05 June 2018

Getting the Details Right in a Police Procedural

by Barb Goffman

Police officers' guns are always loaded because they never know when they're going to need them.

This was one of the great tidbits I picked up this past Saturday at my local Sisters in Crime meeting. Our speaker was Mark Bergin, who served on the Alexandria, Virginia, police force for twenty-eight years, retiring in 2014. While on the force, he was twice named his department's officer of the year for drug and robbery investigations. Bergin shared stories and answered questions for over an hour to help us authors get our police details right. Here's some of what he told us. (Any mistakes are mine.) Some of this information I already knew, and maybe you do too, but it's always good to get a refresher:
  • Police work involves a ton of paperwork that you often don't see in novels and short stories.
  • Patrol officers wear twenty-three pounds of gear, such as a radio, gun, extra bullets, a bullet-proof vest.
  • Every cop has extra bullets, handcuffs, radios, pens, and more on them while on duty. 
  • While fictional officers seem to work on one case at a time, real cops are always juggling cases. In the Alexandria police force, the average was six to eight cases at a time, and the officers work each of them as much as they can.
  • Officers always like to sit with their back to the wall, especially when on duty. They want to see the whole room. Bergin called this "hyper-vigilance," and said it especially comes into play when you are in uniform.
  • Cops have a presence that's different from that of other people. Cops look at other people's faces. They give off the impression of being knowledgeable, which is why people often ask them for information such as directions.
  • Ninety percent of an officer's job is maintaining control of a situation. That's done mostly by walking in and being "a presence." Officers also gain control of situations through using a commanding voice, which they're taught, as well as through control holds.
  • Police officers have short hair, look bulky, and are strong. They're not always physically fit because so much of the job is sitting and driving. While on the force, Bergin worked out a lot to have big arms so he'd look like he could win a fight, which was designed to make people not try to fight him.
    Mark Bergin
  • Officers receive extensive training so that they get "muscle memory." In times of crisis, this memory kicks in so they will automatically do things the right way without having to think about it.
  • Cops typically stay in the same police department throughout their career because--unless you are a chief or deputy chief--if you switch departments, you always have to start at the bottom. This is true even of homicide detectives. If an officer moves to a new city and thus a new place of employment, the officer starts out on patrol and has to work his/her way up the ladder again. 
  • Ninety-five percent of the time, prosecutors don't get involved in police cases before an arrest. The exceptions can be for homicides, bank robberies, and when there is a series of crimes that seem to be by the same perpetrator. 
  • Preliminary investigations of most crimes are done by patrol officers. The exceptions are rape and homicide cases, which go to detectives right away.
  • Police investigate missing-person cases immediately; the twenty-four-hour waiting period often portrayed in TV and movies is a myth. However extensive resources may not be immediately available for a search.
  • Patrol officers are strictly controlled in what they are allowed to do. For instance, they must ask for permission to do follow-up work on cases they're interested in that have already been handed off to detectives. 
  • Most cops don't worry about fear interfering with their ability to do their jobs because the hiring process/training program weeds out potential officers with this problem. Potential officers with fear issues either are trained to overcome them or they leave the program.
  • While fear isn't a problem for most officers, stress is. They think they could be attacked at any moment, and thus are always on guard.
  • Ninety to ninety-five percent of police officers never fire their gun at another person.
  • In Alexandria, Virginia, the police department has three shifts of officers working each day. Officers work ten-hour shifts. Eighty-five to ninety percent of each shift is spent on the street. (I didn't get the chance to ask if this information is representative for most departments.) 
I hope I got all these details right. I asked Bergin to drop by today, so if I made any errors, he hopefully will weigh in in the comments. And if you have any questions, please pose them in the comments. I hope he will be able to answer them.

Now that he's retired from police work, Bergin has turned to writing fiction. His first novel, a police procedural titled Apprehension, is scheduled to be published this fall by Inkshares/Quill. More information about the book is available here.

Thanks very much, Mark Bergin!


  1. As a retired cop in Louisiana, I can say Mark is correct on all points. The only tidbit I can add is when he said the weapon is loaded at all times, he's saying there is a round in the chamber of the semi-automatic as well as a full magazine.Movies where a police officer climbs out of his car and has to rack his weapon to put a round in a chamber is Hollywood bunk, like drawing chalk around a body.

    Good blog, Barb.

  2. All good and useful!

  3. Excellent post.

    Right now, I'm critiquing a MS that is driving me crazy because so many details are inaccurate. I started listing errors, but had so many that I think I'm just going to tell the writer to visit her local police with a list of questions. The errors not only pulled me out of the story, they're so wrong that the story's plot makes no sense.

    Considering how willing police are to help writers get stuff right, it's really frustrating. I've talked with officers in three departments over the years, and they've all been terrific.

    And I have two or three reference books written by police officers on my bookshelf, too.

  4. Enjoyed this post, Barb! Sorry to have missed the meeting, but appreciate you being on top of all this!

  5. Great post, Barb! I used to be on the Law and Security program committee at Sheridan College (I taught in the program.) I always remember one detective inspector saying to me: "For god sake, teach them how to write a report, will you? We can teach them all they need to know about policing. What these guys need is schooling in how to write something the rest of us can read."

  6. That chalk outline is fake? That's another thing I didn't know. Do they outline bodies at all, O'Neil?

    Steve, can you share the names of those reference books you mentioned? They sound handy.

    Mel, one thing I remember from being a reporter is that police reports almost always listed adjectives in a manner I would consider backward, meaning something like, "They are searching for a female white" instead of "they are searching for a white female." I never knew why officers took that approach in their reports (and in different cities too, not just one department). Do you know?

    Janice and Art, thanks for stopping by. And Art, we missed you on Saturday.

  7. Holy cow, Barb! You must have taken a lot of notes to get all this info down and accurate. I didn't know I talked that much. If I said the chalk outline is untrue, that was untrue, but I only saw one once in my career, a pedestrian run over who we got to just as it started raining. We needed his exact position but needed to medevac him right now. I'll keep checking in on this blog but anyone with questions for me can write at mbergin01@aol.com. As seen on Saturday, I love to talk about the job.

    Thanks for having me, and for listening.

  8. I'm looking forward to his book and again, I give you kudos for seeking out experts for information.
    Good luck to both of you.

  9. Hi, Mark. Thanks for stopping by. That reporter's training comes in handy at times. And you didn't mention the chalk outline at all, so you didn't make any mistakes. O'Neil mentioned it in his response, and I was surprised to learn that was a myth too. Though perhaps I shouldn't have been.

    And Tonette, I hope you like the book. Thanks for leaving a comment!

  10. Barb, thank you for a great blog post - I've copied this and put it in my reference file.

  11. Great post. I've accumulated several books (most notably Lee Lofland's) over the years and done a couple citizens' police academies, but I'm always on the lookout for information.


  12. Barb,

    My father was a homicide detective for a long time, commanded the Homicide Division and then the Crime Scene Division and he always compalined about movies with chalk marks around bodies. I became a homicide detective and worked in law enforcement for over twenty years. I never saw a chalk line around a body no matter which jurisdiction.

    I'm also a graduate of the Southern Police Institute of the University of Louisville. The Homicide instructors also derided chalk marks, among other Hollywood gimmicks such as digging bullets out of wall with pen knives and picking up a handgun by sticking a pencil or pen into the barrel.

  13. Great stuff, Barb. Thanks. I saved it for future reference.

  14. Thanks for this great summary, Barb! I liked Mark's comment about how hard it was to be undercover because so much of the job is being in control in uniform. And that it was just the opposite if you were undercover.

  15. Terrific post, Barb! Thanks so much for taking such great notes. Mark Bergin, thanks for all the information and I can't wait to read your book! I hope to see everyone at the next meeting.

  16. Interesting background. Such attention to accuracy helps your writing feel so authentic. Thanks! <3

  17. Barb,

    The books I look at first are Lee Lofland's Police Procedure & Investigations (Lee is also a superb presenter, as I found out at Crime Bake several years ago), Forensics, A Guide for Writers by Doug Lyle (who has several books on forensics for writers AND a website), and 400 Things Cops Know: Street-Smart Lessons from a Veteran Patrolman by Adam Plantinga.

    I also have two books on poisons and two or three (gradually becoming obsolete) on handguns.

    When I can't reach one of the several attorneys with whom I used to do theater, I like Leslie Budewitz's Books, Crooks and Counselors (criminal law and courtroom procedure).

    Carolyn Kaufman's The Writer's Guide to Psychology updates the psych classes I had back when they still used trepanning as a curative procedure. I always prefer interviews and face-to-face, but these books are the next best thing...and easier to reach because they're just across the room.

  18. Thank you, Barb, for making notes and posting the information. I wasn't able to attend the meeting and really appreciate your taking the time to do this. Thanks also to Mark for his helpful presentation.

  19. Thanks, Barb -- these are helpful new tips and reminders. I also like 400 things Cops Know and Shits Fired: The Misunderstandings, Misconceptions, and Myths about Police shootings By Joseph K. Loughlin and Kate Clark Flora.

  20. Eve, Mary/Liz, Earl, Elise, Mary Ann, and Vicki, thanks for stopping by; I'm glad you found these notes helpful.

    Steve and Vicki, thanks for the book recommendations. And Vicki, do I assume correctly that one of your recommended titles is supposed to be ShOts Fired?

  21. I was sorry to have missed this!

    We all need to make the details as accurate as possible. TV is a terrible source on which to base police procedure

    No matter how well-versed I think I am in a specific story, inevitably something will come up that I don't know. I do have a brother & a brother-in-law who are officers, and I can call them. I also have a friend who's a Los Angeles public defender (and a biker) who I can contact to ask questions.

  22. What about historical pieces? I'm working on a story set in 1916, and I imagine that police procedures have changed a bit over the decades. Anyone know of good sources for historical research when it comes to police work?


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>