REAL COPS vs HOLLYWOOD
by Wayne Zurl
Remember the TV series History versus Hollywood that originally aired between 2001 and 2005 on the History Channel? Narrator Burt Reynolds helped you debunk many of the myths perpetuated by filmmakers. I’d like to produce a show called Real Cops versus Hollywood (and some fiction writers.)
I began my police career back on the tail end of the wild and wooly days of law enforcement. Ernesto Miranda wasn’t yet a household word among career felons and Joe Wambaugh (a real cop) had just published his first novel, THE BLUE KNIGHT.
I remember the first burglary I worked with a veteran squad dick everyone called Mr. Ray, a guy willing to take the “new kid” under his wing.
Those were the days before CSI (Las Vegas, Miami, or New York.) Unless we had a homicide, bank robbery, or serial rapist, we did our own forensic work at the crime scene. We took photographs, dusted for prints, and other almost pre-historic things available to an investigator at the time.
Okay, back to my house burglary. It took me only ten minutes to establish that the break-in had been staged, for insurance purposes I assumed. The pry marks on the sliding glass door matched exactly to a sixteen ounce straight claw hammer hanging above the homeowner’s workbench. The dresser drawers were searched from top to bottom—something a good burglar never does. And the broken glass had been scattered too much. I called Mr. Ray aside and told him what I thought. He asked only one question. “Are you sure?” I nodded. His next move: He tossed the homeowner out a second floor bedroom window. His next statement: “Okay, kid, go ask that son-of-a-bitch if he wants to reconsider his complaint. Wild and wooly, not an investigative technique you should practice unless you want the Internal Affairs Bureau to have your desk phone on speed dial. So, what’s my point? Hell, I don’t know. I wanted to capture your attention.
But here’s a valid point regarding crime scene investigators—many of whom today are civilians. Now, read my lips. CSIs do not investigate crimes. They provide technical assistance to squad detectives who canvas neighborhoods looking for witnesses, check pawn shops, contact informants, interrogate suspects, and then (and only then) when they have reasonable cause to believe a certain someone committed a crime, they arrest the perpetrator—or poipuhtratah in Nu Yawk.
It’s just not logistically feasible for CSIs to “work” a case plus do all the horribly technical things they do at a crime scene and later at their office or lab and continue on until a case is cleared by arrest. Regardless of what TV tells us, it’s not possible.
I just mentioned reasonable cause to believe—sometimes called probable cause to believe—the standard of proof needed to make a lawful arrest or obtain a search warrant.
When I worked as a cop, I rarely watched TV police shows because the technicalities were so wrong I thought my head would explode. After I retired, that changed. For old time’s sake, I watched Law & Order. I loved NYPD Blue. And I even gave a few private eyes house room.
Let’s analyze Law & Order for a few minutes. Quite often, to build tension I suppose or to create illegitimate conflict perhaps (things people think are necessary in fiction) the boys and girls of the 27th Squad would jump the gun and arrest their suspect before they had all their ducks in a row. D/Lt. Van Buren would complain, “1 PP (#1 Police Plaza—the address of NYPD headquarters) is breathing down my neck. Go out and get a clearance.” With that admonition, Detectives Lenny Briscoe and Ed Green would break into a board meeting or doctor’s office and lock up their prime suspect—perhaps with only a reasonable suspicion—close but no cigar in laws of arrest.
Later, Chief Assistant District Attorney Jack McCoy would lose a crucial piece of evidence at a pre-trial hearing or fail to get an indictment at grand jury. He’d then send one of his lovely assistant’s out on the street to backtrack and build a case the squad dicks should have tightened up prior to slapping on the cuffs.
Law & Order was a great show that ran for twenty years, but if a real detective made that many mistakes, he/she would end up walking a foot post in a very quiet neighborhood.
Hollywood also seems bent on misleading the public on the process of obtaining search warrants. When you know a suspect won’t voluntarily allow you to peek into their dwelling, vehicle, or workplace to obtain evidence or lock down the possibility that the items you seize won’t be questioned at a hearing, you should go in armed with a warrant. To get one, you don’t simply call the boss and say, “Have the day man (whomever he or she may be) get us a warrant to search…….(Where ever you want to look.)
The 4th Amendment grants an individual protection against unreasonable search and seizure. There are exceptions to the basic rule, but this isn’t a law class and to keep me from rambling on too long, let’s agree you have the time and the best way to get a good search is to have a judge approve your warrant application by agreeing that you have good reason to believe you may find material evidence in the place you wish to look.
In my experience, the detective working the case applies for the warrant because he/she can best explain the reasonable cause to believe they have established.
One thing Hollywood gets right about search warrant applications—some judges are more pro-cop than others. Every detective has their favorite judge and may use them if they want a quick signature. But you don’t build a world-class conviction rate by using warrants that can be easily contested, resulting in lost evidence after a hearing. A good police supervisor should insure that warrant applications meet the burden of proof.
Another pet peeve of mine involves how Hollywood police supervisors never prep their cops before post-shooting press conferences. Invariably, some nit-wit reporter will ask, “Did you shoot to kill or shoot to wound?”
If you want to add a tidbit of reality to your book or story, there is only one way for your sharp cop to respond. “I shot to prevent or terminate (strike out the time frame which does not apply) the suspect’s illegal conduct.
As cops, we’re not gunslingers who don’t care if we bring’em in dead or alive and we’re not trained to shoot the gun out of a bad guy’s hand. Leave that to the heroes of those old B western movies. Police officers are trained to shoot for the largest target they can acquire—generally the criminal’s torso. Even with annual weapons qualification, many officers are not extremely good with a handgun much less distinguished experts. So, in the heat of a gunfight, all cops should make things as simple as possible and aim at the big picture.
But prior to taking that shot—using deadly physical force—the cop has to meet certain criteria. Hollywood sometimes fails to grasp this. I used to teach the law of justification in the use of force and I’d need lots more space to cover it adequately. If you plan on centering your fiction on a police shooting and you want to get the technicalities correct, some serious research is necessary to help you maintain credibility as a writer. Very basically, police officers may not use deadly physical force to prevent or terminate crimes against property. You can’t whack a kid to keep him from stealing hubcaps. If you, acting as a PO, reasonably believe it’s necessary to prevent or terminate crimes against a person, things like murder, a certain form of manslaughter, robbery (that means forcible stealing,) forcible sex crimes (rape or sodomy) or assaults that may result in serious physical injury, you may use deadly physical force—which is not limited to shooting. This is a complicated topic where generally cops have more latitude than civilians.
When I began writing fiction, I wanted cops, ex-cops, and serious fans of a police procedural to say, “This guy has gotten the details right.” No one writes without, at sometime, tacitly asking his reader for a little suspension of disbelief. But if you get those all important technicalities correct you can, with good conscience, stretch a fan’s S.O.D at an important time and in the interest of a good story.
If you’re writing about a sharp cop, have him or her get the little things right. They can make mistakes to build tension and cause your readers to grit their teeth, but don’t let them put a bloody blouse in a sealed plastic bag unless you want them to botch up an investigation.
Wayne Zurl grew up on Long Island and retired after twenty years with the Suffolk County Police Department, one of the largest municipal law enforcement agencies in New York and the nation. For thirteen of those years he served as a section commander supervising investigators. He is a graduate of SUNY, Empire State College and served on active duty in the US Army during the Vietnam War and later in the reserves. Zurl left New York to live in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee with his wife, Barbara.
Fifteen (15) of his Sam Jenkins mysteries have been produced as audio books and simultaneously published as eBooks. Ten (10) of these novelettes are now available in print under the titles of A MURDER IN KNOXVILLE and Other Smoky Mountain Mysteries and REENACTING A MURDER and Other Smoky Mountain Mysteries. Zurl’s first full-length novel, A NEW PROSPECT, was named best mystery at the 2011 Indie Book Awards, chosen as 1st Runner-Up from all Commercial Fiction at the 2012 Eric Hoffer Book Awards, and was a finalist for a Montaigne Medal and First Horizon Book Award. His other novels are: A LEPRECHAUN’S LAMENT and HEROES & LOVERS.
For more information on Wayne’s Sam Jenkins mystery series see www.waynezurlbooks.net. You can read excerpts, reviews and endorsements, interviews, coming events, and see photos of the area where the stories take place.
You can also connect with Wayne in the following places:
Twitter: www.twitter.com/waynezurl or @WayneZurl
Mind Wings Audio Author Page: http://mindwingsaudio.com/?s=wayne+zurl
What do you think are the biggest misconceptions fiction gives us about police work?
Be sure to come back on Monday, February 4, for an inspirational post by Lillian Brummet on surviving childhood in a dysfunctional and abusive home.
You can see this month’s full schedule here: Criminal Justice Blog Series Schedule
Thanks for reading.
Tags: Cops Writing Fiction, Crime Fiction, Crime Scene Investigators, Crime Scenes, Criminal Justice, Criminal Justice in the US, CSI, Forensics in Fiction, Law and Order, Mystery Authors, mystery series, Police Procedures, Real Cop Stories, Real Police Investigations, Sam Jenkins Mysteries, Suspense Authors, Understanding Criminal Justice, Wayne Zurl