performance Standards,” February 22, 2018, nij.ojp.gov: http://nij.ojp.gov/topics/articles/body-armor-performance-standards


A few companies other than Kevlar® also manufacture bullet-resistant vests.

Blue Mountain School District Superintendent David Helsel said they’d placed buckets filled with river stones in all classrooms. Their purpose? To allow students a chance to defend themselves in the event of a school shooting.

The Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania official said the idea to arm kids with rocks came to him when he pictured river stones as a comfortable size for the hands of children. The theory was to have the rock bucket on standby in case an armed shooter burst in the classroom while firing a semi-automatic AR-15 or similar rifle. Or even a pistol or two (far more people are killed with handguns than long guns).

Shooter Seung-Hui Cho killed 25 students and five faculty members at Virginia Tech. Cho fired 174 rounds from two handguns.

So let’s picture this for a moment. The alarm sounds (this is not the actual message) … “Emergency! There is an active shooter inside the building. No time to evacuate. Lock all doors and shelter in place. The police are on the way!”

Teachers and children hustle to a rear section of the classroom and use whatever they can find to use as barricades. The gunfire is intense. People are screaming. The shooter is yelling. Police sirens are wailing outside in the distance. Some of the kids are crying and sobbing. Others are using cell phones to call their parents. The teacher is trembling, but trying to be brave. More gunfire and the sound of glass breaking.

Front and center of the group is a plastic bucket filled with lemon-size, smooth and pretty river stones. Everyone grabs three or four. They’re ready to clobber the guy who’s coming down the hallway. Then …

The classroom door bursts open and the barrel of an AR-15 pokes through the opening. Nosler Ballistic Tip bullets begin to spew from the muzzle at a speed of somewhere around at 3,350 fps, and they’re peppering the walls, desks, ceiling, windows, barricades, teachers, children, and the rock bucket, as fast as the killer can pull the trigger.

An AR-15 style rifle is a lightweight semi-automatic rifle.

During the blast of intense gunfire, there is simply no way on this earth that children would have the time to grab a rock and throw it with enough accuracy to stop a crazed killer who’s intent on carrying out the act. Typically, these guys are not afraid of dying and may kill themselves at the end of the shooting. So someone tossing river stones at a gun-toting madman? No way.

This would be more realistic …

Fortunately, officials came to their senses and are now stepping up school security by hiring security armed with guns. I think the rocks still remain, but …

Kevlar Blankets

By the way, why not equip classrooms with large “blankets” made of Kevlar? Kids and teachers could hide behind them and, who knows, the shields could give them the chance to survive an attack.

#neverbringarocktoagunfight

#kevlarblankets

#kevlarbuckets


I’d love to hear your thoughts on adding a bucket of rocks in classrooms as a means of defense against an armed shooter. Also, who knows what the “AR” in AR-15 stands for? Hint. It’s not Assault Rifle.

*As always, please, no comments about politics, gun control, race, religion, or any of the other hot button whatever-no-one-can-discuss-rationally topics. Thanks!