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Many local and state law enforcement have the luxury of maintaining laboratories for forensic testing. Within those labs scientists of various expertise carry out the examinations of a wide assortment of evidence recovered during criminal investigations.

Sometimes, though, even the best equipped labs fall short of having the ability to test certain materials. Therefore, scientists in those labs call on experts in other locations whose labs have the proper devices (and scientific know how) to carry out the needed tests.

Many times the go-to facility is the Forensics Services of the FBI Laboratory Division in Quantico, Va., one of the largest and most extensive crime labs in the world.

The Forensics Services of the FBI Laboratory Division is responsible for:

  • Biometric analysis services—Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), DNA examinations and profiles, and latent print examinations and training.
  • Crime scene documentation; evidence and hazardous evidence response; investigative/forensic photography and imaging support; scientific, technical, and forensic support for investigations involving chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear materials; and expertise in health and safety matters.
  • Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Center (TEDAC), the single interagency organization to receive, fully analyze, and exploit all terrorist improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, of interest to the United States.
  • Chemical and metallurgical analyses and training, expertise in cryptanalysis and firearms/toolmarks, and examinations of trace evidence and questioned documents.

Forensics Services of the FBI Laboratory Division are available to:

  • FBI field offices and attachés.
  • Federal agencies, U.S. attorneys, and military tribunals (for civil and criminal purposes).
  • State, county, and local law enforcement (criminal matters).

*Forensic services and testimony of expert witnesses are provided to the above free of charge.

Cases Not Accepted or Conducted by the Forensics Services of the FBI Laboratory Division:

  • When local and state, or other non FBI laboratories have the capabilities to conduct the requested testing/examination.
  • No expert testimony will be provided when another expert is scheduled to testify for the prosecution on the same subject.
  • Forensic services and testimony of expert witnesses is not available to private agencies or individuals, nor are requests accepted from non-law enforcement agencies in civil matters/cases.
  • Arson and explosive cases involving unoccupied buildings and property are not accepted by FBI Forensic Services (unless terrorism is suspected).
  • Vandalism and malicious mischief toward personal and commercial property.
  • Headlight examinations in cases of nonfatal traffic crashes, unless the vehicle involved is that of law enforcement or government officials.
  • Nonfatal hit and run auto accidents.
  • Vehicle theft, unless the case involves a theft ring or carjacking.
  • All breaking and entering cases.
  • Theft and fraud cases under $100,000

What the FBI investigates:

  • Public corruption
  • Civil rights
  • Organized crime
  • White collar crime
  • Violent crime such as mass killings, sniper murders, serial killings, gangs, crimes against children, Indian Country crimes, jewelry and gem theft, assisting state and local agencies in investigating bank robberies
  • Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Details are Important

It’s important for writers hoping to offer a bit of realism in their stories to at least know the basics of criminal investigations, including “who does what?” For example, absent in the list cases investigated by the FBI is MURDER. No, typically the FBI does NOT investigate local murder cases, nor do they ride into town on white horses to take over bank robbery or abduction cases. Instead, they’re available to assist local and state agencies. However, if a local department is not equipped to handle a bank robbery, for example, the FBI will indeed take the lead upon request.

In a case of child abductions there does not have to be a ransom demand nor does the child have to cross state lines or be missing for 24 hours before the FBI will become involved. When the FBI is alerted that a child has been abducted they’ll immediately spring into action and open an investigation. They will do so in partnership with state and local authorities.

Sure, I and officers/investigators across the country have investigated numerous abduction cases where the FBI was not involved. But there are times when it’s best to call on every available resource, and there’s no one better equipped or trained than the FBI. After all, the priority is the safe return of the child.

So there you have it, writers—details to help add an extra level of zing to your next twisted tale.

*Resource – FBI and, of course, my personal knowledge and experience.

 

Good action scenes—car chases, gunfights, and exploding cars and buildings—are great at keeping readers busy turning pages. But, how does your hero survive the barrage of bullets, flames, and KABOOMS? Are you giving the star of your book a realistic way out of all the tough jams you’ve tossed their way? Is what you’ve written a true tactical maneuver, or, did you write your hero into a tired old cliche’ corner? You know what I mean—the karate chop to the wrist which forces the bad guy to drop his weapon. How about this doozy … shooting the gun out of the villain’s hand. I know, it’s goofy and unrealistic. So yeah, those things, the things that are not only far-fetched, they’re downright silly.

As writers of fiction it is your job and sworn duty to deliver believable make-believe, and having your character(s) shoot the gun out of someone’s hand is far from achieving that goal.

So, you ask, how do real-life heroes avoid meeting untimely ends when confronted with deadly situations?

Well, for starters, they should …

When confronting a suspect who’s armed with a long-gun (shotguns and rifles are long guns) it’s best to have the hero approach from the side.

By doing so, your protagonist forces the crook to turn his entire body toward the approaching hero in order to continue the threat/potential shootout.

Otherwise, the thug has no option other than to flee or surrender. The tactic provides the hero with enough time to properly react to the threat.

 

 

  • If possible, place your hero in a good light. By that, I mean to make use of bright lights, such as a setting sun or bright early morning sunlight. The bright light should be at the hero’s back, but with the hero concealed/using cover. The use of this tactic makes it extremely difficult for the bad guy to see. Yet, the hero will be able to clearly see the bad guy and his movements.
  • It’s okay to have your hero experience a bit of fear because fear heightens our sense of awareness, which in turn increases the likelihood that we’ll do whatever is necessary to survive. However, fear can have a negative effect if allowed to overtake the situation. In short, a little fear is good, but too much fear combined with gunfire is the recipe for a badge-wearing babbling idiot.
  • If possible, have your protagonist take a moment to focus on breathing. Yes, breathing properly during a tense situation can help bring things into perspective. It can also help lower the heart rate, and it can prevent fear from morphing into blind rage (sudden bursts of anger could turn into a deadly mistake. Not thinking clearly could result into  foolishly rushing into a no-win situation.

Taking a moment to focus on “combat breathing.” Breathe in slowly for a count of four, hold your breath for another count of four, and then exhale to a third four-count. Count to four and then start all over again. The heart rate should be noticeably lower after a few repetitions. Of course, I don’t recommend taking the time to perform these deep-breathing exercises during a gunfight with bullets zinging by your ears. It’s been my personal experience that “timeouts” are not allowed during gun battles.

Okay, there you have it. No more silly karate-chop scenes or shooting guns from bad guy’s hands, right? Good. Then you’re all set.

But, you know, I can’t recall ever seeing an extremely scared, deep-breathing Jack Reacher standing with bright sunlight to his back while walking sideways like crab toward a guy holding an AK-47.

I suppose an occasional fist to the throat, or a boot to the head is permissible, but only if you’re the hero in a Lee Child book. The trouble is … there’s only one Jack Reacher, and there’s definitely only one Lee Child.

Lee Child – Writers’ Police Academy

 

 

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.

 

Realism in fiction is important, when it’s needed. The ability to weave fact into fiction is aa must. But one must first know what’s fact and what’s fiction before attempting to use reality as part of fiction. Otherwise, the author is offering readers fiction as reality.

And that’s a fact. Or is it fiction? Okay, now I’m confused.

Anyway …

Have you done the unthinkable? Are there words in your latest tale that could send your book straight to someone’s “Wouldn’t Read In A Million Years” pile? How can you avoid such disaster, you ask? Fortunately, following these four simple rules could save the day.

1. Use caution when writing cop slang. What you hear on TV may not be the language used by real police officers. And, what is proper terminology and/or slang in one area may be totally unheard of in another. A great example are the slang terms Vic (Victim), Wit (Witness), and Perp (Perpetrator). These shortened words are NOT universally spoken by all cops. In fact, I think I’m fairly safe in saying the use of these is not typical across the U.S., if at all.

2. Simply because a law enforcement officer wears a shiny star-shaped badge and drives a car bearing a “Sheriff” logo does not mean they are all “sheriffs.” Please, please, please stop writing this in your stories. A sheriff is an elected official who is in charge of the department, and there’s only one per sheriff’s office. The head honcho. The Boss. All others working there are appointed by the sheriff to assist him/her with their duties. Those appointees are called DEPUTY SHERIFFS. Therefore, unless the boss himself shows up at your door to serve you with a jury summons, which is highly unlikely unless you live in a county populated by only three residents, two dogs, and a mule, the LEO’s you see driving around your county are deputies. Andy was the sheriff (the boss) and Barney was his deputy.

3. The rogue detective who’s pulled from a case yet sets out on his own to solve it anyway. I know, it sounds cool, but it’s highly unlikely that an already overworked detective would drop all other cases (and there are many) to embark on some bizarre quest to take down Mr. Freeze. Believe me, most investigators would gladly lighten their case loads by one, or more. Besides, to disobey orders from a superior officer is an excellent means of landing a fun assignment (back in uniform on the graveyard shift ) directing traffic at the intersection of Dumbass Avenue and Stupid Street.

4. Those of you who’ve written scenes where a cocky FBI agent speeds into town to tell the local chief or sheriff to step aside because she’s taking over the murder case du jour, well, grab a bottle of white-out and immediately begin lathering up that string of goofy words because it doesn’t happen. The same for those scenes where the FBI agent forces the sheriff out of his office so she can remove his name plate from the desk and replace it with one of her own along with photos of her family and her pet guinea pig. No. No. And No. The agent would quickly find herself being escorted back to her “guvment” vehicle.

The FBI does not investigate local murder cases. I’ll say that again. The FBI does not investigate local murder cases. And, in case you misunderstood … the FBI does not investigate local murder cases. Nor do they have the authority to order a sheriff or chief out of their offices. Yeah, right … that would happen in real life (in case you can’t see me right now, I’m rolling my eyes).

Believable Make-Believe

Okay, I understand you’re writing fiction, which means you get to make up stuff. And that’s cool. However, the stuff you make up must be believable. Not necessarily fact, just believable. Write it so your readers can suspend reality without stopping in their tracks to wonder if they should, even if only for a short time.

Your fans want to trust you, and they’ll go out of their way to give you the benefit of the doubt. Really, they will. But, for goodness sake, give them something to work with—without an info dump, provide readers a reason to believe/understand what they’ve just seen on your pages. A tiny morsel of believability goes a long way.

But if you’re going for realism, then please do some real homework. I say this because I recently began reading a book and I’d barely made it halfway through the first chapter when I tossed it into my WRIAMY pile (Wouldn’t Read In A Million Years). This was a ARC a publisher sent me to review, by the way.

It was obvious the author was going for realism, and it was also painfully obvious the writer’s method of research was a couple of quick visits to crappy internet sites, and a 15-minute conversation with a friend whose sister works with a man whose brother, a cab driver in Dookyboo, North Carolina, picked up a guy ten years ago at the airport, a partially deaf man with two thumbs on his right hand, who had a friend in Whirlywind, Kansas who lived next door to a retired security guard who, during a Saturday lunch rush, sat two tables over from two cops who might’ve mentioned a crime scene … maybe.

Please, if you want good, solid information, always speak with an expert who has first-hand knowledge about the subject. Not a person who, having read a book about fingerprinting or bloodstain patterns, suddenly believes they’re pro. Sure, they may be able to relate what they’ve read on a page, however, those mere words are not the things writers need to breathe life into a story. Reading about bloodstains is not the same as standing inside a murder scene, experiencing the sights, sounds, smells, and emotions felt by the person who’s there in person. The latter is the true expert who can help a writer take their work to the next level, and beyond.

So, is there a WRIAMY pile in your house? Worse … have you written something that could land one of your tales in someone’s “Wouldn’t Read In A Million Years” pile of unreadable books? If so, perhaps it’s time to change your research methods.

A great means to assist in adding realism to your work is to, of course, attend the Writers’ Police Academy! Registration for the 2020 WPA’s special event, MurderCon, our 12th anniversary blowout, opens on February 23, 2020. You will not want to miss this thrilling experience. It is THE event of the year!

*The all new MurderCon website is scheduled to go live by the end of next week (February 15, 2020). Please check back to view the all new topics and schedule.