Consultant for writers on crime, police, & court procedures.

Saturday, December 7, 2013


I hear that nearly every time a law enforcement officer has to shoot someone in an armed confrontation.  Why couldn't the cop shoot him in the arm or the leg?  Why did he have to kill the guy? they ask.

That the question is even asked shows a misconception of the use of deadly force by the police.  Pulling the trigger is such a grave undertaking that most officers go their entire careers without doing it.  In 36 years on the job, I've done it once--shooting at the tire of an armed robber who ran over one of our officers.  I missed.  Police officers are not trained to "shoot to kill" nor to "shoot to wound."  We shoot to stop the threat, a threat we believe will imminently result in the loss of life or serious bodily injury if not stopped. 
Evidence of an rampaging attack that killed three officers and
 one civilian and wounded three other officers.
There is no place on the body that a gunshot does not have the potential of causing immediate death.  I've seen guys shot in the leg bleed out and die in less than a minute. I recall a South Carolina state trooper who was shot on a traffic stop.  The bullet hit him in

Tuesday, December 3, 2013


Read what one of our recent clients had to say about our critiquing service.  We analyzed Danielle's mystery novel for accuracy in police procedures and realistic 'copspeak' as well as performing some light editing.  We wish her the best:

I recently had the pleasure of working with Wesley Harris on my first mystery novel, The Protector, which will be published in 2014. Wes assisted me with proper police procedure and investigation. He made suggestions on how to fix my mistakes. That’s exactly what I needed and wanted! My book is more accurate because of his help. I feel more confident about what my detectives and uniformed officers are doing and saying. Wes explained legal terms often used by law enforcement, so that I used them correctly. I look forward to working with him on my future novels.
--Danielle Davis, first-time novelist


In one of our last posts, we described the difference between 'interview' and 'interrogation.'  That prompted some questions from readers about how the police bring in people for questioning.  "Can a person refuse to go?" one writer asked.  "How much proof or probable cause is needed to bring someone in for questioning?" another one asked.

One of the most quoted lines in the classic movie Casablanca occurs when a police official orders his men to "round up the usual suspects." The unspoken inference is that officers will pull in numerous known and suspected criminals for some intense interrogation that will identify the culprit.

If it was only that easy.

No one, even suspects, can be taken to the station forcibly unless they are under arrest.  An arrest requires “probable cause” to believe a person committed a crime.  The idea that police can take anyone they need to question to their office involuntarily is a fallacy.

Even prisoners under arrest have a right to remain silent. Thus, it’s apparent that witnesses, “persons of interest,” and suspects can’t be compelled to answer questions.

Unlike what you see on TV, suspect are never questioned in the presence of their

Thursday, September 12, 2013


       Writers often use the terms “interview” and “interrogation” interchangeably.  The differences are significant, however.
     The interview is strictly to obtain information. It’s the standard Q-and-A session between an officer and a witness or a victim.  It might be conducted in a home, on the street, in a detective’s office, or in an interview room. Sometimes it is recorded but often the officer simply takes notes.
     The interrogation is conducted to elicit a confession from a suspect.  Usually it occurs in an interrogation room at the police station or a similar room at the jail.  It is an “adversarial” conversation with the goal of obtaining a confession.  Psychological pressure and “strategic deception” are used by interrogators to move the suspect to confess.
     A small police station may not have an interrogation room.  A detective might question suspects in his or her office, although this is not the ideal arrangement. Too many distractions, too many items the suspect can pick up and use as a weapon.
     Interrogations should be recorded, preferably audio and video. A common tactic of defense attorneys is to attempt to suppress any confession.  A recording shows the suspect was not under duress when he confessed.
     Most officers don’t wear their weapons into an interrogation room. The firearm is secured in another location, perhaps in a gun locker designed for that purpose or locked in a file cabinet.


Check out my interview on the Sleuths & Suspects blog and learn more about my work to help writers writecrimeright.

Monday, September 2, 2013


How do you prepare to write about your characters?  How much research is enough? Authors who do their homework can give their characters the authenticity readers want. Heidi Glick, author of Dog Tags, wrote recently about her steps to research the main character in her current work in progress. is one of her sources for information.

You can read Heidi's excellent tips here:

Friday, August 16, 2013


I've gotten questions lately about whether all police officers and detectives have partners. Actually, most patrol officers and detectives do not have partners despite what you see on TV. A few very large cities are able to partner some of their officers but most law enforcement agencies simply can not afford to do so. It's terribly expensive to add an additional officer to a patrol car, not to mention a very inefficient usage of available staffing.  

Research shows that a two-officer car is not much safer than one-officer cars.  The thought is that an officer alone realizes he or she has to watch out for danger and operates at a heightened state of vigilance. With two officers, it's possible each thinks the other is watching out and thus drops his or her guard. I don't know if that's true but as a former police chief, I know most agencies can not afford to staff two officers to a car or pair up detectives.  It is not economical and it's not as effective.  Two detectives following one another around aren't going to accomplish as much as each working his or her individual cases.  Two patrol officers in two cars can cover more ground and deter and detect more criminal activity.

That doesn't mean that detectives don't often pair up to go out into the field looking for suspects or witnesses.  But they usually aren't "partners" like you see on TV and in movies (Lethal Weapon, Starsky & Hutch, Cagney & Lacey) where detectives almost always have a constant companion.  Most detective work takes place behind a desk. When detectives need to go out and need backup, they grab whoever is available to be "partner for the day."

Thursday, August 15, 2013


You can't call 911 when you need help with your crime or suspense novel.  But you can call me!  I will respond "Code 3" to provide nearly four decades of police experience to your story.  Whether you need story ideas or a complete manuscript review, I can help you "WriteCrimeRight." Read what others have said about our services:

“Wes Harris has helped me with my upcoming crime/suspense novel. Although I write fiction, I want to accurately portray law enforcement as much as possible. Wes has helped me to do that. I would highly recommend his services to other writers who would like help with the law enforcement aspects of their writing.”—Heidi Glick, author of Dog Tags

Wesley Harris can deliver! Not only did he know the answers to all my questions about Civil War firearms, but he answered them thoroughly, applied his knowledge to my particular characters and scene, and responded in a timely fashion. He is the dream resource for a novelist who needs his brand of expertise. I highly recommend his services, and will be using them again myself.”
~Jocelyn Green, award-winning author of the Heroines Behind the Lines series 

"As a romantic suspense author, I work very hard to get the facts straight, or as close to as humanly possible within 380 pages.  I’ve been blessed to correspond with Chief Wesley Harris, who not only corroborates or corrects my thinking, but goes the extra mile to work around those pesky plot problems. Chief Harris has been invaluable to me in clarifying police procedure. Other authors speak glowingly of him as well."--Donnell Ann Bell, Amazon bestselling author of The Past Came Hunting and Deadly Recall.    

I'm so grateful for the help Officer Harris has supplied me in helping get it right and keeping it real for my fiction detective. With Wes's expertise and broad base of knowledge I feel I have a good shot at writing about law enforcement. I wouldn't attempt to write without his help. He is never too busy and no question is considered foolish. I hope you take advantage of this man's knowledge.”—author Nanci Rubin

"Since my Diana Racine Psychic Suspense series takes place in New Orleans, and I live in South Carolina, I called on Wes Harris to smooth out some basic police procedures pertaining to Louisiana. He always answered my questions quickly and thoroughly. The man knows his stuff. Any mistakes in my books are all mine and fall under the heading of artistic license."--novelist Polly Iver

Email me your needs at

Tuesday, August 13, 2013


Your story has a killer.  Your hero must stop him.  But is your villain a serial killer, a spree killer, or a mass murderer?  Or none of the above.  You must know the difference to understand how to characterize your antagonist.

A serial killer has killed multiple times but always at a different location over a period of time. There is usually a pattern as to location, type of victim, method of murder, etc. with the victim almost always previously unknown to the killer.  The Ted Bundys and John Wayne Gacys fit in this category.
Ted Bundy

Tuesday, July 23, 2013


One of the common investigative actions depicted in crime shows is the lineup.  The suspect and four or five other guys are displayed on a stage so the victim or witness, safely ensconced behind a two-way mirror, can make a positive identification. 

"Live" lineups are rare in real police work because of the difficulty in setting them up. Finding four or five bodies of the same size and build of the suspect can be a challenge. Since live lineups are generally used when the suspect is already in custody, other jail inmates are used to fill out the lineup. Because of the time it takes to organize a live lineup, they are used primarily in serious crimes--rape, robbery, murder. More times than not, the suspect has a previous record so mug shots are usually available to prepare a photographic lineup.

To create a live lineup, other inmates in the jail can be asked to appear in the lineup.  Normally that requires adding a little compensation to their commissary account in return for their participation.  Inmates who were already incarcerated at the time of the offense are used to guarantee a misidentification isn't going to cause them any problems.  In a rural community with a small jail, there may not be sufficient persons available to fill out a lineup.

The lineup is arranged by the case detective with help from the jail staff.  Sometimes an assistant D.A. may be involved.  If the suspect has already made a court appearance, his defense attorney must be invited to attend to observe but he or she can not participate or interfere in the process in any way.  There is no requirement that a defense attorney be given access to a photographic lineup.

For the lineup, a detective would escort the victim/witness to the jail, preferably to a viewing room where the inmates & suspect can not see.  The lineup of individuals is photographed for use in court.  Of course, you can use the photographs to take the lineup to a witness if for some reason you don't want to use a live lineup.

A "showup" occurs when a potential suspect is located near the scene of a crime shortly after it occurs. The victim or witness is taken to the spot where the suspect has been stopped and makes a determination if that is the person who committed the crime. Showups are suggestive by nature so caution is advised in their use.

The common photo lineup, called a "six pack" in some locales, consists of pictures of the suspect and five other similar "fillers." Here's a typical photo lineup:

Many police agencies are now going to sequential photo lineups.  Rather than showing the witness six suspects where they might pick out the one who most resembles the perpetrator, this method purportedly reduces the chance of an incorrect identification. The witness is shown a batch of photos sequentially--one at a time--rather than simultaneously. Some states have passed laws requiring this method.

The photo lineup doesn't provide exciting TV drama. The live lineup provides opportunity for confrontation, an emotional response from victims, and a small victory for the police when their investigation has been strengthened by a positive ID.  But by far, most suspect identifications are verified by photographs, not face-to-face confrontations.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013



Writing realistic dialogue for cops and bad guys can be a challenge for writers. How do you determine how they really talk? One way is to consult someone who works in law enforcement. The extensive list at this link can also help. Be forewarned some of the terms are rather profane so consider your audience.

Even the term "cop" is slang. While most police officers do not consider the term offensive, they don't refer to themselves as 'cops." 


This link leads to a nice article on what police officers should not do at crime scenes. Writers should also follow these guidelines in their crime stories. Just last week, I was reading a Christian suspense novel by one of my favorite authors and came across an account of a murder scene. The police had outlined the location of the body in chalk. That's a big no-no. We do not alter the crime scene. We use photographs and measurements to document the location of the body and items of evidence.   

Saturday, July 6, 2013


I read as much as I can.  About 50-50 fiction to non-fiction.  When I read crime fiction and suspense novels, I can't help but evaluate it from a police veteran's perspective.  I remember starting a well-known novelist's series about a private investigator.  I frowned at her protagonist's choice of firearms for personal protection.  As a former police officer, the PI character should have known better than carry a piece of junk police officers here in the South would deem good for nothing but a "trotline weight."  The faux pas bothered me throughout the series.  Eventually the author addressed it herself in one of her books and changed to a more reliable firearm.

When I consult with writers, I have to remember "it's fiction." Authors deserve the right to a little literary license. But accuracy and realism are important in crime fiction.  Readers appreciate it.

Here's some of my pet peeves in crime fiction:

1.  Too many feds. Federal agents make up less than 1% of American law enforcement but monopolize crime fiction.  FBI agents rarely work murders, rapes, and other local crimes.  Local cops do that. In 36 years of police work, I can recall about five cases besides bank robberies where the FBI joined us in an investigation. Perhaps authors see the feds as more prestigious. I don't know. What I do know is the majority of police work is performed by dedicated local city and county officers and detectives.  I'd like to see more of them in starring roles.

Along the same line...

2.  Local uniformed cops are relegated to crashing cars and getting shot. Much like in the movies, the star is usually a detective and uniformed patrol officers secondary characters. The death of a uniformed officer may get a paragraph and then the story moves on with the hero detective. Writers don't realize that an assault on an officer brings out all the guns. It's a big deal. It's an attack on our justice system. Everyone from the small-town cop 20 miles down the road to the game warden will respond. The death of an officer is tantamount to losing a brother or sister.  It may not be the focus of your story, but don't write it off as no big deal.

3. Weapons. Get the guns right, please. "Pistol" refers to a semi-automatic handgun that uses a "magazine" loaded with cartridges.  A "revolver" has a cylinder with chambers to hold five or six cartridges.  Revolvers don't eject shells onto the ground.  Pistols do.  "Mace" is a brand name for a line of chemical weapons.  Most officers carry "pepper spray"--a chemical weapon that uses a pepper extract as its effective ingredient.  Officers who carry batons are more likely to have the metal expandable version on their belts than the long black ones of years past.


4.  By necessity, novels avoid the drudgery of police work--the waiting, the reports, the boredom.  But there's no need to ignore the realities. Officers are not running and gunning every moment of the day.  It doesn't hurt to mention your hero spent hours writing reports after the big arrest--just a touch of realism to give your readers an accurate picture.

5. Timing. Investigations take time. Evidence analysis takes more time than you can imagine. I've routinely waited six to nine months for DNA analysis because of the backlog at crime labs. That may not fit the timing of your story but don't give in to the tendency to have your characters perform complicated investigative procedures in a matter of minutes.  It's not like TV's "CSI."