Saturday, February 29, 2020


Please welcome SMFS list member Jim Doherty with the first of several posts over the next few days as he explains how to research and write police procedurals.

Jim Doherty

Let’s begin by defining our terms.  A police procedural is a piece of crime fiction, in any medium, in which the main, or at least a major interest is the authentic depiction of the profession of law enforcement.  It’s less about the crime, or even about the solution of the crime, than it is about how cops work on the Job. 
And maybe, at its best, as Joseph Wambaugh has suggested, it’s about how the Job works on cops.
To a degree, what I’ll be talking about here is applicable to research for any mystery, or, for that matter, any piece of fiction.  But the police procedural is the only mystery sub-genre which is defined by its technical accuracy (or at least by the appearance of technical accuracy).  So, for this article, I’m talking about research in the context of that sub-genre.
God’s in the details, and nowhere is that more true than in the police procedural, because what’s true for one police force probably won’t be true for another.  Sticking strictly to US municipal police departments, let’s look at how different things can be.
What’s the official title of the Head of the Force?  Certainly “Chief of Police” is the most common.  That’s what the job’s called in the Los Angeles Police, the San Francisco Police, and the Miami Police, among thousands of others.  But a lot of big-city departments use the title “Commissioner,” like the New York City Police, the Baltimore Police, and the  Philadelphia Police;  “Superintendent,” like the Chicago Police, or the New Orleans Police; “Director,” like the Memphis Police or the Trenton, NJ, Police, “Colonel”  like the St. Louis Metro Police or the Providence, RI, Police; even “Sheriff,” like the Las Vegas Metro Police (a consequence of the Clark County Sheriff’s Office and the Las Vegas City Police merging back in the ‘70’s).
What are local stations called?  “Precincts,” as in NYPD or Detroit PD?  “Districts,” as in Chicago PD or Honolulu PD?  “Divisions,” as in San Diego PD or Dallas PD?  “Briefing Stations,” as in Oklahoma City PD?  “Patrol Stations,” as in Houston PD?  “Zones,” as in Atlanta PD?
What are plainclothes officers assigned to criminal investigation called?  “Detective,” of course, as used in NYPD, Chicago PD, Seattle PD, and hundreds of others, is the most common title.   But some, like the Rochester, NY, Police, use the title “investigator.”  San Francisco PD calls them “inspectors.”  And Cincinnati PD refers to them as “specialists.”
More than likely your cop’s going to be investigating a murder.  What’s the branch assigned to murder investigation called?  The Homicide Squad, as in the Pittsburgh Police?  The Homicide Division, as in the Houston Police?  The Homicide Unit, as in the San Antonio Police?  The Homicide Detail as in the San Francisco Police.  The Homicide Branch as in the Washington, DC, Metro Police?  The Robbery-Homicide Division as in the Los Angeles Police?  The Violent Crimes Division, as in the  Kansas City, Kansas, Police?  Or the Crime Against Persons Section, as in the Scottsdale, Arizona, Police?
Getting the answers to these questions correct is what the police procedural is all about.  And not just about police work, but anything else that impinges on the story.  I started a police novel some years back set in San Francisco in which, on the very first page, the author referred to the legislative branch of San Francisco as the “City Council.”  I stopped reading immediately, appalled at the glaring error.  Anyone who lives in the Bay Area knows that, since the City and the County of San Francisco are co-extensive, the legislative body there is called the Board of Supervisors. 
So how do you avoid those errors?  How do you sweat the details?  There are several ways, and they’ve all worked. Come back tomorrow as I start explaining the various ways.

Jim Doherty ©2020

A cop of some kind or another for more than 20 years, JIM DOHERTY has served American law enforcement at the Federal, state, and local levels, policing everything from inner city streets to rural dirt roads, from college campuses to military bases, from suburban parks to urban railroad yards.  He’s the author of the true crime collection Just the Facts – True Tales of Cops & Criminals, which included the WWA Spur-winning article “Blood for Oil,” Raymond Chandler – Master of American Noir, a collection of lectures about the pioneering creator of hard-boiled private eye Philip Marlowe used for an on-line class; and An Obscure Grave, featuring college student and part-time cop Dan Sullivan, introduced in a series of short stories, which was a finalist for both a CWA Dagger Award and a Silver Falchion given at Killer Nashville.  He was, for  several years, the police technical advisor on the venerable Dick Tracy comic strip, and was a guest writer for a short sequence that ran in April and May on 2019.   Coming in 2020 are The Adventures of Colonel Britannia, written as “Simon A. Jacobs,” an unlikely (but incredibly fun to write) mash-up of Jane Austen’s Persuasion with Captain America, and an as-yet-untitled collection of Dan Sullivan short stories. 


Jacqueline Seewald said...


Thanks for sharing your valuable knowledge and information with us.

O'Neil De Noux said...

Excellent. Look forward to the next installment. FYI: NOPD used to have Precincts but have Districts now and they are Detectives.