Sunday, March 1, 2015

Cop Plot? Avoid Common Mistakes and Stereotypes: Info for Writers with J.J. Hensley

ThrillWriting welcomes J.J. Hensley as he shares his thoughts on "how to write it right" in this guest post. 

J.J. is a former police officer with the Chesterfield County (Virginia) Police Department and a former Special Agent with the U.S. Secret Service. Hensley graduated from Penn State University with a B.S. in Administration of Justice and has a M.S. degree in Criminal Justice Administration from Columbia Southern University. The author is currently a training supervisor with the U.S. Office of Personnel Management and lives with his beautiful wife, daughter, and two dogs near Pittsburgh, PA.

The Damage Caused by Negative Police Stereotypes in Fiction

In recent weeks, a blizzard of misrepresentations and misconceptions about policing and the use of force have helped to polarize our society while clouding issues that should be discussed in a rational manner. While the some media outlets and various opportunists have helped to feed an anti-law enforcement movement that is heavy on emotion and short on facts, the seeds of misinformation have been planted through the world of fiction. In books, television, and movies, law enforcement officers have been depicted through the use of cookie cutter stereotypes and outlandish characterizations. In fact, one of the most overused characters in police procedurals and dramas is the police officer or agent who is incompetent, apathetic, or outright corrupt.

Those of us who have been in law enforcement know that 99% of the community is hard-working, intelligent, and caring. The problem in the world of fiction is that many storylines benefit from having a detective who isn’t doing his job, or a patrol officer planting evidence, or an FBI agent taking a bribe. It adds drama and there is a bit of shock value when someone in a position of authority fails society.

Creative types also take advantage of the fact that we as humans have a natural tendency to be wary of those who have power – legal or otherwise – over us. In the United States, skepticism of authority is not only commonplace, but is the basis for our system of government. However, educated skepticism is much different than fabrication for the sake of creating sound bites. As the line between news and entertainment continues to blur, public expectations of law enforcement become as unrealistic as the most far-reaching novel.

Some examples of this blurring of the lines between entertainment and reality follow. While these are just a few, they may be some of the most damaging.

Inaccurate Portrayals Some People Really Believe

Police officers are often involved in shootings

Unlike many television shows in which a shooting happens ever fifteen minutes, a vast majority of law enforcement professionals will never have to harm another individual with a firearm. Not only will most officers not use their weapon in the line of duty, but almost none want to do so. Forgetting for a moment that professional officers do not want to worry about the potential legal and civil consequences – as a conscientious human being, the last thing an officer wants to do is to take a life.

Forensic Evidence is Always Present and Quickly Analyzed
Much has previously been written of the “CSI Effect” on juries and the general public. Most of those articles relate to juries having expectations that every fiber and hair can be found, fingerprints can be pulled from any surface, and DNA can be analyzed in less than an hour. Over the years, juries have come to expect there to be forensic evidence linking a suspect to a crime. The absence of such evidence tends to drown out any other proof.

Cops are petty and territorial

This is a depiction that can cause the public to believe there is an inherent atmosphere of pettiness in the profession. Here’s the thing… most investigators do not get emotionally involved in cases (for good reason) and have no cause to get upset if an old unsolved case is looked at again. Why would she be? There are so many variables an investigator cannot control. Witnesses lie. Evidence was hidden well or destroyed. The victim wasn’t talking then. Etc, etc., etc. When a serious crime goes unanswered, people want answers and egos are usually not a factor.

What Novelists and Entertainment Writers Can Do Better

A more realistic portrayal of law enforcement benefits all of us. If law enforcement characterizations are more accurate, the public has a better understanding of police procedure, the use of force, and criminal law. Law enforcement officers benefit because impractical expectations are not heaped on top of people doing what is already a difficult job.

Even novelists and screenwriters benefit from not using the stereotypical incompetent, apathetic, or corrupt officer or agent. Some benefits for writers include:

The story is more authentic

Yes, there are often headlines about law enforcement officials getting into trouble. However, the media understandably latches on to these stories as police are (and should be) held to a higher standard. Additionally, the law enforcement community is much like the intelligence community as successes are rarely advertised but failures are magnified. If a writer is going to create a scenario where a law enforcement official violates the law, it can be done in a way that demonstrates that the behavior is not indicative of the entire profession.

Creating an Incompetent Investigator is a Cop Out (pun intended)

Honestly, it’s kind of easy to toss in an apathetic city detective, or a Federal agent who insists on focusing on the wrong suspect. If the protagonist isn’t in law enforcement, it gives the character a reason to pursue the truth. But if he has the cops do their jobs well, the writer has to be more creative as to why the protagonist needs to be involved in a case. As a bonus – if the cops are better, the writer has to make the criminals smarter. The end result is a better story.

Be Different

Unrealistic portrayals have become the norm. A writer in the fiction business can be different and refreshing simply by being accurate. By following this path, a writer may be forced to do research and therefore develop insights into the profession. The story becomes tied to the real world and ends up being something more than a collection of dreamed-up thoughts and characters.

While we should expect novelists and screenwriters to take liberties with how the profession is represented, we can hope for the occasional dose of realism. There are some, but relatively few, examples of law enforcement characters and scenarios that mirror real life. When fans stumble across these instances, they leap out and have a different feel than the eye-rolling cop dramas to which we have become accustomed. Possibly fans of crime fiction should demand more of the entertainment industry. Maybe those who create stories and characters can help others see the value in reducing the ridiculous and injecting the reasonable.

Perhaps the best way to improve crime fiction is to get more real.

J.J. Hensley is the author of RESOLVE, which is set against the backdrop of the Pittsburgh Marathon, Measure Twice, and other works. Note: A portion of sales for Measure Twice go toward breast cancer research through the non-profit group Par for The Cure.


An addict is killing Pittsburgh city officials, but Homicide Detective Jackson Channing has his own addiction.


In the Pittsburgh Marathon, more than 18,000 people will participate. 4,500 people will attempt to cover the full 26.2 miles. Over 200 of the participants will quit, realizing it just wasn't their day. More than 100 will get injured and require medical treatment. One man is going to be murdered. When Dr. Cyprus Keller lines up to start the race, he knows a man is going to die for one simple reason. He's going to kill him.

Finalist - 2014 International Thriller Writers Awards - Best First Novel

Named one of the BEST BOOKS of 2013 by Suspense Magazine!

Top Ten Books of the Year - Authors on the Air

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  1. While I respect that the perspective given in this post comes from experience, I will agree to a point. But it's hard see if you're on the inside looking out. I have witnessed incidents in which certain characteristics have been true-to-form as we've seen them portrayed. And although they may not be positive reflections overall, you have to mention the point in which cops deal with people of color. In such incidents, more times than not it's a whole different scenario in regard to use of force and weapons being used in situations involving unarmed, non-threatening African American males as well as females. For example a white male killer, shoots and kills nine innocent parishioners in a church and he lives to go to trial. Blacks men, in all honesty do not get equal treatment. The cause is the racial bias of society at-large. Maybe this will be received as an honest POV; however I don't expect it will. So thank you for reading.

    1. Working this perspective into a plot could make for some interesting character development.