Guest Blogger: Sergeant Adam Plantinga: Fiction Versus Reality

01 Sep

As a novelist, one of your main jobs is to keep the story moving. And if your story deals with law enforcement, you probably don’t want to get too bogged down in the minutiae of police procedure. But you also want to present a narrative that rings true to life. It’s a bit of a balancing act. So to assist in this endeavor, I have put together nine key differences between fiction and reality as it pertains to cop stuff. Where applicable, I have also added a possible explanation, or an “out” if you really need that fictional element for the sake of a dramatic story arc. Because, after all, reality can be downright boring.

1. Fiction: The private investigator works closely with the local police force to help them solve the big case.

Reality: In thirteen years as a cop working in two different jurisdictions, I have never once had a meaningful exchange with a private investigator. Neither has anyone I know. In fact, on many murder cases, homicide detectives won’t even share everything they know with other police officers, fearing that the info might leak and compromise an ongoing investigation.

Possible explanation: Quite a few, I think. You just have to sell them. Perhaps the P.I. is an ex-cop who has helped the police before, so he has earned some street cred, like Robert B. Parker’s Spenser. Or maybe the police are on a tough case and are desperate for leads. Or your character is a witness or victim of the crime the police are investigating, so he or she is already deeply involved in the case (Lee Child’s Jack Reacher ends up in this position quite a bit). Whatever the case, there probably should still be some mistrust or even animosity between the two parties. The cops might throw a few investigative tidbits your P.I.’s way but perhaps they shouldn’t fully embrace him.

2. Fiction: The lone detective doggedly pursues the serial killer and confronts him alone, insisting “there’s no time for backup.” And if he does call for backup, it takes an incredibly long time for help to arrive, long enough for the hero to resolve the situation completely on his own.

Reality: There’s time for backup. It’s bad business to go after killers alone. You typically have a partner and you often enlist a SWAT team to do the heavy lifting. And if you get on the radio and call for help, your fellow cops will drop whatever they’re doing and come to your side. It’s like the bell-ringing scene at the end of Witness. They’ll get there quickly, and they will be out of breath when they arrive, because they had been running to reach you. 

Possible explanation: The hero tries to call for other units but his handheld radio gets damaged in a struggle with the suspect. Or he’s followed the bad guy into another jurisdiction where his signal is out of range. Or his partner gets wounded and can’t go on. I think it’s okay to get creative here. After all, if you spend your whole book setting up an epic confrontation between the hero cop and villain, only to have the hero step aside in the end so some anonymous SWAT team can take the villain into custody without incident, your readers may feel a bit cheated.

3. Fiction: The cops get DNA results back from the lab in three days.

Reality: I had a burglary that happened in November and I got DNA results from the scene the following July, which was actually pretty quick for San Francisco. Even for homicides, which are fast-tracked, the quickest turnaround for DNA results is probably going to be one to three weeks.

Possible explanation: Maybe your jurisdiction just received a federal grant to hire a team of new lab techs. Or your story simply takes place in a fictional universe where DNA results come back faster than they do in real life. That’s okay. Fiction allows you certain freedoms; your protagonist is probably better-looking and drops more clever one-liners than any real cop anyway. 

4. Fiction: The cop confronts a gunman and tells him to drop his weapon. If the bad guy doesn’t drop it, the cop often will warn him again.

Reality: Odds are the cop will shoot that guy right away. That is what police training dictates. As a firearms instructor once told me, “What are you waiting for? This guy has a gun, he’s ten feet away, and you’ve got no cover. Shoot him.” Warnings are fine when practical, the instructor explained, but action always beats reaction so the bad guy can plug you before you can even get a “Drop the” out of your mouth. So shoot instead of chat. And, he continued, if you feel so strongly about saying “Drop the gun,” say it to the guy after you’ve fired.

5. Fiction: As soon as the handcuffs go on, the cop immediately reads the suspect his Miranda rights.

Reality: As a police officer, you are required to read someone their rights only after they are in police custody and you are about to interrogate them about an offense. Custody plus interrogation equals Miranda, not before.  It is often tactical to wait to Mirandize a guy for a while because the offender may make a spontaneous, incriminating statement prior to formal interrogation.

6. Fiction: Your hero jumps in his ultra-efficient, lightning-fast police cruiser and chases the suspect vehicle through a dozen jurisdictions. The pursuit only comes to a halt after the hero rams the suspect car and shoots out its tires.

Reality: While suspects may drive as recklessly as they wish, as a police officer, you have to drive with “due regard.” This means at each intersection, you have to slow to look for oncoming traffic and take it easy on the hot-dogging, even if you have your lights and siren on. Also, pursuit policies vary by department, but generally speaking, you are only allowed to pursue violent felons and even then, you’re not allowed to ram them. You may deploy spike strips to puncture the fleeing vehicle’s tires, but you’re not supposed to shoot out tires because firing at a moving vehicle is far more dangerous than practical. And there’s always a supervisor listening to the chase on the radio who will terminate the pursuit if it sounds like things are getting out of hand.  Also, in a pursuit, the suspect vehicle may just flat outrun you. Police patrol cars aren’t anything special. Their most exotic feature is anti-lock brakes, which let you steer even in a skid, but they don’t have turbo-charged engines or double-reinforced tires. They’re just big cars made in Detroit, painted in police colors with some lights slapped on them. Sometimes their transmissions blow right in the middle of the chase.

Possible explanation: If your protagonist is chasing a murder suspect, the monitoring supervisor will likely let the pursuit go until the wheels fall off. And if it is an especially heinous murder, perhaps the supervisor will authorize the use of extreme measures to capture your quarry. Just know that if your hero elects to ram the suspect vehicle, it is often considered a use of deadly force—the same as if the hero fired a full clip at the bad guy.

7. Fiction: The cop protagonist recovers fingerprints off just about anything: rocks, stucco walls, quesadillas.

Reality: There are only a few surfaces conducive to the retrieval of fingerprints. Non-coated glass gives you the best shot, but many painted items are also good. Glossy paper and some metals, particularly aluminum, have a decent chance. I’ve heard of prints being taken off live plants before, and Band-Aids. But the list of surfaces where fingerprints don’t show up is longer, and includes undressed wood, bricks, cloth, and, well, most everything else. If a suspect touches a dusty surface, he’ll just remove dust instead of leaving a print and the kind of hard plastic most electronics are made of don’t tend to hold prints because of their textured surface. Also people leave more prints when it’s humid out and their fingers are oily than when it’s cold and their hands are dry. Manual laborers or workers who deal with chemicals for a living often have hands so gnarled and scuffed from their jobs that they couldn’t leave prints at a crime scene if they tried. And then there are, of course, burglars who merely wear gloves, which you can buy for two and a half bucks at any retail outlet and foil the ID tech.

Potential explanation: I’m not really sure. Maybe your fictional CSI team is just that good.

8. Fiction: The cop hero gleans valuable information from a street hooker, who is his informant and perhaps even his love interest. The hooker is alluring, funny, helpful and well-adjusted.

Reality: The vast majority of street prostitutes are out there on the corner because they’re hopelessly addicted to narcotics and selling themselves means earning quick cash to get high. You will likely never encounter a street hooker with a sense of humor, or an athletic, winsome one with a heart of gold like Jamie Lee Curtis in Trading Places. Real prostitutes have faces so ravaged by street life—pockmarks, sores, caked-on makeup—that it’s hard to look at them. They smell bad. They twitch. They have head lice. Drug addiction has made their daily existence lethargic and bleak, like the final stages of a progressive disease.

9. Fiction: The detectives locate the killer through some exotic means—like the suspect leaving behind traces of rare clay unique to a small fishing village in New Brunswick. Or they find an obscure clue on a surveillance tape that leads them to their man. (“Okay, Ned, play it back. Now forward. Freeze on that!”)

Reality: Criminals are caught because they impulsively shoot someone in front of multiple witnesses. Or because they accidentally drop their wallet containing their ID at the scene of the crime. Or because they tell their crackhead pals about the carjacking they committed and are subsequently turned in for the Crimestoppers reward. Basically they are caught because they’re idiots.

Possible explanation: I wouldn’t sweat this one too much. As a writer, you have some room to operate here. Such exotic and obscure clues can be fun to read about and they propel the story forward. I say let ’em rip.

Adam Plantinga

Adam Plantinga is a sergeant on the San Francisco Police Department and the author of the just-released book 400 Things Cops Know, available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, local booksellers, and from the publisher, Quill Driver Books


400 Things Cops Know Cover


Posted by on September 1, 2014 in Guest Blogger, Police Procedure


20 responses to “Guest Blogger: Sergeant Adam Plantinga: Fiction Versus Reality

  1. Peter DiChellis

    September 1, 2014 at 9:30 am

    Outstanding. I look forward to reading the book.


  2. Dee Morris

    September 1, 2014 at 3:59 pm

    Love it! Thanks.


  3. Angus Brownfield

    September 1, 2014 at 9:03 pm

    If there’s a Pulitzer category for policemen writing about their profession, you get it, Sergeant. Hats off.


    • Adam Plantinga

      September 3, 2014 at 1:19 pm

      Thank you for your kind remark, Angus.


      • Maria DeCoursey

        January 15, 2015 at 3:59 pm

        Thank you for writing that! I enjoyed your book so much, I could hardly put it down! I hope you write many more:)


  4. patriciaruthsusan

    September 1, 2014 at 11:17 pm

    Reblogged this on Musings on Life & Experience and commented:
    Interesting information for writers of the Crime/Detective/Police Story /Thriller genres.


  5. nancysweetland

    September 2, 2014 at 7:33 am

    Excellent! Writers often don’t know just how far they can go before looking ridiculous.


  6. Searcher 12

    September 2, 2014 at 8:45 am

    I just say through Dave Spaulding’s Vehicle Combative course. Speed strips never stop anyone. And shooting out a tire usually just makes a slow leak.


    • Adam Plantinga

      September 3, 2014 at 1:24 pm

      You know, my experience has been that spike strips can work reasonably well from time to time. What’s tough is predicting the suspect vehicle’s flight path and getting into position to deploy them safely without getting run over by the bad guy. What’s even tougher is yanking the spikes off the road in time so as to not flatten the tires of all the police cars in hot pursuit.


  7. Jon Michaelsen

    September 2, 2014 at 4:35 pm

    Will definitely purchase your upcoming book; awesome questions/explanations. I reached out to my local police department and sought permission through the channels to have a police officer allowed to answer my questions to keep it as real as possible. It’s definitely worth the effort for any writer looking for authenticity.


  8. Terry Burgess

    September 2, 2014 at 7:02 pm

    Well written and I bet the book will be also. Although I’m trying I’m having a hard time getting past writing in police jargon…”upon arriving at the scene I dismounted my marked police Interceptor…” well you get the gist of it. Thanks for the observations.


    • Adam Plantinga

      September 3, 2014 at 1:29 pm

      You’re right, getting the jargon down can be tough. And every jurisdiction is different. They call police cars “cruisers” on some departments on the east coast and “squads” in the midwest. But on the west coast, a “squad” can refer to a group of anywhere from 6 to 12 cops. But I don’t think you need to get too jargon-heavy. Cops don’t always use as much jargon as you might think. Sometimes we just say, “I got out of my car.”


  9. Thonie Hevron

    September 3, 2014 at 5:28 pm

    A terrific article! May I have permission to re-post it on my blog: Thonie Hevron/Just the Facts, Ma’am


    • Adam Plantinga

      September 5, 2014 at 11:08 am

      You bet. Thanks for the interest.


  10. kirizar

    September 4, 2014 at 1:19 pm

    So, you’re saying, if we want to commit a murder…a brick wrapped in cloth will do if we don’t have gloves handy? Oh, and not to spout about how “You’re not going to find any prints on that brick I tossed.” even before being Mirandized in the event the police spike strip my Maserati and I am caught?


    • Adam Plantinga

      September 5, 2014 at 11:09 am

      Kirizar, I think you just about covered everything there.


  11. kirizar

    September 4, 2014 at 1:47 pm

    Reblogged this on TheDustSeason and commented:
    In case you are writing a crime thriller and need the know-how, here’s a source for your no-doubt extensive collection of need-to-know-how books.


  12. Winkie La Force

    September 21, 2014 at 7:48 am

    I love this blog and the book. You make me very proud (as your mother-in-law), but I speak the truth!


  13. Steffanie Barger

    October 25, 2014 at 4:50 pm

    Congrats on landing inside Writers Digest! Enthralled by your flow of words! Def gonna buy the book 🙂 We had a guy once put dope on the dash and told me to put the money on the dash so we didn’t really “make no trascaction” 🙂 I’m sure you have more than enough material for future books 🙂



    March 16, 2015 at 4:20 am

    Loved this book! I reviewed it today on my website ( and already had a chance to use something I learned about fingerprints when watching a movie over the weekend. It has much useful detail and builds a picture of the police officer’s point of view, which is just as valuable. No wonder the Wall Street Journal called it “the new Bible for crime writers”!



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: