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

Saturday, September 27, 2014


Firearms terminology confuses many writers.  Sue Grafton, a superstar in the world of crime fiction, was blasted by many readers when she equipped her private eye Kinsey Millhone with a measly .32 caliber pistol when any self-respecting ex-cop would carry a .357, 9mm, .40 cal—anything but never a .32.

Confusing “revolver” and “pistol” is a classic mistake. Pistol usually refers to any handgun not a revolver, primarily large capacity, semi-automatic handguns.  Having a revolver eject spent shells onto the ground will prompt snorts of derision from educated readers.

The revolver vs. pistol issue was covered in an earlier blog post, so I’ll move on to some terms related to ammunition that could be used in your story:

Caliber – the dimension of the bullet. Sometimes measured in hundredths of an inch like .38 caliber, sometimes in millimeters (9mm).

Cartridge – complete unfired ammunition consisting of a cartridge case, powder charge, bullet and primer. This is what you load in your firearm. 
common pistol cartridges
Bullet – the projectile attached to the front of a cartridge.  This is what is fired from your firearm.
The bullet is the projectile that is fired at the target. The exterior is often a copper or      
brass jacket covering lead and other metals.

Bullet jacket – the copper or brass outer skin of a jacketed bullet. Sometimes portions of the jacket will fragment off when the bullet strikes an object.

Case - the portion of a cartridge containing the gunpowder. A pistol ejects the case when it is fired. For a revolver, you must physically remove the fired cases from the cylinder to reload. Cases are informally referred to as "hulls" or "brass."

Slug – while sometimes used to refer to a bullet, a slug is a lead projectile fired from a shotgun. Some shotgun shells contain numerous pellets. A slug shell contains only the large lead projectile.
comparison of 00 shotgun shell with slug

“00-buck” shell – shotgun shell referred to as “double ought buck” or “double ought buckshot.” The shotgun shell most commonly used by law enforcement. The shell contains nine .32 caliber lead pellets.

Wad or wadding – plastic, paper, or fiber disk that separates the powder from the shot in a shotgun shell. It is propelled out of the gun along with the pellets, sometimes into the target. The wad only travels a few yards, so drawing a line from the victim back to the wad and extending it will indicate the direction from which the shot was fired.

stippling around entry wound

Stippling – abrasions or ‘tattooing’ produced on the skin by gunpowder when the gun is fired from a short distance.  

GSR – a general term for gunshot (gunpowder) residue. A test for residue is abbreviated GSR.

Powder particles – sometimes visible, unburned gunpowder can be found on the clothing or body of a wounded person.

Magazine – a device for holding cartridges which is inserted into the grip of a pistol.  It is NOT a “clip.”
This is a magazine, not a 'clip.'

Wednesday, September 17, 2014


Thousands of people go missing in the United States each year.  Some are voluntary disappearances, such as runaways.  Not just teenagers, but adults who want to flee their former lives.  A few are actual abductions. There's always been a myth that a person has to be missing for 24 hours before the police can act.  Not true.  It can be five minutes if the circumstances warrant it.

I've taken missing person reports from all manner of people--spouses, parents, neighbors, friends.  Generally, missing person cases investigated by the police fall into one of these categories:

1.  runaway teens and missing children
2.  people who may be victims of foul play
3.  those who have a condition that places them in danger--Alzheimer's, mental illness, medical condition, etc.

In these situations, the person can be entered into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) system as a missing person.  Should a police officer encounter the person and run a check, a missing person "hit" would come back with information to contact the investigating agency.

A case of a missing adult in which no foul play is suspected and no extenuating condition exists may not be a high priority for the police.  Disappearing to begin a new life is not a crime.

In the case of a missing person who was traveling, the report is filed at the jurisdiction the person is missing from, not the destination.  The agency receiving the report would probably contact the police at the destination for assistance.

For "missing" children, the circumstances are different in every case.  Police agencies have learned from botched investigations that you jump on missing children cases fast and with every resource available. The priority may be marshaling search and rescue personnel to initiate a search of the immediate area, broadcasting AMBER alerts, notifying the media, etc.  Supervisory personnel decide what resources shall be called, whether other agencies, the FBI, a CART team (see link) are notified. 
This link includes a checklist of what law enforcement does when a child is missing:


Thursday, June 5, 2014


“Don’t tase me, bro.”

That plea was made famous by a protesting college student caught on video during an arrest. It shows how familiar the American public is with these relatively new weapons.  The student in question even registered the phrase as a trademark to promote a book and line of t-shirts.

We get many questions about “stun guns” or “TASERS.”  The use of these weapons can provide a different twist to a story. But it’s confusing technology—I just read a novel by one of my favorite authors where a “stun gun” was used to render the victim unconscious. Doesn’t happen, folks. These devices are very painful but they do not shock you into unconsciousness.  Do your research.

Less-lethal weapons like the TASER are frequently used by law enforcement agencies to overcome suspect resistance. They have saved the lives of officers and suspects alike. Agencies equipped with TASERs have seen a significant decrease in officer and suspect injuries. I often convinced a combative suspect to surrender merely by shining the TASER’s red laser aiming dot on his chest.

TASER (all caps) is a trademarked brand name of a specific electronic control device (ECD).  The acronym stands for Thomas A. Swift Electric Rifle.  While it is the best known 

Thursday, May 22, 2014


Thirty-four years ago in 1980, when I moved from patrol to criminal investigations in my hometown's police department, the unit had already been tape recording interrogations and witness statements for years.  We knew nothing swayed a jury more than hearing a suspect's confession come from his own mouth. I didn't realize how progressive our policy was until I moved to metro Atlanta in 1989 where NO agencies recorded statements.  The typical procedure involved a detective writing out a statement or confession by "transcribing," in essence, paraphrasing, the suspect's words. The suspect would then sign it, often without being able to comprehend what had been written.

I adopted a mandatory recording policy at my new agency, first for tape recording, followed later by videotaping. My agency was the first in metropolitan Atlanta--an area with dozens of law enforcement agencies. Prosecutors of all the local counties soon made everyone else follow our example. Today I learned the FBI didn't start recording interviews until THIS MONTH.  In fact, the written policy was that interviews and interrogations were NOT to be recorded, a rule that left skeptical juries wanting more. The new procedure will be to record all interviews until there is a compelling reason not to make a record. While the FBI has established the benchmark for many investigative procedures, they were way behind on this one.

Welcome to modern police work, FBI.

Thursday, May 1, 2014


The publishing industry has changed significantly since the days when an author could submit a promising but mechanically flawed manuscript and rely on the company's editors to clean it up. Publishers receive so many manuscripts that they need little justification to reject one. While publishers still have editors, an author must submit a reasonably clean manuscript to have a hope of acceptance.

The editing process can be confusing with so many editing services available before and after a manuscript is accepted. When reviews a manuscript, we do more than analyze the legal procedures. We also provide "copy editing."   

Three levels of freelance editing are available to authors seeking to improve their manuscripts before seeking a contract:

Proofreading: A proofreader provides a check of the document for minor mistakes in spelling, punctuation, spacing, and so on.

Copy editing: Our definition of copy editing includes checking:

word usage
awkward phrases
pronoun agreement
missing words
story details
tight writing
manuscript formatting

Line Editing or Substantive Editing: In addition to performing the tasks of copy editing, the line editor may initiate significant changes to improve the narrative.  While copy editing pertains to "mechanics," line editing focuses on "story." The editor enhances the quality of the writing, removes unnecessary repetition and plot flaws, and restructures sentences and paragraphs for smoother flow. The line editor knows the difference between active and passive prose, turning dull writing into something more engaging. 

When reviews your manuscript, you get "two for one"--an extensive analysis of everything related to police work and criminal procedure as well as word-by-word, line-by-line copy editing. The result: a story your readers will find plausible and realistic and a manuscript attractive to publishers.

Sunday, April 6, 2014


One way to learn to write crime drama realistically is read novels by those who have been there.  Everyone has heard of Joseph Wambaugh, the former Los Angeles PD officer known as the "Grand Master of Police Novels."  Wambaugh has sold millions of fiction and non-fiction books featuring police work.

For those who are turned off by Wambaugh's rather gritty, often profane novels, here's some of my favorite cops-turned-novelists who provide a Christian world view while staying true to realistic police procedure and investigative techniques. 

A former Long Beach, California, police officer of twenty-two years, Janice Cantore worked a variety of assignments, including patrol, administration, juvenile investigations, and training. A few years ago, she moved to southern Oregon, where Janice writes suspense novels designed to keep readers engrossed and inspired.  I loved her Pacific Coast Justice series.

F.P. Lione is actually two people —  the husband-wife team of Frank and Pam Lione. They are both Italian-American and the offspring of New York PD detectives. Frank Lione is a veteran of the NYPD, and Pam a former medical sonographer who now stays home with their two sons. They divide their time between New York City and Broadheadville, Pennsylvania, in the Poconos.

Mark Mynheir is the author of the Ray Quinn mysteries. Mynheir served 25 years as a Florida officer, including stints as a detective, SWAT team member, and undercover narcotics agent. 

While I titled this post "It Takes One to Know One," that's not completely true. Many writers, through extensive research and consultations with real cops, have written masterpieces that portray police officers realistically.  When I read J. Mark Bertrand's Back on Murder, I was convinced the writer was a veteran officer.  I knew he had to be an experienced Houston detective. Not so. Bertrand has never worn a badge but his Roland March series is among the most realistic detective stories I have ever read.

Some day I hope to complete my own novel and join this fine group of former officers who traded in their pistols for pens.  For now, I carry both.

Friday, March 21, 2014


Here's some quick tips for adding realism to your writing:

1.  Avoid the use of "policeman," "patrolman," "fireman," etc.  The number of females in public safety professions has increased significantly in the last twenty years.

2.  Don't assume your officers have partners.  Virtually all police work is performed by officers assigned individually to one-officer patrol cars.  There are exceptions, mostly in larger cities on the east and west coasts.  Pairing officers or detectives as partners certainly increases opportunities for interaction and conversation but keep in mind that a formal, permanent partnership is unlikely in most police agencies.

3. Know your weapons. If your story includes firearms, know your subject before you make stupid mistakes like having a revolver eject empty shells onto the ground.  Or inserting a "clip" into a pistol (it's called a "magazine.")

4.  Check your terminology.  There's a difference between burglary, robbery, and theft. Is drunk driving called DWI or DUI in the state where your story is set?

5.  Tread carefully in the morass of legal procedure.  Lots of room for mistakes here.  For example, there's no requirement that officers give a suspect the Miranda warning at the time of arrest.  It's usually done just prior to an interrogation. The convolutions in navigating the criminal justice system is dizzying even for those in law enforcement. Although you may want your bad guy arrested, tried, and convicted inside a week, he will attend a dozen or more court hearings between arrest and sentencing over the course of months or even years.

6.  Give your police officers a life outside of work.  We've read too many novels where officers seem to work 24/7 with no mention of family, leisure activities, or personal interests.  Even diehard cops have to sleep, feed the dog, go to church, and check on the kids.

7.  Avoid stereotypes.  Not all police officers are alike.  Beware giving your female MC the standard characterization of having to prove herself to her male counterparts, as well as to the world in general.  It's a worn out story line and most police departments are way past that.

Great writing can overcome lapses in correct procedure and terminology without losing credibility when most of the story rings of authenticity.  Breaking the rules doesn't take away from a story's authenticity when it is done sparingly and in a believable manner.

Saturday, January 25, 2014


An asset for any police officer is the ability to know when someone is lying.  Sometimes lies can be revealed when a suspect contradicts himself or provides implausible explanations.  But one of the best ways to detect lies are nonverbal cues that reveal the stress accompanying deception.  Many aspects of our bodily functions and other physical behaviors are beyond our control.  We cannot keep out bodies from perspiring or slow down our pulse rate during physical exertion or moments of stress.  It is because most suspects cannot control these actions that these cues are such effective indicators of deception.
The physical behavioral indicators described below are just some of many.  They are highly effective in helping officers detect criminal activity and protect themselves from danger.  They go beyond the simple nervousness one might experience in a 'normal' encounter with an officer, such as a traffic violation.

NO-LOOK MANEUVER:  This signal occurs before the encounter ever takes place.  At an intersection, for example, a motorist absolutely refuses to look towards the officer.  An offender who has something to hide will resort to exaggerated effort to avoid direct eye contact with a police officer in a chance encounter.
RESTLESSNESS:  A high level of stress often causes a person to be very fidgety, shifting positions frequently, pacing, crossing and uncrossing arms.  A stressed person may also try to move away, attempting to increase their comfort zone in order to reduce the anxiety. 

FALSE FATIGUE:  Signs of fatigue may actually be efforts by the body to relieve stress.  Frequent yawning and sighing are good stress relievers in these circumstances. 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

"I've been robbed..."

"I've been robbed."

I started my career as a police dispatcher, answering emergency phone calls and routing officers to the scene.  When someone called to report a "robbery," my heart would skip a beat.  Robberies are violent. Dangerous. They usually involve firearms.  The police response is all-out.
Everyone knows the common definition of theft or larceny--taking something belonging to another--but it also includes any type of fraud, misrepresentation or deception.  One of the most interesting cases I worked as a young investigator many years ago involved a man selling TVs out of the trunk of his car in shopping center parking lots.  He would motion people over to his car with a story that he had a TV to sell--it was not the one he wanted but the store wouldn't take it back, so he was trying to sell it in order to buy the one he wanted.  He would partially open a box to show a TV wrapped in plastic and packed in Styrofoam.  People would buy the TVs and the guy would take off with the money.

When the buyer had a chance to unwrap it, he found a very old, worthless black & white TV that had been packaged to make it look new.  We finally caught up with him and charged him with theft.  He had defrauded the victims, which under our state law was a theft.

The important element to remember about burglary is that it requires an "unauthorized entry" into the premises.  The suspect has to unlawfully enter the business, home or other structure.  It is not necessary to "break in," only that the entry is without permission.  If I walk into Wal-Mart during business hours, I can't commit a burglary there because I did not make an unauthorized entry.

So the two essential elements of a burglary are:
(1) an unauthorized entry
(2) the intent to commit a theft or felony inside

It is not necessary to commit the theft or felony to have a burglary, only have the intent to do so.

A robbery is a theft in which the perpetrator uses force or the threat of force to take something in the immediate control of the victim.  If I snatch your wallet out of your hand, that is a robbery.  If I pretend to have a gun and demand all your money, that's a robbery.

Usually with felony charges like burglary and robbery, we don't add on misdemeanor charges.  It would just mean more paperwork and the misdemeanors will most likely be dropped by the D.A. anyway.  Many misdemeanors are "lesser and included crimes" to felonies, which means the defendant could not be found guilty of both.  For example, a suspect robs a convenience store of $50.  He cannot be convicted of theft and robbery because the theft is an essential element of the robbery charge.  It would be punishing twice for the same behavior.  The same holds true for breaking out a window to commit a burglary.  Only the burglary charge would be pursued, not a misdemeanor damage to property.

Thursday, January 9, 2014


Award-winning author Jocelyn Green inspires faith and courage in her readers through both fiction and nonfiction.  Check out here seven tips for bolstering your research, including how helped her!

Tuesday, January 7, 2014


During my time on patrol, I participated in my share of car chases—or “vehicle pursuits” as we called them in official reports.  A typical report contained a meticulous recitation of every street traveled, every turn negotiated, every stop sign and red light disregarded.  Most often, the report failed to portray the danger, the urgency, or the chaos of the chase.  Although we were always directed to “paint a picture in words” for the prosecutor and the courts, our use of legalese—sophisticated coptalk—usually left the image rather cloudy.  You weren't supposed to write a thrilling novel but a “just the facts” narrative.
You want the readers of your novel to visualize your chase clearly.  Before you write, it may be helpful to diagram your chase using one of the many online navigational aids available such as MapQuest and Google Earth. Following a map lets you establish the twists and turns of a car chase realistically, even down to which street are one-ways, which have media strips, and so forth.  If your setting is a fictional place, you can select a locale