If you're writing mystery or crime fiction, sooner or later you're going to write about police officers. As with anything else, your depiction of law enforcement should be as accurate as possible. Otherwise, you risk losing your readers, assuming an editor doesn't cut you off first.
Law enforcement officers (LEOs) exist at the local, state, and federal levels. This column will focus on the local level but you should remember that a crime that occurs within a single neighborhood might require the involvement of multiple state and federal agencies depending on the crime's nature and particulars.
As a general guideline, remember that all LEOs are on the same side. While there may be personal and professional conflicts, the big picture is that everybody wants the criminal caught and antagonism within the investigation damages the likelihood of that happening.
This isn't to say that there aren't problems when agencies collide but the reality has been over-dramatized because it looks good on film. An officer who burns bridges with the outside agencies necessary to solve current and future crimes is going to be reined in rather quickly.
Any questions you may have about the composition of a police department, specific officer duties, or standard operating procedures are first answered by the locality you're writing about. To some extent, each agency is unique and the differences can be huge.
If your setting is based on a real place, call the local police or sheriff's department and identify yourself as a writer. Check to see if there's an online presence. Read newspaper accounts of actual investigations and how that agency handled them.
If the setting is within traveling distance, spend time in and around the actual buildings where the officers work, soaking up the environment. Ask permission to speak with as many officers in as many different positions as possible.
If the setting is extremely local, check to see if you can attend a Citizen's Police Academy, a typically free course which will walk you through the inner-workings of the department. CPA or not, ask if you can ride with a patrol officer. The experience of a ride-along is invaluable.
While local differences abound, there are some common traits across agencies.
Patrol officers are the visible, uniformed component. They're directing traffic, driving patrol cars (and alternately patrolling on foot, bike, motorcycle, or horse), responding to a bewildering range of calls for help. They're generally the first LEO to any crime scene. They write reports and appear in court.
Detectives investigate crimes. They interview witnesses and interrogate suspects. They collect evidence if a specific department isn't assigned that task. They usually work plainclothes and in unmarked cars. They write reports and appear in court.
Administrative positions include high-level officers and support staff responsible for things such as payroll, dispatch, and records. There are secretaries, computer personnel, and maintenance workers. Administrative positions are sometimes staffed by civilians instead of police officers.
Many officers will tell you that they have a "them against us" world view. Law-abiding citizens are not automatically distinguishable from hardened criminals. You may know that you simply didn't see that stop sign because you were busy changing radio stations but the police officer has to assume you're armed and dangerous because you very well may be and the officer wants to go home at the end of the shift.
Police officers deal with the worst examples of human behavior. They see sights that may never fully be exorcised. Their actions are fodder for media and public opinion. They are misunderstood and under-appreciated. They never know if today is the day they take a bullet.
Someone is paying the bill. There's either a county or municipality that collects taxes and passes some portion of those receipts onto law enforcement. The department prepares a budget but I've seen municipalities which had the power to make adjustments at the line-item level without fully comprehending the ramifications, forcing police officers to then deal with the consequences.
Resources are limited. Overtime costs money. Photographs cost money. Gasoline costs money. Repairs cost money. See previous paragraph. Increasingly, police departments are dependant on outside grants to plug budget gaps.
Both laws and enforcement tools change. Officers need training in new procedures, policies, and techniques. Just when almost everybody is comfortable with the computer system, here comes a new one.
The job alternates between long boring stretches and micro-seconds of high intensity pressure. The paperwork seems nearly endless. The courts often prove revolving doors. "The life" raises havoc with relationships. The culture, hours, and stress all play a part and few officers retire without scars.
One nice thing about cops as characters is that the work is dynamic. No two days are ever alike. A loud disturbance might be something or nothing. A lecture at the high school is interrupted by a bad traffic accident which is interrupted by a bank robbery.
Conflict is right there in the job description.