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?
RB: Forensic art runs the gamut from the everyday sketch of an unknown suspect to the reconstruction of a dead body in hopes of obtaining an identification from the public. Obviously the crime sketches are the most common, and are usually only used in serious felony cases such as armed robbery, rape or murder. There are now computer programs that simulate an actual sketch, but these are limited by the operator and the face parts that have been pre-programmed in.
When it comes to the dead bodies, a drawing is often done if the person can’t be identified by prints, and/or if a body is too decomposed, or has injuries that would make it difficult for anyone to look at that face and make an identification. Some artists work in 3-d, making a head out of clay. I think there are very few artists who can truly pull off a good 3-d clay model, whereas people “forgive” the mistakes in a sketch. Their eye tells them it is only a drawing—and therefore there is a better chance for an ID even if the sketch doesn’t exactly look like the person. The models tend to be more “realistic” looking, and it’s hard to see past the actual clay image.
DPL: What is your most memorable case where you served as a forensic artist?
RB: I would imagine it was my first dead body sketch for neighboring agency. The person was a “floater” and had no hair but a few strands left on her head from her time spent in the water. She had been shot between the eyes and stabbed numerous times in the chest. I did the sketch, but no ID was made. About two years later, after the detectives had run out of leads, they ran my sketch on a TV crime show and the girl was identified by her grandmother.
DPL: I’m sure you see police procedural errors in novels all the time. Which ones drive you up the wall?
RB: Surprisingly not the errors involving guns. For some reason cops get all bent out of shape if a writer makes mistakes with a gun. (And to be fair, I used to be one of them. Probably because we train so often with guns.) For me the story is the most important part. Sometimes you can’t make real police procedure work in the frame of your story, and so you have to bend it somewhat. In those cases, make the story logical. For instance if you have to send your cop into a situation alone with no back up—when in real life that cop would never be there alone—there better be a really good explanation for why he isn’t waiting for back up. That is probably my biggest pet peeve.
DPL: What’s the coolest investigative or forensic technique you’ve used in one of your stories?
RB: Back before CSI was all the craze on TV, I had my CSIs picking up footprints from a dusty floor using sheets of plastic film and an electrostatic charge applied to the sheet. The dust sticks to the film in a perfect image of the footprint where the dust was disturbed. It seemed really cool then, but now with all the CSI episodes on TV, probably fades in comparison.
DPL: What’s next for you?
RB: THE BONE CHAMBER is the next entry in my new thriller series, and will be on the shelves December ‘09. I actually traveled to Italy to do the research for this next book. Here’s a condensed version of what appears on the back cover:
Mysteriously summoned to Quantico to help recreate the face of a murdered, mutilated young woman, FBI forensic artist Special Agent Sydney Fitzpatrick knows immediately this is no ordinary crime. The hit-and-run death of the forensic anthropologist assisting her—a close friend—and Sydney’s abrupt dismissal from the case by covert government investigators only strengthens her need for answers. Now her hunt for a killer is carrying her from Washington to Rome to the hidden chamber of a legendary tomb…and a secret that could rock the world.
DPL: Thanks for being with us today.
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