Tuesday, March 11, 2014

10 Tips for Writing About Law Enforcement

By Harry Sarkisian

Even when we write about fantastical worlds, we still want that sense of realism and authenticity to our writing. For crime and mystery writers, getting those details right is even more important, as factual errors can hurt a book's (and an author's) credibility. To help with that, crime scene photographer and writer Harry Sarkisian is here to share a few tips on what writers commonly get wrong about law enforcement. Welcome Harry!

Harry began writing seriously in November of 2011. He has nine works in progress with one "Flying On The Ground" going back to the editor hopefully releasing by this summer. 2014 marks the ninth year of stepping over bodies in Los Angeles California as a crime scene photographer for the Los Angeles Police Department.

Take it away Harry...

Excuse me, but a human is behind that badge. I have been stepping over bodies and visiting celebrities in their freshly burglared homes for about nine years. I work as a crime scene photographer for the Los Angeles Police Department. To say that I have seen it all is redundant.

So here's the thing: People who write about crime without any people in it frosts over my will to continue reading. WHAT!? You heard me; stop writing as though anyone who carries a gun and a badge is devoid of personality. I work with FBI agents who have a better sense of humor over life and its lessons than the DMV-styled officious maunder that is today’s attempt at getting a reader behind the yellow tape. By the way, the LAPD invented that stuff to keep politicians and other ilk from trampling over evidence.

Top ten irritants you should avoid like an STD:

1. Officious sounding blather: Such as PIII Juarez led XA-21 mission ready as always. Really? Did he call for back-up from an E Car? No one gets this in context, add the commonality back in. Tell me about Juarez, the man or woman, not the robotic assignment.

2. Subordinates yelling about inequality, social injustice, man’s inhumanity to man. That never happens. Discussions about turf, passionate arguments about the integrity of a case are common. It is really rare that someone goes off on a superior officer or sounds like they are on a crusade.

3. Internal dialog that sounds like a parking meter. Just think that one over and do not do it.

4. Graphic descriptions that are nothing but goreporn.
I have had it with spectacular descriptions all piled up in one page to gag out the reader or shock them into your version of reality. Have a reason for why the head came off the body before you type your next syllable.

5. Heartless commanders and others of ‘rank’. I've known a few who came off that way, only to find out later that they were watching out for me. There are assholes everywhere, make sure yours has motivation understood by the reader before you describe humanity out of the pooh pillar.

6. Writer without a clue. Get some knowledge.You can read works by ex-detectives and so on to get some idea. There are now countless blogs and posts by those of us in the field. Get your fill, then do your own writing.

7. Droning about cop exploits and skanky hookers and unshaven murderess. Tell a story. Detectives love stories; never met one who did not. They compare and contrast them all day, see how the evidence points to the most accurate one, then go over the whole mess all over again. Make sure your story flows as a proper narrative.

8. Stereotypical stoic cookie cutter bitter alcoholic investigators whose current girlfriend is a hooker he knew in high school. Detectives are interesting. They do things like cook, restore cars, write history, and many other things that I have never seen in a crime novel.

9. You know too much. Insider knowledge does not make up for lack of craft. You are reading this on the best website there is for new and aspiring novelists. Learn it all. If you are lucky enough to know someone like a lieutenant or higher remember they are politicians first to you and anyone else outside of their respective department. Get to know people in low places. That is where the real stories are.

10. Gristle, blood, counting body parts in trash cans. Hey man it’s a story first, middle, and last. You can scene set, but find a POV to show it, not tell it. Please, let us connect with the human being first before you start taking us into the world of your creation. Detectives have been single moms needing a solid job or fresh out of the military with no idea of what to do with their lives. It is true that all of us behind the thin blue line go into a mode when it is time, but we also have to go to the bathroom and find chow if we are stuck on a long crime scene. Never forget the heart that beats behind the badge.


  1. Time to talk about my all-time favorite law enforcement story, the novel - much more than the movie - The Silence Of The Lambs: It stays clear of all the ten by a wide margin. Examples:

    >> 2. Subordinates yelling about inequality, social injustice,
    Clarice once calmly explains to Crawford how his sexist talk with the West Virginia cop was highly problematic, even if she knows it was just a trick, and he sees - and takles - her point. She never complains about either the blatantly sexist behaviour or the condescending manner of some men, especially Dr. Chilton.

    >> 4. Graphic descriptions that are nothing but goreporn
    Given the extremely gory subject matter, the description is always restrained and tasteful. E.g. the result of Hannibal Lector's cannibalistic attack on a nurse is described by They could save one of her eyes, which tells you all you need to know without going into much detail.

    >> 5. Heartless commanders and others of ‘rank’
    The highest-ranking asshole, DOJ's Paul Kreidler, patiently explains to Clarice what he thinks doesn't need to be explained, and we can perfectly understand why he dislikes the rookies interference so much, as well as Crawford's. Behavioral Science's brief is, and has always been, advisory.

    >> 8. Stereotypical stoic cookie cutter bitter alcoholic investigators
    Not only is Clarice's backstory and character interesting - her lowly upbringing, her intelligence and competitiveness, her excellent results in all kinds of training, the quick wit and smartness she uses to parry attacks from superior knowledge or intellect - but each point is plot-relevant as well.

  2. Great article - thanks!
    My previous post went to the ether apparently - so will do a brief re-try...
    I worked with city, county, federal, and secret service officers and agents back in the 90s. As a LT-level civilian, I learned a lot in the 10 years I spent in that world.
    I agree with all your points and would offer a small insight: law enforcement appeals to and attracts individuals with highly developed views of right and wrong. Many of the individuals I came to know admitted that they felt their career gave them a healthy outlet for their natural 'fault-finding' mentality. Pursuing solutions within the rigid rule-driven world they must operate in creates some interesting behaviours.
    People invested in law enforcement do not like drama, are trained to defuse the verbal and body communications that enflame, and are either naturals at distancing themselves from a crisis or are committed to their training - or both.
    I saw and was involved in the social segregation that surrounds a lot of officers and agents - due to their jobs. Family is important, good friends vital, and training saves your life.
    I hope more writers take the opportunity to learn from an officer firsthand - most departments have ride-a-long programs.

    1. Those points are quite valid. I tried to encapsulate a lesson in familiarity. So many robots are made of humans already I got sick of seeing it in novels. You were part of the scene during a transitional time, I bet you have some stories to tell :)

    2. Yes - many stories - some are finally open to discussion. My time was served at the Waco, TX/McClennan County PD/SO. Maybe someone remembers David Koresh...that was my time and where my contact with Secret Service and Feds happened.
      The concept of community policing had just come to TX and Waco held the #1 spot in the nation for homicides (for cities that size). It was wild.
      Your article covered points that are now vital to anyone writing about critical incident professions - again, thanks for bringing it forward.

  3. Harry! My husband works for LA City Fire. Maybe you've even crossed paths :)

    I tell ya, watching a firefighter movie with my husband is an exercise in patience (for both of us). He grumbles, "It would not happen that way," or "Come on, really? No face masks?" Accuracy matters a lot.

    1. Hi Julie!
      My Fiance has not been quiet about her disdain of my "clarifications" regarding on screen "facts".... BTW ask your husband if he knows the SID photographer who says: "Sarkisian, common spelling". I get to go up on their ladders when we have an OIS or rub shoulders when they extricate after a KTC. Amazing how some of them tell me: "I could never do your job." I replied once: "No one has ever woken me up to do mine...ever."

  4. I enjoyed this post; thank you!

  5. Thanks for this article. It was very helpful. All one has to do is watch some of the unrealistic TV productions about law enforcement in order to see some of these mistakes being made.

    1. Great point. The most irritating thing about TV law enforcement is seeing people get out of their job class like criminalists who strictly do lab work going out to the field. The examples go on and on...

  6. Very interesting post! And I think the issue can be applied to other professions as well. Doctors, lawyers - anyone who has a job people "think" they know... and then people forget that those people are more than just a job. It's lazy writing to throw in these generic figures. That was one of the things I liked best about The Wire - every character was a person with a life, not just a label.

    1. Thank you Amy, never saw The Wire but sounds good :)

  7. Can you say more about #3? Somehow I'm not imagining what internal dialogue that sounds like a parking meter is like.

    1. Tic: 'I gotta bag this maggot proper or sarge will raze me'.
      Toc: ' Everyone thinks whores were nice girls once.'
      Tic: ' Captain will reach so far up his ass he can tap his shoulder.'
      Toc: ' Another wonderful day in paradise.'

    2. To be reeeeaaaallly honest? I'm too amused to be annoyed ;)

      Tap his shoulder indeed...

    3. Rachel6, I try to at least be smirk worthy ;)

  8. Interesting article. I cant help but think of the tv series "Castle" about the crime writer who researches by shadowing a police officer on the job...and ends up providing valuable insight into the mystery and cracks the crime! How true to life is this guy? Would the police force actually allow an untrained civilian to access all areas and join the team on raids etc? Do crime writers roll their eyes at this guy? (or is he their poster boy?) I'm sure real-life research is considerably duller.

    On a more serious note, I read an article about authorly research which suggested the mountains of information gathered doing research for a novel could also be woven into a feature article or two, which may provide income while crafting said novel. And if an article gets published around the time of the book's release, the brief author bio under the by-line could mention "john smith has recently published a novel about crime writers" as a tiny bit of publicity. The gift that keeps on giving!

    1. Good points. Most departments offer ride-A-longs. I have had them, always interesting to expose someone to what I do.