Accuracy and authenticity are important in every kind of story but this is particularly true in crime, thriller and police procedural novels that involve law enforcement. Author and police officer, Patrick O'Donnell, walks us through the most common mistakes he sees in books and television that involve police forces.
As an author, researching police procedure can be a tricky proposition. The world of police procedure is often veiled behind a blue curtain. Most of us who work in law enforcement keep to ourselves and often see an outsider asking questions as someone who doesn’t always have good intentions.
Unfortunately, many people rely on what they see on television or in the movies to be accurate depictions of police work. Nothing could be further than the truth.
Many police stories are nothing but fiction. Of course, you could search the Internet and hope whatever article is accurate. Unfortunately, individuals often spin the facts to further their agenda write many of these articles.
Here are some common errors I see in crime-related stories:
1. Police Related Shootings
I have been involved in six police-related shootings where an officer was required to use deadly force. I have seen and experienced the trauma and emotions related to these incidents first hand. It is common to read a story or see a movie where the main character (usually a detective) shoots and kills a suspect. Most police-related shootings involve a police officer, not a detective.
In these stories, it is common for the officer or detective to be back out on the street in a couple of days, or even the same day as the incident! Nothing could be further than the truth.
These investigations take months, up to a year to complete. During that time, the officer is assigned desk duty until the investigations are complete. That means they are still armed working police officers, they just cannot go out and take assignments until their shooting investigation is complete.
This is a tremendous strain on the officer, their families, the department, community, and the suspect’s families and friends. This is a time when officers' marriages often fall apart, relationships with their children often fail, and the officer alienates themselves from family and friends.
Interrogating A Suspect
It is a common trope for writers to use the angry detective screaming at the suspect in a small room and eventually striking the suspect or doing bodily harm to them. Of course in the real world, that would get that detective fired and most likely criminally charged.
I was watching a popular crime drama on television with my wife where the detective took out her gun (police officers and detectives never go into an interview room armed) and forced it into the suspect mouth who was handcuffed behind his back, in an attempt to get a confession.
I’m not sure how he was going to talk with a mouth full of Glock, but it is Hollywood. I explained to my wife how ludicrous that was and almost every interrogation is recorded, either with audio and or video.
What is often missed is the way a confession is obtained. The detective or officer who is conducting the interrogation uses a combination of skill, empathy, sympathy and sometimes acting skills to obtain a confession. These interrogations often take hours or days, depending on the circumstances and severity of the crime.
The person conducting the interrogation has to “get inside the head” of the person they are interrogating. A skilled interrogator has to have the suspect believe that they understand why they committed whatever crime they are accused of.
As you can imagine, the more repulsive the crime, the more difficult it is to accomplish this. But it must be done and done correctly.
You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say, can and will be used against you in a court of law. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed to you free of cost. Do you understand these rights? Would you like to make a statement?
These are the Miranda warnings that are read to a person during a custodial interrogation. Most officers or detectives who read these warnings do so from a card they keep on them either in their pocket or memo book.
Almost every cop has the words memorized, but it has come up in motion hearings where a defense attorney will challenge the officer or detective on what they said to their client. That is why it is always read, instead of recited from memory.
Often in a police-related story, the detective arrests a suspect and starts to read them their rights on the street before they get into the squad. That is not correct. Miranda warnings are read to an arrestee before a custodial interrogation. This means they have to be under arrest and being interrogated.
When asking them their name and general information, you do not have to read them their rights.
The opposite of this is when the detective is questioning a suspect during an interrogation and they never advise the arrestee of their Miranda warnings. Any confession that the suspect gives would be thrown out in court.
A popular trope in crime stories is the rogue cop or detective that defies all of their bosses orders to get the bad guy. In the end, all is forgiven because they get their man.
In law enforcement, we start as police officers and promote or get appointed to higher ranks. This means we all have a boss.
Most police departments are paramilitary in structure. If a law enforcement officer disobeys a lawful direct order from a person of a higher rank, they are subject to discipline, termination and or criminal prosecution, depending on the situation. So much for the cop or detective going, rogue!
The next time you watch one of your favorite crime stories on T.V. or in the theatre, check out the ranks of the personnel at a crime scene. More than one time, I have seen all of the uniformed officers with sergeant stripes on their sleeves. It makes me laugh out loud. Sergeants are the supervisors at a crime scene. If everyone there is a sergeant, no one is investigating.
These are just some of the common errors that are in crime/police-related stories. Of course, your story is your story. You have some latitude with your story in regards to how things are done in real life. However, you should know what is complete fantasy and what is the truth, or close to it.
Do you write crime or police procedurals? What are your favorite resources for making sure your book is accurate? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
Patrick O’Donnell is a police sergeant working on the street for the last twenty-four and a half years for one of America’s largest police departments.
He is also an author and technical advisor helping authors and screenwriters get their police procedure right.