Hardly a day goes by when we do not hear news about a tragic confrontation between police and a member of the public. Either A) An officer deploys deadly force and an investigation ensues, sometimes accompanied by street protests that turn violent with dramatic media coverage – or B) an armed suspect ambushes a cop during a traffic stop for a “routine” moving violation and kills him whereupon a pursuit follows and – see A).
Writers of crime fiction who have no background in law enforcement cannot depend on television news or entertainment programming in order to understand the officers’ perspective on such events. But at the annual Writers Police Academy, ordinary woman and men enter a cop’s world and experience the discipline and dread involved in such split-second decisions.
In four intensive days of realistic demonstrations, hands-on experiences and classroom presentations, writers step into the Kevlar vests, duty belts and lives of the men and women who ‘serve and protect.’ In (controlled) high-speed chases, mock traffic stops, live-fire gun ranges, shoot-don’t-shoot simulators, armed-suspect-in-building searches, blood splatter analysis and the like, ordinary people directly experience – well, in a small way — the demanding daily vigilance of patrol officers, ATF agents, Secret Service agents and other professionals who hold ‘the thin blue line.’
The primary aim of most writer-participants is to get the details right in their writing and avoid careless blunders (which, unhappily, abound in crime fiction). One makes up stuff, of course, but any police particulars must be credible. No quick turnarounds in DNA testing, thank you, no shooting of a gun out of the perp’s hand, and please, no cordite smell (the ingredient was dropped from bullet making after World War II).
But nearly every fellow-writer I spoke with said the deepest impression was the humanity of the officers. Sure, it was important to know how a Taser works, and how a cop stands and talks to an EDP (Emotionally Disturbed Person) who is wielding a knife in a public space. But more important was to listen to these men and women talk warmly about their families, hopefully about their communities, and frankly about their anxieties. Their daily ambition – besides doing the job right – is to survive and come home.
My next book’s protagonist is a small-town cop who has been in the background of my previous three novels. So I’ve already done some research on crime scene processing, evidence handling, handguns, interrogation and other procedural things. But for this story, I needed to know – no, I needed to feel: what’s it like to BE a cop? To THINK like one? To leave the driveway every day and be ‘on the air’ (as they say) for a 12-hour shift not truly knowing if I’ll come home that night?
The objective of my story isn’t mainly to portray a police investigation accurately or even to solve the crime (though it will do both). It’s to make Detective Francis Gordon fully human, because that’s what every cop is. A real person. Well-trained, you bet (our ‘academy’ was only a taste of the rigor these people endure). But not just a ‘badge’ – a neighbor. A parishioner. A son. A Mom. An uncle. A library volunteer. The hyperbole of the news and the rapid-fire conflicts of the typical Fifty-minute cop drama make us forget that. Under that riot gear is a guy who just wants to go home that night and hug his kids.
So thanks to Lee Lofland and the staff of the WPA, primary sponsors Sisters in Crime, and the instructors of the Northeast Wisconsin Technical College criminal justice program (in Green Bay WI and the Oneida Reservation) for this chance to literally feel the weight of your responsibilities (the duty belt is about 10 pounds and those tactical vests are heavy and hot!).
BIO: A former producer with Wisconsin Public Radio, John Desjarlais teaches English at Kishwaukee College in northern Illinois. His first novel, The Throne of Tara (Crossway 1990, 2000), was a Christianity Today Readers Choice Award nominee, and his medieval thriller, Relics (Thomas Nelson 1993, 2009) was a Doubleday Book Club Selection. Bleeder, Viper, and Specter (Chesterton Press, 2009, 2011 and 2015 respectively) will soon be followed by a fourth entry in this mystery series. Blood of the Martyrs (2012), a short story collection, is available at Amazon Kindle Select. Two of the stories were Finalists in the Tom Howard Fiction Contest and all previously appeared in literary journals. A member of Mystery Writers of America, he is listed in Who’s Who in Entertainment and Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers.