Robin Burcell wears many hats. She has spent over two decades as a police officer, detective, and hostage negotiator and is also a FBI-trained forensic artist. She is the successful author of the SFPD Homicide Inspector Kate Gillespie series and now has a new series with forensic artist Sydney Fitzpatrick.
Robin, welcome to the Writer’s Forensics Blog.
DPL: You have four books in your Kate Gillespie series and Face of a Killer is the first starring Sydney Fitzpatrick. Which of these characters is most like you and which do you enjoy writing about the most?
RB: I would have to say that Kate Gillespie, a police officer, shares more of my characteristics than Sydney Fitzpatrick of the FBI. Kate was the first female homicide inspector for San Francisco PD, and as such, faced a number of obstacles in her path to get to that position. I was the first female officer for my department and well remember the prejudices and battles of blazing that trail, so I felt that I could relate to a bit of what Kate might have gone through. And since I worked the streets as an officer, I was able to channel my experiences into Kate’s character. However, that being said, Sydney still shares my concerns in working with victims of crimes and, of course, when it comes to forensic drawings.
DPL: Most people know very little about hostage negotiation. What are the main techniques you use during these types of communication to resolve the stand off?
RB: That’s one of those “it depends” answers. Each situation is unique. But to generalize, the biggest skill is to be able to think on your feet, being able to use your voice to calm someone if he is agitated, or convince him to cooperate. You have to be able to “read” the person you are negotiating with, and often have to change directions midstream, never knowing what might set off the person. Most cops have this skill to begin with, and use it on a daily basis. The hostage negotiator has been trained even further.
DPL: Any interesting situations you’d like to share with us?
RB: There have been several instances where hostage negotiating training came in very handy while responding to routine calls. On one occasion, I arrived at a house on a report of an unknown disturbance. My partner and I were talking to a man in his forties, who was upset because he couldn’t make toll calls on his mother’s phone. He broke a mirror and his mother called us. I had pegged the guy at once as being mentally ill, and was on the phone with Mental Health trying to see if he was a current patient (he was) and was making arrangements to bring him in for an emergency evaluation. I had sized up the guy and, based on his behavior, called for additional back up. My instincts told me we were not getting this guy in control without a fight. My partner (a rookie with just a few months on the job) became frustrated at the man’s “up and down” behavior. Instead of waiting for the additional back up, he reached out to grab the man’s arm to take him into custody, and the man twisted away and whipped out a knife—holding it to his gut, stating that he was going to kill himself. That was my first face-to-face negotiation holding someone at gunpoint. (A suspect with a knife can kill an officer with that knife before the officer ever draws his weapon. It’s extremely dangerous. Lucky for us—and him— the man was not intent on harming us, just himself.) Several times as I negotiated, I felt my finger pull on the trigger as he appeared to be raising the knife, then releasing the trigger as he lowered it. All the time I had to keep my voice calm, and then even more so when he started to get agitated, like when he overheard radio traffic about his call or when he heard the approaching sirens. (As an aside, I actually wrote that scene into DEADLY LEGACY, but the editor decided the storyline with that character didn’t work out, so the scene was cut.)
DPL: Forensic artists do much more than simply draw pictures. What types of cases are they consulted on and what techniques are used by modern artists?