The Secret Service’s Dirty Little Secret, Part II

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Secret ServiceIn October 2011,I discussed the U.S. Secret Service and its failings. I’m revisiting this theme because they’re in the news again due to misconduct. Three agents got intoxicated in the Netherlands and were sent home after hotel staff found one of them passed out in a hallway. Now Robert Bray, formerly of the Secret Service and currently the head of the Federal Air Marshals, is stepping down amid a probe of an agency gun scheme. Having worked closely with former agents for many years, I’ve seen the Secret Service for the shallow agency that it is, one that lives in the shadows not because it must in order to perform its mission, but because it’s a dysfunctional entity whose agents can barely investigate a sale at Macy’s. The public should know this in order to bring about change. Writers should be aware because conflict drives a story, and what better conflict than self-styled heroes who often deceive themselves along with the public. While many fine men and women in that organization are eager to perform along lines of excellence, they remain hobbled by the shadowy mindset of its old-guard former administrators. What follows isn’t finger-pointing. It’s a wake-up call:

 

The secret is simple: they screwed-up the day Reagan was shot. While they appeared in control with agents leaping on Hinckley and Uzi submachine guns appearing as if by magic, the truth is they were anything but in control. Recent news reports of sex scandals in foreign lands barely scratch the surface of the Service’s many problems, and authors should perform a close scrutiny of this fabled organization if they want to get it right before they write about them.

Like most people, I held the Secret Service in awe. But after my colleagues and I saw the dramatic video footage of the shooting and looked beyond the image of the agent with the Uzi, we concluded that the agents had absolutely no control over the situation.

Before I continue, I’ll point toward two agents who did perform as expected. They are Timothy McCarthy and Jerry Parr. McCarthy took the bullet in the gut, and Parr shoved Reagan into the limo. But after the limo sped off—hopefully toward safety—the remaining agents acted like rank amateurs, which in fact is what they were. More about that later.

First though, here’s why they messed up: for all the drama of Uzi’s and agents leaping upon Hinckley, there was a major problem . . . and it was a profound one: the agents weren’t supposed to be pulling out weapons and tackling Hinckley. They were supposed to stick with The Man; the Protectee . . . the President. Why? Because nobody knew at that time that only one gunman was involved.

But what if he’d been part of a group? What if his job had been to shoot Reagan—if possible—but otherwise to draw the agents toward himself and away from Reagan shooting - responsesReagan? What if the bad guys had possession of a monster tow truck—like the one in the Al Pacino movie, Heat? In that film the crooks use a tow truck to ram an armored Brink’s truck. After knocking it over they attach plastic explosives and blow the doors off. They kill the armed guards, then take the loot. So . . . what if the president’s limo—now isolated and cut-off from the other agents—what if co-conspirators had scoped out the predictable escape route back to the White House, then rammed the limo with a monster truck and knocked it onto its side.? What if they then blew open its doors with plastic explosive, and after overpowering the lone agent—Parr—what if the bad guys had snatched Reagan from the limo and spirited him off to some hidden place, where they videotape him in chains and on his knees before cutting off his head for the viewers back home? Sound far-fetched? Sadly, it could have happened that way, because the fabled Secret Service relies not on prowess and ability, but on image. Worse still, back then they practiced for the lone gunman attack scenario only. They absolutely refused to consider the possibility that fanatics armed with heavy assault weapons and a suicidal mindset could easily overpower the agents—and by the way, those Uzi’s are nothing more than glorified pistols.

Back to the Reagan shooting and the agents: their job was to stick close to their protectee, not to run around yelling obscenities and tackling Hinckley. Taking care of the shooter and the injured was the task of the many uniformed police officers on the scene, and I contend that they’d have done a far better job of controlling the situation. Why? Because they’re seasoned veterans; because they see action on a routine basis; because they’d honed their skills by handling innumerable acts of violence on the streets. On the other hand, the agents see little (if any) action, and I don’t care what anyone says about their training—training can be excellent but until it’s routinely practiced, don’t place any bets on the outcome. In other words, who would you trust the life of your child to—a local pediatrician with years of practice behind him, or that new kid fresh out of medical school?

With all this in mind, go to YouTube and take a close look at the video of the shooting. Look beyond the drama. Watch and listen for the agents’ angry gestures, their screaming and yelling. In one video, an agent approaches the scene in lock-step fashion, his hands wrapped tight around his revolver. But he has a deer-in-the-headlights expression on his face. Watch the other agents as they brandish handguns and submachine guns; they’re screaming at the uniformed cops to do this and to do that—but there’s little cohesion, just confusion. Take note of how many agents are treating Agent McCarthy as he lies on the sidewalk, and notice the number of agents treating Press Secretary Brady’s head wound.

Reagan shooting - walking circlesAll those agents out there—all of them treating the wounded and preventing Hinckley’s escape and yelling and screaming—but none of them are covering their protectee. And yet that was their sole job. That was it; nothing more or less. They were assigned to stick to the Man, not to “cover the limo from other possible assassins as it sped off,” as one agent lamely tried to explain to the few who saw the problem. Let’s examine that again: the agents are telling us that they stayed behind to cover the limo’s departure, in case there were other assassins. That staggers the mind. If they thought there might be other assassins waiting at the scene, then why the hell were they not with the President in case other assassins were lying in wait a couple of blocks away? What the hell were they doing running around the way they were?

I’ll tell you why. There’s a saying among first responders: “When in doubt, run around and scream and shout.” And that’s exactly what happened. The agents were not prepared for an act of sudden violence and I’m sorry, but practicing a response within the familiar setting of their training facility doesn’t cut it. Because they hadn’t been exposed to real-world emergencies their collective minds went blank. They lost control, and instead of performing their essential and only duty—to stay with the President, the agents fell into doubt and then ran around to scream and shout.

Fortunately, Hinckley acted alone. But in the wake of the shooting the Secret Service made sure its agents were celebrated by the media. And they were celebrated, because few people understood what really happened. Now suppose the scenario I proposed earlier had actually taken place? What if co-conspirators had rammed the limo, successfully kidnapped Reagan and lopped off his head? Does anyone doubt what would have happened to those agents in the aftermath? Do any of us think those agents would still be employed, rather than celebrated?

While it might seem that I’m shooting both barrels at the Secret Service, I’m not alone in this assessment. Read Ronald Kessler’s revealing book, In the President’s Secret Service-2Secret Service. Kessler shows the public what I’d already learned—that the Service relies on image and bluster in performing its duties, and while younger agents might want to perform actual work, the dinosaurs who’ve run the organization into the ground won’t let them. And they’re the same managers who were running the show when Reagan was shot, and but for the heroic actions of Agents McCarthy and Parr, Reagan might never have made it out of there alive—not with all the doubt, and the agents who ran around to scream and shout.

It’s a sad note but as writers we should go for credibility and reality. There are a ton of possible plot ideas in this article, and if enough of us write about the Service’s weak points, perhaps we might push them into realizing the corner they’ve backed themselves into, and by so doing we might prompt them to adapt to a world in which terrorists think way outside the proverbial box. And by the way? Make note of the argument that terrorists act . . . rather than standing around in doubt before they run around to scream and shout. They don’t have to be in doubt. They’ve thought their plan through. Now it’s time for the Secret Service to regard the terrorists from a new perspective and to plan ahead now . . . before it’s too late.

Old Breed Pump Operators

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Old Breed Pump OperatorMoving water through a fire hose is both an art and a science. The artistry is instinctive while the science tackles the mathematics behind getting that water where it needs to be gotten to. But until rudimentary computers were first installed on fire engines to handle the math, it was difficult to tell where the art left off and the science began, because there are fifty shades of gray between the two. But leave it to the old breed pump operators—those men dressed in gray uniforms—to blur that distinction so that it all looks so effortless.

How did they do it? Simple. After arriving at a fire the old-timers would plant a foot on the engine’s running board, then jam their knee against the large hose that carries water from fire hydrant to fire pumper. The old breed pump operators, aka “enginemen,” relied on their knees to alert them if that massive intake hose turned soft from more water being pumped out than there was coming in. So if the knee moved an adjustment was called for, and pushing a lever in while pulling another out usually solved the glitch.

Still, it wasn’t pretty. Fire ground hydraulics is heavy on the math. Water cascades and tumbles as it flows through a hose. This dynamic creates friction which results in reduced pressure and volume at the nozzle. The longer and thinner the hose, the greater the “friction loss.” And when an engineman at a major fire is ordered to supply multiple attack lines and a large nozzle at the end of an aerial ladder, the math gets complicated. Why? Because to carry out his task the engineman must know how much water is available, the length and size of each hose he’s supplying, the type and size of each nozzle on each hose, and must then incorporate other, seemingly innocuous variables such as elevation into the equation. So if for example the nozzle on that aerial ladder is eighty feet up in the air, he has to add an additional forty pounds of pressure to the hose supplying that pipe.

However, the older enginemen had little if any formal training in hydraulics. But they understood the theory. They sure did. And they worked out calculations for P7210074_150x150_thumb[1]each hose and nozzle on each engine ahead of time, and memorized the results. Call it Kentucky Windage. It’s where art and science often met when time was crucial and action had to be taken now. And that method is still valid today, and enginemen still memorize predetermined settings since it’s the only way to rapidly put water on a roaring fire.

When I entered the fire service in 1971, most of the old breed had already been around since the 1940s. Meeting them for the first time could be interesting. Holding out a hand, they’d introduce themselves with names as straightforward as their manner, names such as Bunky and Bear, or perhaps Virgil, Victor, Calvin, Clyde or Charley. Lacking any formal education beyond high school, these men managed logistical issues and fire ground operations with equal ease. Although they carried no formal rank, fire fighters rarely questioned their inherent authority because having been there, done that and bought the T-shirt, it was often the enginemen who kept both the fire apparatus and the fire ground operations running smoothly.

The apparatus were also old, with 1950’s era open-cab fire engines that had no automatic transmissions and often as not no power steering or power brakes, either. There were magnetos to switch on, chokes to adjust and starter buttons next to the accelerators. It took “three men and a boy” to turn the steering wheels, and enginemen had to get it right the first time when shifting those non-synchronized, straight-stick transmissions. Miss a gear and you had to come to a stop and start over again.

The old-timers held onto another distinction: they wore standard work clothes during the week but Sundays saw them reporting for duty in dress blue uniforms. No rules required this salute to the Sabbath. Instead it was simple understanding—a “this is the way it is” acceptance of Life’s priorities by unassuming men. Of course I’ve been referring to only one gender because there were no female fire fighters in 1971. But when they did begin appearing a few short years later, the old breed welcomed them with proffered hands and greetings of, “Just call me Bunky.” Or Bill or Calvin or . . .

1951 Ward La FranceIf the older enginemen liked you they’d serve as mentor, pushing and urging younger colleague to surpass their own achievements. Many an older engineman ended up working for lieutenants and battalion chiefs who were once fresh-faced probationers. But if a Young Turk got on an older guy’s bad side, forget about the mentoring because the enginemen would ignore the too-cocky rookie.

It’s an era that’s almost gone now, although there is this one old breed engineman who has been on the job since 1969. The new kids on the block refuse to believe his tales of riding on the tailboards of fire engines racing down streets at high speed, or that the engines had wooden ladders and sometimes fire fighters might run into a burning building without an air mask to make a rescue, relying on their “leather lungs” to carry them through. Yep, it’s all stranger than fiction and yet it’s all true. And that’s a good thing because these are the tales that generate the best stories.

The Boardwalk Sobriety Checkpoint

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Checkpoint3My November 18, 2012 article, The One About the Russian Sub, defends a first responder’s occasional need to pull a few fast ones—and we’re not talking about quick-draws. We’re talking pranks. Stupid, juvenile, time-wasting escapades designed to release pent-up energy that might otherwise cause a good cop or capable paramedic to blow a gasket. Not pranks to make another appear foolish, but to offer inclusion and acceptance by one’s peers. And so it was one June evening in the early 1980s, when the need arose to establish a checkpoint on the boardwalk of a popular ocean resort, a checkpoint designed to identify inebriated pedestrians. Except the need didn’t exist—at least not one designed to safeguard citizen sobriety. Instead, it was a need for some speed—the speed of laughter.

Ocean City, Maryland’s population skyrockets overnight from 8,000 winter residents to 300,000+ summer vacationers. Many are fueled by lust, liquor and licentious leanings. To handle the onslaught, Ocean City augments its permanent force of 140 police officers with “seasonal” officers. These men and women, these “summer cops,” are recruited from college criminal justice programs. They’re gifted and motivated. They’re also greener than a wiener that’s well past its sell-by date. I know this because as a state trooper I often worked alongside these career and seasonal officers.

On this particular June evening I’d just completed some business at the local courthouse when one of my state police colleagues drove past in his K-9 unit. Feeling the need for that speed, I told him meet me at “the Boards.” After we nosed our cruisers toward a cement ramp that leads onto the boardwalk, Trooper “Smith” (all names have been changed to protect the guilty) and I leaned against our cruisers and watched the thousands of visitors streaming up and down the Boards. Within minutes an Ocean City Prisoner Transport Unit pulled up. Officer “Keith” had seen us—knew us—sensed trouble of a dissimilar dimension, and wanted to be in on it with us.

So there we were, on a clear warm night chatting away when a Nicky New Guy ambled by in his spanking new uniform. Call him . . . Ishmael. Another young, innocent summer cop. Sharp and squared-away and with a look of great intelligence—but also greener than sin. Worse still, he made the mistake of saying, “Hey, guys. What’s up?”

Oh, you poor slob. Shame on you for falling into our clutches. And make no mistake. They were clutches alright, because in that time-honored tradition of first responders looking after their own, we of course were about to throw him to the wolves. Hey, we’d all been there. I’d certainly paid my dues, and felt honored that the veterans wanted to add me to their crew. So working without a script I put on a look of disbelief and said, “Man, didn’t you hear?”

I could sense Trooper Smith and Officer Keith coming alive, ‘cause we’d  played the game often enough to know what the line, “man, didn’t you hear” signified: it meant, play time.

When Ishmael shook his head and admitted that he hadn’t heard, I stood taller—all of 5’7” in fact—then adjusted the angle of my Stetson to an even cockier slant Shenanigan's - Ocean City MDand said, “Yeah, we’re here to conduct another boardwalk field sobriety checkpoint.”

I could almost hear the eyeballs clicking as his peepers moved back and forth while trying to recall some obscure mention of this momentous matter during roll call. But it just wasn’t coming to him. Of course, as a cop he was aware that Maryland troopers had been among the first in the country to implement sobriety checkpoints on major highways. But on a boardwalk? Seeking out soused citizens? On foot, no less?

The nagging doubt on his still-unlined face spoke volumes, so Officer Keith kicked-in. “Yeah. They announced it at mid-shift’s roll call. Guess they forgot to mention it during yours.”

Then in an act that earned Ishmael high marks because it showed that he was only human, he admitted his continued ignorance of the briefing. (It also rendered him instant eligibility to join our crew, since we liked working with humans, not robots).  Anyway, Officer Keith jerked a thumb over his shoulder at Trooper Smith and me. “Yep. The state guys are gonna check for drunk pedestrians. That’s why I’m here—to hold their prisoners.”

Disbelief still loomed in Ishmael’s eyes, so I added that we were waiting for our corporal to arrive, which was true because he knew where Smith and I usually were this time of the night. As doubt began to fade, Ishmael asked how we planned to conduct the checkpoint. Still ad-libbing, I explained. “We’re gonna pull our cruisers across the Boards, but with only enough room between Smith’s front bumpers and my rear ones to allow one pedestrian at a time to pass.”

What the hell—it sounded probable enough.

I counted to ten but Ishmael nodded before I reached three, then asked what he could do to assist. I said, “Tell the other personnel what we’re doing and where we are. Tell ‘em to station themselves outside the bars. If someone leaves in a state of intoxication, the troops should follow ‘em here . . . and give us the signal.”

“Sure, I can do that. But umm . . . what’s the signal?”

“The signal? It’s this.” Winking my right eye three times, I pressed on. “That’s the signal we always use. Three winks? It means, ‘this guy goes to the klink’.”

Keith quickly added, “And don’t forget the radio code for drunken pedestrians: it’s Code 15.” Keith didn’t even crack a smile after providing the impromptu code.

Checkpoint2Ishmael acknowledged the instructions and went to work. Keith, Smith, and I figured that was the end of it and we were already talking of other things when three events intervened to seal the deal’s fate. The first was that our corporal arrived as I’d told Ishmael he would. The second part of the puzzle fell into place when Keith’s younger brother appeared. Smith and I knew Curt well. Full-of-beans and a born prankster, he’s also deaf and only those who know him can decipher his speech. So imagine the scene when Ishmael happened by minutes later and saw Curt standing in front of us, feet together and arms outstretched, alternately touching the tips of his index fingers to his nose while talking away. It looked like we were indeed administering field sobriety tests—and to someone who sounded as if he’d imbibed a few too many.

The third link to fall in place came at that moment when the sergeant in charge of the boardwalk detail hurried over to us with fear writ large across his face. It seems that moments earlier Ishmael told him of our sobriety checkpoint. This particular sergeant didn’t know Curt and didn’t realize that he was clowning around—and asked if we did in indeed plan on barricading the Boards with our cruisers.

Keith jumped in. Taking the sarge by the elbow, he uttered those magic words, “Oh, didn’t you hear?” Keith then swore by all that was holy that the “word” had Checkpoint5been handed down earlier, and made a show of searching his clipboard for the elusive memorandum. “It’s here somewhere,” Keith insisted, while flipping through his memos. He needn’t have tried—the sarge was already convinced, and throwing his hands into the air he told us to leave him out of it—but to use as many of his officers as required to perform our mission. Then this good old team player marched off for the comparative safety of the Boardwalk Sub Station. Meanwhile, Ishmael, now converted to our slightly skewed catechism of conduct, vowed to get to work on those Code 15s.

What did we do at that point? Well, our motto mirrored Alfred E. Neuman’s maxim: “What, me worry?” Therefore we did what any good troop would do—we climbed into our cruisers and got the hell outta Dodge. We figured, let someone else deal with the fallout, ‘cause we’re westbound an’ hammer down.

And there was fallout aplenty. The next night I was off duty and attending a solemn, reverential gathering of police officers. Well, okay. It was a raucous, irreverent cop party and the chief topic among the already tipsy tilted toward tales of cops chasing down phantom sobriety checkpoints until 3:00 a.m., their radio traffic heavy with reports of code 15s at such and such tavern, or at Joe’s Corner Bar. Then someone would ask where the checkpoint was. Another would reply that they thought it was here. Or there, or . . . somewhere.

Checkpoint1Yep. We were juvenile. And immature. Okay, fine. Mea culpa, mea culpa. But it sure was fun! And the results resound thirty years later because it’s one of the things that keeps first responders cool, calm and collected. Collected in a basket that is, prior to being led off to a state hospital. But that’s another story. In the meantime we worked hard, partied hard—and caught a lot of hard-nosed criminals. That’s the value in being playful; that’s the lesson first responder outfits need to relearn. Otherwise cops will chase crooks as before—but the process will lead to stress and early retirements. Worse still, they won’t have anything cool to uncover at reunions; there’ll be none of those stories of, “Damn the torpedoes! Full sobriety checkpoints ahead!”

Post script: Ishmael proved to be as exceptional as we suspected and went on to a stellar career with a large police agency. He raised some cool kids and after earning a graduate degree, landed a great job in the educational field. He and I remain good friends to this day. Officer Keith became a major player in the Maryland State Police and his brother Curt ended up working for my oldest brother. Trooper Smith recently retired after some three decades of police work, and remains a local legend. Me? I’m still crazy, only now I’ve got the papers to prove it.

Why People Hate Cops

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JailI’ve heard too many people say, “I hate cops.” Sadly, these words aren’t always uttered by people on the wrong side of the law, but by diners in high-end restaurants and in first class lounges at major airports. Acquaintances, friends and even relatives have also expressed their hated of cops. This hostility intrigued me at first, all the more so because while conducting my duties as a trooper people were thanking me for being nice to them—saying thanks even as I was giving them a speeding ticket. Or arresting them for burglary . . . and even for murder. The disparity troubled me. Over time however, by watching officers from other agencies and upon rising to sufficient rank to gain a broader perspective—I began to see why people hate cops.

It’s important to keep in mind that it’s the blue collar workers, executives, retirees and the students who’ve developed ill feelings toward cops that I’ll discuss here. Also significant are the numbers—so many people feel they’d been treated unfairly—or worse—by cops who were more punk than police. Since we’re dealing with the common man and woman, let’s examine the root cause by focusing on what causes more cops to come into contact with civilians above all else—the traffic stop.

We’ve all been stopped at one time or another. As a teenager I had a lead foot and got my share of speeding tickets. But I had no negative feelings toward the officers who for the most part were civil and even polite. Much later, while attending a state police academy, the instructors taught us the following method for stopping traffic violators: we should approach the driver and say, “Good afternoon. I’m Trooper Anderson of the Maryland State Police and I’ve stopped you for doing seventy-eight miles per hour in a posted fifty-five zone. I’m going to issue you a citation and I need your license and registration.”

It’s civil, respectful and more often than not, drivers shook their head and said, “I’m upset about getting a ticket but I can’t be mad at you, because you’re so nice about it.” This  approach applied while talking to burglary suspects or even when dealing with combatants at a bar fight. The big plus is that cops can always ratchet it up if necessary, but can’t take back their words if they started off as a jerk.

What constitutes being a jerk? Here are some methods that create enemies, starting with a deputy sheriff who stopped me one night. After I pulled over he approached and mumbled, “License, insurance and registration.” While getting them I asked what the problem was. He didn’t answer. Instead, he took the documents and returned to his cruiser. I knew better than to get out and move toward him so I waited, confident that he would talk to me before taking any action. It proved not to be the case when he reappeared at my door and said he’d written a citation for following another car too closely.

I said, “Deputy, I believe you’ve stopped the wrong car.” Instead of hearing me out, he told me not to argue and that I’d “better” sign the citation. I thought, okay, but while signing it I said, “Don’t worry. I’ve been a police officer for far too many years to argue or refuse to sign.” All at once he asked why I hadn’t told him right off that I was a cop. I said that it shouldn’t have mattered despite the fact that I was equal in rank to an assistant chief, and that he should’ve been civil with me from the start, adding, “I would’ve pointed out the car you were probably after—the one you obviously lost track of and ended up stopping the wrong car. Mine.” His response? He stormed off. So okay, I should’ve considered the possibility that he was having a bad night. But what popped into my mind was, “Now I know why people hate cops.” (BTW, I took the case to court and prevailed).

In another example I was a passenger in a friend’s car. He’d just pulled onto a road and had gone fewer than thirty feet when a local cop suddenly appeared and Exorcistpulled him over. He then marched up to the window and said, “License and registration.” My friend Bill asked why he’d been stopped. The officer replied, “Speeding. Forty-four in a thirty-five zone.” Bill replied, “That’s not possible because I just . . .” But when the cop turned on his heel and stalked off to his cruiser, Bill activated his Bluetooth and called Rob, his partner of twenty years. Bill was expressing his dismay at being stopped when the cop reappeared. Bill said to Rob, “Hold on, Sweetheart.” The Bluetooth was still active and Rob said, “Have the officer explain how he determined your speed.” I was going to coach Bill to do the same thing, but before Bill could reply, the cop moved his head slightly inside the car (bad, bad officer safety move by the way) and said loudly enough to be heard over the Bluetooth, “I saw him speeding.” Then he added, “Did you get that . . . Sweetheart?”

I’ve gotta tell ya—I literally felt like punching this punk’s face in—in part because of his conduct but mostly because Rob was a highly-decorated cop. But of course I wasn’t going to lower myself to this cop’s level. However, I made a formal complaint against him. And I’ll appear as Bill’s witness when he fights this ticket in court. And as a recognized expert I’ll add my opinion that the heart of the problem is this: studies have revealed that cop-killers often lash out because a cop was treating them like dog meat.

Assaulting a cop or anyone else is inexcusable . . . but yeah, it’s what can happen when someone’s sense of self-respect has been attacked. There are countless other examples to report on. What’s important however is to acknowledge that we’re looking at the tip of an iceberg—with 90% of the examples yet to be seen until some cop scrapes against the wrong person and CNN goes ballistic. Of course, there are countless cops out there who are courageous, courteous and civil. But we all know what a few bad ones can do . . . and I do know why people hate cops.

Why We Write

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TypewriterWe pound words onto paper for any number of reasons, and Ready Room – A Site for Cops and Writers assists in the pursuit of those reasons by serving as a resource. Specifically, it’s for authors who want to get it right when writing about first responders. Why endeavor to get ‘things right’? Because credibility is key to attracting return readers—readers who’ll put down a novel at the first hint of a character putting a silencer on a revolver (it’s impossible to use a silencer on a revolver). So our goal is to draw readers into the worlds we create by creating plausible plots, along with settings that involve our senses. In so doing we build something to be proud of—a novel that invites us to suspend disbelief and then invest is a hero’s journey. But we owe it to our readers to give our best by sidestepping errors, or by building scenes that compel us shout in anger, “What’re you doing, Mr. or Ms. Author?”

Let’s begin with errors. There was a time when publishers could afford the luxury of redundant proofreaders and copy editors. But rising expenses have sent these essential personnel to the unemployment lines. More and more now, I turn the pages of best-selling books and find typos, missing words and entire sentences repeated verbatim. In one thriller in particular, entire paragraphs were duplicated on the same page throughout the book. As a rule I stop reading after finding three such instances, but I had a reason to read this one through and could only shake my head at the twenty or so blunders that leaped off the pages.

Another thriller involved the crash of a presidential aircraft that killed The Man himself. The story’s premise sent the hero to the crash site. He’s given directions to a secondary highway and told to look for a dirt road a certain distance from such-and-such intersection. The hero reaches the general area but becomes frustrated when he can’t spot the dirt road that’ll take him to the disaster site. Finally—finally—he sees what must be the dirt road, and after venturing down it he arrives at the place.

And all this time I’m literally shouting at the book, “Are you kidding me? All you’ve gotta do is look in the sky for the news helicopters. Or the kajillion news satellite masts sprouting far into the air for this world-shaking event!” But no, there’s not a single representative of the media in sight. Not one. Nor is there any evidence of tire tracks from the fire, paramedic, police, ranger, and Secret Service vehicles that must have already gone down that trail. At the very least show me a state trooper posted at the road to prevent the deluge of curious citizens that would most assuredly have descended upon the site.

But there were none of these tell-tale signs of a Breaking News event that would’ve attracted thousands of reporters, spectators and nut jobs, like moths to a bright light. And these omissions, as glaring as any bright light, told me one thing—the author had thrown this story together but never bothered to live it—to infuse it with images of real-life events. As a result I felt taken for granted and vowed to never buy another of this author’s books.

In another novel the protagonist is an attorney who hires an old friend to conduct a private investigation. These guys go back decades and are frequent guests in Man with Laptop Computereach other’s homes. But when the private eye friend is murdered in a most gruesome manner the protagonist displays no anxiety beyond expressing his “sadness” over the event. Worse still, not once does he visit the widow to offer consolation. Nor does he attend the funeral. Hell, he doesn’t even send flowers! Why? Because the author didn’t bother to place himself in the story—to ask, “Okay. How would I feel if my very best friends was tortured and murdered? And what would I say to his widow after I’ve rushed to their home?”

Bottom line, if an author can’t be bothered to instill emotions into a story, how can he or she expect readers to become emotionally involved? Empathy is crucial to a story’s success, but how could anyone emphasize with this attorney? Quite the opposite—the total absence of his grieving process turned me against this so-called hero, even to the point that I kept waiting for the author to slip something in that explained the hero’s total detachment from his friend’s death. I wanted a plot twist. Something. But nothing ever happened. And I’ve never bothered to read another of this author’s works.

ThrillerFest (2)This is why we write. To give readers a hero or heroine whom we can cheer for, feel for and cry for when things turn south. Among the tools we use are real-life experiences. We also turn to the resources that guide us in our quest for credibility. Don’t rush your story along just to get it into print. Produce something to be proud of. Find at least three beta-readers who’ll examine your manuscript with a critical eye and then report the obvious: “Hey, shouldn’t there be tons of media and security personnel at this crash site? And dude, don’t you feel anything about your best buddy’s horrible death? I mean—come on, already.”

This is how we write righteous works of art—by honoring our readers by doing our best. And in so doing, we honor ourselves. Now go out there and do something honorable.

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