Most of us mystery authors, especially those who write police procedurals, have formed contacts over the years with law enforcement personnel: detectives, patrol, command, criminalists. It’s pretty much necessary, because “making up” police procedures leads to a lot of mistakes, a lot of which comes from watching cop shows on TV.
I’ve been really lucky over the years, and no more so than with my current book. On a lark, six years ago, I asked a friend, a retired narcotics officer, who I might talk to in the Tucson Police Department (TPD), Tucson (Arizona) being where my books are set. He gave me the name of one of the four chiefs, a woman who at the time commanded the investigative services devision. She asked me to come in for a talk, which has led to a long friendship, and - for me - very important in that she’s given me access to pretty much anything and anybody I wanted to talk to in the agency.
In five years, I’ve had extensive interviews with detectives (fraud, sex crimes, narcotics), criminalists, gang specialists and a variety of department personnel, including civilians hired in many cases. I’ve been offered a ride in a police chopper, gone on patrol car ride-alongs, had detailed tours of the department’s state-of-the-art crime lab and evidence/forensics buildings. I’ve come to know fairly well the crime lab director and some of her staff, especially those who deal in cell phone, database, and computer crimes. About the only place I’ve not visited is the department training facility, but not because I didn’t want to.
Two contacts directly helped with procedural information for my 8th book.
One of my many friends is a supervisor at TPD’s brand new evidence/forensics building. Recently, during a routine visit to chat, he showed me the latest narcotics seizure: candy laced with THC, which is synthetic marijuana. The packages are clearly labeled “Keep Away From Children.” Hey, who really eats lollipops, gummy worms, candy looking like fruit, and a variety of other products? Since Arizona passed a law legalizing the sale of medical marijuana, this was the latest example of the stable drug crop of city: Tucson is only 60 miles from the Mexican border, on a key route for drug smugglers.
Since my current book features detectives, this is a bonanza, giving me a plot element I’d never have imagined.
Another visit that helped greatly came in the crime lab, where I spent several hours with two women in charge of analyzing cell phones seized at crime scenes. While I’ve long been familiar with computer geeky stuff, they astonished me with what’s now happening. Throw-away phones have become such a norm that tracing data from them is more difficult. You can purchase any of these phones at convenience stores for a low price, and pay just enough for ten or so calls. Once those calls have been made, the phone is no longer of use. Thrown away. To protect criminals from calling these phones once they’re in custody, the crime lab built an intense radio-frequency shielded room; when the phones are place inside, they cannot be called.
My next book may well be a “tell-all” book by a friend with years of work as a narcotics detective, including a variety of stings and arrests. He’s the second best story teller I’ve ever personally known; all I have to do is record, edit, and look for a publisher.
And so gone are the days of my first novels, when I literally made up computer/database stuff because I knew it was coming sooner or later. My main character, a PI, is now semi-retired, as I’m far more interested in writing true police procedurals. And I’ve got the support network to make sure I no longer “invent” what the police do.
David Cole is nearly done writing his 8th mystery, started 5 years ago. He works with friends in the Tucson Arizona police department, and this 8th book has a new central character, a detective who's also served 2 tours of army duty in Iraq. David is also working on 2 non-fiction books: Still Point, an autobiography of a talented family therapist, and On The Edge, an autobiography of a retired Tucson police narcotics lieutenant. His 3 cats still refuse to believe they can't go outside in winter.