Memories: Police Work Through A Rear View Mirror
What does police work, mystery writers, and television have in common?
After a lengthy career tracking down bad guys, Lee Lofland uses these experiences to help struggling writers as they try to fictionalize crime scenes, investigations, and police work. Well-known authors—
Times bestselling authors Tess Gerritsen, Jeffery Deaver, and J.A. Jance, to list a few—praise Lee’s hands-on book, Police Procedural and Investigation: A Guide for Writers. His popular blog, The Graveyard Shift, turns a critical eye toward popular television shows as a learning tool for writers, allowing these authors a police perspective on such topics as prisons, police investigations, forensic evidence and court testimony. New York
This week we’ll find out about Lee’s police background and his wide variety of experiences in law enforcement. Today’s topics will include investigations, gun battles, and working inside prisons.
Next week, Lee tells about his services to mystery writers, his own writing career, and his recent creation—a police academy for writers. Ever wanted to know what it was like to be in a shooting situation? Lee and his academy thrust writers into realistic situations in which they must decide whether to shoot/don’t shoot in a split second. The academy offers writers a broad spectrum of law enforcement training—FATS (Firearms Training Simulator), homicide investigation, fingerprinting, SWAT operations, high-risk traffic stops and other police operations.
MARK: Lee, our mutual experiences in law enforcement have been separated by a land mass of about three thousand miles. You served on the East Coast while I worked in sunny
. What are similarities between agencies east and west? What are the differences, if any? California
LEE: Let's just go with each location has their own way of dealing with both officers and criminals. Neither has the upper hand on the other. They're just different. But their goals are identical...to protect and serve.
MARK: Give us a thumbnail sketch of your police career? Where did you start? Where did you end up before pulling the pin?
LEE: I actually started out in the
prison system as a corrections officer. During those tough years (prison guards really earn their money) I think I spent some time in nearly every aspect of security, from youthful offender to adult maximum security. I even spent some time doing inmate transport. One of the more odd assignments in those days was going out on manhunts for escapees who somehow managed to scale a fence or hide inside a garbage truck for a free ticket to paradise. You know, there's a certain air of mystique and danger when standing in a wooded area, alone in total darkness, knowing a desperate murderer is lurking nearby. The sound of anxious, baying bloodhounds approaching is something that's hard to forget, and I'm not sure I ever will. Virginia
Anyway, I left state corrections to work for a county sheriff's office. I went there as a jailer, but my goal was to move into police work, or as we called it, "going on the road." I did make that transition about six months later. From there I was recruited by a police department and started there as a patrol officer working rotating shifts. I had a goal in mind when I made this move. I wanted a spot as a detective.
So, time and hundreds of traffic tickets passed by until I saw an opening for a canine officer. I jumped at the chance since I'd always been fascinated with police dogs. I was accepted and within a few weeks I found myself at the
. And I loved every second I was associated with my dogs and the Virginia State Police. The VSP is a top of the line organization. Virginia State Police Academy
Later, I turned in the uniforms and dog leashes and became an investigator (we weren't called detectives at the time) which is where I ended that whole ugly mess of 20+ years of playing cops and robbers. No, seriously, I enjoyed every day of it, but I'd never do it again, unless someone told me I had to choose between teaching school or fighting crime. Shootouts are much safer than dealing with a room full of high-schoolers!
MARK: What led you to make a career in law enforcement?
LEE: As a kid I admired police officers. All of them. I simply thought they were the best thing going and that was what I wanted to be. Well, one my friends in high school had an older brother who was in the police academy, and when he came home from his basic training he told us all about the shooting, the crime scene classes, and the defensive tactics and driving. That did it for me. I was totally hooked. So I began applying the moment I became eligible. Ironically, my friend's older brother and I worked as partners for a very brief time.
MARK: What caused you to leave law enforcement?
LEE: Leaving was a really tough decision for me. To stop doing what you love, and I did love it, is always hard. Unfortunately, the decision was sort of made for me. I was involved in a pretty intense shootout with a bank robber who truly had a death wish—suicide-by-cop would probably be the best description. Ultimately, I had no choice but to shoot the guy, and he died. There were 68 rounds fired during the exchange (five from me, with four fatal), so it was obvious he wasn't giving up, even though I practically begged him to. Anyway, the event took its toll on me, which was really quite surprising since I taught officer survival in the academy, as well as firearms and defensive tactics. Hell, it was I who taught other cops how to be tough. And, it was I who was normally called upon to kick in a door, or to pull a non-compliant suspect through a car window. I was the first guy through the door during a drug raid, and I was first guy to wade into a fight with weapons. And I've got the scars to prove it.
So, to have this shooting affect me the way this one did totally caught me off guard. Sure, I got over it. Time took care of it. Time, and a whole lot of support from my wife and family. Could I pull the trigger again, if necessary? No problem. That's what cops—past and present—do, right?
Anyway, I pulled the stopper from the drain about a year after the shooting. No regrets, but I miss it every single day. I especially miss the camaraderie.
MARK: In looking back over your career, can you single out one or two assignments that you found most interesting and challenging? What made them memorable?
LEE: I certainly enjoyed the time I spent working undercover narcotics, but I really liked the puzzle-solving aspect of investigating crimes, such as homicide and other major felonies. Helping to provide closure to a family, or a spouse, made the effort worthwhile.
MARK: Your background material mentions an encounter with an armed bank robber and a subsequent medal of valor you received. Tell us about this incident and what you faced?
LEE: I guess I jumped the gun (sorry for the pun) and answered part of this in an earlier question. But I'll address the Award For Valor by saying receiving it has both good and bad points. The good is obvious. It's the highest award given in police work, and what an honor it was to have it placed into my hands. I'll never forget that moment. In fact, the plaque is hanging about four feet from me as I type this response. I'm that proud of it.
The bad side to the award is that I killed someone to get it. That's also something I'll never forget.
MARK: What flashes through an officer’s mind when confronted with an armed suspect … besides the thought that this job doesn’t pay enough?
LEE: You know, nothing flashed through my mind other than the safety of the people around me and stopping the threat. There was no fear at all. No hesitation. And I think that speaks for excellent training. I did exactly as I was trained, which is what every officer does. Nothing less. Now, ask me about the moments after the shooting stopped? Talk about an odd feeling...
MARK: You witnessed the execution of a serial killer, a murderer that novelist Patricia Cornwell based her best-selling novel, Postmortem, upon. Tell us about this case which led to the killer’s execution. Why were you there?
LEE: No, I wasn't a part of the investigation. The case was actually in a neighboring jurisdiction. But I'm in contact with some people who were involved. Hopefully, I'll have their stories on my blog very soon.
Timothy Spencer (The Southside Strangler) was living in a halfway house (he'd been recently released from prison) when he committed the brutal murders of five Virginia women. He often checked out of the facility for justifiable reasons—work, religious functions, etc., and while out, he stalked and killed each of his victim's.
Oddly, a man named David Vasquez was seen in the area of the last murder and was arrested for the crime. Vasquez was mentally handicapped and confessed to the murders, basically saying yes to whatever questions the investigators presented to him. Well, one detective, Joe Horgas, had that all-too-familiar feeling in his gut that good cops seem to be blessed with, and felt that Vasquez was the wrong guy. So, Horgas continued investigating, like a bulldog. He was familiar with Tim Spencer and knew of his old B&E habits and methods of entry. He knew deep down that that Spencer was his man. Not Vasquez. In short, Horgas obtained DNA samples and arrested and convicted Spencer for the murders. Vasquez, however, served about five years in prison before being released and exonerated.
I was one of the last people on earth to make eye contact with Spencer, which occurred moments before the switch was pulled. He expressed no remorse for his deeds. However, if it's any consolation to the families of his victims, Spencer did indeed die a very violent death.
MARK: Your law enforcement career began as an officer in Virginia’s prison system. I believe one of the shortcomings of current law enforcement training is the ability to put new officers in close encounters with the criminal element in a controlled environment. Some of these new officers have never been in a fight in their life and they seemed ill-equipped to face hardened criminals. Prisons and jails are good training grounds. What did you learn working in prisons that helped throughout your police career?
LEE: That everyone can be dangerous, and to trust no one, at first. No exceptions. I have a scar on the side of my head from a stab wound that's a nice reminder that I'd let my guard down. Oh, and when you must enter into a fight, do so with every intention of coming out as a winner. Any hesitation could be fatal. And, one more thing...treat everyone fairly, as human beings. Never ever treat anyone other than how you'd like to be treated. I even addressed inmates as Sir, or Ma'am, and it paid off. I was once cornered by several prisoners who had some very ill intentions. Since I was alone in the pod I had no immediate backup. But, and much to my extreme joy, a handful of huge, burly inmates came to my aid. The leader of that pack said to his much smaller peers, "If you f... with Officer Lofland, you're f...ing with us." Needless to say, the punks backed down. That was a humbling experience, knowing that showing a little respect for someone probably saved me from being on the receiving end of a lot of knuckle sandwiches, or worse. They may have even prevented an escape attempt. Who knows?
MARK: In the movies, television, or novels, police are often depicted chasing after serial killers, driving in high-speed chases, or pulling out a weapon to shoot someone. In real-life law enforcement rarely experiences these situations on a regular basis. In your opinion, Lee, would you agree that traffic stops and domestic violence cases are two of the most dangerous calls a patrol officer might face? Why are they so dangerous?
LEE: You hit the top two nails squarely on their respective heads and they're both extremely dangerous. That's why it sort of surprises me to have heard many people over the years complain about officers who rest their hands on their weapons during traffic stops. They argue that it's intimidating to see an officer do that. Well, I invite those people to walk up to an idling car with dark-tinted windows in the middle of a moonless night on a deserted country road. Add a thumping radio, movement inside the car (you can't see people, just a car shaking a bit because someone is moving around inside), and a driver who hasn't rolled down the window. Remember, those officers don't have a clue about what's going on inside that car. Is the driver or a passenger wanted? Have they just committed a crime? Desperate to get away from a murder they just committed? A dead body in the car? Does the driver have a gun aimed at the officer as he stands beside the car? Gearing up for a suicide by cop?
There are tons of gut-wrenching scenarios that go through the minds of officers, but they face the possibilities head on and take care of business.
Intimidating to see an officer's hand resting on his pistol...yeah, right.
Police work is a dangerous job. Don't believe it? Then visit my blog on Fridays to read about the officers who were killed during the week while conducting traffic stops, or while answering domestic calls, during shootouts, while pulling people from burning buildings, from stab wounds, auto accidents, while responding to save a life, from injuries received from assaults...and the list goes on and on and on.
We're headed toward seeing the largest number of officers killed in the line of duty in a single year. 2010 has definitely not been kind to police officers. For example, a Mississippi sheriff was killed just last night (7-22-10) when he attempted to place stop strips in front of a suspect's car. A day earlier injuries claimed the life of a young deputy sheriff who'd been involved in a vehicle accident while responding to help another deputy. Two days prior to that, a Chicago officer died in a gun battle when a group of thugs tried to take his car at gunpoint. I guess it's safe to say that all calls are dangerous.
MARK: Is there one character in your past—an old sergeant, seasoned patrolman, or grizzled investigator—that stands out in your mind? Someone that would make a great character in a novel?
LEE: It takes all kinds of people to round out a good police department, and it takes a variety of nuts to fill up the jails. Therefore, what better characters for a novel than a combination of each—a mixed bag of cops for a protagonist and a stew pot full of bad guys to build a villain. I may have even gone a step further in the thriller I'm currently completing by adding some traits from a few ex-bosses to get a really evil and sadistic bad guy.
MARK: What is the most comical situation you every faced in law enforcement?
LEE: I've seen many and I've been in many. And I was recently asked this same question a few days ago and this was the story I shared (and it sort of ties in with the danger of traffic stops):
The event unfolded on a boring graveyard shift. I'd already answered the usual he-said she-said calls, locked up the usual drunks, and broken up the usual Friday night fights. It was time for a break, so I was on my way to an all-night restaurant to rendezvous with the other sleepy officers who were stuck with working midnights.
I pulled out onto an interstate highway and immediately got behind a beat up old jalopy. Soon, the bucket of bolts began to weave from lane-to-lane. Then the driver slowed to a near crawl. Then he sped up. Faster and faster. Brake lights. And back to the snail's pace. Yep, a classic drunk driver and I had to get him off the road before he killed someone. So I called dispatch to let them know my location and that I was stopping a car. Then I gave them the plate numbers and reached for the switches to activate my lights and siren. There would be no breakfast for me. Processing a drunk driver could take two or three hours, if you hurry.
Well, things immediately went downhill.
When I first got behind the car I saw one head, the driver's. When I turned on the blue lights a second head suddenly popped up, from left to right—a passenger who'd been leaning over with their head in the driver's lap. Needless to say, I didn't need to consult the detective's handbook to figure out this little puzzle.
And as soon as I flipped the light switch the driver immediately braked, turned on his right turn signal, and pulled to the shoulder. Quickly, snappy, and abrupt. Definitely not a drunk.
I pulled over behind the car, angling mine in the classic felony-stop position. You never know what to expect during the weirdo hours of 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. That's the time when the "crazies" come out to play.
The car sat idling in front of mine, like a tired old beast with little puffs of steam spouting from dual exhaust pipes. I was pretty sure I knew what had been distracting the driver, therefore my assessment of the offense had changed from drunk driver to hanky-panky.
Still, for my safety, I decided to approach the car from the passenger side, so I turned on my takedown lights (I was still in uniform working patrol at the time) and aimed the spotlight at their rear view mirror so they couldn't see me as I walked up.
I got out of my car, dreading and embarrassed about what I knew I would find when I looked inside the car.
No moon. No stars. High, thick humidity. Crickets chirping and frogs burping in the area just behind where the brightness of my lights turned to black on the shoulder of the road. The music in the old Ford was pumping steady and hard enough to rattle the car's cheap hubcaps. No other vehicles on the road. Darkness as far as the eye could see behind me. In front of me, the jalopy's round headlamps cut through the night with two pale yellow beams. A Stephen King setting if there ever was one. I reminded myself to never again read Christine before going to work at night.
I walked up to the passenger's window and couldn't believe my eyes. I was speechless, which is not something that usually happens to me.
The driver, a rail-thin book-wormish sort of guy, was wearing a Department of Corrections uniform (he was a prison guard) and the passenger, a very chubby man with more than his share of man boobs and body hair, was wearing only his birthday suit. Yep, he was completely nude.
And his right wrist was securely handcuffed to the door. Both men sat staring at the driver's window, waiting for me appear. A tent-size copy of the driver's prison guard uniform lay crumpled on the back seat.
I used my flashlight to tap on the passenger's window. Startled, both men jumped and turned to face me. The naked guy used his free hand to roll down the glass. The driver leaned forward so he could see around the mountain of bare flesh seated between us.
"Is there a problem officer?" said the driver, with a perfectly straight and somber face.
I was absolutely stunned. "You're asking me if there's a problem?" I asked. "Let's see, for starters..."
Anyway, I'll spare you the details of the conversation, but I will say that their explanation was centered around love and the only way they could spend any quality time together was after work, in a car. I guess their wives probably wouldn't let them play with handcuffs at home. Yep, they were each married, and to a woman who was at home waiting for her darling husband to come home after a hard day at work.
This was probably not the weirdest situation I've ever seen. But it was definitely one that'll never leave the place in my mind where gross images are stored.
MARK: Do you still miss the work?
LEE: Every day. Would I do it again tomorrow? No way. It's a lot safer writing about it than living it.
MARK: Do you ever wonder whether all your hard work and sacrifice ever made a difference?
LEE: I hope so, and I can think of several instances that I'm extremely proud of. Of course, there are some goofy moments, too. But overall, I think I did okay.
MARK: Lastly, what is one word of advice you’d give a new officer just starting out today?
LEE: Wear your vest. Don't let the job consume you. Train, train, train, even if it's at your expense on your own time. Take time for family. Spend every spare moment with your kids. Finally...re-think your career choice.
Oh, you wanted all that in one word. Okay, here it is:
More information about Lee Lofland can be found at his website at http://www.leelofland.com/books.html or his blog, The Graveyard Shift at http://www.leelofland.com/wordpress/.