How can you write nuanced police characters in your crime novels? What are some under-used crimes that might make interesting plots? Patrick O’Donnell talks about Cops and Writers in the interview today.
In the intro, thoughts on a digital sales webinar from Ingram Content; the Immersive Books & Media 2020 Research Report [Publishers Weekly]; how to Audible subscription earnings work [ALLi blog]; and how close I came to being taken in by scammers posing as traditional publishers [Writer Beware].
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Patrick O’Donnell is a retired American police sergeant and the author of the Cops and Writers reference books for authors and screenwriters as well as a technical consultant for crime and police procedural novels.
You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and full transcript below.
- Common mistakes that writers make about the police
- Writing three-dimensional police characters
- How police officers deal with survivor’s guilt
- What TV and film get wrong about the police
- Ideas for under-used crime plots
- Writing nuanced criminals
- The double-edged sword of technology in the police
You can find Patrick O’Donnell at CopsAndWriters.com.
Transcript of Interview with Patrick O’Donnell
Joanna: Patrick O’Donnell is a retired American police sergeant and the author of the ‘Cops and Writers’ reference books for authors and screenwriters as well as a technical consultant for crime and police procedural novels. Welcome, Patrick.
Patrick: Thank you, Joanna, for having me on your show.
Joanna: It’s great to have you here. And I know people have so many questions about that.
Before we get into it, tell us a bit more about you and why you decided to get into helping writers after being in the police so long.
Patrick: First off, I just want to thank you again. This is an honor and a privilege to be on your show. You are one of the first podcasts I ever listened to about self-publishing, and that’s what really piqued my interest. So, I have to thank you publicly for that. It was you and Johnny, Sean, and Dave, their podcast.
Joanna: Way back in the day, although the ‘Story Studio Podcast’ is back now.
Patrick: Yes. And remember, Simon Whistler, ‘Rocking Self-Publishing,’ I think it was.
Joanna: Oh, wow, you’ve been around a while then.
Patrick: I have. I’ve been lurking in the shadows. I just wanted to thank you because all the information that you had out there was very informative and it really sparked my imagination and got me into this. So, hey, I owe you.
So, a little bit about myself. I live in Wisconsin, about an hour-and-a-half northwest of Chicago, Illinois, if that gives somebody a frame of reference. I live there with my wife and three dogs. I’m an empty nester with four adult kids and one grandchild. I am now retired from the Milwaukee Police Department.
As far as what I do, I love working out. I was listening to your podcast, maybe two or three episodes ago, with the doctor about wellness for…
Joanna: Dr. Euan Lawson.
Patrick: Yes. And I was just like, ‘Oh, good. Joanna is lifting weights. That’s what I do.’
Joanna: Probably not as big weights as you do.
Patrick: Well, you’re out there doing it. And then I thought your shoulder was hurting and I’ve torn my rotator cuff twice. And one thing that really helps, and I want you to try, this just hang dead from a chin-up bar.
Joanna: Oh, yeah, I do a lot of overhead stuff.
Patrick: Yeah. Just hang. Just your bodyweight and just hold on and just put your feet up a little bit and just hang from there. That stretches your shoulder out. That has been a life-changer for me. It really has. Just this one simple thing. I do it every time I work out. It’s great.
Joanna: That’s quite interesting, given that we’re on shoulder pain, I’m doing a lot better now, but it is a lot of retraining posture as a writer.
It’s interesting because in the police, obviously, health is a really important thing. And you have to pass various fitness tests. But I also think that that is something that people have in their mind as a stereotype for cops, right? In America, certainly, it’s the fat cop eating a doughnut and just having coffee.
Patrick: That is true.
Joanna: I wanted to get into that actually because this seems to me one of the biggest problems with writers and it is the police character whether it’s a good guy or a bad guy, or female, or whatever gender.
Joanna: You have the Cops and Writers Facebook group where people ask you loads of questions. So, can we start with that one?
What are the most common things that people get wrong about people in the police?
Patrick: As far as characters go, probably the one thing that really pops out at me is how one-dimensional they make their characters. It’s either they’re the angry, loner, borderline crazy detective who breaks all the rules to get his man. Kind of like Martin Riggs, Mel Gibson, from ‘Lethal Weapon.’
In reality, he would have been fired and criminally charged. It just doesn’t happen like that. Or you have the polar opposite who you have the stoic detective or police officer that’s more like an android with no sense of humor, no emotion, all business.
And another thing that you see is they’re always on the job. They almost have no outside life. So, it just isn’t true to life as far as that goes.
Joanna: And what about the alcoholic, drug addict, that kind of broken character?
Patrick: I’m not going to say that there aren’t people like that in the department, but I’ve worked with just about every kind of person you can think of. I’ve worked with people who are born-again Christians, I’ve worked with atheists, I’ve worked with communists. You name it.
You can just close your eyes and think of a different person and they’re out there as a police officer or a detective. The job does take its toll on you sometimes. It depends where you work and what you do. Some people could have a 25 or 30-year career and really not go through too much. Or you could have a 25 or 30-year career, especially in a bigger city, and you get beaten over the head with just the worst that society can bring at you almost on a daily basis.
It depends on how you deal with it. My favorite thing was going to work out. Some people don’t always choose a healthy alternative for that. And like you said, it could lead to alcohol problems, divorce is very high in our job profession. So, that stereotype isn’t too far off the mark.
The really bad hours, working holidays, just being disconnected from your family. It’s hard to go to a homicide that’s especially brutal, anything dealing with older people or, obviously, a 6-month-old baby or something like that. You’ve been on that scene for 10, 12 hours, then you go home, and then your wife looks at, ‘How’s work today, honey?’ And you’re like, ‘Oh, it was fine.’
Joanna: Yeah. You don’t want to be sharing those things in your home space.
Joanna: It pollutes it in a way.
Let’s take a real step right up to why did you go into the police.
What are some of the reasons people do go into the police that keep them going when things are so bad?
Patrick: There’s a couple of different paths you can go. For me, I was born and raised in Chicago as a youngster. I remember one day the Chicago Police Department SWAT team was setting up a search warrant in which it involves a dynamic entry where they blow down the door and they’re hauling people out. It’s very loud and very exciting.
I was a little kid and I’m literally watching it out the window. There’s police officers, some of the SWAT guys, one guy had an M16 and the other one had a shotgun. And they were in our backyard, covering down for the guys that were doing the entry. And I was thinking to myself, ‘Wow, this is the coolest thing ever. I gotta do this.’ In the back of a little kid’s mind you’re just like, ‘Wow, that’s really neat.’
And then, of course, watching ‘Adam-12′ and ‘Starsky and Hutch’ and ‘Beretta’ and all these old police shows, that really gets you going through. So, that really spurred my interest in police work.
Then what happened was we moved up to Wisconsin when I was in high school. I went to college in Wisconsin. I was a music major, I was going to be a band director for high school and grade schools. And I always had the police thing in the back of my head.
I did an internship with the Sheriff’s Department in Milwaukee. And I just thought that was the coolest thing ever. And right from there, I just full steam ahead I’m like, ‘Yeah, I should be a cop.’ So, that’s what I did.
Joanna: Well, that’s interesting. You mentioned the exciting and I guess the curiosity, it’s like, ‘Wow, this looks interesting. This could be an interesting career.’ I can imagine it certainly is interesting in many different ways.
How do you think of the characters? For example, we see in movies and books someone’s parent or sibling has been murdered, for example, and they decide to get into it because they want to right the wrong.
If people are writing characters from the police, what are the other reasons that you’ve seen that people go into the police?
Patrick: You’re absolutely right about that because I have worked with people like that. And my good friend, Adam Richardson, from the ‘Writer’s Detective Bureau’ podcast…
Patrick: I have a podcast now, the ‘Cops and Writers’ podcast. It will be up and running by the time this goes live. It’s going to be interview-based. I interviewed Adam and one of the reasons he got into policework is he had a friend who was assaulted back when he was in high school.
He just saw how wrong that was and he wanted to do something about it. That’s not uncommon. And also, what I see a lot of is police families. Grandpa was a police officer, dad or mom was a police officer. There’s generations of police families. That’s not uncommon.
You grow up and you see mom or dad in uniform and you hear some of the cool stories or you look up to them and you kinda want to go down the same career path.
Joanna: Is there such a thing as a calling, do you think, to go into the police or law enforcement? A bit like some people say, ‘I want to be a doctor because I want to help people.’
Patrick: I think so. You have to have that mentality in order to be a good police officer. If you’re going to do the job right, you should want to help people. That’s at the core. That’s the base of what the police do every day. You want to help people.
You think that, ‘Okay. This cop has given me a ticket.’ You’re going to be grumpy about or whatever else. The reason why they’re out there doing traffic is to prevent auto accidents. That’s the whole reason why a police officer will stop a speeder is to try and prevent accidents.
They’re trying to right somebody’s improper behavior. That’s the way that works. But yeah, at the very core, yes, you’re absolutely right. It sounds corny and maybe a little cliché, but it’s very true.
Joanna: I think the basis of every cliché is the truth, but I think as you said, it’s about making the character nuanced even if there are two people who go into it because they want justice. There are different reasons why. So, that’s really important.
In fact, before we started recording, you mentioned survivor’s guilt, which is really interesting to me. And that is something I haven’t actually heard before from a police officer.
Could you explain what do you mean by survivor’s guilt and why is that something that you’ve felt? And does that bring more nuance?
Patrick: Survivor’s guilt by definition would be somebody that’s in the military that was in war and they have a friend or friends that didn’t make it home and they’re thinking to themselves, ‘Well, how come I made it home?’
There is survivor’s guilt with police officers. I was retired when all the riots were kicking off in the United States. And my fellow officers were working 20-hour days trying to keep the peace. One of them got shot and it was very, very difficult to watch this on TV because I know I was going out and I’ve been in riots before. I’ve been on the line. I’ve had rocks and bottles and all kinds of things that I don’t want to talk about thrown at me.
I felt terrible that I wasn’t out there with them because I was their boss. I should be out there with them. My wife did remind me, though, she said, ‘You’ve been in lots of riots. You’ve had all kinds of stuff happen to you.’ And I’m like, ‘I know. I know. But…’ So, that was tough. I didn’t do a whole lot of sleeping during those times.
Joanna: That’s interesting because obviously, one of the core important things about writing is conflict. And external conflict in a riot is very obvious. It’s like people throwing stuff and then there’s the cops on the other side or whatever.
But what you’re talking about is almost an internal conflict of you wanting to get back there and help your colleagues but equally, you’re retired and you’re fighting against that. So, well, I can’t be there. And also there’s your family.
It seems to me that the internal conflicts for police officers can be very extreme as well as the external ones.
Patrick: You’re absolutely right about that. There’s all kinds of emotions. And like I said before, I had police officers come from different countries, different backgrounds, just especially, I think, bigger city departments, they’re melting pots of different people.
They have different views on different things that are occurring, but they have to be professionals and they have to do their jobs. Sometimes that is a bit of a conflict. It makes for some good storylines.
Joanna: We won’t get into politics as such, but in America it’s interesting because you mentioned someone being a fundamental Christian, for example, and there might be, let’s say, an atheist in the department who feels very differently about capital punishment, which is still happens in some of your states in America.
I imagine a conversation like that around justice is people have very fundamental views of what is justice that can be quite different. So, if there are two police officers in a department who violently disagree on some of these huge things, how does that reach resolution?
How do people work together?
Patrick: I was a sargeant, so that’s something that I’d have to keep an eye on. Most of the time, everybody is professional. And if it started getting a little heated, it’s like, ‘You know what? You two can go out for a beer after work or whatever and fix it then. This is not the place for it.’
You can do whatever you want, but do your job and do it right here. And then if you want to resolve whatever differences you have later, please go ahead, but not at work.
Joanna: Right. So take it away. And what about when people disagree with what happened in terms of justice? What I’ve learned from your American TV shows is that what might be illegal doesn’t necessarily result in a punishment that relates to the crime or that people might disagree or want to arrest someone or they know someone is guilty and there’s just no evidence or whatever.
How does that internal conflict work with, ‘I just don’t think we did this right, or how do we do a better job?’
Patrick: That’s not unusual. Police officers, like I said, they want to do the right thing. If somebody is breaking the law, they want to arrest them. And in order to arrest somebody…there’s some fallacies with this.
In order to arrest somebody, you have to have probable cause. And the technical definition would be the quantum of evidence that would lead a reasonable police officer to believe that this person committed a crime. So, that’s enough to arrest somebody. And when you arrest somebody, you take away their freedom. They can’t leave. They have to go with you. And then the case gets reviewed by a prosecutor.
And prosecutors, most of them in the U.S. are assistant district attorneys. Actually, I just interviewed one for my podcast a couple of days ago. And what happens is they review the case, they’ll look at all the police reports, body camera, evidence, they get everything, and they decide, it’s like, ‘Okay. Joanna, maybe she punched Pat in the face, but it was under these circumstances, so either I’m not going to charge this crime or I’ll knock it down to a lesser crime from where the police officers thought it should be.’
So, sometimes you have that. And there’s a bunch of checks and balances. When a police officer goes out and arrests somebody…and police officers are the ones who do the bulk of arresting.
What you see on TV and movies is detectives are going out there doing everything, where it’s the exact opposite. First of all, there isn’t a lot of them. And secondly, they usually respond after everything happens. They’re not responding to hold-up alarms.
They’ll respond to a homicide, but they’re not the first ones there. The police officer and the sergeants set up the crime scene. I’ve been to hundreds of homicides. And usually, it’s about a half an hour, 45 minutes, sometimes up to an hour before you see a detective come. They’re investigators. They’re not first responders, unless it’s a small department and they use detectives to augment their patrol, then that happens.
But circling back, once somebody gets arrested, a police officer arrests them usually, and they get sent to a district station where they get fingerprinted and their picture taken, and all that good stuff. And the police officers will write up the arrest reports.
Usually, that takes two, three, four hours. It can take quite some time depending on how complicated the case is. If they have to inventory evidence, etc., question the prisoner. And then all their paperwork gets reviewed by a boss. Usually, that’s a lieutenant.
Then the lieutenant could look at this paperwork and say, ‘No. You’re missing this, this, and this. Either charge them with something different…’ And I’ve had it too where I’ve released people from the booking room. And it’s like, you don’t have enough. You’re going to make some cops very angry with that, but it has to be done right. Every time, it has to be consistent.
You’re going to have a little bit of hard feelings because you might have had a cop that put a lot of time and effort into this arrest and their boss would be like, ‘No, you don’t have enough,’ or, ‘I’m going to change it to this charge instead,’ then it goes off to the DA, and they have a tougher burden of proof. They have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that this person did it.
They have to assume that it’s going to go to trial and they have to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt to the jury that this person committed this crime. So, they have that on their plate. And they are overworked and underpaid. They really are.
Joanna: I think we often see, oh, goodness, the eye-rolling around the amount of paperwork, but that clearly is part of it. And so you mentioned homicide there and probably the most common thing that we see in crime and in crime books and movies and things like that because that is something that is hugely personal and death is a big deal, right?
Patrick: It is very final. Yes.
Joanna: And it’s horrific and there’s all this stuff. Are there some underrepresented and potentially interesting plot threads that you think you just don’t see enough of because it’s like, ‘Here’s another book with an…’
I read a lot of books and it’s like, ‘Oh, here’s another murder and I know who did it.’ And that’s not interesting. And obviously, I don’t want to make that to sound too blasé, but you know what I mean.
What are some of the things where you think, ‘I never see this?’
Patrick: It all circles back to emotions. Most homicides aren’t something that’s plotted and planned out for years like what you see in TVs or a movie. A lot of times it’s a crime of passion or just think emotion. When it comes to homicides, revenge, anger, jealousy, greed, or a lot of times, and you don’t always see this in TVs and movies, is somebody is in the middle of a minor infraction of the law and it turns out being a homicide.
You have some college kids that are going into the inner city to buy marijuana and before you know it, now it’s a rip-off. They’re getting robbed and they start fighting with these people, and then before you know it, you have a dead kid. So, things can escalate really quickly.
Or another thing that you could do is there was an old…I think it was Alan Alda was in this movie where he’s driving with his wife like on a nice Sunday afternoon and a drunk driver plows into their car and he gets out, the first couple of minutes he’s kind of in a fog. He probably has a concussion.
He looks over to his wife and she’s dead. And the drunk driver is stumbling around. There’s beer cans inside of his car. And he takes them out. This is like a person who ordinarily isn’t violent. He finds a crowbar or something and just starts beating this guy over the head with a crowbar. And he’s literally killing this person, this drunk driver.
It’s the heat of the moment kind of thing. And he looks over and his wife is waking up. And he’s like, ‘Oh, she’s not dead. Oops. Okay. Well, that didn’t turn out so good.’ So something like that.
I like those kind of plot twists. And you can never go wrong with blackmail. Somebody has way too much to lose.
Joanna: That’s brilliant. You could never go too wrong with blackmail.
Patrick: Not at all. You can’t go wrong with blackmail. Think of all the great plot twists you could go there. You have somebody who’s respected in the community, he has the white picket fence, the wife and two-and-a half kids or whatever that is.
And they did something dastardly and somebody knows about it, and they’re slowly, you know, sucking the life out of them either with money or who knows what else? And so I think those always make for really good stories.
Joanna: Yes. And the idea of something to lose is a big thing. You mentioned even the guy there with the wife, it’s like the thing he thought he’d lost was his wife and that leads to a reaction. And blackmail there is…there has to be something to lose for blackmail to work.
Joanna: And so that is a big deal as well.
Anything else other than murder and blackmail that you think, ‘Yeah, I want to see more of that?’
Patrick: That always kind of pops in my head. Robberies are always fun. In one of my books, I went over the different types of robbers that are out there. A lot of it is drug-related or some of it is gambling-related. They have debts from gambling that they can’t pay, or they’re drug addicts and they have to steal in order to get their fix.
This is a true story. I had a bank robbery. I get called for a silent alarm at a bank, myself and all my guys get there. And the guy that robbed the bank was already gone by the time we got there. And usually, they’re wearing sunglasses, a hat, some kind of disguise, gloves, if they’re wearing a hooded sweatshirt, that’s up. It’s very obviously they’re trying to conceal their identity.
This guy had none of that. He was just wearing jeans and a t-shirt and he passes a note to the teller and says, ‘Give me all the money.’ They’re trained to comply, which is fine. You don’t want to get into a shootout. It’s not worth it. And so we get all the information, detectives show up, we do everything, and then we leave.
Well, the next day at the same time, the bank hits a silent alarm and we’re like, ‘No way.’ Because a lot of these alarms are false alarms.
Patrick: You want to be on your guard just in case it’s not, but it’s in the back of my head there’s no way they’re getting robbed the same time, from what happened yesterday. But we all went there and the guy that robbed this bank was sitting in the lobby just in a chair just looking at us.
I recognized him from all the still photos in the video. So, we arrest him and I’m like, ‘Dude, what’s going on?’ He said, ‘I owe the dope man $5,000. And he said he’s going to kill me and my family if I didn’t pay him. So, I knew I was going to go to jail, so I thought I’d just make this easy.’
And I’m like, ‘Okay.’ No dramatic shootout. No negotiations. The guy is just sitting there waiting for us. He would’ve put his own handcuffs on.
Joanna: You said drug addict. I feel like in people’s minds a certain image comes up from all of the media that we see. But what’s interesting now, especially in the U.S. with the opioid crisis and the painkillers that people need is that a drug addict could be someone who is a bank manager.
Patrick: Oh, absolutely.
Joanna: So, this kind of white-collar addict is…I don’t even know if that is even more common now or people who’ve moved into that area. And you mentioned theft. Have you seen ‘Lupin’ on Netflix, a French.
Patrick: I have not.
Joanna: You know the one?
Patrick: No, I do not.
Joanna: As we’re recording this in January 2021, it’s on Netflix. And it’s about basically a gentleman thief who is charming and lovely and doesn’t hurt people, but he does some really good heists. And so you very much like the bad guy and the police are not chasing him, but they seem more stupid than he is.
What are your thoughts about making our villains or our antagonists also more complex rather than just here’s a stereotypical drug addict or a thief.
How can we make them more nuanced?
Patrick: Like you said, there are stereotypical drug addicts or thieves, whatever the case may be. And there’s reasons for that because most of them do fit into that niche because as far as a drug addict, you might be a drug addict but you could be functioning for a while, usually, unless you get some kind of help, you swirl down the tubes pretty fast. And that’s pretty much done.
But again, it’s all about emotions, that type of thing. There are some crimes and criminals where you don’t need Sherlock Holmes to figure these things out. I’ll give you an example.
I responded to a dead body at a hospital when I was a police officer. And it initially came in as a shooting because she had two holes in her chest. And she was already passed by the time I got there. And the doctor is like, ‘Well, we did an X-ray to see if there’s any metallic objects in her upper body where the holes are and there’s nothing and there’s no exit wounds.’ He says, ‘I don’t know what this is.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, neither do I.’
The backstory was that this guy was at a bar and he started chatting with a gal that was next to him. And this guy was probably in his mid to late-60s and she was in her mid-30s, early 30s. And one thing led to another and she was going to spend the night at his house.
So, he drives her to her house first. She says, ‘I just want to get some toiletries and some clothes for tomorrow.’ And he’s like, ‘Okay, fine.’ So, he drives her to her house. Well, unbeknownst to him, her girlfriend who she lived with wasn’t very pleased that this was happening. And she stabbed her in the chest with a barbecue fork. That’s what the two holes were.
The homicide detectives get there at the hospital and this guy actually stayed there, which is unusual. If you were ever a cop in a big city where there’s a hospital, it’s not uncommon for people to dump a body by the emergency room and take off because they don’t want any part of it. But this guy stuck around.
He told me the story and I’m just like, ‘No way. Okay.’ So, myself and the homicide detectives were like, ‘Well, do you remember where this house was?’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah.’ So, he takes us to the house. And we’re still trying to figure all this out. We didn’t know that she was stabbed with a barbecue fork.
And we go to the front door, we knock, and this gal’s girlfriend opens the door and she looks at us, and there’s just that moment of silence, and then she said, ‘Well, it ain’t like I killed the bitch.’ We all looked at each other, I was, ‘You actually did.’ And the barbecue fork was in this kitchen sink.
It couldn’t have been more simple. You’re just like, ‘Wow. Okay.’ I bet it wasn’t even a minute where everybody just stared at each other and didn’t even say anything. It’s like, ‘Yep. This job, you just never know.’ Not everybody is a master villain, that’s for sure.
Joanna: That was a mistake. That was a moment of bad judgment, stabbing your friend with a fork. It wasn’t premeditated murder.
Joanna: In terms of the cases that you’ve seen, are there evil genius types, very clever criminals?
Patrick: No. Not at all. Most of them are drug-related. A lot of times it’s somebody who’s dealing drugs in an area where they shouldn’t be. They have turf. So, a rival drug dealer is going to go by and just kill you. They’re just going to shoot you if you’re going to be doing that.
Or, like I said before, they’re going to rob people and sometimes those turn into homicides. There is some organized crime, like you could think of back in the day with the mafia or motorcycle gangs, but a lot of those have been eliminated.
But drugs or prostitution are big business and if somebody messes with that business, then they’re going to wind up dead. So, that is how some people wind up dying, but a lot of it is street-level stuff. That’s what I dealt with. Or crimes of passion.
Joanna: And of course, we’re not minimizing how terrible the results of crime are, but obviously, people listening are either writing crime or reading crime. So, we’re interested in the more nuanced characters and the more interesting plots that people have.
I feel like the show ‘Lupin’ that we literally just finished watching it last night, and I was like, ‘Oh, no.’ The policeman found him in the last episode but it was very nuanced because you felt emotion, like you say, for the thief and you thought, you know what? He’s a good guy even though he’s committing theft, quite a lot of theft.
He’s still doing these big heists, but we still like him more, almost we like him more than the police who are following the procedure and doing everything right, but we’re not so emotionally involved. And that’s obviously the skill of the screenwriter.
Joanna: You consult with screenwriters as well, don’t you?
Joanna: Any other common issues you see in people’s books or screenplays that you pick up on?
Patrick: Quite a few things, actually. Just, again, when we’re talking about even just what an arrest is.
Some of the common tropes are don’t leave town until this is resolved. I can leave town if I want. Unless I’m arrested and a condition of my bail is I can’t leave town, they might put a bracelet on you or something like that or give you geographical restrictions for your bail.
But if you’re not under arrest, I can go wherever the heck I want to go. You can’t tell me that. Or let’s bring him in for questioning. You might as well say, ‘Let’s bring him in for kidnapping because you’re kidnapping this person if they don’t want to go.’
Joanna: What would you say instead?
Patrick: It’s either you’re arresting somebody or I’d like to interview this person. You can try and say something like, ‘Hey, you know what, Joanna, I’m trying to clear some things up regarding this burglary. Would you be able to meet me at the district station at 11:00 tomorrow morning?’
Or you’re at a crime scene and it’s like, ‘You know what, this is so chaotic here. There’s fire trucks. There’s a zillion cops here. It’s loud. It’s noisy. It’s really hard to concentrate. Could we go to the station where we could sit down and just have a conversation about this?’
Joanna: But I could say no.
Patrick: Yes, you could. And I’ve got one of two choices. Try and make do with what I have. That could be interviewing you in my car, which is done all the time. It’s better to do it in a police station. Or I arrest you for, say, obstructing. But that’s a slippery slope.
You don’t want to do that too much because then you might screw up the entire case. I could say, ‘You’re obstructing an investigation, Joanna. We can’t have this.’ But you don’t want to do that all the time either because you can only arrest somebody so many times.
That’s where the skill of a detective or a good police officer comes into play where they’re very smooth and sometimes they’re requesting something. And it’s very non-confrontational. What you see a lot on TV and movies is the detectives, especially detectives, screaming at these people especially during an interrogation or they’re hitting them or they’re putting a gun in their mouth or all these things that would send them to prison, are going on.
Joanna: It’s very dramatic, though. It’s not nice, polite paperwork.
Patrick: Right, exactly. But the good detective, the good police officer who does a good interrogation is the one who is smooth as silk. They’ll have this person signing a confession before they know it.
One of the most common things, when I was working at night as far as catching somebody in the act of something, would be auto theft. So, there was a ton of auto thefts. And those turned into car chases. And after car chases, there’s usually a crash and a foot chase, and then you arrest the person that was driving the car.
After the person is arrested, I would interrogate them, and 9 out of 10 times or better, I would always have a confession. And a lot of times I would do it as an apology.
It’s like, ‘You know what? That car that you stole from that person, they’re not rich. They’re living in this neighborhood. He’s probably like a roofer or a contractor or some kind of general labor and he needs a car to go to work. Now he doesn’t have it. He probably doesn’t have car insurance. And it’s because of you. Him and his family are really in dire straits now because of you.’
And before I know it, I’m like, ‘You know what? I’m sure you feel bad about it. Here’s this piece of paper and this pen. I want you to write an apology to these people.’
Joanna: That’s a good angle.
Patrick: Yes. And sometimes they would. Sometimes they wouldn’t, but many times they would. Or I learned to question people by listening to detectives. When I was a rookie cop, you would arrest somebody, say at a homicide scene. You would take them downtown, get them fingerprinted and they get searched and fingerprinted and pictures and all that good stuff, and then they go to the detective bureau where they have the little interrogation rooms.
They aren’t very big. They’re like a glorified closet with a chair and table and all that. I remember I listened to one interrogation and the detective that was interrogating this guy I knew interrogated Jeffrey Dahmer. So, I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m going to learn a ton from this guy.’ And boy, he was the most relaxed. He goes in the room. This guy just shot somebody, but the person didn’t die.
He walks in there and I secured him. They have these big brass rings attached to the wall and you would handcuff people to that. They’d have one handcuff on their wrist and the other handcuff would be on that. This detective walks in, throws him a handcuff key and he says, ‘Hey, get those things off. You’re not comfortable.’
The guy’s eyes were as big as saucers. And then he sits down across from him and said, ‘Man, we gotta talk about this.’ He Mirandized him. He did everything according to the letter of the law, but he did it in such a smooth way, this guy was spilling his guts.
But a lot of it is personality. You don’t have to raise your voice all the time. Sometimes I would for dramatic effect, but what you see on TV and in movies where they’re just constantly screaming at these people and beating them up and doing all this other, that’s a bunch of BS.
Joanna: What are the good shows? If people want to watch a TV show or read a book where you say, ‘Yeah, that’s good.’ I was thinking when you were talking there about ‘True Detective,’ the first series, which seemed really like that. It was more about character than anything else. But what do you think?
What do you think are the best shows that are realistic?
Patrick: Not many. You can get bits and pieces out of them, but for the most part, I think they’re all garbage.
Joanna: Not a single one?
Patrick: No. There’s entertainment value to these. I watched all of ‘Southland.’ It was on TBS, and I think it’s on Netflix now. One of the things my wife and I watched during all the lockdown stuff was ‘Southland.’ The first couple of seasons were really good. They got the banter between the cops spot on.
But, obviously, the cops are chasing somebody, they’re fighting with this person. Somebody gets hurt, etc., etc. And then they turn around and something else really crazy and exciting happens. Usually, even in a big city, you don’t have that much stuff happen in one shift. And it doesn’t show and it can’t show you sitting down and writing reports for five hours.
Joanna: Yeah. That’s too boring for a TV show.
Patrick: Oh, God, yeah. And then he used a colon and then…
Joanna: Then he did some paperwork.
Patrick: Yes. He’s typing away and he used too many commas in that sentence. And oh, my God, his sergeant screamed at him for that. That’s not very exciting stuff.
Joanna: ‘Southland’ is good. The first couple of seasons were good. But I have one last question because we’re almost out of time. I can ask you questions forever.
You’ve got books and you’ve got your podcast. I’m sure people will check that out. But my last question is around technology because what really annoys me is you see something on a show and you’re like, ‘But that’s ridiculous because they would have their cell phone or they could…’ You can find who people are really easily.
Like even the show I just mentioned, ‘Lupin,’ it’s like, I’m sorry, they would find this guy much more quickly because of CCTV. It was set in the middle of Paris. And it’s like they would find him with CCTV, they would find his wife and therefore find his address. Why are they not finding him quicker?
How has technology changed policework, for better and for worse?
Patrick: I have come full circle. When I started it was almost 26 years ago, we hand-wrote all of our reports or used a typewriter with carbon paper, lots of white-out, etc. Now everything is on computer. Everything is computer-based. Which is good because you have spellcheck.
I remember at the assembly where I’d be handwriting these reports. There’s dictionaries all over the place. Good luck finding a dictionary anywhere anymore. Those are fossils. I’m a dinosaur. But it is easier to read reports. My handwriting was atrocious.
Later on, I became a boss and I’m reviewing these reports and I’m like, ‘Did a third-grader write this? What school did you not go to?’ Because when you write a police report, a lot of eyes are going to be on it. You could be reading this report or somebody else could be reading this report in a trial. A district attorney is going to look at this. Their defense attorney is going to look at this. A judge, a jury.
You don’t want all these people thinking less of you. You’re not going to be looking very professional if you write a horrible report. So, that’s part of it.
Computers in squad cars. When I first started, there were no computers in squad cars. Now there are. It makes things much more efficient. Before we would have to call in. Say I did a traffic stop on you. And because you’re in a high crime area, a shooting happened and your car matches the description of the car that may be involved in the shooting. So, I stop you.
In the old days, I would approach, get your driver’s license if you had one. Most people in these areas do not have a driver’s license where I worked. And you’re trying to figure out who this person is. So, you’re on the radio with a clerk at the district station or a police officer that’s typing away on a very old computer trying to figure all this out, whereas now you can type it all in your squad and it comes back fairly quick, and you can even get a picture of this person.
Joanna: I was going to say photos and video must be a big deal.
Joanna: Do all police wear a camera now on their uniform?
Patrick: Not all. Backing up to the computer, that’s great that is making it much more efficient in a squad car, but the con is their faces are down looking at this computer when their eyes should be up looking at their environment. So, it’s more dangerous for them to use it, I think.
As far as squad and body cameras, yes, there’s squad cameras and there’s body cameras, which are both good and bad. They’re good in a way that it really documents, obviously, what happened, but the negative is, it’s only one angle. If you have any knowledge of photography, you know that one angle isn’t always telling the entire story.
I’ll tell you a quick story. I was following a guy who was a serial burglar. He was burglarizing the heck out of the district that I was in. He was good for over 20 burglaries in less than a week. And we knew who he was. We got a search warrant and got a GPS tracker. It was a magnetic one that we put under his bumper.
Once there was enough probable cause the DA says, ‘Yeah, arrest him. I’m going to charge them up with all these different crimes,’ then it was a hunt and we had an idea where he was. I spotted him, a little chase, and then we do what we call a felony traffic stop where you have your gun out and you have the person walk back towards you. That’s the safest way to do it. Usually, they run away from you, but sometimes they actually comply.
And one of my partners was backing me up. And I looked out of the corner of my eye and there was a guy with a cell phone, I’m like, ‘Hey, get out of here. This is dangerous.’ And he’s like, ‘Well, I’m with Channel 12 News, blah, blah.’ He just happened to be there. It was just a stroke of luck.
And I’m like, ‘Just go back. Go back.’ So, we got the guy in custody. Everything is great. We recover a bunch of property. I watched it on the 10:00 news. And it looked like my partner and I were pointing our guns at each other. But we weren’t.
Joanna: From the angle?
Patrick: Yes. And I’m like, ‘That didn’t happen.’ So, I go to work the next day and it’s like, ‘Yeah, way to go, Sargeant.’ I’m like, ‘It didn’t happen like that. It didn’t.’
Joanna: That’s a good one. That camera angle. You’re so right. And I was going to say, of course, it should protect both parties. It should protect the police person because people will think twice presumably about attacking you if there’s a camera on you, but also the other person because there have obviously been occasions where arrests have been a bit more violent than they should have been, for example.
So, in my head, it’s like the cameras are a net good. But you can also see how, as you say, sometimes they’re not giving the whole picture and that can be really hard.
And also, technology now, I wonder how deep fakes and a lot of the ways that technology can be manipulated will also make this more challenging. Obviously, you’ve heard my podcast, you know how interested I am in technology.
Joanna: And it’s how technology is both a tool and a weapon.
Patrick: It certainly is. And another thing that people don’t take into consideration is something as dynamic as a police officer shooting somebody. Usually, these things happen. I’ve been involved in seven different officer-involved shootings where somebody was killed where I was the incident commander. I was in charge of it.
Life doesn’t happen in slow motion. Usually, it happens within a second or two if that. And people analyzing it are going frame by frame by frame. That’s not what the cop saw. That’s not what the police officer saw in the heat of the moment when this happened. That isn’t true to life.
So, that’s one way where the body camera doesn’t do you any favors. If a jury or a DA or an investigator is looking at this frame by frame, you should look at it in real-time because that’s what happened. So, that’s something that is overlooked sometimes.
Patrick: And one thing that people don’t take into consideration is, okay, you want police officers wearing body cameras, excellent. When you’re being arrested at 2:00 in the morning because you’re drunk and belligerent, that body camera is going to wind up, if it goes to a trial or anything like that, they’ll play that.
Do you want to see a drunk you at 2:00 in the morning calling the officer all kinds of different, you know, X, Y, and Z explicitives? So, now people are like, ‘Well, I’ve already heard it,’ or like, ‘No. Maybe body cameras aren’t the best thing in the world,’ because they’re showing exactly what’s happening.
It’s hard to defend that if it’s plain as day if it’s on video. So, it goes both ways. And one more consideration for body cameras from a department point of view is the body cameras themselves aren’t terribly expensive, but the storage is crazy-expensive. So, there is a cost.
Joanna: Absolutely. I think that the overarching message is that this is such a complex world and I guess that’s why it’s such a popular genre to write in and watch on TV because there’s so much conflict, there’s all these different nuances, and almost that things aren’t ever just black and white.
Patrick: Never. Nothing is. You are absolutely right.
Joanna: We’re not getting into race.
Patrick: No. I always say it’s clear as mud.
Patrick: This happened, X, Y, and Z happened on the job today and it’s as clear as mud. You’re not dealing with a job where everything is very clear cut. There’s so much gray in police work. If you’re writing a story, use that to your advantage.
Joanna: That’s where the story is really in the gray, otherwise it would be too obvious.
Joanna: Yeah. Brilliant.
Where can people find you, and your books, and your podcast, and your Facebook group online?
Patrick: I’m Amazon-exclusive right now, but I will probably change that for my ‘Cops and Writers’ series, the books. I have a Facebook group. Just type in ‘Cops and Writers’ in the search bar and you will find it. I’ve got about 3,100 people in there right now. And that’s a group of authors.
I’m heavily involved in the indie world and I’m a big fan of and I’ve published, what, five books independently. And a lot of my people in the Facebook group are either beginner writers and I also have very, very successful writers in there. And I have all different representatives from law enforcement from literally all over the world.
I’ve got U.K. police officers, New Zealand, Australia, plenty in America, Germany. It’s great. It’s really neat that I can do this.
I have my own website. It’s copsandwriters.com. And the ‘Cops and Writers’ podcast that I’m very excited about.
Joanna: That is exciting. And I know a lot of people will come over and listen because this is a fascinating world. Thank you so much, Patrick. That was great.
Patrick: Well, thank you, Joanna. Just one more thing.
Patrick: I bought your book ‘Audio For Authors,’ and I always get the audio version. And I appreciated the fact that you narrated it because not enough authors narrate their own stuff. I think it’s a lot more genuine. But I liked it so much, I bought the paperback, and you have a whole section on podcasting and it was extremely helpful. I have to thank you for that.
Joanna: Oh, great. I’m glad it was useful. And yeah, we’ll look forward to the show. Thank you again.
Patrick: Thank you very much.
The post How To Write Authentic Crime Fiction With Patrick O’Donnell From Cops and Writers first appeared on The Creative Penn.
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Author: Joanna Penn