2015 Writer's Police Academy - Appleton, WI

Crime! I want to write crime fiction…mystery…suspense…thrillers…however you slice it, it’s about crime. I’ve owned a copy of Lee Lofland’s book, “Police Procedure & Investigation” for several years now and found it so helpful in my writing (thanks Lee!). And I’ve watched, from afar, each year as the Writer’s Police Academy (WPA) conference was announced online. Well, when I found out that the 2015 WPA event was moving to a new locale in Appleton, WI I about leapt outta my pants with joy! I could drive that distance in just over four hours. Yay! And even better, because I was a member of Sisters in Crime, I could get into the event for a discounted price. Done deal.

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Then I found out my friend, Jessie Chandler (author extraordinaire) was going with a friend of hers D.J. Schuette. Now we had us a road trip trio. We set out in the Honda CR-V and had us a jolly good time discussing writing, editing and serial killers all the way from Coon Rapids, MN to Appleton, WI. Pitter-patter went my heart. We arrived and grabbed some grub and made our way to the registration. We met Lee Lofland and Jessie told him that Lori Lake said hello…ah, there went Jessie name-dropping. And then Jessie introduced D.J. and me to Catriona McPherson, Sisters in Crime el Presidente…ah, but her Scottish accent was so flipping cool! We became buddies with the inimitable Catriona, well, okay, Jessie was already buddies, but D.J. and I jumped on that bandwagon right quick. (We’re fast learners, D.J. and I.)

On Thursday evening, after everyone was registered in hotels and for the conference, we attended Lee Lofland’s WPA Orientation and Announcements session, where we quickly learned that the buses would leave for Fox Valley Technical College PROMPTLY at 7:30 a.m. and that the hotel pool was open until 11 p.m. And I doubt that any attendee forgot those important details over the next three days. The welcome session was followed by a super presentation, “3D Crime Scene Mapping” put on by the awesome, Dr. Joe LeFevre. Joe had a Leica 310 scanner/camera on site and gave a demonstration of how easily crime scenes can be recreated. The real deal. R2D2 ain’t got nothing on this bad boy! This amazing device creates a point cloud 900 ft. in diameter with 50,000 measurement points per second. The camera/scanner measures distance and color all using a laser. Joe shared a story about how the crime scene mapping, using the Leica and Cyclone Software had been used in a murder case. The defense attorney referred to it as a “glorified Etch-A-Sketch,” but the jurors only took five hours to deliberate and return a verdict of Guilty – First Degree Homicide. As Joe so eloquently put it, 3D Crime Scene Mapping is visual story telling—the scanner gives law enforcement the ability to do this. And there are only 110 of these units in use across the U.S. Wow! What an informative and interesting session. We were all tired and quickly said goodnight and returned to our hotel rooms to some sleep before the mandatory 7:30 a.m. departure the next day.
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Friday was jam-packed. So many choices. Jessie, D.J. and I plotted and planned before settling on session choices. We attended the same sessions, with a couple exceptions, during the event.
Session #1, “Crime Lab” with Tim Juedes. Tim educated us on everything fingerprint-related. What’s a 10 Print, you ask? Well, 10 Prints are fingerprint impressions made after a person is arrested. The person is identified/known. Okay, so what’s Latent Print, then? Well, Latent Print is a print left by someone not yet identified. And did you know that identical twins will have almost the same fingerprints, but not completely identical? Wild. A lot of agencies are moving to digitizing fingerprints (doing them on computer) as opposed to the 10 Print cards using ink. Although, ink remains the best way to print. AFIS is the Automated Fingerprint Identification System. All law enforcement agencies utilize AFIS. (CODIS is the DNA version of AFIS.) Whew! A lot to know about fingerprints. On to the next session
Session #2—“Crime Scene to Autopsy” with Coroner, Amanda Thoma. Coroners are elected officials! Yep! Elected. One of the many tidbits I didn’t know. Coroners certify the following types of deaths: natural, accidental, suicide, homicide and undetermined. A typical autopsy report takes anywhere from 3-6 months and toxicology results take 6-8 weeks, unlike on the TV shows where the reports/results are back after one commercial break. I bet you didn’t know that a victim’s DNA could be extracted from maggots! How cool is that? Coroners do not perform autopsies, Forensic Pathologists perform them and the coroner attends. The two work together to make a determination on cause/manner of death. The coroner does go to the crime scene and takes possession of the body. Coroner takes photographs and documents crime scenes. A coroner does NOT need a warrant to look at a crime scene. Coroner’s process at a crime scene is: photograph body & scene; exam the body and visually document any/all injuries – look at fingernails, hands, feet, etc.; confer with law enforcement; have the body removed from the scene by funeral home or M.E.; coroner recommends not covering the body at a scene, instead use screens to block view of onlookers. Amanda shared a few stories with our group. She seemed to like doing her job (I guess you’d have to or why do it, right?). Amanda admitted that the worst part of a coroner’s job was notification of death to surviving family/friends. Oh, and despite what we see on TV, the coroner and law enforcement do NOT bring family members to the crime scene to identify a body. The identification process begins with a license or other possible personal effects found on the deceased. Okay, time for lunch! We need a brain break anyway.
Session #3—“Insider’s View to the World of Women in Law Enforcement” with Robin Burcell. Robin is a retired police officer and is now a writer. Robin was a police officer for 27 years and she saw a LOT! Robin said that back in 1983 when she was first hired, the badges said “Policeman” not “Police Officer” like they do now. Of course, law enforcement via the patriarchy! Robin admitted that balancing family and a career in law enforcement was difficult, but she managed. She said that after having children she related very differently to crimes against children. Back at the beginning of her career officers had to pay for their own ballistic vest—and if they chose to wear them, the vest had to be worn under the uniform shirt, which meant once you put it on you had to keep it on for the entire shift. Nowadays, officers wear the vests over the uniforms and vests have additional keeper pockets for storing cuffs, magazines, etc. Robin was a patrol officer and then later a detective and even worked undercover. As a patrol officer, she was rated “below standards” because she’d never been in a physical altercation, so they didn’t know if she could ‘handle’ herself, thus they gave her the low rating. Really? Because she used her mind and her words instead of brute force she was rated lower than her male counterparts. Robin said that the goals of every police officer are: Go home at night and don’t kill anyone. You sweet-talk; lie, do whatever you need to do to get someone to open a door and talk to you. Talk a suspect down. Good advice, if the situation is right.
Session #4—“Interview and Interrogation” with David Swords. David was with Springfield P.D. for 30 years. He explained the Miranda Warning arose from a Supreme Court case in 1966. Miranda is read to a SUSPECT if they are in police custody. Witnesses need not be Mirandized. However, if during an interview a law enforcement official realizes the witness may have committed the crime, then they should stop the interview and Mirandize that person. Also, a signature is NOT required on Miranda Warning. According to David, a favorite movie trick is showing officers reading the Miranda Warning to a handcuffed suspect after a foot chase. This does NOT happen, unless the officer is a rookie who’s watched too much TV. Officers should NOT Mirandize unless THEY are going to question a suspect about a crime. Otherwise, the interrogator is the one who should Mirandize, as they are the ones trying to gain a confession or to convince the suspect it’s in his/her best interest to confess. And confessions are the most challenged evidence in suppression hearings. Who knew? Another TV gamut that we’ve all seen is keeping a suspect in an Interrogation Room for hours w/o food or drink—law enforcement CANNOT do this. The Interrogation Room, ideally should be spartan…chairs for the suspect and interrogator(s); maybe a plain table off to the side so there’s no barrier; no windows or pictures; recording equipment should be in the ceiling…there should be no distractions. Suspects are usually NOT handcuffed or cuffed to a table. Interrogators want the suspect to relax and trust them. The most important things to watch are the suspect’s eyes and their body language. These are the Interrogation “tells.” And police can use deception when questioning suspects, such as, telling a suspect that their partner confessed, when the partner really didn’t. Although allowed, deception should be used as a last resort. So much to know about questioning suspects! Good information. Okay, off to the final session for the day.
Session #5—“The Mindset of Cops” with Secret Service Agent, Mike Roche. Mike began his career with the Little Rock, AR P.D. and then went to the Secret Service. Mike explained the five stages of a police career: Fascination stage (1-4 yrs); Hostility stage (5-7 yrs); Superiority stage (8-14 yrs); Acceptance stage (15-retirement); and then Retirement. The average life expectancy for a cop after retirement is five years. Mike mentioned the “Thin Blue Line,” the “us against them” mindset. I imagine that situations like, Ferguson, NYPD, LAPD and Baltimore PD dealt with are prime examples of the us vs. them mindset, which in some ways is mirroring the 1960s/1970s eras of policing. What about gender differences? Mike said that females have to present strength; they work smarter; they are better observers; better interviewers; are more empathetic; and have the emotional strength to overcome perceptions. Male officers tend to be physically stronger, but testosterone can be negative. Mike said that authors can always write conflict about supervisors in law enforcement. “If you’re not exploiting this you’re missing a great opportunity as writers.” LOL … apparently, law enforcement has its issues with the worker bees vs. the bosses, like many hierarchical work situations. Mike was a great presenter and good storyteller. I’m tired! Let’s get some supper and hunker down for the night. Saturday’s gonna be a long day!

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Saturday, bright and early, at FVTC, we see a police chase in River City! Yep, that’s the make believe town set up on campus. Gas station, motel, bank, houses. And we get to see a bank robber being chased through the streets and then exchanging gunfire with the police. Cars and guns and bullets, oh my! Okay, not real bullets, but all the other stuff is real. And, of course, the good guys won! All the fun over with, it was time to head inside and plow through another intense day of presentations.
Session #1—“Forensic Art and Witness Recall” with Robin Burcell. Obviously, Robin didn’t get enough of the WPA attendees on Friday because she showed up again on Saturday to share even more of her vast experience. Robin attended sketch artist training through the FBI at Quantico. She’s an amazing artist. Most of us think that sketches are done to identify suspects. Robin quickly corrected the misconception and let us all know that sketches are used to eliminate, not to identify. And she also told us that the sketch is only as good as the witness. Having the witness face a blank wall when providing the sketch artist details is a good idea. Robin actually had one sketch turn out to look just like her because the witness was looking at her during the process. Yikes! Witness memory is fragile and the process takes an emotional toll on the interviewer as well as the witness/victim. Sketch artists can be law enforcement or civilian. This ain’t no cartoon drawing contest folks, this is serious stuff.
Session #2—“Overview of Forensic Psychology” with Dr. Katherine Ramsland. Dr. Ramsland has written many books on the subject of Forensic Psychology—psychology in the law, by the law. She gave us an overview of psychologist vs. psychiatrist. And an idea of how a Forensic Psychologist handles a typical case: Collect info. For report; school and hospital records, work appraisals; military records; crime scene photos/reports; witness statements. She mentioned the James Holmes case as an example—were his journals his way of making people think he was insane? OR was he, in fact, insane and his journal entries supported that conclusion? So much to think about and so many cases: mass murderers, serial killers, etc. Forensic psychologists cover so much and very often are called as expert witnesses at trials. Personality disorders. Competency. Insanity. Behavioral evidence. Not guilty by reason of insanity (this defense really isn’t used as often as the public perceives). Criminal profiling—not just done by the FBI! Psychological autopsies (victimology/suicidology) and also Police psychology (fitness for duty; stress eval; psych eval and counseling). Let’s talk serial killers, though. Damn those are some freaky fascinating stories. So much so that I had to buy her book, “The Devil’s Dozen” (12 Notorious Serial Killers Caught by Cutting-Edge Forensics), I’m a true crime junky.
Session #3—“Espionage, Cons and the Anatomy of Betrayal” with Marco Conelli. Marco is a retired NYPD Detective and a fabulous storyteller. I was hoping to garner some nuggets of info on espionage. However, the session was more focused on cops working undercover. Don’t get me wrong, it was all great information. Just not what I was expecting based on the title of the presentation.
Session #4—“The CSI Effect: Real vs. Reel” with Michael Black. Michael is a retired Chicago police officer. The best info I came away with from this session was the 7 Step Crime Scene Protocol. Here’s a little nugget to gnaw on—officers take field notes, but once the official report is complete they destroy those field notes. Why you ask? Because if they save those notes a defense attorney can subpoena them! Oh, and contrary to what we see on TV—CSI techs do NOT question suspects and lab results do NOT come back in minutes…more like weeks or sometimes months.
Whew! What a day! So much information to absorb.
Time to go back to the hotel for guest speaker, Allison Brennan. “How to Get it Right”—benefits of research/how it can help writers. Allison articulated some very key points for writers to remember: we are not experts in what we’re writing about; never let research show on the page (less is more); and a biggy—we can’t please all of the people all of the time. Writers need to ensure they are doing their due diligence when writing crime fiction. We should read a lot of books (e.g. true crime). We should try to find experts to bounce questions off of (e.g. FBI, auto mechanic, etc.). Do things like: FBI Citizens’ Academy or tour Quantico. As writers, we owe it to our readers to know what we write (to an extent). The story needs to be entertaining, engaging, well-paced and make the reader want to suspend disbelief. Key point to remember, do your research, but don’t let it show in your writing. Just write a good story!
The banquet and silent auction happened. I know they did. But they were overshadowed by the grand finale—“An Evening with
Karin Slaughter.” And what an evening. She’s as good at speaking as she is at weaving a tale of suspense! Engaging. Humorous—hilarious, actually! And very authentic. I’m hoping that someone recorded her because I’d love to listen to her, again.

The night wound down. Hundreds of excited, but tired attendees milled about getting author autographs and hobnobbing. Hard to believe that only one more event remained.

Sunday morning, Debriefing Panel with a few of the presenters who hadn’t flown the coop yet. And a reappearance of Instructor Colleen Belongea who is an amazing police officer and had great stories to share about her experience as an officer in small town Wisconsin, as well as Green Bay. According to Colleen, until 2005, Green Bay P.D. required female officers to have a #4 hair cut (same as men), no long hair allowed. In 2008 they tried to reinstate that rule, but the current chief is more progressive and he said, “no.” Colleen also spoke about clashing of patrol officers and management—internal judgment happens and results in separation of officers/management. Upper management may appear to not be supporting patrol, when in reality they are, but can’t make this obviously known to the rank and file. Politics in policing, I guess…just like any other line of work.
And that’s a wrap, folks! We loaded up the car, embarked on a quest for fresh cheese curds (we were denied!) and then headed back to Minnesota. Our heads were full of stories, facts, pictures, and most of all—great memories. Thanks to Jessie and D.J. for making this a great experience. Let’s do it again next year!

**Check out some photos on the "WPA 2015" Photo Gallery tab!