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

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."