Wednesday, August 13, 2008

A Visit to the Real World of Cops

Sandra Parshall

Writers are to blame for some popular misconceptions about police work.

Mystery protagonists are usually detectives. They almost always work in pairs, because having a partner gives the main character somebody to argue with, worry about, and chew over the baffling details of a case with. They’re frequently in danger and always whipping out their guns and yelling “Freeze!” because that sort of thing makes for a more exciting story. And, of course, they end every investigation with a potentially deadly confrontation.

The reality of police work is a little different. Patrol officers are the first on any crime scene, and they do more of the work than novelists ever give them credit for. Whatever their rank or duties, cops all start out the same, as recruits in training. If you ever have a chance to tour a training facility, don’t pass it up. Last weekend, I visited the Fairfax County (Virginia) Criminal Justice Academy with a group from the Sisters in Crime Chesapeake Chapter, and thanks to our guide, instructor and police officer Gary Pearson, I have a better understanding of day to day law enforcement.


Fairfax, in the Washington, DC metro area, is an urban county of 395 square miles, with more than a million people – a greater population than seven states. The income level is high, the crime rate low. On average, the county has fewer than 20 murders per year, compared to 200 or more (sometimes much more) in DC, which covers just 68.25 square miles and has half the population of Fairfax County. Gangs have become a problem in a couple of places in the county, and at the other end of the criminal spectrum, several of the 9/11 terrorists lived here.

The county has about 1,700 police officers and is constantly training recruits to
replace retiring officers and the relatively few who leave for other reasons. Anybody over 21 with a high school diploma can apply to the academy, but as Officer Pearson told us, “If that’s all you have, you’re not going to be accepted.” Cops with bachelor's degrees have become the norm, and the department works with local universities to help officers obtain master’s degrees if they wish. The rough-edged, uneducated cop still exists in fiction, but you probably won’t find him on the Fairfax County force.

In more violent settings, police may work in pairs, but in Fairfax County officers usually work alone. Recruits learn to handle every possible situation in a section of the academy that looks like a small movie set, with a shopping mall, a bar, a bank, a schoolroom, and a full-scale apartment. While our group made its way through the apartment rooms, our guide switched off the lights to give us a taste of what it’s like to enter a dark place without knowing what awaits. The training exercise alone would scare me to death, and I could never summon the courage for the real thing.

A mock booking room, with fingerprinting station and holding cells, and a mock courtroom are used to train recruits in the work that follows an arrest. Rubber mats on the floor prevent injuries when the role-players who are being “arrested” and “booked” try to fight their way free.


Recruits learn everything you’d expect police officers to know – how to shoot (and what part of the body to aim at), how to subdue a violent suspect, how to spot suspicious behavior. They discover that it’s possible to function after getting a blast of pepper spray in their faces. However, the skill they will use most often as working cops is communication. Most officers go through their entire careers without ever firing their guns on the job, but they spend plenty of time defusing volatile situations with words.


In Fairfax County, police will never yell “Freeze!” because they can’t be sure the person they’re trying to stop will understand the word. More than 15% of the
county’s population is Asian, more than 10% is Hispanic, and a lot of foreign embassy employees live here. Not everyone is fluent in English. The police use a warning that’s more likely to be understood: “Police! Don’t move!”


Can I use what I’ve learned in my writing? I’m not sure yet. Let’s face it, the average cop’s work is not the stuff of exciting, compelling fiction. A mystery or suspense novel has to play up the drama, fudge the details now and then, and rely on pure invention when reality won’t serve the story. But keeping an eye on the truth might prevent me from making the kind of egregious errors that cause real cops to ridicule crime fiction.

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Congratulations to Jen, who won a free copy of Shoots to Kill last week!

5 comments:

Jen said...

Wow! That sounds like it was a great experience. Thanks for sharing.

Sandra Parshall said...

I wish we could have been there when training was actually taking place, but our presence would have been a distraction. We went on a Sunday morning. We saw a film of training exercises, and our guide was great.

Kim Smith said...

How great to be able to take this tour into their world. Sigh. Maybe ONE day I will be able to do likewise.

Lee Lofland said...

Great post! I know you had a lot of fun.

There's nothing like seeing these things first hand. I highly recommend visits and tours like this to all writers. Actually, that's why I'm helping host a Writer's Police Academy next year at the Mad Anthony Writers Conference in Hamilton, Ohio. It's going to be a really great event.

In addition to the hands on training by ATF officers, local police, and me, we're also going to feature tours of the local morgue and police department.

The unique thing about the officer/instructors/workshop presenters is that they're all writers, or they have ties to the industry!

Sandra Parshall said...

That sounds great, Lee. I don't know when you find time for all the things you do!