As some of you know, my background includes about 10 years in law enforcement, so I involuntarily cringe when these moments come up in the telling of a story. Although there are probably dozens I could list, here are my top 5 police falsehoods.
1. Police officers do not simply walk into a room, shoot somebody, and then go back to work.
It’s called an administrative suspension and it occurs in nearly every shooting incident. The fastest I’ve seen one cleared was 3 days. Some of the investigations can go on for weeks. However, no reader/viewer wants to watch a police officer sit at home or push papers on a desk, so in fiction the officer is often back on the street in about 30 minutes, after he stops at a diner for a quick lunch. Blasting people with your pistol that somehow never seems to need reloading can make you hungry.
2. Jurisdictional lines actually exist and MEAN something.
For instance, if you are a criminal investigator for NCIS, you will be tasked to investigate crimes that occur on naval bases, ships and other naval and Marine Corps facilities. This does NOT mean that you get to roll out and move the “locals” aside every time a sailor or former sailor gets snuffed in western Virginia while taking a leak at a convenience store. If you want to assist in an investigation that is outside your jurisdiction, you have to ask — nicely. And you will probably get told to go Gibbs yourself.
3. CSI technicians do NOT coordinate investigations and certainly do not interview people.
In all my time in law enforcement I saw exactly ZERO crime scene techs determine the course of an investigation, much less talk to a suspect. Don’t get me wrong — Evidence Technicians are great! Most are brilliant. They methodically collect the evidence, analyze it, and put it in a report. They may or may not testify in court. But, that is usually the extent of their involvement. They do NOT knock on doors and interview suspects. They simply DO NOT lead the way, guns drawn, through a door when executing a search warrant. They do NOT get DNA results in an hour and then personally arrest a suspect. There are some exceptions where police officers are cross trained as evidence techs, but those who are strictly designated as CSI types, don’t run around Las Vegas, Miami, or anywhere else and chase down murderers.
4. Detectives who failed to solve a case, do NOT instantly turn into whiny toddlers when another detective follows up on that cold case 5 years later.
I hate this one. Every other episode of the show Cold Case, and nearly every mystery novel involving a reopened case from the past, has that one detective who is ticked off that his failure to close the case is being questioned. Here is the thing… most investigators do not get emotionally involved in cases (for good reason) and have no reason to get upset if an old unsolved case is looked at again. Why would he/she be? There are so many variables they couldn’t control. Witnesses lie. Evidence was hidden well or destroyed. The victim wasn’t talking then. Etc, etc., etc. Most investigators would be like, “So, you want to look into the Jones case? Great. What do you want to know? Let me get you my notes!” When a serious crime goes unanswered, people want answers and egos are usually not a factor.
5. A cop does NOT get shot in the vest, hop up, and chase down a suspect before heading to the local bar for a cold one.
Yeah, it’s a freak’n bullet in the chest. A quarter inch of Kevlar may keep you alive, but if an NFL Quarterback can break a rib when a defensive player’s helmet hits him, what do you think a .357 round is going to do when it’s traveling 1200 meters per second? Ribs break, there is probably internal bleeding, it’s possible the officers sternum will have to be cracked open so the damage can really be assessed. He does NOT pull a Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon and take a shotgun blast to the chest, shake it off, and continue on his merry way. It’s off to the ER and probably a lovely few weeks of eating hospital food.
Honorable mention: Investigators don’t sit in the office, discover that a suspect is at a certain location and his escape is imminent, then rush out of the office and make it there just in time.
If the investigators are in the office, they will have to run to the parking garage, get in their cars, spend 20 minutes fighting traffic, and somehow get to the suspect’s location before he/she leaves. So… what really happens is they tell the patrol officers (you know, the ones all over the city) who can probably respond to the location in less than 4 minutes. If the uniformed officers don’t make an arrest, they will at least surround the location. But in fiction, it’s more dramatic for the primary investigator to stare right into the suspect’s eyes and say something stern and philosophical when the cuffs go on. Cue the music and fade to black.
J.J. Hensley is the author of RESOLVE.
Resolve was named a finalist for Best First Novel by the International Thriller Writers organization.
Resolve was also named one of the Best Books of 2013 by Suspense Magazine.