The worst thing about the Writers’ Police Academy is that you can’t split yourself into quadruplets so you can see and do everything on offer. Shallow grave burial site? or jail searches? or Krimesite Imager hands-on workshop? or search and rescue? or ambulance tour?
And that’s just the first hour of the first day. Event maestro Lee Lofland is unrepentant. “I want this to be just as intense an experience as if you were a recruit going through an actual police academy,” he says. I attended the third WPA this year in September in Greensboro, North Carolina, and he has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.
Lee is a retired police detective whom you may know through his blog, The Graveyard Shift, where he has been known to profess his profound admiration of the television show, Castle, among other things. It’s also where I first saw mention of the Writer’s Police Academy.
Lee says, “The Writers’ Police Academy was an idea that came to me while attending SinC’s Forensic University. That particular conference was spectacular, but it dawned on me that having an event where writers could actually attend a hands-on event in a real police academy setting would be extremely beneficial to bringing realism to their stories. So, ATF Agent Rick McMahan and I tossed a few ideas back and forth and what you saw this year was the result of those initial thoughts.”
What I saw this year was two full days and three nights’ of practicing law enforcement professionals taking the time to demonstrate and talk about their jobs with a bunch of writers who (speaking strictly for myself here) probably get it wrong in our books more than half the time. Almost every law enforcement discipline and organization you can name was represented on the faculty. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives? The aforementioned Agent Rick McMahan, who says that while most ATF work is gun-related, he loves cigarette smugglers. “They show up on time, their money’s good, and they do the deal.”
FBI? Meet Lt. Josh Moulin of the FBI Cyber Crimes Task Force, by way of the Southern Oregon High-Tech Crimes Task Force. “Eighty percent of what my unit does is child exploitation,” Josh says, and then gives us some statistics. Thirteen percent of infants and toddlers are abused. Josh has seen photos and videos of infants under the age of one being penetrated by an adult male. Offenders average 13.5 victims each, and Josh’s unit apprehended one perpetrator with 180,000 unique porn images on his computer. “I have ten guys,” Josh says. “I could have thirty and we still couldn’t keep up with what’s going on.”
If that isn’t sufficiently traumatizing, Dr. Denene Lofland (also Lee’s wife) worked on several Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency projects she still can’t talk about, but she can talk all day about weaponizing smallpox. “Smallpox is eradicated but we are no longer immunizing for it,” she says, adding, “A bioterrorism attack doesn’t necessarily have to kill you, it just has to make you sick or disfigure you. The threat alone will disrupt life.” In the event of an airborne bioterrorism attack, Denene recommends respiratory mask N-95. Good to know.
Interested in arson investigation? Assistant Fire Marshal for Guildford County Jerry Coble says, “There are very few true pyros out there. They are generally younger people, generally men.” Jerry has caught one in 30 years, and it took 14 years to catch that one. He lists three causes of fire, accidental, incendiary, and providential, which I cite here just so I can quote his definition of accidental: “You can’t fix stupid.”
Friday afternoon Dr. Katherine Ramsland fascinates the 140 attendees and I think the faculty, too, with her lecture on psychological autopsies. Surprisingly, psychological autopsies are used not only in cases of murder but to settle criminal cases, estate issues, malpractice suits, and insurance claims. “Five to twenty percent of deaths in the US are undetermined,” Ramsland says, and then she took us through a case analysis of the murder of Hugues de la Plaza in San Francisco in 2007. She did not agree with the findings of the local police. To put it mildly. “This is not a science,” Ramsland says and she is adamant. “It is based on probabilities.”
I wrote a sniper into my next book, and Saturday morning found out everything that I’d written wrong when the faculty stages an unannounced hostage situation. Sniper Randy Shepherd takes down the suspect with a single shot to “the T-box — mouth up the nose and across the eyes. This blows out the control box in the brain, so he’s not going to pull the trigger of the gun he’s holding to the head of the hostage.” Okay.
This post is getting really long and I’ve left out so much, like Sergeant Catherine Netter’s mesmerizing talk on women in law enforcement. “Your brain is your primary weapon. Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of what we do is communicate.” Halfway through her talk Corporal D.A. Jackson of the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office showed up to join in. Dee taught a workshop on self-defense and another in Handcuffing and Arrest Techniques, which is pretty much the only way anyone would ever get restraints on Dee.
I haven’t even mentioned the Murder Room guy and the jail tours and the ride-alongs with Guildford County deputy sheriffs and the hands-on workshops in fingerprinting and bloodstain patterns and the firearms training simulator, and oh the hell with it, just click here to look at the whole schedule of events.
And then, there was the Sunday morning debrief. The faculty lined up on stage and answered questions and told stories for two hours. In many ways it was the best part of the entire weekend, especially Dee’s account of the first time she got hit on the job. Denene came in late, carrying a liter-size plastic jug full of something (you can see it sitting on the table in front of her in the photo above) and then proceeded to ask us that if the jug contained botulism, to raise our hands if we thought that amount would kill everyone in the room. All hands up. In Greensboro? Hands stayed up. In the state? A few hands dropped. In the USA? More hands dropped. In North America? Most hands down.
Turns out a liter jug of botulism could kill every man, woman, and child on the planet.
I don’t know who scared me more that weekend, Josh or Denene.
This event may be the best money I ever spend as a crime fiction writer. The faculty members are the real deal, practicing professionals, people with serious time served, some retired after decades of service, some still on the job. They are funny, smart, patient, articulate, and incredibly generous, first with their time and later with their business cards.
I have lunch with Lee, Denene and Josh after the Sunday debrief, and I ask Josh, “Why did you say yes, when Lee called?” He smiles and sort of shrugs like it’s nothing. “I like to teach.”
“I’ve never had a no,” Lee says.
Preliminary plans are underway for a 2012 WPA, with Lee Child as keynote speaker. Lee also plans to continue the tradition of bringing the very best police and forensics experts to the lineup. “So far,” he says, “we have lots of new workshops and exciting surprises on the way for 2012. As always, there’ll be explosions, gunfire, sirens, flames, handcuffs, barking dogs, tons of action, and plenty of cops, firefighters, and EMS professionals on hand to answer your questions.”
You heard it here first: If you’re a writer of crime fiction, put this event on your calendar now. You will never in your life be in the presence of this many professional police officers and federal agents from so many different disciplines at the same time. It’s a first-class learning experience for wannabes, and an even better refresher course for the already published.
2021 update: Like everything else, covid has forced the WPA online, but they’re still there, teaching crime fiction writers the command voice and a whole lot more. Check it out.
Oh, and buy Lee’s book.
Author and founder of Storyknife.org.