Writers Police Academy, Pt 1

Beginning of autumn, not that you could tell by how warm it was.  Central North Carolina.  Eight o’clock in the morning.  Running on not much coffee.  Simone and I at the Writers Police Academy: Day 1.

Kath says warm; Simone says, “The reason I would never live in North Carolina ever again.” It was only about 85 degrees. It felt like 95. The rain felt like we were standing under the place where God and the angels hang around wringing out their sweaty basketball clothes at the end of a good pick-up game.

This was a dream come true for me.  I love being a writer, and I love digging into the research I get to do as part of writing.  I’ve been like a sugar addict in a candy store for the last six months with all the police procedure and investigation researching we’ve done for our WIP.  Just ask anyone, they’ll say I’ve been giddy with it.  Giddy!


The Writers Police Academy, organized by the fabulous Lee Lofland (buy his book!!), is a combination of hands-on learning and seminars taught by active duty officers and some of the leading experts in the fields of investigation and forensics.  It’s an amazing three-day opportunity to learn what’s real and what’s prime time television.

Lesson #1:  The first thing we were told?  Real police and CSI techs do not wear high heels or even moderate heels.  Or tight skirts.  Sorry, Detective Beckett.

Let’s get it right.

It is not normally this dark at 8AM in September.


We watched the clouds deepen and darken as we gathered in the EMT training bay at Guilford Technical Community College and Public Safety Training Academy.  The wind shifted, and our instructor for Fire Equipment, Bob Halpin, said, “Let’s keep moving, the rain’s coming in.”  I shrugged.  I’m from Seattle.  What’s a little rain between friends, right?

We toured the firehouse set up.  Got a good look at fire engines and the firefighters’ gear …



Then the heavens opened.

This was no end-of-summer shower.  It was a deluge!  The only other time I’ve been in rain this heavy and persistent was when Simone and I were in Florida.  What is it with these southern rainstorms?

Being a stalwart and relentless researcher, not to mention a cocky Seattleite who shugs off rain as a matter of course, I chose to take the Shallow Grave Crime Scene workshop first while Simone went to her appointment with the Firearms Training Simulator (or F.A.T.S).

Okay, the Firearms Training Simulator is amazing. And yes, I wondered when I’d get to shoot the little girl carrying the chemistry book like in Men in Black (“What is she doing in this neighborhood?”).  But the simulator was more sophisticated than the popup targets and laser-tag I had been expecting. We were issued real, modified Glocks, and walked through live action video. A controller (and our extraordinary support person for the training) would decide in real time if our words or actions affected the simulation and could change the video reaction on the fly–a bit like the animation from an old video arcade game. Our guns interacted with the screen, and the computer assessed whether we hit or missed, and, if we hit, whether or not the hit would affect, incapacitate, or kill the target. Sometimes no shooting was called for. Sometimes you could save everyone except the suspect. Sometimes only shooting VERY ACCURATELY could give you a better than horrible outcome.

The analyzing part of my brain loved observing how the simulations used shouting and amped up gestures to stimulate adrenaline and get us examinees more involved in what would otherwise be a “video game.” Several of the people I observed were really tense. 

Lesson #2a: The trigger on the weapons we were given can only be pulled if your finger fully engages it.

Lesson #2b: Aiming meticulously and trying to fire from the side of said trigger gives your partner time to shoot several other things in the environment. Innocent, video squirrels suffered that day.

Lesson #3: If given a choice, wait for the bomb squad. If not given a choice, bemoaning your fate to the instructor only makes him giggle.

While Simone was off shooting bad guys, those of us wanting to check out dead bodies huddled in the pagoda outside the training facility in our various states of water-repellent preparedness while we waited for the storm to pass.  It didn’t.

Did I mention we were stalwart?


Crossing the Line


We tromped through the grass and sticky red clay mud to get to the body of Sonja, a young female mannequin who had been dumped in a shallow grave.

No mannequins were harmed in the deploying of this shallow grave.

If I ever wanted to know what it was like working a crime scene in pouring rain, in muddy, crappy conditions, now I know.  The REI waterproof jacket failed.  The hat failed.   Also, iPhones take even crummier pictures when the lens is wet.  The good thing?  The rain kept down the smell of decomposition which in turn kept away the corpse-loving bugs. Despite the torrent, we found evidence galore.

Lesson #4:  Rain screws with crime scenes, yes, but that doesn’t mean all evidence is washed away.

This is totally going into our next book.

Note to self:  Next year, bring a change of clothes.  And boots.  Lee did warn us.  He really did.

After that, I met a (completely dry) Simone at a Blood Stain Patterning seminar taught by Dave Pauly, Director of Applied Forensic Science at Methodist University, Fayetteville, NC.  We learned about angles of descent, the need for presumptive testing, what methods can be used to reveal a blood stain, and just how much a blood stain can tell an investigator.  The answer is ‘quite a lot.’  And that high school math you thought you’d never use?  It comes in very handy when looking for the area of convergence and the angle of impact.  Who knew?

How blood lands can tell an investigator a huge amount about what occurred. Copyright: howstuffworks.com


Lesson #5:  Scrubbing away stains with bleach won’t remove the presence of heme (as in hemoglobin).  Neither will scrubbing off and painting over a spattered wall.  Also, sprayed blood hides everywhere.  Everywhere.  

“We pulled up the baseboard, and sure enough …” –Dave Pauly 

Coming up, Part 2!  Fingerprinting, Impressions Evidence, and Forensic Psychology.


PS  Lee Lofland is a retired police officer and one hell of a blogger.  You can read his true stores, his reviews of the TV show Castle, and find out more about the Writers Police Academy at The Graveyard Shift.

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