New Jersey police chief and Shamus-nominated EQMM author David Dean returns with the second of two columns ruminating on cops, fiction, and cops & fiction. You can read Part 1 here.
SAINT MICHAEL AND FRIENDS – PART 2
by David Dean
In my experience, the average police officer is not big on reading. Beyond a professional magazine from time to time, the sports section, certain publications featuring high-quality photographs of artfully posed subjects; reading does not appear high on the law enforcement officer’s to-do list.
This is not an intelligence or education issue, as most officers today, unlike yours truly, have undergrad degrees, or even Masters and Doctorates. Its more of a personality thing, I think … cops are not contemplatives—they see themselves more along the lines of the aforementioned spear-wielding angel than the hermit monks.
But as to writing, well that’s another matter entirely. Cops spend a lot of time writing. Now these scribblings, sometimes called an investigation report, sometimes an incident or operations report, will be a meticulous rendering of some sad encounter with an unquestionably hapless civilian. This same report will be scrupulously reviewed by sergeants, lieutenants, captains, etc … until finally receiving the stamp of hierarchical approval.
This approval however, though required, stands but for little when the report finds its way into the court room. There it will be used to illustrate every fault in the officer’s case and conduct during the encounter, his improper training, or lack thereof, his cavalier disregard of the Second, Fourth and Fifth Amendments, his personal prejudices and clearly demonstrated biases (as interpreted by the defense), and if the judge will allow it, his questionable choice of cologne. This is in the criminal court of course; once the lawsuit is filed, then the gloves really come off. You get the picture—cops become very leery of the written word after being scourged with it a time or two. But they do plod on in spite of it all, and generally prevail in spite of their many shortcomings.
As for us that do write outside the office, so to speak, I can only answer for myself. If you are familiar with my stories at all, you will note that most are not “cop” stories, though they often have a police officer appear within them, as is the case with “Erin’s Journal” which is currently in the December issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. In that story a police chief plays a supporting role to an inquisitive priest who has chanced upon a discarded and disturbing, diary.
Chief Hall serves to anchor the story within a believable reality. Back in the early nineties, this same officer was a patrolman and held center stage in four stories, or was it five? These were fun and cathartic to write but as I “matured” as a writer, I found that the officer alone was unable to access certain areas of human behavior and thought—the problem with being a police officer that writes fiction is that I feel honor-bound to be absolutely correct when it comes to depicting the police and this can be limiting.
After all, unlike the impression conveyed in many mystery stories, the police are not required to provide a motive for any criminal act. An arrest is based on probable cause, and that is something less than proof beyond a reasonable doubt but more than just reasonable suspicion (wonderfully gray area, isn’t it?). In reality, motives and the criminal’s state of mind are never truly known but to himself, the rest we generally infer from his acts, though sometimes, and only rarely, they are kind enough to actually leave some tangible and believable proof that serves to plausibly explain their actions.
To the fiction writer, of course, this knowledge is essential (and knowable); to the cop, not so much. Cops know that people lie—all kinds of people, in all kinds of situations…even when they’re being “honest”; for bad guys truth is a commodity to be indulged in sparingly and only for “consideration” and subject to alterations as needed. So cops tend to dismiss the “why I did it” without a detailed “how I did it” to back it up.
So having said all that, when it comes to cops who write fiction, I can only offer a theory on their motives which is based solely and subjectively on my own—I suspect that deep within their suspicious, jaded, little hearts, there is a desire to impose order on a disorderly world (I warned you about this earlier); to provide insight into human behavior (if only best guesses), and most certainly, to provide “justice” rather than always having to settle for “just law”. It’s what I’m guilty of anyway … so arrest me.