Friday, December 2, 2011

Researching Police Work

by L.J. Sellers, author of provocative mysteries & thrillers

For the last two months, I've attended weekly sessions of the Eugene Police Academy. It was a huge time commitment and some of it was tedious, but overall, highly recommended for crime fiction authors. I got some great ideas for the story I was writing, and I connected with some detectives I hadn't met yet. One provided great details for the fraud investigation in my story, and the other loaned me an old case file (a foot thick), including tapes of the interrogation in which the suspect confessed to murder. A treasure trove I'll dig into this weekend.

There's much I could share about this class, but I'll stick to some visuals from the crime lab where the lead criminologist gave us a two-hour crash course in processing evidence. Many of the chemical references didn’t stick with me, but what I learned is that real-life evidence technicians (versus the CSI kind) spend most of their time processing latent fingerprints and watching/editing surveillance videos. Both are tedious pursuits that require attention to detail and patience, but what they produce is the critical evidence that leads to criminal convictions.

Here are the photo highlights of my visit.

This is a downdraft table where technicians use various colors of powder to process fingerprints. The downdraft sucks up the excess powder, which would otherwise go everywhere.

Technicians don't really use superglue, only one of its chemical components: cyanoacetate, which mixes with steam to form a coating all over an object. The coating reveals latent fingerprints when it hardens.
The lab refrigerator holds many things, including entomology evidence. Evidence technicians grow and kill flies at various stages to establish time of death for bodies that aren’t found in a timely manner.

The large bay where technicians process cars, ATM machines, and other big items looks a lot like a homeowner's garage, including a little blue kiddie swimming pool.

No lab is complete without a shower. Many of the chemicals technicians use are dangerous, and they must have access to an immediate way to rinse of their clothes or bodies.

The last class I'll attend is this weekend, and we'll be doing simulations scenarios, involving people with guns and others with babies in their arms. I'll be making split-second decisions, and I'm nervous. I hear it makes your adrenaline pump almost like the real thing.

Have you taken a Citizen's Police Academy? What was your favorite part?


  1. Wow, what a great learning opportunity. Everything I'm learning is from books and tv. How do you get an in like this?

  2. Great post L.J., I'm so glad you signed up for this. Citizen academies can be a great learning experience for authors. As a criminalist I've done a lot of these sessions and I loved showing the citizens a little about the realities of our work. Most people carry around a lot of misinformation about police work and taking the academy can really challenge some of the misinformation you read about in the press and see on television. Kudos for you for making such an investment for your writing career.

  3. Wow! Fascinating stuff! Thanks for sharing, LJ. I should probably take a police academy course, since I mostly edit thrillers, mysteries and other crime fiction. Not sure I could stomach some of it, though! Good for you for investing your time and money to get the details right in your novels! Your readers will appreciate it.

  4. L.J., I took a 14-week CPA course in Aurora, and did a full-day with some detectives in Lakewood. The experience was fabulous. In addition, I attended Lee Lofland's Wrtier's Police Academy conference, which I highly recommend.

    Favorites? The crime lab, of course, the ride-alongs (in Lakewood, I spent some time with detectives on a cold case and we walked a large area with a Human Remains Detection Dog), criminal investigations and S.W.A.T.

    Great photos for those little details . . .

  5. I did a 13-week course in Santa Monica, L.J., and my experience echoes yours. I learned sooooooooo much and found every moment fascinating. I wrote about it here in the Archives somewhere. Besides all I learned, it was also an opportunity to meet working detectives and CSI people. Anybody reading here might well look into whether a Citizens' Academy is offered where you live.

  6. I finished the Albany Citizens Police Academy a few weeks ago. I blogged about class each week. Much of it was interesting, and some of it was tedious. There were things I wish they'd covered that they didn't, and a lot of that has to do with Albany being a small department in a small town. I think it would be interesting to try a class in a larger city to explore the differences.
    The shooting simulation is interesting. I actually surprised myself during it and learned something about myself as well!

  7. A crime lab tour is a great field trip for a writers' group! Sheriff's office or police station tour, too!

  8. Leslie, thanks for jangling my brain. When a police officer understands you're a writer and you want to get it right, they are usually more than willing to either give you a tour, or put you in touch with the person who can set one up.

    In Aurora, because I completed the CPA, I have a bit of carte blanche, even though it's a fairly large department. But I spent some time in Aspen and know I could tour a small department there.

    Now . . . to find a writer's group . . .

  9. Don't you just love your job? It's great when we can take a tour of the real world in order to bring it into the ones we create. I think that as authors, experiences like these help draw the reader deeper into the story to where they almost forget they're in a book. Thanks for sharing this experience with us L.J.!

  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

  11. In Boulder County they offered an extensive course for the sheriff's department and a separate course of the police department. Both were excellent. I highly recommend committing to this educational opportunity. (Some programs charge a small fee.) You may become a better writer. You will certainly become a better citizen. Perhaps you will also find a new way to serve your community.
    Julie Golden, Vagilantes, pre-published


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.