When I started writing crime fiction, I had no experience with law enforcement. My concept of the world of cops was formed by reading the news, going to movies, and by reading crime novels. I had a romanticized idea of cops. They were the dramatic shield that protected society from villains. Cops rescued damsels-in-distress from their watchtower prisons. Cops used feats of daring-do to capture bad guys. Cops combined the driving skills of Hollywood stunt drivers with the bluster of Dirty Harry. In short, I had no clue about real cops, what they did, or even how many kinds there were.
For example, in Tahoe we have city police officers, sheriff's officers from 5 counties, CHP, and NHP, park rangers, and even the Coast Guard, which often takes on cop-like duties. And because of the unique tourist-mecca nature of Tahoe, we also have FBI, DEA, ATF, occasional U.S. Marshals, special drug task forces and others like immigration cops. I didn't even know how to refer to all of the different kinds of cops. (For the record, it was El Dorado County Lieutenant Warren Smith who told me, “We're all cops.”)
After I moved to Tahoe, I began the beginnings of my crime-writing research, reading about law enforcement and talking to cops. They all, without exception, have seemed to me to be dedicated, focused individuals, trying their best to uphold the law, which, I've learned, isn't easy.
Just like bureaucrats behind a desk, cops struggle with excessive amounts of paper work and a crushing burden of rules that, while well-intentioned, make it hard to enforce any law.
As I investigated further, my romantic idea of cops quickly dissolved. I learned that being a cop involves a huge amount of tedious minutiae mixed with much less actual crime-fighting. I also started paying more attention to the friction that cops often experience in dealing with the public. Despite these difficulties, it appears that most cops keep a good attitude about their work.
Are all cops perfect or even good? Based on legal cases about bad cops that pop up across the country, obviously not. However, it's good to remember that there are also corrupt doctors, ministers, professors, lawyers, congressmen, etc. (Wait, congressmen are never corrupt, are they?!)
But I've talked to a lot of cops in Tahoe. Every one has impressed me with his or her professionalism and dedication. Are they putting on their better sides, talking to a writer? Maybe. But I think I've got a pretty good BS detector. And I haven't picked up on much BS. I've heard some of the jokes, the non-serious stuff they do to blow off steam, just like the pressure-releasing antics I've learned about when I've talked to firemen. But I've also seen the serious introspection. The sergeant who explained how he considers his role in society and what he thinks about when confronted with the gray areas of crime. The lieutenant who told me about the ethical dilemmas that he faces when confronting a potentially violent criminal. The FBI agent who described, in intellectual law-speak, the myriad legal factors involved in what laypeople might think is just the simple arrest of a common crook.
I've developed a great deal of respect for cops and the difficulties of what they do. Would I want to do it? No. Would most of my readers? No. Yet, as the old cliche says, we're glad they're there when we call them.
It was unexpected, this new respect for cops that I've developed over the last twenty years. And writing brought it to me.