Kate Flora here. The weekend after Labor Day, I joined more than two hundred other writers in Greensboro, North Carolina, for an annual conference organized by the tireless and charming Lee Lofland, http://www.leelofland.com/wordpress/ designed to teach crime writers how to write better cops and crime scenes. Or, as the WPA motto goes:
With the help of the Guilford Technical Community College facilities, and an amazing faculty that included a police S.E.R.T. assistant commander, a tattooed Louisiana police chief, two retired ATF special agents, a secret service agent, a police officer who has served as a prostitute decoy, an expert on jail and corrections procedures, an explosives and hazardous materials specialist, a microbiologist, and many, many more, we had in-depth classes, demonstrations, lectures and simulations designed to help us write better scenes and more accurate characters.
Over the course of the next three days, we learned about police culture, did driving simulations, did simulated fire arms training (FATS), learned how to set up a prostitution sting, and heard a terrifying lecture on ebola and other biologicals and how they might be made or acquired and dispersed. We watched EMTs handle an accident scene, watched explosives experts blow a door, and saw how they would light a woodland crime scene at night.
On Thursday night, I had the good fortune to win the lottery that let me go on a ride-along with a Guilford County police officer. It was a very quiet night. I often say that if a city or town wants a quiet night on their streets, they ought to take me along in the car. I have a very calming effect on the criminal population. It might have been disappointing, except that any officer with seventeen years of experience has stories to tell. And so, around nine p.m. or so, when we passed a guy walking along a country road and turned around to go back and check him, and I asked why, I got to hear a truly amazing story.
The officer I was riding with told me the story of a night five years earlier when he’d passed another man walking the roadside at 4:00 a.m. and stopped to check him. The check came back that the man was wanted on federal warrants. When the officer got out again to detain him, the man pulled out a hidden gun and started firing and he ended up on the ground, trying to draw his weapon while the bad guy stood over him.
There was video in the car https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CEr07ECPyh8 so the entire gun battle was recorded and he was able to pull it up on his computer so I could watch it. Then, as we drove the dark, quiet streets, he told me about the whole thing, about the aftermath, even about how he went about making the phone to call his wife to tell her he’d been shot at and had shot someone. It was moving, and powerful, and once again, left me so grateful for the generosity of police officers who are willing to talk to us crime writers so we can get it right.
One event I signed up for was building searches. I thought they’d just walk us through a building and tell us how they’d do it and tell us what they were looking for. No such thing. We had fake guns, we had teams, and we had an abandoned apartment complex to search for bad guys. And there WERE bad guys hiding inside. The question was whether we could shoot them before they shot us. It definitely made my adrenalin climb, especially when we’d searched the whole place and HAD NOT YET FOUND THE BAD GUY. But he was still in there somewhere.
For days after I got home, every sound in the house made me scurry around, looking under beds and in closets and wondering why I was doing it without backup.
I already do a lot of research for my books, and ask cops questions all the time about what their training would have them do in a particular situation. This gave me more experience, greater insights, and a team of experts to answer my questions down the line. Best of all, it let me imagine scenarios and deepened my appreciation for the cop’s life.
Special guests include some of my favorite writers: Michael Connelly, Lisa Gardner, and Alafair Burke.
Like everyone who attended says, I can’t wait to go back again next year. Registration opens in January after an intense countdown, and it usually sells out in a day. But if you’re interested in an insider’s view of the many things cops do—through the incredible generosity of the WPA instructors, you can have it in just three crazy days.