by Raelene Gorlinsky
Do you write mysteries or suspense or romantic suspense? Anything with police in it? So, how do you research your police officer characters or police procedures? Uh, you DO research that, right? And NOT by watching CSI and such on TV! You do know the difference between reality and TV (even supposed reality shows), I hope.
One of the biggest - and completely unacceptable - flaws we see in mystery and romantic suspense submissions is incorrect and unbelievable behavior by law enforcement. It's also an all-too-common error in published books, indicating poor quality work by author and editor. Such problems really jar a lot of readers. If you are writing about real professions or agencies, then you MUST make every effort to get it right.
Yes, there are many sources of information, you should be using a lot of them. But one of the best to help you get a real "feel" for what your police characters should be doing and not doing is the hands-on approach. Contact your local police department. Many will arrange tours of their facility, complete with talkative officer who will tell you funny and touching and informative stories about cop actions and attitudes. (And you'll end up amazed that every cop doesn't burn out in less than a year.) My local RWA chapter did such a tour a few weeks ago, and it was fantastic. You know, I always assumed bullet-proof vests were stiff and hard -- nope, now I've actually held one, put it on, and know what it's really like. And I've seen the intake area (fingerprinting, photo, etc) of the jail, the massive file cabinets of information, the juvenile detention office, the firing range, the property room... I've learned about the different types of backseats in police cars, the requirements for prisoner meals, the ways to restrain a violent drunk. All sorts of tidbits that can help an author make a character or scene come alive with believable detail. Or at least keep you from getting it all wrong.
Some police departments offer ride-along programs. You can go on patrol with real on-duty cops, see what it is actually like, feel the emotions and the stress. The police may also offer citizen-education classes about law enforcement and laws. The local cops are often the teachers at firearm classes - and if you have characters in your book using guns, you have actually shot a gun, right? You do know how the recoil feels, what it takes to hit a target, before you have your character do it, right?
Keep in mind that police departments vary a great deal. One in a wealthy suburb is not going to have the same pattern or staffing or attitude as the inner-city department. Not that one is better or "nicer" than the other - but consider what type of police department you are depicting in your book and try to learn about the inner workings of a similar real one.
So if you are going to write about cops, get out there and find out what it is like to be one!