More on the Writers’ Police Academy

Hey, kids!

Okay, so I’m able to get caught up with things and tell you about my weekend at the Writers’ Police Academy in North Carolina. I mentioned it a bit last week here. I’m a member of Sisters in Crime, which is so freaking awesome in so many ways, not least of which is helping subsidize the WPA registration fee for its members. BIG FREAKING SHOUT-OUT TO SinC! And THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU to all the staff at the Guilford, NC sheriff’s department, who VOLUNTEERED all their time to work with us over the weekend, and to the instructors at Guilford Technical Community College, who also VOLUNTEERED their time to run the sessions and work with a bunch of writers who literally bombarded them with questions. THANKS!

So I’m gonna give you my day-to-day activities. So for those of you who write thrillers and/or mysteries, an event like this might be well worth your while.

Let’s go!

DAY 1: The WPA takes place outside Greensboro, NC in conjunction with the awesome sheriff’s department of Guilford County and the staff at Guilford Technical Community College in nearby Jameston. There’s a regional airport, so I flew into GSO and rented a car, though there is a shuttle to the Embassy Suites, Airport where the conference was based. There’s not much by way of restaurants in the immediate Embassy Suites area, but a mile south there’s a Marriott Courtyard and Marriott Residence Inn and a couple of basic chain restaurants in their vicinity. Everything in this area is really spread out, and mostly residential. So don’t expect taking a stroll into downtown Greensboro, since it’s about 10 miles away and downtown High Point is a good 10 miles away, too. But, the thing is, you will not have time to do any of that. But I do recommend bringing snacks/energy bars because food options at the college are also limited.

Oh, and the WPA holds raffles and a silent auction, proceeds of which benefit law enforcement training programs at Guilford Technical Community College. I was really glad to hear that, so I bought some tickets to help with that. Didn’t win anything, but that’s okay. It was for a good cause.

Anyhoo, I got to the Embassy Suites at 4 PM the evening before the sessions the following day were supposed to start. At 5.30, those of us who won the lottery to go on the jail tour or the ride-alongs with local law enforcement converged for some instructions about our evenings. I was with the group that was slated to go on a tour of the jail in High Point — the detention facility of Guilford County. So off we went, in vans driven by volunteer law enforcement staff. The tour took about 2 hours, and we were brought right in, and also spent some time in the day room with some of the inmates. It was not recommended that we interact with them, and for the most part, they pretty much ignored us. Photos weren’t allowed, but here’s one from a news source. This is the day room:

source (re-sized here)

We were able to pick the brains, however, of the corrections officers and staff about booking procedures, inmate/jail routines, and some of the scary stuff that can happen. Just recently, a corrections officer was killed in a detention facility in Colorado.

After the tour, we went back to the Embassy Suites where an orientation for everybody who had registered for WPA (about 160 of us — registration is limited to a certain number of people) was held. That went on ’til about 9-9.30 PM and I’ll tell you what, I was freaking exhausted because I’d basically traveled all day (you know how air travel is these days). I barely managed to get ready for bed before I fell asleep.

DAY 2: Thank god for breakfast included at hotels. Up at 6, shower, dress, eat breakfast, catch the shuttle bus outside the hotel for the trip to the college. We all gathered outside at the fire/EMS training area near a car that was going to be used for a “jaws of life” demonstration later. This was the communal live demonstration/Q&A session, which was at 8. Anyway, the officer explained that law enforcement does not refer to those tools as “jaws of life.” They refer to them as the brand name, which in this case is “Hurst.” So they’d say, “get the Hurst!” if they needed the tools to extricate someone from a car. There are cutters and spreaders, and they operate on hydraulics. We learned how they’d use the tools, where they’d make the cuts and why, and some of the things they need to think about, especially when dealing with air bags.

Then we all separated to go to the first sessions at 9 AM. I chose a session on human trafficking with a detective who’s been working this beat for a long time. He got his start tracking down child pornographers, and he was instrumental in developing the initial task force in the county to deal with human trafficking, which can be sexual and/or labor-based. It can involve kids, teens, immigrants. For example, I hadn’t really thought about the fact that a high school guy who allows his friends to have sex with his girlfriend for a price is engaged in human trafficking. The detective told us what the NC statutes are, and gave us tips and pointers on what to look for in, say, a restaurant whose labor may be forced. Fascinating stuff. And he also told us that he sees a department psychologist, that he’s not ashamed to do it, and he recommends it to his colleagues, too, because of all the horrendous things he’s seen during his years of police service. Fascinating. Plus, the detective provided his contact info so if any of us have questions regarding the topic for a project we’re writing, we can reach him. Super cool.

The second session I attended (each was an hour and fifteen minutes) was one dealing with cold case investigations and how to approach them. They included examples not only of homicides in modern times, but a discussion about historic cases, like whether or not Beethoven was poisoned. There were 2 instructors — one who has been an investigator in the military and the FBI who has worked all over the world and a forensics expert — and they brought some great photos of some of these cold case crime scenes. I’m a forensics geek, so this session was right up my alley.

Then we had a lunch break. We were fortunate in that there was a benefit cookout going on that day, so we got either hamburgers or hot dogs and some sides for a donation. The money benefited a scholarship fund in honor of an EMS worker who was killed in the line of duty. So heck, yeah, I made a donation!

There was a Hurst (jaws of life) demonstration after lunch that I didn’t go to, but Lee Lofland, who organizes this conference, has a photo on his site, Graveyard Shift. Here:

source (re-sized here)

The next session I went to was interviews and interrogations, and the instructor disavowed us of the whole TV cop approach to those. He showed us films of the interrogation of a suspected serial rapist/murderer, and then took us into the interview/interrogation room there on campus that’s used for training. See, Guilford Technical Community College is also where police cadets train and get schooled. There are fire training facilities there, a mock jail and several rooms designed to serve for crime scene training (e.g. a bedroom, a living room, and what’s supposed to be a store), EMS facilities (I think the college actually has its own EMS service that works in the county). So they have all this awesome scenario equipment, which really helps visualize what goes on.

Here’s what the mock jail looks like. This WPA person is “conducting a search.”

source: Lee Lofland’s Graveyard Shift (re-sized here)

Then I went to a session on bioterrorism, with an expert in anthrax and other pathogens. Basically, this session scared the bejesus out of me, because of all the possibilities there are in this country to create really crappy scenarios with some really icky pathogens. I mean, if you saw that movie Contagion, you know how easy it is for something like that to move around the population. We also saw some of the effects on the human body of diseases like smallpox and anthrax. It ain’t pretty, people. Not at all.

Then came the 4.00 open session in the college auditorium with Dr. Elizabeth Murray, who’s a world-renowned forensic anthropologist. She did a great talk (with slides) of a homicide in Ohio in which she worked with law enforcement to identify a burned body in a field. She also told us about how law enforcement managed to find the killers and how the killers tried to cover their tracks. This was a great session, but then I’m biased because I really dig forensic anthropology.

Back to the hotel after that talk, and then a reception. And then an 8.00 talk by Katherine Ramsland, who teaches forensic psychology. Her talk was about her latest book, which deals with the neurophysiology of those “Aha!” moments and training your brain to have them. Once again, exhausted afterward. Fell into bed.

DAY 3: Up at 6, shower, dress, eat, catch the shuttle bus to the community college where we had the freaking coolest 8 AM demonstration. A mock car chase, shooting, and apprehension. A K-9 officer was on hand, too, with his dog, Mikey, a German shepherd shipped from the Netherlands. American police forces, my understanding is, get a lot of their dogs from overseas, and the dogs are trained in the language of their host countries. Mikey’s language was Dutch.

source: Lee Lofland’s Graveyard Shift (re-sized here)

source: Lee Lofland’s Graveyard Shift (re-sized here)

This was super-cool. And right before, a police sniper showed us the rifle he uses when he’s called in. He showed us how the rifle works, and all the attendant things you have to think about when you’re engaged. Some of the sessions at WPA allowed handling of EMS and police equipment. Go on over to Lee Lofland’s site to check some of that out.

Then at 9 began more sessions. I started the morning with a session on being an undercover cop and things that are realistic in that sense for books. The guy instructing this session was a retired undercover narcotics detective from New York City. He talked about things undercover cops have to think about, the dangers they face, and how he approached different situations. Gave me a flavor of what that kind of stuff is all about.

The next session I attended was bloodstain/spatter analysis and technique. We actually got some hands-on work here, and it was really cool. We used a chemical to determine whether a stain on a piece of paper contained hemoglobin, which would indicate the possible presence of blood. The session was team-taught by the guy who did the cold case session the day before and another instructor who is also an instructor at SIRCHIE, a company that supplies crime scene investigation equipment. One of the cool perks of the conference was that attendees got a new SIRCHIE catalogue (which is hardbound and good for 2 years before updates). It includes pictures of all the forensics equipment and descriptions of what the stuff does. Great reference for mystery and thriller writers!

source: SIRCHIE (re-sized here)

As an aside, SIRCHIE offers seminars in things like crime scene investigation. Check it out.

Back to the session. We also got a Luminol demonstration, and corrections on what TV cops/CSIs do wrong with it.

Lunch time! It was free, by a local BBQ joint. Chicken and awesome sides. Oh, and super-good banana pudding. Southerners do an awesome banana pudding. Any time you’re in the South, get some. 😀 (unless you don’t do gluten — Southerners often put vanilla wafers into the pudding)

Back to the sessions! I was planning to do the shallow grave investigation, but OMG the session was so incredibly packed that I opted out and went instead to a talk on women in law enforcement and the unique challenges they face. Since I write a female detective, this session offered some insights I hadn’t considered, so I was glad I went.

Then on to the chain-of-evidence session, which got a little off-track in the middle. But the beginning and end gave us some info about how evidence moves from a crime scene to court, and proper techniques involved. By this time, I think the instructors were pretty worn out and punchy. But they were so awesome, and so approachable, and so patient! And all of them said that what’s interesting for them is that writers ask questions that police cadets and other police professionals don’t (we ask a lot of “what if” questions), and it gets them thinking outside their boxes. So that was cool.

Then came another open session (and open to the community) in the auditorium. This one was with Marcia Clark. That’s right. THE Marcia Clark, who was a prosecutor on the OJ trial. She’s writing courtroom thrillers now, and her talk dealt with the kinds of plotlines you can develop from a court case, from its filing through its finish. She had GREAT examples that she implemented effectively into her talk, and she was really engaging and funny. She left almost a half-hour for questions from the audience, which ended up being just as informative as the talk.

Then back to the hotel and getting ready for the banquet, with the keynote speaker, internationally-known thriller writer Lee Child, author of the Jack Reacher novels. He’s, like, 6’4″ and just a delightful, charming, classy guy. His address dealt with how genre fiction IS mainstream fiction, and shouldn’t feel inferior to what some people call “literature” and who look down their noses at genre writing. He, too, was engaging and droll and spoke for about 15-20 minutes, to allow time for book signings. I got his autograph for my mom, who’s a huge fan. So that was pretty cool.

Everything wrapped up around 11 and again, I was so freaking exhausted I went right to bed afterward.

DAY 4: Yes, there’s more. But I got to sleep in ’til about 7.30. Then breakfast, and then packing up to go home. I loaded the car I rented and went to the session at 10 there at the hotel called “the de-briefing.” Several people were on the panel, including the sheriff of Guilford County (thanks, Sheriff!). And they took all manner of questions and told all kinds of stories. Well worth it to go to this session if you ever go to WPA. Then a “goodbye” to all the new contacts you met and possible new friends you made.

WHEW! I had scheduled my flight out for later in the day so I could attend the de-briefing, but I had a couple hours to kill so I drove into Greensboro to the International Civil Rights Center and Museum. The museum is in the Elm Street Historical District right off downtown Greensboro and here’s the kicker. It’s in the original Woolworth’s building where the sit-ins started in 1960, which really kicked off the Civil Rights Movement. They’ve preserved the actual lunch counter (which is way bigger than I envisioned — there are around 50 seats at the counter!) and counter chairs. I’ll tell you what, I got chills walking into that room.

source: International Civil Rights Center and Museum website (re-sized here)

Here’s a historical photo of the counter.

If you’re ever in the area, take a couple hours to go and take the tour. Then spend some time wandering through to absorb the exhibits. It’s a powerful experience.

source: International Civil Rights Center and Museum website (re-sized here)

It got me thinking, too, about all the cold cases from that era, and the terrible legacy of unsolved homicides that plague not only this area of the country, but others as the country convulsed with the fights for civil rights. All the families who never found out exactly what happened to their loved ones — or who did, but just never got justice. . .I left with a lot of different thoughts.

Anyway. That was my weekend at the Writers’ Police Academy. I HIGHLY recommend you sign up for one in the future if you’re a mystery/thriller writer. Because you will learn a hell of a lot about proper police procedure, meet a lot of interesting people, and get some invaluable information for your ongoing and future writing projects.

Happy writing!

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