Getting the Details Right

by Sheila Connolly

A month ago we Wickeds were all gathered at the New England Crime Bake, which every year brings together a terrific group of established authors, hopeful writers, agents, editors, readers and fans. It’s an intense experience that can last between two to four days (depending when you want to show up), much of which is spent talking to everybody.

The final morning (Sunday) is often devoted to some aspect of forensics useful to writers (although there was one excellent panel on the craft of writing, presented by four authors who have written books on that subject), and that was true this year. The speakers were a pair of former police officers (turned writers after retirement, of course) and an expert on cyber-crime. Both presented information based on their real-world experience.

It took me a couple of days to realize how different their presentations were.

The former police officers started with a hand-out quiz about standard equipment, strategies for dealing with a suspect, and how to respond to various situations that are particularly dangerous. Not many people in the audience got the answers right. One point that came through loud and clear: television and the movies often get it wrong. Producers are looking for dramatic action, and good angles for their shots. But on the street the actions they depict can be dangerous, not only to the officers but also to innocent bystanders or people just driving by.

One example: most police officers, firemen, etc., are shown kicking in a door while facing it. Wrong! It’s more effective to use a “mule kick”, facing away from the door and kicking backwards. It’s stronger, and it means that you aren’t about to fall on your face when the door opens, rendering you useless against an armed assailant. But it does look a bit ridiculous on screen.

Mule kick

The presentation made me realize that the average citizen doesn’t think through a lot of these details. The downside is, people are quick to judge when they read yet another report of a police officer using undue force in a pursuit or an arrest. No doubt there are some abuses of power (unfortunately often captured on a cell phone video these days), but decisions on the street must be made quickly, with little time to think. It is unfortunate but inevitable that some of these decisions may be wrong, but we should not assume they are due to anger or hate. And remember that these bad outcomes represent a very small percentage of all arrests.

The presentation on cyber-crime was almost diametrically different. Most of us (ordinary television viewers) know something about computers, but we may look at stories about hacking into all and anybody’s systems (including those of major governments) or tracking people down to the street corner where they’re standing, all within two minutes, as pure fantasy. But they’re closer to reality than we want to think.

Cowboy hats

There are a lot of cutesy terms involved, which may be unfair to the seriousness of the crimes involved. We’ve probably all heard about “Black Hats” and “White Hats”  and “the Dark Web,” and it’s a little unsettling to hear an expert using them. Have you seen the terms “spearphishing” or “mudphishing” or “catphishing”? What about “warez sites”? They may sound a little silly (or look funny when written on the page), but all are real, and all can be dangerous to a clueless computer user (that’s most of us). Yes, there are hackers out there, and their goals range from “gee, let’s see what I can do” to “I want to take down a major government.” It’s scary.

So the bottom line is: in the case of law enforcement, there’s a lot happening that you don’t see or understand quickly, and in the case of the cybercrime universe, it’s all there in plain sight if you know where to look—but you as an ordinary citizen can’t do squat about it most of the time.

We as writers want to get the details right—but we’ve got a lot to learn. When you’re writing about crime, do your homework.

What do you think are the best sources for accurate information? Humans? The Internet?

15 Thoughts

  1. I’m blessed to belong to a critique group with a lawyer , public defender, former FBI associate who keeps my fictional detective Pete Mondello from compromising crime scenes, mishandling evidence and committing other procedural no-nos. (P.S. She’s a romance writer! Go figure!}

  2. Nice post, Sheila! Procedures and other things change quickly, too. Some of what I knew from being a police secretary seven years ago is completely different now!

  3. Great post! I missed post of the two police presentations because I was out talking to someone. I did get a lot of the questions right (thank you Fairfax County Police Academy)! Know I’m off to Google those pishing terms.

  4. I’ve gotten invaluable feedback from a critique partner whose hubby is a highway patrolman. I’ve also gotten medical/forensic input from the “crimescenewriter” group, which was acknowledged in a book I read recently; I Googled it, joined, and have found it helpful with specific questions.

  5. There’s nothing like going to the source! And we have to remember the administrative details, which can vary from state to state–like who reports to whom, and the right titles up the chain of command, and what the areas of jurisdiction are. I’ve even got an Irish police sergeant is who a terrific help.

  6. Sheila, I agree with everything you said. Also: Brian Thiem’s RED LINE, his debut police procedural, was well done and of course, his character gets those details right! It will be reviewed Dec. 9 th in my crime review blog for anyone interested in seeing his transition from the capable law enforcement officer we met to crime writer:

  7. Interesting information. Thanks for sharing. Never would have thought about the mule kick at all. Probably watch TV shows differently now.

    Although it makes sense that they’d chose drama/storytelling over accuracy. That’s why they are there, and that’s what we want. We aren’t watching a documentary, after all.

    As to your final question, everyone knows the most correct information is on the internet. George Washington said so in a blog post, and who am I to argue with a Founding Father.

  8. I know this article is directed at writers, but I found it fascinating. I appreciate your pointing out the “due force” issue that so many people do not take into account when judging the actions of police officers.

  9. Part of my role in my company is to review and be familiar with all of the different types of phishing and it is really scary how easy it is to get tricked! Hackers are definitely looking for the weakest link!

  10. We’ve got a current case in Massachusetts where somebody with untraceable software (or so they say) posted threats to one or more schools in Cambridge. The police think he then turned around and reported the malicious threats, posing as a good Samaritan. His latest post (as GS) was that the evil-doer had left the country. Maybe he got cold feet? They think he may be a student. Students know far more than we do these days!

  11. Great blog, Sheila. And the research is one of the most fun parts, isn’t it? Edith mentioned the Writer’s Police Academy, which we both attended a couple years ago. It was fabulous and gave lots of hands on experience on so many topics you couldn’t possibly learn it all in one weekend. Additionally, a Citizen’s Police Academy is perfect if you want to learn how things work in your immediate area. Trouble is, I get sucked into the research and then get behind on the actual writing!

  12. I know what you mean, Liz. I took a course offered by the Plymouth County Sheriff’s Office a few years ago, and I’ve never taken so many notes in my life.

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