How to Create a Believable Police Procedural
Feeling daunted about writing a police procedural because you’ve never worked in law enforcement? Don’t be. With a few notable exceptions (Joseph Wambaugh comes to mind), the vast majority of authors writing police procedurals have never worn a gun or badge. Ed McBain did it for over fifty years and did it better than anyone but was never a sworn peace officer. What did he do to make his writing so authentic? Make friends with every cop he could find? As a retired police detective myself, I know that having someone on the inside is important—crucial even at times—but a lot of what you need to know comes from two very different aspects: title and location.
Who your protagonist is and what his or her title is will guide the flow of your story in more ways than one. If your main character is a federal agent of any kind—FBI, DEA, ATF—he has a very precise and comprehensive set of rules that are followed whether the agent is in New York City or Winslow, Arizona. Office politics may vary, but the same set of paperwork used in San Diego is used in Miami. This makes moving your protagonist from setting to setting easier because he’ll always be following established federal guidelines.
Not so with their police counterparts. Every single agency has its own manual of procedures. Which means that cops in Cleveland, Ohio, follow slightly different rules from cops in Cincinnati, Ohio. Ed McBain got around the nuances of this by creating the fictional city of Isola. No cop reading McBain’s books could ever accuse him of “getting it wrong” because in his city, that was the way they did things. Wambaugh lived and policed in Los Angles so he was uniquely qualified to write about it. You can write about any police department you want to, just make sure you aren’t applying what you know about your local department to some far-off state. Chances are, you’ll get it wrong.
Every state in the union has its own set of laws. Does your protagonist police officer live in an open-carry state? Is it a death-penalty state? Different states also have different ages of consent, sentencing guidelines, statutes of limitations, and interpretations of the way Miranda warnings are applied. You don’t need to go get your law degree, but research into the state’s laws and the city or town’s ordinances is vital. Many larger departments have citizens’ police academies, which can be an invaluable tool to the budding writer. Speaking to the department’s media person can also point you in the right direction. Try to set up a ride-along with patrol officers if they offer them.
Do try to find cops from the department you’re writing about to interview. Cops love to tell their stories. For the price of a cup of coffee, I promise you’ll get more story ideas than you could possibly write. Find out the little bits of local flavor that color their department. Get familiar with the local cop vernacular. For example, I’ve never called a suspect a perp or a skel, although I’ve heard and read detectives use those terms in books and movies. In Buffalo, suspects were suspects, that’s it. Are they perps in Rochester, an hour down the Thruway from Buffalo? I don’t know. I’d have to do some research on that.
Even police officers use reference materials. In our homicide office, almost every detective had a copy of the New York State Penal Law on the desk and the Buffalo Police Department’s Manual of Procedures nearby. A copy of Practical Homicide Investigation: Tactics, Procedures, and Forensic Techniques by Vernon J. Geberth sat on my bookshelf within grabbing distance as well. Always remember to get the latest edition of any research material, as forensic science, especially in the realm of DNA, is advancing at such a breakneck pace it’s hard to keep up even if you’re on the job.
I’ve been seeing more and more writing conferences offering workshops with real police officers on topics such as ballistics, blood spatter, and the latest in computer crimes. Take these workshops when they’re available. While the topic might not pertain to the book you’re writing now, add that knowledge to your writer’s arsenal. As a detective, you never know what tool you might need to take your investigation to the next step. As a writer, it may be something you didn’t know you needed to further your story.
Writing an authentic police procedural may take some research, some phone calls, maybe some hands-on experiences, but in the end, it’s the story and characters that matter. Police officers are simply human beings, as flawed and layered as any florist, accountant, CEO, or kindergarten teacher. Murder, theft, arson, and fraud can take whatever form you imagine. Do try to be as authentic as possible, but don’t let minor details get in the way of a good story.
Criminals get creative; so can you.