Citizen’s Police Academy

My local police department runs an annual citizen’s academy designed to provide insight into the operation of local law enforcement and (I suspect) as a way of counteracting some of the many misconceptions that abound about the police. This year, despite the fact that I don’t write contemporary mysteries or police procedurals, I decided to enroll – figuring, hey you just never know (research is research after all, and inspiration can strike anywhere, anytime!). This free program is 12 weeks long (yes, you read that correctly!) and for three hours each week we learn about the whole range of operations: from patrol procedures, evidence/crime lab and computer forensics, investigations, 911 center operations, to the K9 unit, traffic and the local jail. We also get CPR certification as well as a firearms training (which should be interesting given how gun-averse I am!) and a chance to do a ride-along as well as a 911 ‘sit-along’.

Last week we had our session with one of the current patrol team leaders and it was already an eye opener for me – both in terms of the the range of calls they handle and the amount of equipment they have on hand to deal with these. All the patrol officers in our local police department undertake their own (non-felony) investigations and have facial recognition software as well as fingerprinting and DNA kits in their patrol cars. They also all carry drug testing equipment as well as Narcan (which is a sad reflection of the opioid crisis in America today). Even in our relatively safe community they have to be prepared to respond to active shooter calls and SWAT team situations. It sounded to me like one of the greatest challenge for a patrol officer today is handling the stress/mental health challenges of dealing with such a wide range of calls – one minute you could be dealing with a teenage suicide, the next a coyote attack, then a routine traffic stop, followed by a stolen vehicle report, a drug overdose, and then a call like the Aurora theater shooting. Another key takeaway (for me) was that law enforcement is nothing like it’s depicted on TV or in the media. So if that’s the case, how do I make sure I don’t fall into the same trap (if I ever do decide to use this as research for a novel)??

I’ve already lined up a 3 hour Friday night ride-along with one of the female patrol officers which I’m pretty excited about – I specifically asked for a female patrol officer because I know I lean towards strong female protagonists in my books. However, I’m used to writing about women who lived 100 years ago…so where do I start getting into the mindset of a modern day female police officer?

This is where I want to get input from you, my knowledgable TKZers!  What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions about the police in books/media today? What mistakes do you see often in mystery novels about local law enforcement? What questions would you ask a local female patrol officer if you were doing a ride-along?


24 thoughts on “Citizen’s Police Academy

  1. Hi, Clare!

    The two misconceptions I see that bug me the most are the oblivious detective who makes insanely stupid decisions and the cop who aims for specific body parts when shooting. Grrr…

    As for what to ask the officer you’re going to ride with, wow. I guess the first thing is why she wanted to be a cop. Tough job, especially these day. I’d also want to know how she deals with the stress. Then get into some of her more memorable situations while on duty.

    Sounds like a great learning experience. Wish we had something similar around my tiny neck of the woods…

  2. The misconceptions on television are that everything’s compressed. DNA testing is done immediately and is always conclusive, for example. Mistakes (in novels and other media) include detectives whipping out plastic “evidence” bags when in real life, a lot of evidence has to go into paper bags to avoid condensation and other problems. We often also see detectives walking into a crime scene quickly for the first time, possibly tromping on evidence, instead of approaching carefully and thoughtfully with an eye to meticulous detail.

    • Good points! They haven’t done the evidence or detectives session yet but it will be interesting to see what they say about how these issues are depicted on TV. I didn’t ask how long the DNA testing takes – will have to do that. The patrol officer who presented last week managed to get a suspect based solely on a swab on the rear view mirror of a stolen car when the suspect adjusted it. Thought that was pretty cool!

  3. One of the biggest yet most common mistakes is when TV cops arrest somebody and immediately issue Miranda warnings. It’s dramatic, but it doesn’t happen that way in real life. Anything an arrestee says outside of actual, custodial interrogation is admissible, so cops love an arrestee yakking it up. Miranda is usually given in an interrogation room.

    • Actually the patrol officer last week did talk about this after someone asked a question about Miranda warnings – most participants expected these to be given as soon as a suspect was about to be handcuffed.

  4. TV (and books) get a lot wrong. One of the “best” places, outside of going to a Civilian Police Academy, or doing a ride along, is Lee Lofland’s “The Graveyard Shift” blog. While the TV show “Castle” was airing, he would break it apart for police procedure rights and wrongs.
    I went through a CPA course in Orlando, then did a ride-along here in tiny rural Teller County.
    Whatever you do, it’s important that things are “right” for your setting, and things will be different depending on where your book is set (and when.) Also, calling or emailing the departments in question will usually get you someone who’s happy to help.
    I did find that offering to buy beer for some homicide detectives provided terrific story fodder. For the record, I asked if we could meet for coffee, and the detective said, “Is there an Ale House near you? And can I bring some friends?” Best money I ever spent.
    The SWAT commander did take me up on coffee (although he drinks tea–a stereotype buster) and I got some good information then, too.

    • I’ve been impressed by how open and forthcoming everyone has been – I think they just want people to know how things really work rather than believing the stuff they see on TV! I’ll have to check out Lee’s blog – heard of it but never really visited.

      • That same openness came across to me also, Clare. Most are proud of their jobs and really want to help people, rather than foster an “us” vs. “them” attitude.

  5. Clare, good for you to stretch your research into contemporary issues. Knowledge is never wasted. You’ll find a way to tuck in bits and pieces of what you learn. Sometimes the tiniest detail adds verisimilitude.

    I’ve been through the Sheriff’s Citizens Academy twice. Plus I’ve participated in training sessions where I played the roles of an impaired driver in a traffic stop, a victim of attempted rape, and the mother of a child killed in an accident. Role-playing gave me insight into the technique of responders–some great, some awful. Several years ago, I wrote a post about it on my website:

    The question I’m always curious about is how a female officer handles a larger, stronger male opponent who wants to fight.

    Maybe you could let us know how the rest of your course goes in a follow-up post?

    • Debbie – thanks – I’ll have to check out your post and I’ll definitely do some follow up blog posts here on what I’ve learned. Good question on the opponent front – will be interesting to hear how she answers that, although it sounds like back up arrives pretty quickly in our area so I don’t think most officers face a violent opponent alone.

    • Author Robin Burcell, who was (I think) the first female cop at LAPD, said her training officer sent her over to get a huge, nasty-looking thug to come over to the patrol car. When she returned with him a few moments later, the training officer asked how she got him to comply.
      She said, “I asked him. Politely.”

  6. I did my town’s CPA 18 months ago and the ride-a-long was special. While I only seem to write female police officers, I specifically asked for a cop who said during his class presentation that he liked ride-a-longs. While I’ll admit the in-class stuff was great – I died within seconds of being in a scenario with the police simulator, the ride-a-long gave me the perspective of the dangers and boredom of the average patrol shift. I also learned about the kind of crime in my town (pop 42,000) abutting a population million city. The whole experience also reconfirmed that I’d made the right decision on career day long ago to not be a cop, but I’m thrilled others enjoy the work and take pride in their department.

  7. Hi, Clare, Great learning opportunity, and so in depth–and free, to boot! And worth a million bucks. I attended the Police Academy in Green Bay last August, and it was a gold mine of info. I came away thinking it is a very, very different experience for a female cop. In addition, I’ve been reading Carmen Amato’s excellent series with Detective Emilia Cruz, who is tough, feminine, and handles it all, with diplomacy, some fancy footwork and well placed kick or two. I would love to have a follow up from you about how the female cop handles the woman to man, or several, situation, the obvious “me-too” aura, the sexual harassment that seems to be prevalent everywhere, and not just in the police department. And, it happens on both sides, and all sides, of “gender”. Best of luck, wish I could ride along, but maybe reading your thoughts later will be a good stand in. Thanks for sharing. Nancy

  8. There are too many errant media-driven tropes to count. Among the most annoying:
    1. The detective in his designer body armor leading the SWAT team on a raid.
    2. The FBI showing up and taking command of a local incident because, you know, they’re feds.
    3. The female detective on the job who dresses like she’s going to a club.
    4. The cops who use the doors of their cruisers (and other inadequate objects) for cover during a shootout.
    5. The muzzle-to-muzzle negotiation. “Put it down or I’ll shoot/No, you put it down or *I’ll* shoot”–all while other cops are watching.

    As for what to ask, I recommend anything that will get them off their script. Your attitude will tell them where to go in their conversations. If you shudder at a reference to “ceiling pizza” (suicide by firearm) or “crispy critters” (burn victims) you’re far less likely to learn stuff that hasn’t been pre-approved by the public information officer.

    I strongly recommend that you do not take notes. Listen and remember. Note taking gets in the way and makes people nervous.

    Research some local cases in your community and ask questions about how they were involved, or what techniques were implemented to close them.

    Be different. Everybody on these ride-alongs wants to talk about the obvious cool stuff, but I recommend taking the opportunity to develop a relationship with the cop.

    Stay out of the way and don’t touch anything. 🙂

  9. In a similar way, your local EMS provider may offer ride-alongs as well (for the strong stomached)… Everything from road trauma to Uber-Ambo rides… (A good read is Kevin Hazzard’s _A Thousand Naked Strangers_…)

  10. On TV the police always act like they are out to get you, like they have convicted you in their minds. I’ve never even been stopped in traffic, so I don’t know what police are like. My choir director’s son is a policeman, and I just know him as hilarious. I often wonder what would happen if he stopped me for something.

  11. This post is perfect timing for me as I just met my very first female homicide detective (and one of the very few) on a major metropolitan police force. The first thing I did was congratulate her, and I could tell she appreciated it (which made me suspect women working homicide are few and far between). I’d ask the officer if she faces challenges from the citizens she serves as well as from her colleagues. The citizens academy sounds amazing – enjoy.

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