Getting real – The Writers Police Academy

by Alexandra Sokoloff

I love the smell of cordite in the morning. 

Okay, someone just had to scrape Lee Lofland off the ceiling. NO. You DO NOT smell cordite after gunfire. Not since WWII, anyway. I know that now because last weekend I attended Lee’s Writers Police Academy.

Lee Lofland, a former police detective and author of the Writers Digest bestselling book Police Procedure and Investigation (a must-have!) is not only a law enforcement professional who knows the job inside and out, but a writer who understands what other writers need to learn from law enforcement professionals in order to do OUR best work. And knowing that, he’s assembled a cast of characters any one of whom could easily be the star of their own series. Because it’s not about the facts, it’s about the people. And wow, the people.  (Photos by Lee Lofland).

So I walked into my first forensics investigation workshop and the incarnation of my agent from Huntress Moon turned from the whiteboard.  I thought I was hallucinating, or having one of those dreams where… well, never mind that.  Dave Pauly, forensics professor at Methodist University in NC, has a resume that’s half Indiana Jones, half Jack Reacher. He team-taught with Robert Skiff – two of these for the price of one! (When I first arrived at the conference I wondered why 90 percent of the attendees were women. That got cleared up for me in the first hour. Testosterone was rolling down those corridors in waves…)


Skiff is more of a scientist, the training manager at Sirchie, a leading manufacturer of fingerprinting and forensics supplies. I may not know every single detail I need to know about blood spatter, print impressions, cold cases, and alternative light sources to finish my sequel – but let me tell you, after a day of forensics classes and demos with these two instructors, I am a lot closer than I was a week ago.

Then there was Corporal Dee Jackson, of the Guilford County Sheriff’s Department. A former Marine, one of the very first women to go into combat in the Gulf War, and if anyone ever thought a woman isn’t capable of the most intensive combat duty? Look no further than Dee, here playing a bad guy in a simulated shootout.

She is hilarious, profound, such a great comic and physical actor it floors me she hasn’t been scooped up by Hollywood, and committed to her mission in a way that literally halts your breath. The whole room – male, female, animal, vegetable, mineral – just stops when she walks in.

Katherine Ramsland. My first time meeting this powerhouse after reading a half-dozen of her forensics psychology books (and her brilliant biography of Anne Rice, Prism of the Night).  This woman has LIVED with death in a way most of us will never comprehend, and she is deep, funny, philosophical and mesmerizing.

And talk about powerhouse women…. I lived in L.A. during the Simpson trials and meeting Marcia Clark was like meeting a movie star. Her lecture on putting a case together for the prosecution was stellar, and she is a warm, witty, encompassingly charismatic human being. Thrilled to know her!

Andy Russell, one of the main organizers of the conference, was one of our Firearms Training Simulator (FATS) instructors. Somehow he managed not to break into hysterical laughter at my first attempts to heft a handgun, and in fact gave me some useful tips (“Try not to drop the magazine”) with a straight face. 

On a later panel he kicked off a series of stories that made me understand that people go into law enforcement mainly because every other call or traffic stop turns out to involve a naked perp.

Marco Conelli, a retired NYC undercover cop (now YA mystery author) is such a doll I was in total fear for him just listening to his buy and bust stories (narrated in a voice just like Woody Allen’s). You could see him slipping back into his junkie persona as he described the scenes. Fascinating.

This was my schedule:

Thursday night: Jail Tour (a post in itself)

Friday: Impressions Evidence, Cold Case Investigation, Building Searches, Blood Spatter Analysis, Forensic Anthropology.

Saturday: Anatomy of an Undercover Detective, FATS Training, Arrest and Handcuffing Techniques, Personal Survival Training for Women, Building a Case for the Prosecution.

The only frustration was not being able to take absolutely every workshop on offer.

Probably halfway into the second day, a lovely and radiant EMS technician, one that I can tell you for sure you would want there with you if you were, you know, dying, turned to me in the elevator between classes and said, “How can you possibly describe any of this?”

And I really wanted to answer her, and it’s a hard answer.  What I said was something like – “You have to put across enough of the science for a reader to kind of understand but it’s not ABOUT the science.  It’s about making the science real enough that readers will give themselves over to the EXPERIENCE you’re trying to create for them, which is about the searing passion of wanting to help people and the live wire adrenaline rush of fear and danger and commitment, and the intimacy of doing this job with people who are as skilled and committed as you are and who understand good and evil and pure life force the way you do and the way that no one who hasn’t done the job will ever know. It’s not about the science practically at all, it’s about the way you guys move, and the way ninhydrin crystals look in the light, and the things you say to each other and your twisted sense of humor and your absolute radiant love for all of it.”

I said some of that, not enough of it, because you can’t possibly say enough.

Some of these courses redefine the concept of adrenaline rush.  Lt. Randy Shepherd (aka Honeybuns, and yes, the moniker is accurate) put a squad of fifteen of us through our paces during Building Searches.  We’ve all seen this on a million TV shows, but now I have some grasp of the choreography and the constantly changing, split-second decision/dynamics of a bust like this – I have the flow of it in my BODY, and because it’s my own particular job as a writer to do so, I know I can put the experience of it onto the page for someone else to live through. I have been menaced and I have been shot at and I know the exact weight of the shield and the vest and the gun and I know the paralyzing fear of having to grasp ALL possible dangers behind ALL doors and windows and fireplace screens (even when there was no real danger there for me) and I know for damn sure that I am hopelessly inadequate and yet that I may still somehow survive… somehow… if I can manage not to kill anyone on MY OWN SIDE.

That is a hell of a lot to learn in a two-hour class.  And that’s just two hours of a non-stop marathon of police academy training.

There’s a saying in Hollywood that “Nobody knows anything.” Well, I’ll tell you what you don’t know.  You don’t know how you or anyone you know is going to react in life-threatening situations, even simulations of them, until you’re right there.

My five-foot tall (and that’s on a good hair day) roommate earned the title of “Killer” from the Firearms Training Simulator instructors when she put down every bad guy in the training DVD without even breathing hard.

While I seem incapable of shooting at anyone under twenty years old (although I also managed never to get killed or to kill a fellow officer). But – I was the only person in the Handcuffs Techniques workshop flexible enough to slip my body through my handcuffs back to front, putting me in a prime position to choke my arresting officer to death before she realized I was relatively loose (all right, so I’m more experienced with handcuffs than guns…)

And in Women’s Personal Survival Training, it was pretty clear how many women in the room had never actually let themselves think about what would happen to them if they LET a stranger force them into a car, or van, and why it is essential to make the choice to fight BEFORE anyone ever gets you into the car. Or at least understand the consequences of not fighting. Not many people in that class slept that night, I’d wager.

In fact, it’s five days later and I’m still not sleeping all the way through the night. The adrenaline is that powerful.

You cannot research those things by READING about them, or interviewing people who have lived it.

I’m not saying it’s at all the same to go through simulations, compared to the actual experience.  But compared to reading about it?  No contest.

Do we want to be better mystery and thriller writers?  Or what?

If you do, you owe it to yourself, your books and your readers to make the WPA a MUST DO event in your year.

I’ve written more about it here, and plan to do more posts as I’m processing everything I learned for myself, but here’s a better taste of the weekend on Lee’s blog.

My deepest thanks to Lee, all our superb instructors (ALL of whom volunteered their time) and to Sisters in Crime, who generously underwrote a large portion of the event to keep the tuition at rock-bottom.

And the question of the day is about research. Authors, how do you do the research that you need to do to write your books? Tell us some stories! And readers, how detailed do you like your police procedure? Who do you really think gets it right, in fiction?



Huntress Moon, an Amazon bestseller

21 thoughts on “Getting real – The Writers Police Academy

  1. Sarah W

    I. Want. To. Do. This.

    My research is usually through reading or talking to experts, who sometimes let me try things out. I've done a police driving course and basic pistol, taken tours, and assisted in a couple of simulated emergency training exercises as various warm or cold bodies, but WPA sounds like (a particularly intense and slightly skewed) Christmas.

    I like to read solid police procedurals, though I don't always need everything explained in minute detail, just enough to set the scene in my mind and solidify mindset and motivations.

    Thanks for taking the time to write this up, Alex!

  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Sarah, you would LOVE this. It sounds like you're getting a lot of great hands-on research done already, not that that surprises me! – but I don't think there's anything like the WPA anywhere. Especially with this new series, I would do it once a month if I could.

  3. Katherine Ramsland

    Having been there two years in a row, as instructor and participant, I can tell you, that even if you've been once, you should go again. They add new things and you just can't do them all. I expect that next year there will be even more classes and instructors involved. All of the instructors were experienced, professional, and quite pleased to be able to share their experiences. They ALL volunteered.

  4. Lee Lofland

    Great recap of the weekend, Alex. One additional thing I'd like to point out…a citizens police academy in your community is not the same as the Writers' Police Academy. Not even close. What we offer is far more advanced and detailed than the classes offered in those courses. The WPA features the training police officers (uniformed and detectives) receive during both their basic and in-service (advanced) training.

    The WPA is intense…and extremely fun!

  5. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Hey Katherine! I think everyone at the WPA knew that they'd be returning again and again. There's just no way to do everything you want to do in one weekend. I can't wait for next year and already miss everyone!

  6. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Lee, I heard that from a lot of attendees – that they'd been to Citizen Police Academies and while they were useful, they didn't even begin to compare to the WPA training. But I think that has a lot to do with you. Besides knowing how to deliver that actual training that police officers receive, you keenly understand what authors really need from the training.

    None of us can ever thank you enough!

  7. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Steve, just get on the mailing list and commit to next year now. I've been saying I'd do this for three years now, and I was just insane for not halting everything in my life to make it happen

  8. Lisa Alber

    Me too — insanely jealous! I've got to go next year. I have a friend who goes every year, and she can never get enough…So maybe next year? I'd better just plan on it.

    My dilemma is this…It's not really a dilemma but it's something to think about. Thus far, my books take place in Ireland. So–speaking of great research trips!–I've talked to detective sergeants over there, and taken a tour of police station, that kind of thing. I wonder how much of the WPA would translate. (But that doesn't mean I wouldn't go!)

  9. Lee Lofland

    Lisa. Of course our laws differ, but procedures are basically the same. We all search buildings, investigate murders, interpret blood stains, examine tool marks and tire impressions, lift fingerprints, shoot, and chase bad guys with the same goal in mind…to solve the crime and/or stop threats..

  10. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Lisa, almost all of it would translate. Because it's about living the law enforcement EXPERIENCE for three days. Possibly that experience is more fast-paced in a lot of US situations than in Ireland, but the sensations and moral dilemmas that these pros experience on a daily and sometimes hourly basis? The intimate knowledge of victims and criminals? What they SEE that so few of the rest of us see? That is universal.

    Yes, you better just plan on it, or I'll hunt you down. I have the training, now… 😉

  11. Michael W. Sherer

    I've attended multi-week citizens' academies presented by both my local police department and the Seattle PD. (I've also applied to, but not yet been accepted to the local FBI citizens' academy.) Though each of the two I attended contained a wealth of invaluable information, I don't think either came close to having the kind of hands-on experiences you describe, Alex. If I can afford it, I'm in next year.

  12. Terry Odell

    I was there, too — and I missed many of these workshops while I was busy watching firefighters demolish a car to rescue a patient, stabilizing a gunshot victim, learning about K-9s in action, and goodness knows what else. And, like you, I've now got more accuracy in my books–I went home and tweaked my manuscript to include NamUS after hearing Dr. Murray's talk Friday night.

    I've been blogging about the workshops I attended on my own blog. We need a list so we can all pick up new information from each other!

    Terry's Place:

  13. Tiffany podzemny

    Awesome! I don't even write crime fiction & I want to go! Do they have a website or is it a localized affair?

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