by Jeff Driscoll, RAR Consultant
"That would never happen," I say out loud and roll my eyes. My wife laughs, but there’s some eye-rolling in her response, too: “What is it this time?”
We’re watching an otherwise-good movie, TV or cable drama involving law enforcement, and the police detective protagonist has just run off after the killer without calling it in, requesting backup, or in any way notifying his superiors. It may be dramatic, but it’s not something that would ever happen, no matter what kind of “loose cannon” the detective is. I have a similar experience when I’m reading a crime novel and come across an error in the investigative process, or incorrect description of a firearm (that’s a biggie, and one of the most common). And every single time, I am, for however long, taken out of the story while I fume over the inaccuracy.
I have this experience because I spent more than two decades as a police officer. I'm certain a dentist watching a show or reading a novel about orthodontic techniques and dental hygiene would have a similar reaction to a DDS character grabbing the wrong tool, or referring to a cuspid as a molar or whatever the case might be. I may be mistaken, but there seem to be many more stories about cops and detectives than dentists, so it’s something I run into constantly.
The way to avoid these errors involving your cop characters is simply to do the research. If you’re not certain about a detail, find a trustworthy resource – there are a lot of them on the Internet. Is your story set in Los Angeles? Are you not certain what specific firearm a patrol officer carries there? You’re in luck, because the LAPD website (probably because of their proximity to Hollywood) answers this question and more, in great detail. Other major cities have similar websites, if not quite as writer-friendly as LA’s.
If your story is set in the town or city you live in, you can check the website for that department, or better yet, interview a cop. Contact your police department’s Public Information Officer and ask your questions; if that person can’t supply the answers, they’ll usually direct you to someone who can. Arrange to go on a ride-along, if the Department allows it. Riding with a patrol cop is interesting, at the very least, and offers you a chance to ask lots of questions about your character and story. (If you’re worried about being a pest, don’t: the PIO will match you up with someone who doesn’t mind having you along.) Smaller agencies may not have the resources to answer your questions immediately over the phone, but will be happy to call you back or respond via email.
Another option is to call that second cousin once removed or friend of a friend who works on the force and ask to meet them for coffee (or lunch, depending on how many questions you have). Most modern police departments, in the interest of Community Policing, participate in a number of community events, from neighborhood crime-prevention meetings to "Coffee With a Cop," where they schedule time to sit down and talk with people face-to-face. Find one of these and ask all your questions, or make an appointment with an officer to answer your questions later (if the event is busy).
Another option you have now is to ask me!
I’ll be working with RAR to provide consultation and feedback on anything that might help you get the facts right on weaponry, procedure, and other facets of investigation and criminal justice. You can email me your questions, we can talk on the phone, or I can read your manuscript and make notes on the accuracy of your forensic details. My hourly rate is $65, and complete manuscript reads start at $300 (actual price depends on word count and amount/type of feedback you’re looking for – Jane can give you more info).
Just like the geography of your setting when it’s a real place, details about real-life occupations and situations must be accurate if you want to keep readers engrossed in your story. You don't want them to be pulled out of the magic of your tale, not even for a moment.