Thursday, September 15, 2011

Six Ways to Strengthen Your Street Credibility in Police Procedurals

by Tom Adair

Speaking the Language:
I don’t know why this gets under my skin the way it does. Perhaps it’s because the mistakes are so simple to avoid. Maybe it’s the fact that words really do matter. Standing in an author’s shoes I completely understand why they may be totally unaware of their error. But it doesn’t make it any less annoying. First, an example from the “culture” side of law enforcement. Sheriff’s offices and Police Departments are different organizations. They have different cultures and while any rivalries are usually trivial and harmless they do in fact exist. Referring to Deputies as Officers, or vice versa, is akin to saying Navy SEALS are part of the Special Forces Community (Special Forces refer to the Army Green Berets). They are both elite soldiers but they each have tremendous pride in their designations and distinctions.

Terminology is important when talking about evidence too. Firearms terminology is probably the most commonly misrepresented in storylines. Some authors like Stephen Hunter, Tara Janzen, or Cindy Gerard take great pains to get it right and it shows. Example #1: guns are not loaded with bullets, they are loaded with cartridges. The bullet is simply the projectile separated from the cartridge case when the gunpowder ignites. Example #2: People who wear shoes leave behind shoeprints and people walking bare foot leave footprints. I know this sounds trivial but they are totally different and can have very significant inferences for your story. If in a story I read “the detectives followed the suspect’s footprints through the snow for over a mile…” my first thought as a reader is “why was this person not wearing shoes?

Realistic Job Assignments:
You know those stories where the murder is investigated primarily by the Lieutenant, Captain, or Medical Examiner? Some writers seem to think that because a person has a high rank they are better suited to investigate a crime than the detective or criminalist. Now I have known some high ranking officials (A lieutenant in Denver PD comes to mind) that were excellent investigators but he is the exception not the rule. It’s not that these people are dumb; but as a person rises in rank they also garner more responsibility. Their days are filled with meetings, personnel issues, budget writing, and a million small fires that need to be put out to keep the agency running smoothly.  If they were the ones fleshing out all the details of a case and chasing down every lead there’d be no reason for a detective or CSI.  It reminds me of another common misconception related to defense lawyers. Public defenders are sometimes viewed as “lesser” attorneys because they are assigned to those suspects who can’t afford a “real” attorney. The fact of the matter is that these folks are some of the best attorneys out there because they are in court each and every day trying cases, not swinging at a little white ball on a golf course.

Getting the Right Source:
I can always tell when an author has talked to a reliable source. I can also tell when they haven’t. One way to select a reliable source is to make sure that they actually perform the duties you want to write about. I may know things about forensics but I wouldn’t be the best source to tell you what it’s like to breech a doorway in a SWAT team. I’ve never done it. Sure, I can recount stories as they have been shared with me but it’s nowhere near the same thing. Police officers may have been to hundreds or thousands of crime scenes in their careers but that doesn’t necessarily mean they know how to process them correctly.
Limiting Possible Conclusions:
It’s not uncommon to have multiple interpretations to forensic findings. More often than not, reconstructionists speak in terms of what is most probable (i.e. which scenario has the greatest support from the evidence). When you are writing a scene and discussing evidence be sure that the conclusions your characters reach are reasonable. For example, just because a suspect’s fingerprints are not on a gun doesn’t mean they didn’t shoot it. Conversely, just because their prints are on the gun doesn’t prove they shot the gun either. In fact, depending on where the print is it may have no weight as to the shooter identity. Obviously there are times when reaching an unsupportable conclusion is okay (if your character is a keystone cop for example). The best advice is to do some research on the evidence you’re describing and talk to some experts to see what other possibilities might account for the evidence found.

Talk Science, Not Science Fiction:
Forensic science has made tremendous advances in the last few decades. However, just because something can be done doesn’t necessarily mean it will be done.  For example, if your characters work for a mid-sized law enforcement crime lab chances are they don’t have access to a scanning electron microscope or a DNA lab in their building. These examinations are probably done at the state level or laboratory in the state capitol city. These are expensive items and smaller agencies can’t justify the cost.  Similarly, not every agency has an expert in every field. You won’t find experts in sciences like anthropology, entomology, botany, etc. in every agency. The FBI doesn’t even have a full time employee in these fields. You can certainly have one of these experts employed in a lab but treat it as the exception, not the rule.  

Propagating Unfounded Stereotypes:
This is something I hear a lot about from others in law enforcement. The most common one is the demonization of hunters as serial killers in waiting. This is common on shows like Criminal Minds. Great show. The writers don’t like hunting or hunters, I get it. But forcing a causal relationship between hunters and serial killers is false and takes away from the characters and the story. There is much more empirical evidence linking medical doctors with serial killing yet you never see that (and it too would be wrong). Remember, an awful lot of cops/military hunt. Adding in unnecessary and insulting stereotypes takes away from the whole of you work.

Tom Adair is a retired senior criminalist with 15 years of forensic experience. He has served as the president of the Association for Crime Scene Reconstruction, Rocky Mountain Association of Bloodstain Pattern Analysts, and the Rocky Mountain Division of the International Association for Identification. He is triple board certified in forensic related fields and one of only 40 board-certified bloodstain pattern analysts and 80 board-certified footwear examiners worldwide.  In addition, Tom has worked as the editor of the Journal of the Association for Crime Scene Reconstruction, been interviewed by and consulted for television, books, magazines, and newspaper articles including documentaries on the Discovery Channel and National Geographic. Visit his wonderful blog at for answers to loads of forensics-related questions!


  1. What great information! Thanks for visiting with us today, Tom. I have a feeling lots of folks are taking notes!


  2. Great blog. Thanks for the tips. I write crime novels set in BC, Canada and received some advice for Canadian Crime Writers from an RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) officer regarding terminology. Canadians follow the British system and their positions names etc. follow that too. As an author in Canada who reads a lot of American crime mysteries, it's easy to think I know the terms because I've seen them in American books, but sometimes I don't. I check with my favorite RCMP constable to ensure I'm using the right words.

  3. Great post Tom! I know I just made the footprint/shoe print error in my current ms - I'll be doing some editing later tonight!

  4. I follow all of Tom's posts. Their great infomation, and hopefully make me "look" smarter.

  5. I follow all of Tom's posts. He has great infomation, and hopefully it all makes me "look" smarter.

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  6. Really pretty information! You are the most creative person ever... congratulations!

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  7. For the most part, great information. But I do have a couple of questions/concerns. I understand the difference between a cartridge and a bullet, but in common usage a lay person will often say "I loaded bullets into the gun" rather than "I loaded cartridges into the gun." (The gun was a .38 Special.) In fact, I have worked in law enforcement and even heard agents and cops say that. So, if you are saying it in conversation you may have to make a decision of whether to be technically accurate.
    Also, I am a lawyer, and not to disparage public defenders or legal aid attorneys (because many of them are there out of moral principle) but the reputation got there because these were often considered the less desirable and easier to get, and lower paying positions.

  8. I agree with your comment Anaymous. The words we choose for character dialog can, and perhaps should, be "looser". It all depends on the character I guess. Your reasoning on public defenders is spot on but my point was that talent is not always reflective of salary. Many of these folks are great at their jobs, because of their passions and principles. Great observation on the terminology though, I should have made that clear. Thanks for the comment.