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Saturday, July 08, 2006

Law Enforcement—The Facts Versus Literary License

I’m privileged to work regularly as a volunteer secretary in my local sheriff’s office police academy. What began as a simple desire to help some really nice people by doing paperwork has turned into a wonderful opportunity for me to learn first hand knowledge of police procedure and up-to-date law enforcement policy. Along with my regular administrative chores, I get to participate in some of the training scenarios for the recruits. If I want to, I can go on some of the field trips. (My latest was to the medical examiner’s office to observe autopsies.) Even minor chores help me, like unpacking boxes of uniforms and equipment for the recruits. Now I know what the deputies wear and when they wear it. That might not seem like a big deal until I begin to describe a deputy in a manuscript. It's nice to be able to get it right.

I have to admit I’m a stickler for correct law enforcement facts in my books. I feel I owe it to my readers to represent law enforcement accurately. Like historical readers who know the mores of their favorite historical time period, die-hard suspense and mystery readers are quite knowledgeable, and more today than ever, due to the abundance of factual shows on cable and satellite. I don’t want to lose a reader because they read one wrong fact in my book and no longer trust me.

That said, I do write fiction. There is such a thing as literary license. I can bend the rules, but I need to know them before I allow my characters to break them. I also need to know what the consequences will be if the rules are broken. When a police officer acts contrary to the norm, there has to be a good reason. (By the way, that’s a great way to add to a character’s internal/external conflict.)

I am blessed with a generous and knowledgeable consultant who works for the sheriff’s office where I volunteer. He told me that the one word I need to keep in mind for my fictional detectives and police officers is LAWYER. A law enforcement officer needs to think about defense lawyers at every turn in a criminal investigation. Dot every I. Cross every T. Because chances are, whatever a police officer does will come back to haunt him or her in court, especially if it’s sloppy police work.

The setting for my present cozy mystery series is the State of Maryland. Law enforcement standards in Maryland are more uniform than many other places. That is especially true in the areas where I’ve placed my fictional town. And many of the law enforcement agencies in Maryland are accredited, which means they have to meet certain requirements. So, when I write police procedure for my fictional agency, detailed or not, I need to keep in mind that certain standards are the norm, and a normal officer or deputy is not likely to bend rules. A cop who does will be a renegade. And police departments that allow officers to get away with not following procedure are bound to end up in the news—and not in a good way.

So, how can I use something like that in a book? How does knowing the facts help me if I’m writing about an officer who breaks the rules? Tons of scenarios come to my mind. Say a police detective screws up an investigation because he’s a hot shot. Maybe just something minor, but enough to get the bad guy off. Then that criminal commits another crime. The detective blames himself, as do all of his colleagues and the crime victims’ families. He wants to investigate again and do it right this time, but because of the previous screw-up, he’s relegated to a minor role. He has to prove himself. Will he mess things up again while he’s trying to regain his reputation? In order to write stories like that, I have to know the law and the investigative procedures in the area where my story takes place, even if I use a fictional agency.

I'll return in a few weeks with more bits of information I've picked up. In the meantime, thanks for visiting Keep Me In Suspense.

Candice Speare


Blogger Christine Lynxwiler said...

Great blog entry, Candice! Your dedication to keeping your stories 'straight' is inspiring! And now we know who to call concerning all things law enforcement!

8:39 PM  

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