You get a detail wrong and someone’s going to kill you on it.
With reasonable confidence I can write about the LAPD and the Riverside Police Dept. because 1) I live in Metro Hell, 2) I used to work in the prosecutor’s office (so when you ask whether cops are tatted and pierced…yes if they’re in vice or narc it’s allowed and you wouldn’t believe how they show up to hearings), 3) I have relatives in the RPD and 4) big, metropolitan police departments put everything on-line.
You want to know what the beats are? There are “car maps” and the numbers for which patrol vehicles are assigned. Renovations at the new substation, they’ve blogged it. Google sucks the images in and spits them out by the truckload. You can subscribe to RSS feeds of their departmental press releases. The variations of the 10/11 code and the radio frequencies they use are all posted somewhere.
However, that kind of research only gets you information that is actually on the web. If no one has bothered to upload it, you can’t find it. Me, being me….I’ve decided to set my next cowboy/cop combo in Garfield County Utah. I need the Sherriff’s uniform. The ONLY pic I can find is from an officer down memorial….and he’s in the casual polo and chino’s combo.
My GoggleFu is useless in this case.
Now that may actually be the standard issue for Garfield County, but I don’t know. I do know what the badge looks like – there are forums for badge collectors out there and they have pictures. I mean, I go there every year, but I’ve yet to actually see a sheriff (it’s that big, wide open and rural) No website. The elected official doesn’t even have his picture anywhere. I thought all politicos wanted their picture in the public eye.
But these are details that must be answered. What style hat? Smokey? Brimmed standard police hat? Ball cap? Those all convey different messages. What type of vehicles do they use, colors and paint jobs? What’s their service weapon?
This is the particular hell of writing cop stories, or frankly any story with a specialized profession. You MUST get the details right. Somebody will know and will call you on it.
I’ve seen this in books I’ve read where someone has tried to describe a trial process. There are some things that are jurisdictional, vary from local to local. But the rules of evidence are pretty consistent. They may be common law in one state and codified in another but every state has some form of Hearsay doctrine. The order of trial is ALWAYS the same. It will kick me out of a story if I see these issues fudged.
It comes in play in all sorts of stories. Does a particular rodeo venue allow for Hotshots (and if you’re doing a rodeo story you better know what a Hotshot is). Would a former Army Ranger use the same slang designations as a former Marine? How do you lift a fingerprint? Does a jurisdiction use an actual forensic pathologist as a coroner or is it the local funeral director? When do roses start to bloom in Massachusetts? Are there different types of cactus in New Mexico and Arizona?
The devil is in the details and you’ve got to watch for him.