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 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