Archive for the 'Detective/Crime Stories' Category

Apr 26 2012

13 Reasons the Police Might Oppose a Superhero

I provide advice about how to write novels, comic books and graphic novels. Most of my content applies to fiction-writing in general, but I also provide articles specifically about superhero stories.

If you’d like to use the police as an antagonist but aren’t quite sure why they might oppose the superhero, here are some  possibilities.

 

1. The superhero is investigating sensitive cases.

  • The hero might be challenging cases that have already been “solved.” If the superhero can show that the police & district attorney have convicted/arrested the wrong person, it will make the police look bad, could open up them to lawsuits, and could jeopardize careers.  Also, the police will probably be skeptical about whether the superhero knows more about the case than the police investigation was able to find. What if the superhero is wrong?  If a superhero even looks into the case, that could create unwanted media attention for the police and prosecutors.
  • Major politicians (e.g. the mayor) might pressure the police if the superhero is tackling politically sensitive cases (for example, if the suspect is a politician or major donor or if the case is highly publicized).
  • The case is likely to implicate police officers or otherwise make the police look bad. For example, anything involving police brutality, corruption, police misconduct (e.g. why did the police drop the case against Lex Luthor? Did the mayor put them up to it?), etc.

 

2. The superhero refuses police commands (which will especially irritate police if the case ends badly). For example, if the superhero tried breaking into a hostage situation while the police were still trying to negotiate a surrender, that would make the police livid (particularly if any hostages then got injured or killed). If the superhero does something that causes the police to get heavy media and/or political criticism, the police might throw the superhero under the bus to protect themselves. “We had this case completely under control until Captain Doomsday showed up!”  (The superhero would probably disagree with that claim–if it looked like the police had the situation under control, the superhero probably wouldn’t have charged in).

2.1. The superhero is too rough. If the hero has a history of gratuitously injuring criminals, getting bystanders/hostages injured, and causing serious property damage, the police might think they’d do a better job on their own.

 

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Feb 25 2012

“In a Superhero Story, How Could I Keep the Police From Getting Involved?”

If you’re looking to write superhero stories that are more about superheroes than about the police, here are some possible explanations.

 

1.  The police mistakenly conclude that no crime took place.  For example, if a supervillain murders someone, maybe he planted evidence that makes it look like a suicide, faked an accident (e.g. pushed the victim down the stairs) or used a poison that induced a heart attack. In a theft case, the villain might have replaced the stolen goods with a convincing forgery.  In an assault case, the victim might have been intimidated into silence.

 

2. The police didn’t realize that this was an extraordinary case and gave up when ordinary police-work didn’t pan out.  If Mary Jane gets killed and the police can’t find any helpful forensic data at the crime scene or any witnesses or even anybody with a discernible motive to kill MJ, the police are screwed.  Half of U.S. murders go unsolved and the police will declare it a cold case and move on if they’re not getting anywhere.  In a lot of cases, the police don’t have the necessary background information to figure out what’s going on–for example, knowing that MJ was dating a superhero would have been really helpful.

 

3. The case is unusual enough that the police wouldn’t know where to start. For example, let’s say a ghost kills somebody.  The police will probably get lost running down more mundane angles if they don’t know that ghosts are an actual possibility.  (They may even unknowingly railroad an innocent guy if he looks like the only plausible suspect).  Even if detectives are willing to risk their careers by telling their superiors they think it’s a ghost, what are the police going to do? Arrest a ghost?

 

3.1. If the police know how unusual the case is, they may delegate it to an expert. In the Dresden Files, the Chicago police use Harry Dresden on supernatural cases.  They know he’s more experienced with that sort of thing (being a wizard and all) and using a freelancer gives the police some degree of plausible deniability if the case goes horribly wrong.

 

4. The case is hard enough that the police wouldn’t know where to start.  If you need Batman-grade detective and/or scientific skills to realize the first thing about who committed a crime or how to find him, it’s plausible that the police will give up after regular police-work doesn’t bear any fruit.  For example, many Sherlock Holmes cases are first reported to the police, but then Holmes is brought in (either by the victims or by the police) after the police have failed to get anywhere.

 

5. The police may suffer from corruption, political interference and/or gross incompetence.  For example, the Penguin is politically connected in Gotham (e.g. he’s a viable candidate for mayor), and it’s plausible that police brass would be more careful about investigating somebody that might be their next boss.  (Political considerations may also be a factor for prosecutors and judges). Police officers and lab technicians that have been bribed might “lose” evidence or make “mistakes” that cause crucial evidence to be thrown out of court.  Forensics analysts might be paid to implicate the supervillain’s rivals (maybe even a superhero).  Corrupt supervisors might reassign honest police officers and technicians that won’t take a hint.

 

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Sep 18 2011

Which Crimes Do Most Superheroes Commit?

Assuming that the hero is a vigilante and the district attorney is furious, which felony charges might apply under U.S. law?

 

1. Assault and battery, probably aggravated if superpowers are involved.  The superhero will claim that he was acting in self-defense or the defense of others.  That’s fine if he was just responding to a crime in progress.  However, if he initiated the action (like attacking a gang stronghold or hunting down a supervillain), self-defense is probably off the table because the only imminent danger was created by the hero’s actions.  In particular, a self-defense claim is awfully tenuous if the hero was breaking-and-entering.

 

2. Felony murder, if anybody dies (criminal or bystander).  Assault is a violent felony, and any deaths caused even indirectly by a violent felony are deemed murders even if the superhero didn’t intend to kill anybody.  If a superhero breaks into a hostage situation and a criminal kills a bystander in the crossfire, the superhero can be charged with murder unless he was authorized to be there. As far as the law is concerned here, it doesn’t matter that the superhero was fighting against the shooter and that the superhero did not intend for a civilian to get hurt. Also, if a vigilante causes a criminal to die (either intentionally or not), that would also be felony murder.

 

3. Reckless endangerment, if any bystanders get hurt.  In severe cases, this could be a felony. (E.g. vehicular manslaughter if Batman happens to hit anyone while driving several hundred miles per hour through Gotham traffic).

 

4. Obstruction of justice.  For example, breaking into a hostage situation while the police are still trying to negotiate with the hostage-taker would be a felony in some states.  (Note: if nobody gets hurt, the DA might knock this down to a slap on the wrist, particularly if the superhero is extremely popular).

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Aug 20 2011

Hostage Situations from the Police Negotiator’s Perspective

1. The first police officers on the scene will not be specialists.  These police officers still play an important role (containing the situation, maintaining a perimeter, clearing out civilians, etc).  Circumstances may force them to initiate some sort of negotiation, but as soon as it looks like the situation will not be promptly resolved, the line officers should immediately terminate negotiations and call in specialists.  (Metropolitan police departments, some state police departments and the FBI have officers who have been carefully selected and trained to deal with these critical incidents).  The specialists’ job will be harder if a line officer antagonized the subject.

1.1. Across the board, negotiators tend to have excellent self-control, calm under stress, communication skills, a calm and confident demeanor, strong listening and interviewing skills and the ability to work effectively on a team.  They’ll have at least 40 hours of training on techniques, abnormal psychology, active listening skills, case studies and drills.

 

2. The main goal of negotiation is to convince the subject(s) to surrender.  If that is not possible, the secondary goal is to give the SWAT team the best opportunity to rescue the captives with a minimal loss of life.  To accomplish these goals, the negotiators want to:

  • Stall for time.  First, time allows emotions to cool down, which reduces the likelihood of hostages getting killed.  Second, it may take hours (rarely, even days) for the subjects to realize how hopeless their situation is.  Lastly, if it does come down to a shootout, the operation will be more successful and less dangerous if the SWAT team has had time to prepare.
  • Establish communication and develop rapport.  For example, the subject might be thinking about giving himself up, but he isn’t sure whether the 20+ armed cops outside will shoot him if he comes out.  A negotiator could work something out fairly easily.  For example, “if you’re ready to come out, the police will lower their weapons.”  (By the way, if the police are willing to lower their weapons, they probably have sharpshooters ready to fire if the subject reaches for his gun).
  • Gather intelligence.  A secondary negotiator should check the subjects’ criminal, civil, medical and psychological records and conduct interviews with friends/family/coworkers.  Is the criminal actually likely to kill his captives?  What might cause an escalation? What actions could the police take now and after the crisis to make sure that there’s a long-term solution here?

 

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Aug 14 2011

Hostage Situations from a Criminal’s Perspective

1. Taking hostages is so dangerous that it usually isn’t premeditated in the United States.  A criminal’s main means of survival is mobility.  If he’s taken many hostages, he doesn’t have any.  Even if he’s taken only one hostage for ransom money, the police will know where the criminal will be at the designated pick-up time and may even be able to locate the victim with evidence left at the scene of the kidnapping.  There are two main types of hostage-taker (HT) and one type of victim taker.

  • Someone caught in a botched crime.  For example, maybe the criminal is trying to rob a bank, but the police respond unexpectedly quickly.  In the heat of the moment, an utterly trapped criminal might take hostages out of desperation.  In his stress-addled mind, he might think that taking hostages is the only way to somehow effect an escape and avoid a 15+ year sentence.  (He might even have dreams of demanding a helicopter, but that’s a Hollywood fantasy).
  • Someone that cannot outrun the police.  For example, if the police come to serve an arrest warrant, an unwilling suspect might take a hostage (usually a family member) to buy time and space for an escape.  Alternately, rioting prisoners may take guards as hostages to deter police reinforcements from retaking the prison by force.
  • Somebody in an emotional crisis without a clear set of negotiable demands.  For example, a laid-off worker might seize his former boss or a disturbed lover might seize his/her significant other after being rejected.  These criminals are not looking to bargain.  Technically, in police parlance, these criminals are not considered “hostage-takers” because “hostage” implies tangible demands.  People captured without demands are “victims.”  Victims are in much graver danger because the criminal may have murder-suicide in mind.  In contrast, a “hostage-taker” does not have a personal incentive to murder the hostages.  (If you murder a hostage, you lose your bargaining leverage).

 

2. Hostages are fairly high-maintenance, particularly in long-term standoffs (which are very rare).  In the short-term, the criminals have to worry about food/water, toilets, the potential for medical emergencies and the difficult task of controlling the hostages.  In the long-term, the criminals also have to worry about hygiene, medicine and recreation/hostage morale.  (The HTs probably do not have any humanitarian concern for the hostages, but they have selfish reasons to care.  Happy/healthy hostages are easier to control, less likely to infect criminals and less likely to result in a murder conviction.  Also, killing a hostage that happens to be a prison guard could be very hazardous to an HT’s health when he is returned to police custody).

 

2.1. Keeping a handful of hostages is much easier than keeping many, especially if the HTs don’t have the manpower to control many hostages.  But the police will still give criminals a lot of latitude even if they have a relatively small number of hostages. The police will offer the criminals incentives to release some hostages and make other seemingly meaningless concessions (like giving up any extra firearms).

 

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May 31 2011

7 Things Guns Cannot Actually Do

How many times has a Hollywood protagonist screwed a silencer onto his pistol, cocked the hammer a few times, and delivered a perfectly silent shot or ten into the bad guy, causing him to fall backward and knock over a storage unit full of lead weights? There is so much wrong with that premise, and yet we see it all the time. It’s given many people a poor perspective on firearms, how they really work, and their capabilities. I’m here to help dispel these myths and improve the realism in your writing!

1. Guns are loud!

Crazy loud.  Without any ear protection, a gun battle is louder than a rock concert.  The cartoonish image of somebody’s ears bleeding after a loud sound is almost accurate if a gun battle were to erupt inside a building. Decibel levels of a gunshot can be 140dB, which is more than four times as loud as a common rock concert (115dB). (See this breakdown for more info.) It is worth adding, though, that when adrenaline (and even morphine) levels are running high during a fight-for-your-life scenario, strange things have happened where (in addition to expected things like tunnel vision) gunshots feel much, much softer, so it’s conceivable for a conversation to take place right after a gun shot.  However, this is incredibly unlikely.

 

2. “Silencers” aren’t.

They’re also more formally (and accurately) referred to as suppressors. Technically speaking, they suppress the concussive shock waves that are released from the barrel in front of the exiting bullet. Suppressors tend to greatly reduce the “boom” associated with gunfire, but the sounds of the actual explosion of gunpowder and all the metal moving parts on the gun are not really decreased at all.  Either way, it’ll be very loud.  For example, most suppressors on the market will bring a .22lr round from 160 dB (loud enough to rupture an eardrum) to about 120 db (a rock concert or jet engine).

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May 22 2011

Some ideas on police standoffs

The New York Times has an article on police standoffs, which I think could be useful if you’re writing a scene where a protagonist deals with something like a hostage situation and/or a barricaded gunman.   For more information on this, I’d recommend checking out Stalling For Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator. For the short version, here are some ideas I’ve gathered along the way:

 

1.  Even if you want to resolve the hostage situation with protagonists rushing in, negotiation can play a key role.

  • A tactical takedown is more likely to succeed with few casualties if the police have time to prepare.  For example, during the Japanese embassy hostage crisis in Peru, the police prepared by smuggling in communications equipment to hostages (so that they could learn what was going on inside), provided light-colored clothes to the hostages (so they could be easily distinguished), and scheduled their raid at a time when the hostage-takers liked to play soccer and would be away from the hostages.   To practice their strategy, the Peruvian commandos built a scale building of the compound, including the tunnels they had dug to carry out the raid.
  • Often, negotiators can convince the criminals to release some hostages and/or surrender.  (It’s harder for hostage-takers to keep control of large groups of hostages and the police may be willing to offer food and water in exchange for releases, so there is some incentive to release some hostages).  Best case scenario: Armed confrontation isn’t necessary.  Worst case scenario: If the protagonists do need to execute a raid, fewer hostages will be at risk.

 

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May 03 2011

13 Legal Warrantless Searches in the United States

If your characters are police officers, warrants are a hassle.  They’re designed to be (so that the police can’t just intrude on citizens’ privacy without cause).  To obtain a search warrant, the police must show a judge that they have “probable cause” (substantial evidence demonstrating that they’re likely to find evidence of a crime at the location or on the person specified on the warrant).

 

Reasons why a character might not be able or willing to obtain a warrant:
 

  • Time.  Under the best of circumstances, a police officer can get a warrant within an hour, but in smaller towns, there might not be any judges on duty in the middle of the night.  Also, judges will be slower to respond if the case is less urgent (i.e. no lives are at stake).
  • The police may not have probable cause yet.  Gotham’s police may find it suspicious that Bruce Wayne always seems to disappear right before Batman shows up, but that isn’t enough to get a search warrant for Wayne Manor.
  • Search warrants come with limits attached.  For example, if the police/district attorney can convince a judge that a murder victim’s body has probably been stashed at a house, the judge would probably allow a search of the house but only places where a body would fit. If the police started searching drawers or other small containers, any resulting evidence would probably be inadmissible.

So let’s say an American police officer doesn’t have a search warrant.  Under what circumstances can he legally search?

 

1.  The suspect voluntarily lets officers inside and/or consents to a search. “Hello, I’m Detective Smith and I have some questions.  May I come inside?”  If an owner lets the officer come inside, anything within plain view of the officer is admissible as evidence.  If an owner consents to a search, anything found is admissible.  Note: Consent must be freely and knowingly given.  If the officer uses deception or threats to obtain permission, any resulting evidence will probably be thrown out at trial.

 

2.  In certain circumstances, permission may be given by a third party. Third parties are almost always more receptive to searches because they have less reason to fear the police than criminals do. 

  •  A spouse (or anybody with equal rights to the property) can let police search.  Frequently, spouses don’t know about the criminal activity and will let the police look around if asked nicely.  One really effective tactic is emphasizing the possibility that the search may help clear the suspect.  (“We’ve received some troubling information about your husband and we’d like to clear his name as soon as possible.  Do we mind if we look around? We’ll leave everything like it was and you can watch us.  Or we can come back with a warrant later, but it’ll be messier”).
  • An employer can let police search a workspace (including lockers and computers).  “We’ve received some troubling information about your employee.  Could we check his computer?  We’ll be real quiet.”  Note that a manager may be leery about offering access if she fears that the company is somehow involved in the crime.  If so, police can gently prod the manager with veiled threats like “We can come back later with a warrant, but if we do, we’ll have to cordon off the building.  It’d be bad for business.”
  • Police can ask school officials for permission to search the lockers, purses and backpacks of minors without a warrant.  School officials don’t have much reason to decline such a request (they hate crime as much as the police do).
  • When a child lives with his parents, a parent can allow police to search the child’s space unless the child pays rent or has otherwise established exclusive, private ownership over his space.
  • A host can allow police to search a guest’s quarters. A landlord cannot.
  • Hotel employees can let police search a vacant room.  See #9 for more details.
  • Store-owners are usually very cooperative about sharing surveillance footage.  But you’ve got to be fast!  Many stores cut down on costs by retaping over old footage every few days.

 

3.  Exigent circumstances–action is immediately necessary to prevent physical harm, preserve evidence or prevent a suspect from escaping. For example, let’s say your officer is on patrol when he hears a scream from inside a building.  He would be entitled to force entry to investigate a possible assault in progress.  Anything he sees in the course of investigating this possible assault would be admissible, even if it wasn’t related to the assault (e.g. drug paraphernalia).

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Feb 06 2011

An introduction to bounty hunting

Bounty hunters may be a useful point of reference for your superhero story:

  • Like most superheroes, bounty hunters have a non-government job that entails some violence.
  • They hunt criminals without all of the assets of a police force (authority, the ability to threaten prosecution for noncooperation, forensics labs, generous access to state records, virtually unlimited backup, etc).

Learning more about bounty hunters may give you some ideas about how to write superheroes cracking cases, so I’d recommend checking out this Washington Post article (hat-tip: Contra Glove).  In particular, I liked the tactic of calling the fugitive’s cell phone*, posing as a FedEx dispatcher and then asking the fugitive if he will be available tomorrow for a package delivery.  “Can you confirm the street address?”

(I also found the use of MySpace pretty hilarious, but I’m sort of hoping that your Lex Luthor isn’t on MySpace).

*You can get somebody’s number by asking family members,  friends, disgruntled exes or sometimes the cell company.

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Jan 06 2011

I’ve never read a crime novel this convoluted

I swear I’m not making this up.

  • A pizza deliveryman robs a bank with a bomb attached to his neck and a gun concealed in his cane.
  • The police catch up with him.  He claims that a bunch of black men accosted him and forced him into the bomb-collar.
  • The collar detonates, killing the pizza deliveryman.  (Body count: 1)
  • The police find a letter addressed to the “Bomb Hostage” in his car, directing him on a scavenger hunt so that he could give the bomber the money and get the collar off.

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Jan 06 2011

Criminal forensics resources for writers

In case your protagonists are investigating a crime scene, here are some basic angles to check out: 10 Most Incriminating Types of Evidence.  For more detailed tricks, I’d recommend the rest of The Writers’ Forensic Blog. Hat-tip: Marilynn Byerly.

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Jul 25 2010

13 Ways a Friendly Cop Can Help Superheroes and Urban Fantasy Protagonists

In most superhero stories and some urban fantasy, the protagonists know at least one friendly police character. Here are some ways police characters can help the heroes.

1. Alerting the heroes when there’s a problem too large for the police.  Common examples include superpowered robberies, jail breaks, and supernatural/occult/magical serial killers.

2. Crowd control (clearing out civilians during or before a superpowered brawl).  This helps explain why civilians don’t get killed in the crossfire and gives the police something to do besides watch the fight.

3.  Helping the heroes avoid legal trouble.  Or, if the cop is REALLY friendly, helping them break out of jail.

4. Helping superheroes maintain a secret identity.  “This picture of Superman turning into Clark Kent is obviously fake.  At the time it was allegedly taken, I was with Clark Kent on the other side of town.”  Alternately, this might help any protagonist avoid a case of mistaken identity/imposters.  “That bank robber wasn’t the real Harry Dresden! I was discussing a case with Dresden, so the the robber must have been a shapeshifter.”

5. Passing along messages and packages to the heroes, particularly from a villain.  When the Joker wants Batman to see something, the easiest middleman is the police because it wouldn’t make much sense if the Joker knew where to find Batman.

6. Delaying and/or thwarting hostile police officers. In many cases, some police officers are against the heroes, particularly if an antagonist impostor has torn up the town or the heroes are not very careful about collateral damage.  In urban fantasy, some police officers may be uneasy about working with a sorcerer, werewolf or other supernatural creature.  (“I went through six days of testing before I could take my firearm into the field.  How about your wand?)

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Jul 12 2010

Learning Superhero Tricks from the Marines and LAPD?

This news article might help you if you’re worried your superheroes don’t get enough to do besides superpowered brawling.

The Marines are working with the Los Angeles Police Department to learn more about policing intensely violent areas without alienating the residents.

(Incidentally, I wonder how much the LAPD can teach anybody about that. It’s like getting advice about how to cook Bambi burgers from a vegan).

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Jul 07 2010

Signs of Criminal Activity

Here are some behaviors and traits that are mostly not themselves illegal, but may suggest that something is amiss.

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Jul 07 2010

Criminal Interviewing Strategies: Probing for Inconsistencies

While a criminal may have put some thought into creating a coherent story that’s hard to disprove, probing questions can move the conversation into areas where he has to make up a lie as he goes along.  The more you push for details, the harder it is to keep up a lie.  Here’s an excerpt of a fictional interview between an investigator and a criminal suspect.

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Apr 06 2010

How Heroes Find Crime

Your superheroes will probably stop crimes at some point.  So how do they find it?  Here are a few options.

 

1. The most common option is just going on patrol. Most readers and editors will give you the benefit of the doubt that a modern city has so much crime going on that a hero can stumble upon armed robberies without too much trouble.  (Even though that’s probably not realistic–see #12 here for more details).

 

2. The hero may have access (authorized or otherwise) to what the police know. For example, maybe he has a police scanner, has hacked police radios, has a friend on the police force, or is otherwise contacted by the police on particular cases.

 

3. The hero might be contacted directly by a victim. For example, if a company has some reason to resolve a crime without getting the police involved, maybe it’ll contact a hero instead.  This would make sense particularly if the police in your story aren’t particularly competent or honest.  Or maybe the victim was somehow involved in some illegal activity (like a prostitute, an illegal immigrant, etc).

 

4. The hero may have access to what the criminals know. For example, maybe he has an informant, has bugged an important phone, interrogates a captured criminal, etc.  Any one of these could indicate where and when an impending crime will occur.

 

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