The speaker placed his wallet on the podium and turned to face the town map hanging behind him. As soon as the speaker's back was to the audience, a man jumped up out of his seat, ran to the podium, grabbed the wallet, and sprinted through the audience to make his escape.
The speaker, a police detective, then dimmed the lights and projected six mugshots onto the wall. "As I point to each photograph, raise your hand if you recognize the man who stole my wallet."
Not one person identified the criminal correctly.
A Short History. As a way to familiarize citizens to the inner workings of the police department, the Devon and Cromwell Constabulary in England offered the first Police Night School in 1977. In 1985, the program crossed the Atlantic to Orlando, Florida, as the Citizen Police Academy. Since then, similar programs (sometimes called a Community Police Academy) have sprouted up at police departments throughout the United States.
Program Details. Most departments seem to offer programs of ten to thirteen weekly meetings, the classes usually lasting three hours. Topics often include but are not limited to a tour of the station, patrol procedures, undercover operations, evidence, interviews and interrogation, crime prevention, domestic violence, dating violence, elder abuse, gun safety, and an overview of the criminal justice process.
The lectures are given by the officers who do the actual work on a daily basis and guest lecturers can be as diverse as judges, FBI special agents, and police psychologists.
Topics and guest lecturers vary depending on the community and the size of the department. Many departments also offer separate programs specifically tailored to meet the needs of young people, seniors, and foreign-speakers.
One of the common highlights is a ride-along, scheduled outside of class, when you sit up front with a patrol officer on duty.
For my money, the Citizen/Community Police Academy (CPA) is the single best research opportunity that any writer will ever encounter. For your money - keep your money - the program is free.
I say "any writer" because you don't need to write mysteries to experience the benefits of attending a CPA. Whatever you write, you will emerge from the program with much more than a listing of radio codes and the number one way to keep your house from being broken into, you will be enriched in at least five key areas.
Creating Conflict. One of the keys to good fiction is conflict and police officers live with conflict. They deal with a population which is often less trusting than they would like, dangerous criminals, defense teams, other officers, and pressure from above.
They are lied to and sometimes physically attacked. They are scrutinized by supervisors, the media, and possibly a jury.
They must witness horrible things and yet somehow maintain self control in order to secure the scene.
Appreciating the Impact of Crime. Unless we are the victim of a crime, or close to someone who is, we tend to block out the realities of things that "will never happen to me." In doing so, we can sabotage our stories, creating fictional worlds that aren't quite authentic.
If you examine a wide range of published work, you will see that most stories, regardless of genre, contain elements of crime.
Know what you're talking about.
Understanding the Technology. If you've ever watched a police show on television, you'll probably perpetuate myths and untruths if you then try to write about the subject. Even if you somehow manage to get the story past an editor, you're sure to turn off readers and critics.
During a CPA, you'll learn the correct procedures for everything from gathering fingerprints to making a traffic stop.
The law changes and police work changes accordingly. Don't stake your reputation on a book you read twenty years ago because too much has changed.
Meeting Experts. The stories the officers tell will both chill and entertain. You would probably be hard-pressed to gain an interview with someone as busy as a police officer and the CPA creates an environment which promotes trust and truth.
Then there are the guest lecturers. Session VII of the Framingham CPA included eighteen officers and nine people from outside the department including a probation officer, a judge, a district attorney, a defense attorney, a secret service agent, two therapists, an FBI special agent, and the fire chief.
I took ninety pages of notes.
Freebies. Okay, so the free coffee and donuts, the shirt and ruler, the stickers and the pens, they're not really going to help you write better. But they can't hurt.
If You Attend... Take notes or ask if you can record the classes. Introduce yourself to officers and guest speakers as a writer. Collect business cards and make a few quick notes so that you can later attach a face to the name.
If a ride-along is offered, make the time. I've never met a graduate who didn't rave about the experience, no matter what actually occurred.
Stay after class and soak up the off-the-cuff remarks.
The CPA is not for everyone. Most police departments require that you apply in writing after which they run a background check. Writers who are fugitives from justice may decide that the cost of this free program is simply too high.
If You Can't Attend... Ninety percent of all crime involves alcohol. Twenty-five percent of police recruits drop out of the police academy on the first day. In graffiti sub-culture, the paint must be stolen. The most dangerous time during an arrest is when the officer has only put on one cuff. The national average for fingerprint recovery from the scene of a crime is seventeen percent.
More Information. If your local police department does not offer a Citizen Police Academy, find the nearest one that does and ask if you can attend. Have departments which do offer the program call your local Chief to stress the benefits of starting a CPA.
In Closing... Get rid of shrubs and privacy fences. Thieves target houses which will allow them to gain entry without being seen.
If you write on the computer, try to keep a backup copy in another location, just in case. It's one thing to lose priceless family heirlooms but quite another to lose your stories!