Thursday, September 30, 2010

Robin Burcell

Detective, Negotiator, Forensic Artist and ... Published Novelist?
Interview with Robin Burcell, novelist with a badge
By Mark Young
Award-winning author Robin Burcell brings a unique background to her crime novels. For more than two decades, she served as a police officer, detective, hostage negotiator and an FBI-trained forensic artist. Can you imagine what she brings to her novels? (Robin will discuss her writing career in an interview to be posted on Thursday, October 7).

Today, we are focusing on Robin’s experiences in law enforcement, a career that spanned twenty-seven years. She served with the Lodi Police Department in central California for many years before transferring north to Sacramento County as an investigator. She recently retired from law enforcement and is pursuing a full time writing career that took off well before her retirement.

MARK: Robin, thanks for joining us to share your experiences in law enforcement. Many of our readers are mystery readers and writers and do not often get an opportunity to have an expert share actual crime-fighting experiences. One questions I always get nailed with from young people—particularly boys—is: “Did you ever shoot anyone?” Let us skip that question and go to these questions most sane adults often want to know: Why did you want to be a cop? What made you decide to take that risk?

ROBIN:    My path to law enforcement was probably not as direct as others in the field. I was one of those kids who wanted to be a lot of things, and most were directed to the artistic field. My problem was that I was good at a little bit of everything, (writing, painting, drawing), and had received some very bad advice as to how to use those talents for a career, the end result being that I didn’t know what I wanted to do.  One of the things I was fairly certain that I couldn’t do was be a cop. While still in high school, I specifically remember seeing the police station in one city, wondering… then dismissing the idea. Girls like me had no chance at a job like that.

It so happened that while pursuing a dream of becoming a professional ice skater (I was working part time at the skating rink, so that I could skate for free), the wife of a sheriff’s deputy became very insistent on me applying to the police department. She thought I’d make a good cop. Not sure where she got this idea, but she wouldn’t let it go. Her kids took lessons every day at the rink, so I ran into her a lot. Truthfully I applied at a couple agencies just to get her to quit going on about it (and, let’s face it, the writing was on the wall—my dream of being the oldest Olympic ice skater was about as likely as my dream of becoming the next Rembrandt).

This same friend mentioned that the California Highway Patrol (CHP) was going to be doing a mass hiring, so that Friday I picked up an application. The very next day, I was following a CHP officer off the freeway. I saw him stop a car, then as I passed the vehicle, and was looking right into the driver’s window of that car, a man pulled out a gun. The CHP officer grabbed it, and the two struggled for the weapon. The man shot the officer, who then ran back to his car. At this point, I watched in my rearview mirror and saw the officer firing at the suspect. Suddenly the suspect vehicle sped onto the road and was right behind my car—which wasn’t going near fast enough, even though I had it floored. I pulled off to the side into a drive concealed by bushes, thinking so many things, praying he didn’t see me and wouldn’t follow.  He kept going and we returned to help the officer. Unbeknownst to us, the suspect crashed into another car farther up the road, took hostages in their car, and was eventually killed as the police set up a road block.

I never turned in that application for the CHP. In fact, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t make a good cop. In the months that followed, I rather forgot about the application I’d already put in at Lodi and had interviewed for. I knew that I’d never get the job. I’m pretty sure I was as shocked as everyone else when I did get hired as the first female officer for Lodi.

MARK:  Tell us a little about the city of Lodi, the department, and the community in which you worked?

ROBIN:  Way back when (in 1983), Lodi was a small city of 25,000 people with a department of about 25 sworn officers on patrol. Surrounded by farmland, with Stockton to the south and Sacramento to the north, Lodi was considered a bedroom community. They rolled the sidewalks up at five PM and on Sundays, and there was a church on every corner. That’s not to say there wasn’t crime, just that in a town that size, they had a better handle on it. When I left Lodi, there were about 80 sworn officers, the city had grown to about 60,000, and many of the businesses now stay open on Sundays. And, sadly, the number of churches per corner has dropped significantly, which, whether you attend or not, was part of that small town feel.

MARK: I understand you were the first female police officer at Lodi PD. A few weeks ago, recently retired Sergeant Betsy Brantner Smith visited us on this blog to talk about her career in a large Chicago suburban police department and the challenges she faced in the early 1980s as a woman in law enforcement. As a male officer working in this career in the early 1980s, I saw firsthand the challenges women faced. My hat goes off to those women who survived—and those who tried. Can you relate to some of these challenges?

ROBIN: Oh boy, can I ever!  My first day at work, one of the captains was taking me around, introducing me to everyone. We walked into detectives, he made the introductions, and one of the guys in the back stood up, saying, “I’m not ready for women in patrol.”  Everyone stood there sort of shocked, and the captain (sort of) recovered, saying, “And over here, we have…” then quickly led me out.

On one of my first nights on patrol, the time where the guys riled up a suspect, until his veins were popping and you knew he was going to kick someone’s ass. Imagine my shock when one of the officers then turned to me saying, “Arrest him.”  It had been pre-planned, as they knew he had a warrant. I walked up to this guy who towered over me, as his fists were clenched, and you could see the anger in his eyes. I was shaking inside as I asked him, “Could you please turn around and put your hands behind your back?”

He did. I cuffed him, put him in the car, and was secretly pleased to see them all standing around speechless, as I am quite certain that was not their expected outcome. I had no intention of getting my ass kicked if I could at all help it, and I quickly learned that there was a way to approach these macho suspects.... Unfortunately the officers and the supervisors didn’t know what to make of this quality. In fact, my first evaluation states right on it that they couldn’t give me a “meets expectations” mark, because they had “never seen me in a physical fight.” Apparently you don’t get extra points if you’re good at talking your way out of a physical confrontation, but that was how I survived. Gift of gab.

I could go on and on, but let’s just say it was a rocky road, and I somehow made my way along it. And that guy I met on that first day, who wasn’t ready for women on patrol? I changed his mind. He was actually my second field training officer, and we ended up becoming very good friends.

MARK: What led you to leave LPD and work as an investigator for Sacramento County?

ROBIN: At the time I had three young kids, a burgeoning writing career, and the shift work was killing me. I dreamed of evenings spent at home, weekends off, all very idyllic, and it paid way, way more.

MARK:  One of your main characters, Sydney Fitzpatrick, in your last two novels was a former police officer who became an FBI agent and trained as a forensic artist. I understand this is similar to your own situation. Was this a skill you learned while in law enforcement? What is a forensic artist and how did you become one?

ROBIN:  While working at Lodi PD, I had sketched a portrait of one captain’s grandchild, and he showed it to the captain of the investigations division (where I was working as a detective), saying that I’d make a really good police artist. He agreed, and we researched and found out the FBI had a forensic art course that they paid for completely at their academy in Quantico. The only catch was that you needed to be on call for the FBI for the next three years if they needed you. This was the deal of the century for a small department, and so I went, learning how to do not only sketches from witness descriptions, but also forensic sketches, such as from a dead body that needed to be identified, or even a skull that needed to be identified. We also dabbled in photo retouching and aging (all before the computer age and Adobe Photoshop!)  I ended up being the forensic artist for all the surrounding agencies, and the FBI used me on a number of their cases well beyond the three years required. I have to say that it was a very enjoyable aspect of my work.

MARK: Are there different situations a forensic artist might be called in to help? Can you give a range of these call outs?

ROBIN:  A variety of calls that usually came at oh-dark-thirty. The sort where you’re sleeping and the dispatcher on the phone says there was a murder and such and such agency wants to know if you’ll come out and do a sketch from a witness. The majority in our own agency were witness sketches from robberies or rapes. The foreign agencies were usually homicides, where they’d have a witness. But every now and then they’d have a body that needed to be identified, usually a floater, or someone who’d been dead a while, with no leads (and you can’t just put a dead person’s photo in the paper). The FBI calls were usually bank robberies, as that’s what they tended to handle the most in our county. But every now and then the Bureau would have something interesting thrown in there.

MARK: What was one of your more memorable cases as a forensic artist? How did you prepare for this and how long did it take to accomplish? What was the end result?

ROBIN:  It’s funny, because I’ve done so many drawings over the years, when I look back at the majority of them, I don’t remember the details, and it seems as if I should. After all, I usually spent about three hours with a witness. The ones I do remember usually had some interesting investigative detail or twist to them. Like the robbery victim whose sketch looked an awful lot like me (except it was a male suspect), and then we later find out that his brother robbed the place and he’d helped set it up.

Probably the most memorable was the rape of three girls, after which one, a twelve-year old, was kidnapped. I did several sketches from the two other victims and one neighbor witness, picked the one I thought was the best, and we posted it on every store front in town as well as the neighboring cities. The little girl had been missing overnight by this time. Sometime the next morning, a woman walked into one of the stores, saw the bulletin with the sketch on the local WalMart door and said she thought it looked like her neighbor’s grandson who was visiting from out of town. We went out to the house, found his driver’s license, put together a lineup and the victims identified him, all because of the sketch. Thankfully the little girl was found safe several hours later as was the suspect (miles and miles away).  

MARK: Did you have to develop some kind of relationship with eyewitnesses while doing these sketches while at the same time distancing yourself emotionally in order to get the job done?

ROBIN:  Absolutely. As any cop knows, if you don’t have that rapport, it’s hard to get past the tough questions, or get cooperation, and details can be missed. The beauty about doing the sketch art is that sometimes, because of this rapport and the continual banter while sketching, trying to keep the victim or witness talking so they’re not bored to death in the three hours it takes, the interview process helps the victim remember some of these important salient details that weren’t brought out in the initial investigation. This is a bonus for the investigators.

MARK: The public sees the television version of forensic artists crafting 3-D recreations from computers,  using software that practically draws images themselves, and having access to other nifty tools to re-create the face of a suspect or victim. In real life, what materials did you actually work with as an artist?

ROBIN:  Pencil and paper.  Maybe after the budget is balanced in real life, we might catch up to the fictional world and get those cool gadgets.  But they sure make for fun TV viewing.

MARK: Your interesting law enforcement career included a stint as a hostage negotiator. I would imagine this could be a very stressful assignment in real life even when nothing appears to be happening during a barricaded suspect call. For example, I remember one call out when the armed suspect went silent for hours and we did not have eyes or ears into the place. We found out hours later he took a nap. What kind of training did you undergo as a hostage negotiator, and what kind of calls did you respond to as a negotiator? How did you manage the stress?

ROBIN:  Several weeks of hostage negotiation training by the pros (FBI, etc.), then additional training throughout the years is the standard for our negotiators. Additionally, our teams would meet monthly for training, making sure our skills were kept up.  Our calls ranged from the simple barricaded subject (often a suicidal person who only intends to harm himself) to the full-on hostage situation, where someone is holding someone else. I’ve conducted negotiations through a closed door, over the phone sitting in my patrol car, and even in person in a face-to-face situation.  I found the training invaluable not just in hostage or barricaded suspect situations, but also on patrol when responding to calls that seem to spiral out of control due to a subject’s declining emotional state.  As mentioned, the calls can be stressful, but you don’t really think about it. You are so busy trying to stay one step ahead of whomever you’re negotiating with, your own stress becomes irrelevant.  It isn’t until after it is resolved, that your stress catches up to you.  

MARK: How was your hostage negotiation team comprised? How were the duties broken down?

ROBIN:  We had a couple teams of four. We would rotate who was on call (for vacations and such) so that there was at least one at the ready 24/7.

MARK: How did you train to stay in practice as a negotiator?

ROBIN:  We came up with scenarios and did a lot of roll playing, as well as catching up on the latest real life cases from throughout the country, analyzing what went right and what went wrong. Additionally, we worked closely with SWAT, attending many of their training sessions so that in these real life situations, we all knew what was expected of the other. This was particularly important because some of our negotiators were dispatchers, who didn’t often work in close training with officers in combat roles.

MARK: Do you ever see hostage negotiation scenes on television, in the movies, or in novels that make you wince because they lack credibility? Can you give examples?  Can writers educate themselves about these situations so that they might write with authenticity?

ROBIN: I think that TV and movies (and books by non-police) get the flavor of it, but often miss the mark for realism.  Sometimes you have to gloss over things you know wouldn’t be done in real life for the sake of the story. And since in real life, it’s the 90 percent down time when it’s just the ordinary and ten percent when the
$#&* hits the fan, which would make for some boring fiction, we writers tend to flip that, so that it’s 90 percent edge-of-your-seat action, and 10 percent down time.  My suggestion is don’t do your research on TV or the big screen. Take a cop out to lunch. They’ll tell you about anything if you feed them.

MARK: Recently, you wrote a very entertaining article for the Mystery Writers of America’s newsletter, The Third Degree. In that article, you compiled a list of Top Ten Stupid Cop Things in novels and listed your number one pet peeve as Bad Officer Safety. Can you give examples where authors went awry on this issue?

ROBIN:  Where do I start?  Going to places no cop would ever go without back up.  You gotta give ‘em a logical reason to be doing that for it to become believable. Like purposefully going into the house where you know there’s an armed suspect, even with your partner, when any sane officer would back off, call it in, and get SWAT out there.

MARK: You retired from law enforcement a short while ago. How are you adjusting to this change in life?

ROBIN:  I thought I’d get a lot more done and faster.  I have to learn how to budget my time and treat my writing like a real job instead of the part-time job it used to be.  But I’m actually doing much better.  I’ve had to make habit changes. (They say 21 days to form or change a habit.)  So I’m checking e-mail after I start writing for the day. This has probably been the biggest difference and has doubled my page count per day. It’s amazing how much creative energy one can spend answering e-mail, then when faced with the book stuff, end up staring at the page because your brain has been zapped.

MARK: Looking back over your police career, what are you going to miss most about law enforcement? What are you going to miss the least?

ROBIN:  The most?  The excitement about being in the thick of things. Seeing the red and blue lights reflecting off the shadow-filled buildings, or connecting that missing link that brings a case together. The least? Probably the same as everyone else on the job. The piddly bull$#!+ that drives a cop crazy, be it politics, supervisors, or John Q Citizen who thinks because he pays his taxes, he can call the shots.  (I especially hate that JQ Citizen can have a bad day and get in your face, but heaven forbid it’s the other way around. And why is it against the law to lie to a federal agent, but not the locals?)

MARK: What was one of the most tension-filled moments in your police career? How did you cope?

ROBIN:  You mean besides the routine calls that go to hell faster than you can describe in words? Things like the high speed pursuits (my first ending in a crash, when the suspect we were chasing rammed a sheriff’s vehicle then spun into my vehicle) or the face-to-face negotiation with the suspect who drew a knife on us?  You walk in, thinking, yeah, another family disturbance right before lunch. No problem. Be done in about 10 or 15. Then wham. 

Really, though, it’s hard to say. Twenty-seven years on, they start to blend in.  Undoubtedly the shooting before my career even started was the most tension-filled, and almost led me to do something else completely for a career.  But time has a way of making those memories fade. The problem arises when new events bring those former events back to the forefront of your mind, culminating in some serious post traumatic stress. (I certainly had my share.)

The way I coped was turning to fiction. I found that writing became very cathartic. Let’s just say that I now prefer creating fictional tension-filled moments. It’s a lot more fun when no one really gets hurt—and I have to admit being paid for it is a nice bonus.

Look for our next interview with Robin Burcell as she talks about her writing career. Robin is the author of the Anthony Award winning SFPD Homicide Inspector Kate Gillespie novels and the Sydney Fitzpatrick novels, an FBI agent who uses her forensic artist skills to unravel the most difficult murder scenes. You can find out more about Robin and her writing career at her web site


  1. Thanks, N. J. Join us on October 7 for more information on Robin's writing career.

  2. What an amazing article! From witnessing the highway shooting before you became a police officer to the sketch artist training and then the hostage negotiation, this is simply a great story.

    I'm reposting this . . .

  3. Great interview. Robin is a new author for me, but I can hardly wait to read her books. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Vincent: Good authors need help getting the word out. Thanks for your help.

    Caroline: Thanks.I think you will enjoy all of Robin's novels. I understand there's another one coming out in the future. We'll try to pry that information out of Robin.

  5. Hi Robin! I'm so glad I saw this blog today, it's amazing, and though I've known you casually for 6 or 7 years now, I didn't know how you became a cop. I've emailed the link to my oldest daughter who is seriously thinking about it -- I've told her she can do anything she puts her mind to, but since the two things she's thinking about (the military and being a cop) tend to be male-dominated professions, my advice was to talk to a couple women in the military as well as law enforcement so she's not blind-sided. (Though I'm not too worried about her--when one of her male friends at school began ribbing on female drivers after she got her license last year, she pointed out that girls have cheaper insurance, get fewer tickets, etc. etc. and wouldn't let it go until he relented.)

    Anyway, my question for you is completely unrelated to law enforcement. My second daughter is an exceptionally talented artist and writer (but her art is so outstanding her art teacher wants to enter her in some major contests) -- what's the very bad advice you got about your artistic talent?

  6. Allison,
    First off, good for your daughter for standing up to the guys. That speaks well for her, so I am sure you're right. She'll be fine no matter what she chooses.

    That bad advice was that artists and writers don't make any money. I was advised to steer clear of both pursuits. And that included my idea of majoring in English, because I wanted to write.

    I think in those days that anyone who wanted to pursue the arts, they were pretty much told that it wasn't a real job. Mind you, we were just leaving the era of women-could-be-teachers-or-nurses.

    My nephew pursued art. He makes more than twice what I made per year at my highest pay rate (and that wasn't too shabby--being that we're in California.) He went into commercial art and they do a lot of artwork for Hollywood studios.

    My feeling is that well-meaning adults should be very, very careful when it comes to kids' dreams and the advice they give concerning those dreams. Some of that advice I got from a parent, some was from teachers!

    And Vince, thanks for reposting. Caroline, glad you liked the interview!

  7. Hi Robin,

    As usual a great interview.

    Yes, I was not only told writing doesn't pay, I was told writing was a childhood thing that was a waste of time for adults.

    Needless to day, I never stepped on my kids dreams and told them they could be and do whatever they wanted.

    I'm going to Amazon now to order your newer books.

  8. Interesting, comment, Pat, because it makes me wonder how many of us are out there, pursuing dreams later in life because of what was told to us early on.

  9. Great interview, Robin! I always appreciate your insights!

  10. I am so lucky that I could reach this interview today. Great! I am looking forward to the further story on 7th October.

  11. Thanks, Chiho. See you here on Thursday, Oct. 7 anytime after 9:00 P.M.

  12. Chiho! So glad you were able to stop by!