Know Your Procedure

As a longtime editor of crime dramas, I have worked with many former police officers. How authentic the story is depends to a large degree on an author’s knowledge of law enforcement routines. You should know them just as you would research any other topic related to your novel.

Police authors often complain that people think knowledge of police procedure can be gained through watching TV. While these shows do their own research, the rules are bent to provide entertainment. You may be amazed by a new technical device featured on CSI, but you should be aware that most municipalities could never afford to buy it. That’s one reason why difficult cases end up being referred to state police agencies, which have greater resources. The FBI may be called in to handle highly specialized duties such as profiling.

Procedure is based on practicality, not potential for glamour. As you may know, most crimes are easily solved. When a detective is assigned the case of a woman murdered in her own home, he consults police logs for any calls on earlier occasions about spousal abuse. That’s because detectives have commonsense rules based on what works best in their profession.

Nor do they rely on eureka moments. I enjoy works written by police officers, but I can’t say that any of them displays any more than a middling genius. They follow their noses because they know, better than the rest of us, that normal people can act irrationally when their world spins out of control.

You need to know what procedures are followed if only because readers who like crime drama will flinch at any false notes. In most towns, you can call a local detective to schedule an interview. Then prepare a list of questions you need answered. You can also consult books on crime procedure, right in the comfort of your own home. I know an author who just attended a weekend seminar on police procedures, such as how to defuse a bomb and how to use chemicals for blood work. Even better, don’t bother relying on an exotic technical procedure. Create an exotic rationale behind the murder.

As for police procedure? TV will not tell you how the drill goes. Get off your behind. Pick up the phone. You may find, after learning about how predictable police officers are, that you sleep better at night.

Exercise: When you review your manuscript, keep an eye out for any law enforcement officials. Examine what they say to a victim’s relative. Is that really what they would say, or are you trying for a Columbo effect? If you turn up any points you’re not sure of, you should find out. Don’t destroy your credibility with the reader because you were lazy.

“If I am a fool, it is, at least, a doubting one; and I envy no one the certainty of his self-approved wisdom.”
—Lord Byron

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

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Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.