Getting It Write at the WPA
BY ASHLEY MCCONNELL
Have you ever looked at your computer screen, chewed your lip, and thought, “Hmmm. I wonder if that’s really the way that works.”
And have you ever thought, “I could call the police department and ask somebody how to kill an abusive husband undetectably… but that might not go over all that well.”
And have you ever gotten a letter from a reader telling you that you completely screwed up something forensically?
Surely there’s a better way! And I am here to tell you, brothers and sisters, I have been to the mountaintop, I have seen the promised land of research, and it is available to us all.
The third annual Writers’ Police Academy workshop was held September 20-23, 2012, in Greensboro, North Carolina, at the Guilford Technical Community College. Just over 200 writers, including at least three NINC members, gathered for the opportunity to talk to and learn from professional police officers, private detectives, emergency medical technicians, firemen, anthropologists, lawyers, and lab personnel about their areas of expertise. We got to test bloodstains for the presence of heme. We got to watch a technician locate footprints on the tile floor of a classroom—dust! We’ve got dust!—and transfer them electrostatically to a plastic mat, and then fix them for later use (such as court testimony). We got to watch the recovery of evidence from under water (okay, in this case, a swimming pool). We got to locate and excavate a body from a shallow grave—yes, tromping out into the woods, in this case with a forensic anthropologist to guide us. We listened to Marcia Clark walk us through the legal process from filing a case through trial and conviction, with annotations on the opportunities for conflict and tension at each step. A female police officer gave us tips on self protection for women, and we got to practice them. She also answered questions about the problems unique to female law enforcement officers.
Have you ever wondered about police dogs, where they come from, how they’re trained, and why they do what they do? We got to see the dogs and talk to their handlers. We learned about the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (www.namus.gov). We learned what a burned body smells—and looks— like (and a better incentive to vegetarianism you will not find).
Can you really get a useable fingerprint off human skin? (Maybe—but it has yet to stand up in court.) Can you get one off a textured surface? (“Sure. Let me show you how. First you take this fingerprint powder…”) Does human blood fluoresce when you use Luminol? (No. But you have got to see what happens when you spray the stuff on something you’ve cleaned with Clorox!) (And the blood—pardon me, the heme—will still show up.)You can use a driving simulator, a Firearms Training System. (Where else can you sit around a break room, aka “the situation room,” and listen to a fellow writer gleefully proclaim, “I just shot a bad guy IN THE HEAD”?) You can ask law enforcement officers how they interact with federal agencies, including the ever-popular FBI (which does not come in and take over cases arbitrarily).
The WPA was put together specifically to bring law enforcement and writers together so writers can get the details right—so they can talk to a real sniper and find out what a suppressor does, talk to someone about chain of evidence who has actually done the job. Every single presenter is actually working in the field.
Lee Lofland, a retired police officer and a writer himself, has managed to convince a police training program at Guildford County Community College and five different sheriff’s departments, as well as an internationally known forensic supply and training company, SIRCHIE, plus professionals from all over the country, to come and spend three days just to talk to writers, just to answer our questions, to help us get things right. There is nothing else like the Writers’ Police Academy anywhere, and it is worth its weight in royalties. This is the place to go when you want to get it right. If you’re writing thrillers, cozies, paranormals—even if you’re writing sweet inspirational romances with a police officer for a heroine or hero—this is Continued on page 14