Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving!

Be Safe and Enjoy Thanksgiving
Hook’em and Book’em is taking a week off for the Thanksgiving holidays. We want to wish everyone a wonderful holiday with their family and friends. We send special thanks to all those men and women in the armed forces who will not be able to make home this year. You will continue to be in our thoughts and prayers. May God bring each of you safely home. And finally, to those in our law enforcement community—may you stay safe. We appreciate what you are doing out there.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Police Snapshots For Novelists: Building Searches (Part I)

Surviving Building Searches
By Mark Young
Scene opens up: Bad guy rushes from a crime scene into a building to hide. Police close in and rush the building to make the arrest. Readers and viewers have seen this kind of action—in one form or another—played out many times. Scene ends: Bad guy is caught or shot. Good guy survives.

“Fools rushes in …” you know the rest of that line. Cops are no angels, but neither are they fools. Rushing into an unknown building is risky business. Those in law enforcement—if they have been around for any length of time— are going to take into consideration many options before they chase the bad guy inside.

There is almost an art to the business of conducting building searches. Every situation is different, and sometimes officers have to be very imaginative and resourceful to get the job done safely. This kind of operation takes training and practice. It takes a plan of operation and adequate resources to pull off successfully. Success means the bad guy winds up in cuffs and the good guys go safely home to their families at the end of shift. Anything less spells trouble.

Part II of this article on Building Searches will go into more detail what an officer must consider during the search. But an officer must be sure of their legal footing before they kick in that door and go after the crook. This article will consider some of the landmines that officers must try to avoid—as does your crime novel hero.

Generally, the bad guy is likely operating on his own turf—his residence, office, or neighborhood. Places this crook knows like needle tracks on his arm. The guy probably knows every inch of the place you are about to search. If it is the scene of a robbery or burglar, the crook probably cased this out beforehand to know the best places to run or hide if the cops show up. Right from the start, this crook has the home field advantage. An officer needs to shift that balance of knowledge to where police have the upper hand. That takes planning, communication, cooperation and discipline.

First, let us rid ourselves of the most obvious and most popular way of flushing a bad guy out into the open.  Best-case scenario: send in Fangs. All the officer has to do is seal off the area, call up the canine unit, and sit back and watch these four-legged creatures go into action. These dogs are a police officer’s best friend and the crook’s worst enemy.

Now, that would be too easy. What if canine units are not available? What if these structures are not conducive for these dogs to search?

Go to plan B.

An officer needs to back up and develop a plan of action. But first, the officer must consider a number of factors and options. If everything goes bad, this officer is going to need to justify every action he took in this operation. Particularly if someone gets hurt.

Here are some of the questions that will flash through the officer’s mind. Is the bad guy armed or does he have access to weapons and hostages? Has the guy barricaded himself? If the answer is “yes” to any of these considerations, then the officer would generally punt a decision to a supervisor and wait for SWAT to show up. Then, the officer just has to stand back and watch the show unless something else requires immediate intervention. This was learned from law enforcement’s tragic experiences at Columbine High School in 1999. Prior to this event, officers had generally been taught to sit back, contain, and call in SWAT. Law enforcement learned that in some situations, first responders must go forward and initial immediate action in order to save lives and help to control a highly volatile situation. Again, it all hinges on what kind of call the officer is facing.

Most times—unless shots are exchanged or weapons brandished—the officer is not going to know whether the suspect is armed. If a weapon was not seen, then an officer needs to decide whether it is worth going in to get this guy. I know this may sound odd, but at some point, the officer must evaluate the risk, the gain, the crime, and the liability. All in a matter of seconds.

First, why did the suspect flee? Did he run because he had outstanding warrants in the system and did not want to go to jail?  What kind of warrants—misdemeanor or felonies? Warrants for unpaid parking tickets or for armed robbery? Is he running because he stole some hubcaps or did he just commit a rape in the next block and he is facing a third strike in prison? A police officer has to have some idea why the suspect ran before busting in the door and starting a search.

If the runner has been identified, is it necessary for the officer to go in and arrest him or would it be more prudent to simply write it up and go for a warrant? Again, common sense must prevail.

An officer should gather whatever information is available in order to make a decision to start a building search. For example, maybe the officer cannot identify the suspect. They could run a records check on the residence—if that is where the suspect fled—searching for calls for service at that location and prior contacts. Utilities and other data base systems might provide additional information.
Another consideration is whether the officer has the legal right to force entry to that location. Again, going back to the reason the suspect ran. If it was a misdemeanor warrant, for example,  the officer may not have the right to go in and arrest the suspect depending upon the charges, the time of day, and whether the warrants need to be served in a public place (public thoroughfares, common walkways, or places the general public has a right to be).

Aside from the criminal charges, another consideration facing the officer is that of potential civil liability. What if the officer forces entry and did not have legal ground to do so? And what if the officer was forced to shoot and kill the suspect in defense of his own life? The officer might be absolved of any criminal wrongdoing, but civil action against the officer rises to a completely different rules and criteria.

So all these considerations—and probably a dozen other factors—all point to the officer going in to get this guy. Again, first consideration is sealing off the area so that the bad guy is contained. Second, get enough personnel on the scene to safely conduct the search. Gather as much information as you can on the structure you are about to enter. Lastly, make sure that everyone involved in the operation knows what their job is.

Not to leave readers hanging, but Part II of this article will go into the mechanics of a search. Writers do not want to bog down their story with facts and liability issues, however, these issues can be used to further make your main character twist and turn in the literary wind. Just think of the possibilities.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Police Snapshots For Novelists

Traffic Stops Are Deadly Business
 By Mark Young
A traffic stop for most motorists is an irritating experience: a red light flashes in your rear window and a police car trails behind with emergency lights flashing. You steal a glance at the speedometer and realized you just messed up. One moving violation ticket coming your way.

Now put the brakes on for one minute after you pull off the road. I want to snatch you out of the driver’s seat, wave a magic wand, and allow you to become that officer in the patrol car behind you. Allow yourself to experience what those officers face as they attempt to make a traffic stop. 

This article—among others—will attempt to help readers and writers experience what it feels like to wear that badge in a number of police-related circumstances. Hopefully, these series of articles will  allow authors an opportunity to vicariously experience these officers’ fears and concerns on the job before writers create another cop character in their novel.

The first stop down this road sounds mundane—traffic stops. Pretty routine?

Traffic stops are deadly business. Anyone who wears the badge and makes traffic stops knows the risks that they face when they try to pull over a vehicle. According to statistic compiled by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, officers killed in the line of duty surged to 43 percent during the first six months of 2010 after reaching a 50-year low in 2009. Between January and July this year, eighty-seven law enforcement officers died in the line of duty compared to 61 officers last years. Among those killed, 35 percent of those deaths resulted from traffic fatalities. (This figure does not include those 31officers killed by firearms, some of whom might have been involved in traffic stops).

Police officers—whether straight out of the academy or a seasoned veteran—know just how risky traffic stops can become. It is hammered into the recruit from the first day of training. Field Training Officers carry this into the field, making sure their trainees learn how dangerous these stops can be. It is drilled into them day after day, stop after stop.

An officer—once they have made a decision to stop a violator—begins to think ahead, trying to pick a place to make the stop that will afford some reasonable safety while trying to guess what the driver ahead will do. The officer tries to pick a stretch of country road—or a city street—that gives some margin of safety for the officer and the motorist. A patch of road out of the flow of traffic where they can approach and make contact with the driver. They take into account how their car is positioned, and how the car ahead will be illuminated if the stop is at night. The officer must be ever vigilant of those inside the car, looking for furtive and suspicious behavior that might alert to danger.

Meanwhile, the officer is concerned about what lies behind as well as ahead. More than one drunk driver has ploughed into the patrol car, their eyes hypnotized by the flashing lights of the emergency vehicles. If in the city, the officer must be alert to pedestrians walking by as well as well as the terrain around them. Is this a gang neighborhood? Is there something about this part of the city that might be a threat to the officer?

But the greatest threat—in the mind of most officers—is those sitting inside that car. From a distance, it is hard for an officer to make a fair assessment of the situation until they make contact with the occupants. Most drivers are law-abiding citizens. They may be a little irritated that they were stopped, but these citizens generally recognize the officer is just doing his/her duty. But a small percent of those stopped are hardened criminals, and just about anything might cause these cons to use deadly force.

Many scenarios are running through the officer’s mind. Is this person in violation of their parole? Do they have a gun in the car? Have they just committed a crime? Are they high on drugs? The possibilities for deadly confrontation includes just about every conceivable motivation known to man.

Patrol officers are always listening to the police radio, trying to pay attention when other officers make a traffic stop. Details like where the stop is made, what the traffic violation might be, and other information put out over the air or on CAD (Computer Assisted Dispatch) allows officers to judge whether another officer needs assistance. Depending upon available units, another officer might drive by to see if the officer needs help. The officer making the stop is in charge. If they need help, officers will respond as quickly as possible.

The initial approach to the car is critical. There is a point as the officers draws close where they are most vulnerable, particularly at night due to decreased visibility. The officers try to maximize visibility by using mounted spotlights to shine into the car as they approach. As the officer gets even closer, a flashlight will be used to further illuminate the inside of the vehicle. The officer is looking for any kind of movements or suspicion that might warn of trouble: driver nervously looking in the rear view mirrors, the driver hiding his hands, or a passenger moving around inside the car.

Close your eyes for a moment. Just imagine walking up to an open window at night, your mid section exposed to the driver, the car windows all tinted up. You can’t see who else might be in the car. Maybe your partner came up on the other side. Will you be fast enough to pick up any signs from your partner that something is hinkey inside the car? Imagine a gun in the driver’s hand just out of sight. How fast can you react before that driver uses deadly force? Maybe you are lucky and see a flash of metal. Do you back up and seek cover or do you pull your own weapon? Will you be able to make that decision to use deadly force—if that is necessary—or will you hesitate, waiting to be sure of the danger, and discover you waited too long.

Do you have the picture in your mind? Now use it in one of your scenes.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Novelists Break the law

Interrogations and Warrantless Searches Make for Good Story
Want to kill the action in your crime story? Let the main characters announce they’re going to get a search warrant before barging into the killer’s apartment. Audiences are hissing and groaning. Writers want to slink back into the shadows.  They know ‘waiting for paper’ is a real time waster and a fast way to destroy audience interest.

So is the story twisting the novelist’s arm to break the law?

This is fiction. Everyone should be able to feloniously break and enter—even if they are a cop—to keep the story moving along. In the interest of blind justice, right?

Last week, I realized how many novels and films I’ve seen where breaking the law has become standard operating procedures for the good guys. Where the main character—the good guy—pulls out the handy lock pick set, plays with the tumblers, and in they go. We are conditioned to think that breaking the law in the interest of justice is for the ultimate good. Does that strike you as a little convoluted? Here are few shows that will demonstrate what I’m writing about.

In a recent lawyer show, the law partner directed a private eye to get information on a potential client in the next few hours. Next scene: Private investigator pries open the front door of this potential  client’s apartment using a crowbar. The private eye trashes the place to make it look like a burglary, confiscates a few items that might be evidence, and hacks into her computer before leaving with what he found. The law partners—I think they call them officers of the court—willingly received this information with a wink and a nod.

In another show that same night, investigators raced to find a victim witness who might be in trouble. They reach the woman’s apartment, kick in the door, search the place at gunpoint and find it empty. Mind you, this is the home of a witness to a murder, a lady who might be in danger herself. In some scriptwriter’s mind, the fact that she might be in danger constituted exigent circumstances to break and enter for the good of the show.

Exigent circumstances make prosecutors wince—and judges frown—when these kinds of cases hit the courts. It is a legal term used to describe when law enforcement might be justified to enter a residence or private dwelling without a warrant. Such action might be justified if a person faces imminent danger or when a suspect is likely to flee. One of the most common situations in law enforcement are  domestic violence cases. Neighbors heard a man and woman fighting. Responding officers get to the door, hear a woman scream, a man yelling, and property damaging going on. They boot the door, grab the man and wrestle him to the ground. The woman—black eyes, bloody nose— sees her man hogtied on the floor, jumps on the officer and the whole mess winds up in court.

Stop and think back over the books, movies and television shows you’ve read or seen lately. Can you remember any scenes where the law was abrogated, where civil rights are violated in the interest of the greater good?

Another situation  we see quite often is excessive use of force on suspects. In a recent show—one I actually enjoy watchinga family of cops are working in the same town. One of the sonsa homicide detectiveroutinely violated the civil rights of practically every crook he came in contacted with although the viewers and the cop felt each crook had it coming. The detective’s reason for roughing up the bay guys is that someone might die if certain information is not quickly obtained. The person is saved, the cop gets high-fived from his partners, and he goes to the local tavern for a beer. Finally—after weeks of civil rights violations—this detective follows the law even when the stakes are high. My wife and I gave each other a high five because the detective finally followed the law.

Now, I’m not a card-carrying, flag-waving ACLU member. Far from it. Remember, I once was a cop and suffered alongside others in the department when those legal beagles peppered us with all kinds of legal shenanigans. However, I wonder how much we have become conditioned to seeing the law violated—by the good guys. Real cops would have wound up in a state or federal prison for doing a fraction of the violations  that make-believe cops get away with every week.

I enjoyed—maybe fascinated is a better word—watching the 24 television show season after season. I agonized along with Jack Bauer as he tortured one terrorist bomber after another in order to save the nation from total disaster. He knew the ends somehow justified the means, but I think he generally regretted using those methods. Looking back over Bauer’s career, the viewing public grew to accept just how far Bauer had to go in order to save the country. Many of us grew to condone Bauer’s methods.

As novelists, I wonder if we ought to rein in our Jack Bauer-type of characters just a tad. Maybe we should try a little harder to stay within the law to get the job done while still raising tension. Characters are created to walk a fine line between right and wrong, between good and evil. As writers, we might consider trying a little harder to up the consequences when our characters stray.

It can be done. The job might be a little more challenging than the excitement of watching  a bad guy getting his face flushed down the toilet or some other interrogation technique. But it is possible to have our good guy walk a fine line, stay within the law, and still show the tension of the character.

Here is a good example of a not-so-nice private eye who finally decides to do the right thing by the end of the novel. Dashiell Hammett did a wonderful job of capturing this dilemma in The Maltese Falcon. Private investigator Sam Spade tried to explain to the beautiful Brigid O’Shaughnessy why he must turn her in as the killer and for her part in the crimes.  Brigid pleads with him to look the other way—for love.

Spade first says, “I don’t care who loves who I’m not going to play the sap for you.”

She keeps pushing. Spade then lists all the reasons he must do what is right—loyalty to his dead partner; for the good of the organization; because his job is to run down criminals and put them in jail; because it is his neck or hers. He gives eight reasons why he must turn her in to the cops.

Brigid comes close, putting her face close to his, still begging.

Finally, Spade grabs her, clinches his teeth, and utters: “I won’t play the sap for you.”

This might not be an altruistic  reason for staying within the law, but in Spade’s world it is reason enough to do the right thing.

Do you have a character in your novel who might be contemplating breaking the law? What consequences might your character suffer for crossing that line?