by | Feb 13, 2019 | Uncategorized | 12 comments

You can never have too many handcuff keys.

How do you make the police procedure in your mysteries or thrillers seem authentic? 

Below are some of the mistakes and overused tropes I’ve seen in books that usually pull me out of a story. The good news is that not everyone who reads mysteries are cops, so they might not notice some of what I consider my top pet peeves. More importantly, just because I’ve listed them doesn’t mean that you can’t use them. Just that if you do, know why it is they appear on my list. 

The top ten are…
10.   Long radio transmissions no cop would ever make. I’ve seen authors write a full paragraph of just one radio call. It’s just not going to happen. Some departments talk all in code, some in plain English, so feel free to throw in a bit of police lingo to mix it up. Just keep it simple and preferably short. And if you do have a long transmission, you have to add a “break” for any emergencies that might arise while you’re hogging the mike. 
9.  Not knowing the elements of the crime, or what constitutes a crime.  Imagine some cop is parked, writing reports.  He looks up, sees a man bumping into a young lady who falls to the ground as he runs away. Purse snatch? Robbery? Looks like a good pinch, so he shifts to drive, and races to the rescue.  He jumps out, sees the woman is okay, then chases after the suspect, tackles, and cuffs him.  See any problems with this?  He did not see the crime.  He assumed.  While it’s okay to assume (good cops make assumptions based on expertise), at least have your cop stop to ask the victim what happened before he gets in a foot chase.
8. The loner alcoholic cop with the rumpled raincoat, whose wife and kids were murdered by the serial killer (who was never caught) while said cop was out eating donuts.  This is a twofer. One, we’ve got to come up with better back stories. Two, back in the day, donut shops were the only thing open on graveyard shifts, and that was where the coffee could be found.  That cliché would never work in California, where there’s a Starbucks on every corner, and a bagel shop two doors down. Who eats donuts anymore? 
7. Having cops hired on a whim, or transferring from a different agency without doing a proper background investigation. Since when is it ever a good idea to hand someone a gun and the keys to the building without knowing who they are or where they came from?
6. Evil or stupid police supervisors.  Repeat after me:  Only some of the bosses are evil or stupid (and no, they didn’t all work for my department).  Even fewer fit both descriptions at once. The standing joke is that to get promoted to sergeant, you have to first have a lobotomy.  To make it to lieutenant or captain, you have to have your spine removed.  True in all cases?  No.  
5. The hated, despised Internal Affairs cop, who is usually evil or stupid.  See # 6 above.
4. Dirty cops planting phony evidence. I’m not saying you can’t use this trope, but if you surround the premise of your book around this plot point, do it better than anyone else.  One of the best examples of a well-done plant was from a (decades-old) movie, where a dirty cop was seen committing a crime on a surveillance video that was then booked into evidence by the investigator. The dirty cop set up a “window smash” of another business, using a very large and highly magnetic device to shatter the window.  The device was booked into evidence, and placed next to the surveillance tape, which it then demagnetized, rendering it useless. (Granted, this wouldn’t work in the digital age, but the set up for that time period was brilliant.)
Lofland’s Police Procedure & Investigation

3. Stupid blunders by cops at crime scenes. Just knowing the basics can help, everything from keeping a crime scene log to what constitutes trace evidence and cross-contamination. To keep your cop or amateur sleuth from mucking up good evidence, consider picking up a copy of retired cop Lee Lofland’s most excellent Police Procedure and Investigation: A Guide for Writers.
2. Cops handling major felony investigations alone.  These guys are assigned partners for a reason. Safety is one of them, but so, too, is having a second set of eyes and ears for investigative purposes, as well as for testifying later in court.

And the number one pet peeve…?
1. Throwing officer safety out the window. If you’re going to put your cop in danger, at least give them a very good reason why they’re now ignoring every basic rule they were ever taught from day one in the academy. Just because they do it on TV or on the big screen, it does not make it okay for your book. It makes the story unbelievable. For instance, if a cop knows he is going to contact a bad guy in person, or going on any sort of call with the possibility for a confrontation of any type, he/she always waits for back up or takes a partner. And hot call or not, they never pull out their guns and check to see if they’re loaded—or rack a round into the chamber—just before they go chasing after the bad guy. (Yes, you can have your bad guys do this. But not the police.) A cop’s weapon is always loaded and the safety is OFF. And yet, the cops do this in 90% of the TV shows and movies. It sounds cool, and definitely looks cool, but it’s stupid. When the bad guys are firing at you, last thing you want to do is stop to load your weapon then turn off the safety. Wasted seconds equals wasted lives.

No doubt, those of you in other professions have noticed big mistakes in books (and I’ll bet I’ve made a few of my own). So, Rogue Readers, do you have any professional pet peeves in fiction?

(Due to a deadline, I’m updating and recycling this 2009 blog post from Mystery Fanfare for this month’s Rogue post. Hope you enjoy!)
Don’t Miss a Thing!



  1. Gayle Lynds

    Ahhh, Robin, a terrific trip down memory alley, with the booze and the broads and the cliches and the lack of attention to accuracy. Thank you!

  2. Robin Burcell

    Glad you enjoyed it, Gayle!

  3. Chris Goff

    I like #8 the best — the alcoholic cop who was out eating donuts while the serial killer murdered his family. Classic! A great list. I've seen every one of them play out in a book and/or on TV. I promise to try and do better in my own work!

  4. Robin Burcell

    Don't forget that rumpled raincoat!

  5. Thonie Hevron

    Several points to comment on this excellent post: 1) my personal peeve is cops who go from shoot out to shoot out without any administrative leave/internal investigation into incidents AND the post traumatic stress it causes. 2) Re: number 8-most of my former co-workers (I'm a retired dispatcher) spend more time in the gym than searching for donuts. 3)I highly recommend Lee Lofland's book, also! 4)May I share this post on my blog: Just the Facts, Ma'am? Here's the link if you want to check it out first:

  6. Robin Burcell

    Thonie, please do share to your wonderful blog! And good additions. AL/IA is always overlooked as is the PTSD (unless, for some reason, it figures into the plot, I suppose). Re cops and donuts, I guess we can say it is a good example of a cardboard, stereotypical character that needs to be changed. Thanks so much for adding your insight!

  7. claire o'sullivan

    Cops and doughnuts… Oh dear. My suspense/crime/romance includes a homicide detective and a woman who's opened a doughnut shop and deli. The comedy portions of it tend to surround what takes place in the deli and the rotten jokes she throws at the cop stopping by for spanakopita, not doughnuts.

  8. Robin Burcell

    Claire, lol! I think you're safe! (Let the jokes begin!) Perfect setup.

  9. Unknown

    I handled several murder cases alone. People forget that the average police department in the U.S. does not have thousands of officers like in major cities. Not even close. Sure I would never go to a suspect house or any where I thought too dangerous alone, but the case was mine to work alone. Most officers I knew in other departments did not have partners assigned to them or large squads to work cases together either. Everyone had their own cases to be responsible no matter how much of a major felony it was. When writing fiction I notice writers tend to believe police departments come in extra large size only. It is actually quite the opposite. There were a hundred certified officers in my department when I left in a city of about 80K at the time. We had our share of murders and home invasions as ugly as any large city. Detectives for the most part worked them alone. – Robert

  10. Robin Burcell

    Very good points, Robert, especially about the belief that all departments are supersized! TV makes it seem that patrol cars are always occupied by two officers, etc.