by Tom Adair, author and forensic scientist
Have you ever lost your temper? Done something in that state of mind you regret? I'll bet even money you have. Now imagine that episode is caught on tape and played out on the nightly news. We've all seen those dashcam videos of police officers acting poorly, sometimes criminally. Some videos can be very disturbing and we're all left wondering "what the hell is wrong with that guy?"
There are two very broad possibilities. One, the guy is a bad cop who should look for other employment. The other is that he or she is human and may just be losing their temper. Contrary to what most people think, police officers are human and there is NO training regiment sufficient to turn a police officer into a robot. Now, training can help subdue and re-direct our instincts but emotions are primal and in stressful situations primal instinct always wins out over training.
After 15 years in law enforcement I can tell you that in my experience there is always way more to the story than what you see in the video. When I watch these episodes unfold the first question I usually ask is "what was the call he just left?" Behavior doesn't develop in a vacuum; it is shaped by a myriad of experiences. Police officers have to deal with a lot of issues that shape their behavior over the short, and long-term.
Now, I am in no way excusing bad behavior, let alone criminal acts. What I am saying is that certain behavior should be viewed in context of a broader range of experiences. As writers, this recognition can give your characters much more depth and dimension.
For example, imagine you're a police officer who gets a call to meet mall security to take a 14 year-old girl into custody for shoplifting. Not exactly an exciting call. Most officers would much rather be chasing down real bad guys but you have a job to do. Then imagine the little smart-ass spitting in your face and kicking you in the nuts. You're going to be upset but you can't react the way you might with an adult male gang member or homicide suspect. But, don't you think that experience will change your mood for the day?
Imagine taking a drunk into detox when he pukes all over the backseat of your patrol car. There's no maid service; you probably have to clean that up yourself. What if your kid gets arrested for burglary? Now stack of three or four of these events in a day or two and imagine how you might react to an otherwise minor confrontation with a citizen? I'm not suggesting we throw a pity party for police. They know what they're getting into and they choose to do that work.
As authors, we have an opportunity to use events like these to give depth and definition to our characters. Is your detective going through a messy divorce? How will the stress of infidelity or gambling addiction (financial instability) affect their concentration at a murder scene? Can clues get missed or will they say something improper to the victim's family?
The point I'm making is that peoples lives and careers are often intertwined and never one-dimensional. Consider giving your characters obstacles in their personal lives that may shape their professional ones. I think you'll get a lot of satisfaction from the depth it can add to your character and your readers will hopefully connect with them as humans.