Movies that get it right

I just spent the weekend at a work retreat, and I’m about to embark on the first of several airplane jaunts. So my postings might be a bit sporadic for a few weeks. But I wanted to bring up a topic I was discussing with my colleagues this weekend: movies that get criminal justice right. Although I often critique portrayals of the justice system, sometimes it’s done well enough that I use a clip in my classes to illustrate a point. Sure, we can allow the filmmakers a bit of room for artistic license and the needs of the film, but here are a few well-executed movies to begin with. Do you have any to add to the list? Please mention them in the comments.

12 Angry Men

My Cousin Vinny

Cool Hand Luke

American History X

Inherit the Wind


Shawshank Redemption


Police communication

Today’s post is going to be especially relevant to folks who write spec fic or historicals. It has to do with the backbone of law enforcement: communication.

Nowadays, communication equipment is paramount to policing. That equipment comes in many forms: The emergency calling system (911 in the US) and the dispatchers it connects callers to. Police radios, computers, and phones. Dashboard and shoulder cameras. All of these create ways for police to communicate with the public and with each other.

But have you ever thought about how communication was managed before all these gadgets were available?

Prior to the late 19th century, if someone needed to call the cops, that person had to run to the police station and fetch them. In some places, rattles or bells were used, but as you might imagine, the range was limited, and the sounds could get swallowed in a noisy city. Furthermore, while these means might summon the cops, there was no effective way for police to communicate with each other.

The first police telephones came about in 1877. These were installed in public places, in boxes or kiosks, and allowed citizens to call the cops. An officer on the scene could also use the phone to talk to people back at the station. (TARDIS-style call boxes were introduced in the UK in 1929.) Police didn’t begin using two-way radios until 1933. Of course, portable computers and mobile phones arrived many decades later.

Even after police acquired improved communication devices, significant problems remained. One of these was incompatibility: the system used in one jurisdiction might not be able to connect to the system used in a neighboring jurisdiction. This made it hard for agencies to cooperate and share information. And since the US has a fragmented law enforcement system with thousands of different agencies, a single criminal event might involve multiple agencies.

The upshot of all of this is that if you’re basing your story in a different time than now—or in a different world—you should put careful thought into how your police will communicate. You could even use this as a plot point. While someone’s trying to call the cops in, say, 1840s Boston, your Bad Guy could be committing a lot of bad acts. Maybe that’s a good chance for your hero to step in?



Truth nuggets

If you watch crime shows, you’ve seen it a zillion times. A crime happens. The attractively dressed detectives gather evidence (or at least stand around looking good while someone else does). The evidence goes to the lab. Minutes later, the lab has an answer. And zap! the bad guy’s in custody, soon to be followed by a conviction. Roll credits.

Makes for a good story, but that’s not how things really work. Several truth nuggets about this scenario:

  1. Over 80% of arrests are made by uniformed officers, not detectives.
  2. Real detectives are generally not as pretty as the ones on TV, and they definitely don’t dress as well.
  3. A large percentage of crimes have little or no physical evidence—so there’s nothing to send to the lab. Or if there is any physical evidence, it’s of little value. When I was in college, I got robbed at gunpoint in the deli where I worked. The cops dusted the counter for prints, but dozens of people had touched that counter since I last wiped it. The chances of getting quality prints of the perp were about zero.
  4. Labs are backlogged. Sometimes for years. Even in an important, high-profile case, it will take many months before lab results are in.
  5. Scientific testing is not infallible. Lots of things can go wrong. Evidence can be mishandled. The lab tech may be unqualified or inept; there have even been cases where they deliberately falsified evidence. The science itself may not be as reliable or as valid as we assume. Even such a seemingly simple scientific technique as fingerprint analysis has been questioned.

I think all these truth nuggets can be exploited to craft a story that’s fresh and cliche-free. They create a host of plot possibilities. So use them!