Perhaps I’m showing my age, but there used to be a commercial with the actor saying, “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.” So let me rephrase that line. I’m not a cop, but I write about one in my books, including my latest novel, CIRCLE OF INFLUENCE.
This can be a problem. How can I pull off a realistic characterization of a profession when my only exposure to it (thankfully!) has been television shows and other books that may or may not have gotten it “right”?
Time to do my homework. Research!
There are those who dread research and look on it as drudgery. My response to them is, “You’re not doing it right!”
My first plunge into the world of law enforcement officers was the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police Citizen’s Academy. During the weekly sessions, I was able to watch police K-9s in action, tour the EOC (Emergency Operations Center) and the city’s crime lab, meet the SWAT team and see firsthand some of their cool “toys,” and I even got to shake the hand of the bomb squad’s robot. I hated to see it end.
A few months later, I went on a ride-along. Four hours patrolling with a wonderful police officer who willingly answered all my questions and shared part of his world with me. He took me into a house during a domestic dispute. Okay, I’m still not sure if that was a good idea or not, but it definitely showed what these brave men and women face every day. And when we responded to a call of “shots fired,” I learned about adrenaline. No, he didn’t let me out of the squad car for that one. Mostly, I tried to hide under the dash while peeking out to watch the cops in action. Enlightening, to say the least.
A year later, I signed up for the Pennsylvania State Police Citizen’s Academy figuring it might be more of a refresher than anything else. I was WRONG. Oh, there was some overlap, but most of the sessions covered new ground. We had a firearms simulator (I took out the bad guy with one shot—don’t mess with me!), toured the county morgue and the jail, and sat through night court.
Do I know how to have fun or what?
Having been part of the Citizen’s Police Academy class, I was asked to take part in a police training scenario involving a shooter taking over an office building. I was given a role and instructions, which involved calling 9-1-1 and then hiding. The shooter was also an actor. All the firearms were fake, but the terror was all too real. I almost dug myself a hole in the floor to stay concealed from the shooter. And when one of the responding officers spotted me, didn’t know if I was friend or foe, and aimed a very realistic-looking assault rifle at me—well, let’s just say it was a moment I will never forget.
Of course, all the while I’m storing these emotions in the back of my brain for use in my writing.
Not all of the Citizen’s Police Academy experiences were fun and games. As a Pittsburgh CPA alum, I’m occasionally called in to assist with proctoring police and fire recruit exams and with first-responder testing. Shortly after my class had graduated, Pittsburgh Police suffered the loss of three officers in an ambush shooting. With every city officer wanting to attend the funeral, the CPA alums were called in to assist with the parking of visiting police departments from all over the country. After our duties were completed, we boarded buses and were taken to the memorial service.
It was a memorable day and one I hope to never see again. I can still hear the bagpipes in my mind and still get chills recalling the sea of officers packing the Petersen’s Event Center.
If you write about cops without ever having walked in their shoes, I strongly suggest you find a Citizen’s Police Academy in your area. It’s fun, exciting, unpredictable, and very educational. And sometimes it will tap into a wealth of emotions you didn’t know existed.
Annette Dashofy, a Pennsylvania farm gal born and bred, grew up with horses, cattle, and chickens. After high school, she spent five years as an EMT for the local ambulance service, giving her plenty of fodder for her Zoe Chambers mystery series including CIRCLE OF INFLUENCE (Henery Press, March 2014) and LOST LEGACY (Henery Press, September 2014) Her short fiction, including a 2007 Derringer nominee, has appeared in Spinetingler, Mysterical-e, Fish Tales: the Guppy Anthology, and Lucky Charms: 12 Crime Tales (December 2013).
To learn more about Annette, please visit her website.