Saturday, December 3, 2011

Writers' Police Academy 2011

I huddled in a blue plastic chair in the front of the classroom - teeth chattering, body shivering. The air conditioning blew, even though it was quite cool outside. I had mud to my knees. Rainwater had wicked up the cotton of my jeans, up under my man-sized raincoat to my waist, up past my waist making my black t-shirt lay cold and damp against my stomach. My fingers were red and stiff as I gripped my ballpoint pen, and I drip, drip, dripped the water from my sleeve onto the open pages of my notebook. Heaven.

I was in Greensboro North Carolina for the Writers' Police Academy developed by Lee Lofland and hosted by
Guilford Technical Community College and Public Safety Training Academy. I came in from an hour under torrential rains straining to hear the cadaver extrication teacher talking about how to remove a body from a shallow grave.

If I ever write a scene (and now you know I’ll have to) about standing out in a rainstorm during an investigation, I’ll have it down. I know the goose bumps. I know the sucking sounds that feet make when they’re pulled from muddy clay. I understand that the umbrella can only take so much before it gives up and water starts to run in rivulets down one’s nose.

The only sad part for me was that because it had been raining, the school’s crime scene simulator was not functioning - not putting off the aroma of death. And with no scent, there were no hungry insects to cover the “dead body.” I would have liked to have seen that. I would have liked to have smelled that for realism, without the actual reality.

It was a great privilege to spend the last four days with amazing teachers. They brought law enforcement and forensics to life through hands on demonstrations and tutorials. These instructors were the real deal. They train the very people we call when we need help. They have faced sniper fire, conflagration, life and death. What they had never faced was a classroom full of writers. They weren’t ready for us.

There is a certain amount of cognitive dissonance that the instructors needed to resolve for themselves in order to get their sea legs on the choppy waters of a thriller writer's questions. These men and women had taken oaths to uphold the law and solve the crime -- to foil the bad guy. We needed to know how to thwart the system and stymie authority. We needed the bad guy to make the right choices so only our hero could come in and save the day in the nick of time. That meant asking these instructors to think in a way dichotomous to their instinct. I bet it made for some good stories around their dinner tables.

I could often see their discomfort. Especially when I was asking the EMT if I could equalize a perforated lung by using my daughter's Glucogon needle. Yeah - he called his supervisor over for that one. I understood that our questions ran counter-intuitive to their instinct. But it was also what we needed to know in order to make our writing accurate.

I think most of our instructors volunteered to train us just because they were tired of reading books and watching TV shows, shaking their heads and saying, “That could never happen! That’s not right. These people have no idea what they’re talking about.” We all wanted to understand. That’s why we were there. We wanted to get it right. The sights, the sounds, the smells, the heft of the sniper rifle, the drip pattern of the blood on the wall, the collection of the DNA samples.

I left Virginia to drive to North Carolina on a Thursday afternoon. I took my suitcase to the car, and as I walked back inside I saw big fat drops of blood on my schoolroom floor. I followed the trail up through the family room, up the stairs, to the bathroom. It looked like there had been an ax murder. There were towels soaked in blood, blood in the sink, the toilet, on the walls, spattered on the mirror. But nobody - and luckily no body.

So I’m looking for the victim. “Hey! Who’s bleeding?” I yelled. My son shows up. He’s covered in blood too. “Mom, I think I broke my nose.” Hmm. Yup kid was jumping on the mattress and hit his nose with his own knee. It was spectacular. I got him cleaned up, put on a Band Aid, to keep his nose somewhat in place, and applied ice. In an incredible bid at maturity my daughter had cleaned up all of the blood. I called their dad to pass off the crisis, because I needed to get on the road.

The next day I’m sitting in a class on bloodstain patterns with Dave Pauly, a Professor in the Applied Forensic Sciences Department at Methodist University,and now I could interpret the blood trail that my son had left. Had I been investigated for this incident as a crime, I knew that they would use LCV to show the blood distribution. Even though my daughter had done a good job cleaning up and had even used a bleach based cleaner, it was still detectable. I know that that LCV has 0% false positives, so even if I had a damned good lawyer, he couldn’t punch holes in this forensic evidence. All of it was way too cool.

This week I will be blogging about my experiences at the Writer’s Police Academy. I hope you’ll join me. I’m glad to answer any questions just leave them in the comments below.

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