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?



Department names

A very quick post this week because once again I’m traveling.

My older daughter is binge-watching Dexter right now, and she asked me why Dexter works for the Miami Metro Police. Why the metro, she wanted to know.

Actually, the city of Miami calls its police the Miami Police Department, while the sheriff’s department for that region used to be called the Metro-Dade Police Department, but is now Miami-Dade Police Department. All of which is slightly confusing. The TV show’s creators seem to have used artistic license in merging the names, much as Reno 911! involved the fictional Reno Sheriff’s Department (in reality, there’s the Washoe County Sheriff and Reno Police).

But also this should be a lesson to authors to take care with department names, whether real or fictional. Agencies differ in nomenclature. Portland, Oregon, for instance, has the Portland Police Bureau. An interesting historical example involved 19th century New York City which, due to political conflict, ended up with two competing police departments: the New York Municipal Police and the New York Metropolitan Police. The competing agencies rioted with each other!

So, do your research and choose your department name carefully!



Somewhere along the line, a rumor started that police can’t lie to suspects, especially if the suspect asks whether the undercover officer is a cop. If the cop does lie, the story says, it’s entrapment. This is a myth. Cops can and do lie all the time. It would be hard for them to do their jobs otherwise.

Nevertheless, the defense of entrapment does exist. Its primary purpose is to ensure that otherwise innocent people aren’t lured by police into attempting crimes they otherwise never would have committed. The underlying idea, I think, is that everyone has a price. Given enough incentive, even the most law-abiding among us might be tempted to stray. (This was part of the idea in the movie Indecent Proposal.)

In the United States, standards vary for determining whether entrapment has occurred. Some states use a subjective test, asking whether the defendant was predisposed to commit the crime. Others use an objective test. That asks whether a reasonable law-abiding person, placed in the defendant’s shoes, would have been likely to commit the offense.

Entrapment comes up as a defense most often during sting operations, when undercover officers induce someone to do something illegal. Of course, the intention of the operations (we hope) is to catch people who already planned illegal activity. Sting operations can be very useful in a variety of contexts, such as prostitution, drug trafficking, and auto theft. But if the operation goes too far, innocent people may be drawn in. Police who want to engage in these activities need to be careful not to cross over the line.

For federal cases on entrapment, check out Jacobson v. United States (involving child pornography) and Sorrells v. United States (alcohol during Prohibition). Either could serve as good plot inspiration.


Want a job?

Last week I had a meeting with several local criminal-justice agency heads. One thing we discussed was their hiring needs, so I thought this would be a good time to discuss how someone qualifies for a job in law enforcement (there are plenty of other CJ jobs too, but the qualifications for those vary).

In every jurisdiction, the minimum criteria to become a police officer include a high school diploma (or GED) and a record clean of felonies. A driver’s license is usually mandatory too. Once upon a time, those things would have been enough to get you a job as a cop.

Nowadays, though, most agencies want more. Some want an associate degree or a bachelor’s degree. All of them will require a clean background check, which means not just lack of criminal activity but also good credit and good associates. Agencies will check candidates’ social media accounts. They may use a lie detector. They will also ask about drug use. Standards for this have shifted, but at least in my area, agencies won’t hire anyone who has ever used hard drugs or who has used pot within the past year or two (even though it’s now legal here).

In many states, applicants will be subject to a psychological evaluation. They’ll also be given a physical agility test and a test to evaluate their ability to communicate clearly in writing.

New police officers have to go through training, of course. Some agencies want new hires to have already completed the academy, but others, especially the larger ones, will hire people first and pay them as they go through the academy.

Last week the chiefs said their ideal candidate is someone who can pass the background check and tests, who has strong writing skills, who has CJ experience as an intern, and who shows a meaningful commitment to the community.

Right now almost every police agency in the US is desperate for strong candidates. The Las Vegas PD has 600 openings! During a recent trip to Vegas, I saw them advertising on the Strip. I don’t know what kind of applicants they think they’ll get from that.

Change of scenery

Detective Jim Hamilton picked up his coffee and took another sip. He needed to get back to work—he had a long list of witnesses to interview—but outside, the wind roared and the snow was beginning to pile up. “I’m sick of winter,” he aid.

His partner, Detective Maria Soto, shrugged. “It’s only January, dude. You’ve got a lot of winter left to go.”

“No, I mean I’m sick of it in general, not just for this year.”

“Minneapolis. Comes with the territory.”

He sighed. “Yeah. You know what? I think I’m gonna move. They’re hiring in Phoenix and Honolulu and LA. No—San Diego. I’m gonna get a job with the SDPD.”

When a police officer moves from one department to another, it’s called a lateral transfer. Unfortunately for Jim, it’s not an easy thing.

To begin with, the officer is going to lose all seniority. It’s probably taken Jim years to work up to detective, but if he leaves Minneapolis, he’s going to be ranked with brand-new rookies. That alone might be enough to dissuade him, but he’s also going to have to start fresh with a brand-new retirement system.

In addition, training requirements for police vary across jurisdictions. While some places might hire him as is, others could require additional training or certification. Some, like California, will make him go through the entire police academy process again (although many police departments may be willing to pay his salary while he’s doing so).

The difficulty of lateral transfers is one thing that distinguishes the US police structure from most other countries. The majority of countries do most of their policing at the federal level, and it’s relatively easy for employees to transfer. The same is true of employees of American federal agencies such as the FBI and the ATF. But the vast majority of American police officers work for local agencies, and they will usually find it hard to move. Looks like poor Jim’s going to have to tough it out until retirement.

Plot bunny: olde tyme forensics

Usually I focus these posts on the criminal justice system in the modern US. But today I’m veering from that a bit to give you a plot bunny. This one might come in handy if you’re writing a historical or spec fic.

We generally think of forensics—the use of science to help solve crimes—as a modern phenomenon. Certainly, in recent years we’ve made much wider and more frequent use of forensics, and science has made huge advancements. But even hundreds of years ago, science was occasionally used in criminal cases.

As far as I can tell, the earliest documented example of this was a Chinese judge named Song Ci, who was born in the late 12th century. He wrote a textbook called Washing Away of Wrongs. Among other things, his book described an early use of forensic entomology, or the use of insects as crime evidence.

Your book’s setting might not allow for state-of-the-art DNA analysis or spectroscopic analysis of paint samples. But even if your book is set in a pre-industrialized locale, you could take inspiration from Song Ci and make use of some scientific detection methods.

Plot bunny: big city cop

I’m doing something a little different this week. Instead of giving you criminal justice facts, I’m giving you a plot bunny. If you write romantic suspense, listen up! Because this is a book I’d love to see written.

Here’s the background you need to know. Serious crimes like homicides don’t happen often in small towns, yet these crimes usually require experienced investigators if they’re going to be handled well. One way some towns get around this conundrum is by contracting with police departments in larger cities. If someone gets murdered in Tiny Town, the local cops can call on the homicide detectives from nearby Big City to investigate. The locals are still going to be involved, of course, but the Big City detectives will lead the show.

So… someone in your Tiny Town turns up dead. Make it someone juicy. The mayor? The high school principal? The mysterious reclusive millionaire with the estate at the edge of town? Local cops call in Detective Sexy from your Big City to see what’s what. And maybe sparks fly between Det. Sexy and Tiny Town’s police chief—but so do tempers, because maybe the chief isn’t best pleased at the detective’s big city ways.

Write this. Please?

Warranted: the exclusionary rule

Today is the final post on warrants—at least for now.

I’ll start with a story. In 1957, Cleveland police were looking for evidence of a bombing, and although Dollree Mapp wasn’t the suspect, they believed she might have evidence in her home. But she refused to let them in. So they returned a few hours later, waving a paper and claiming it was a search warrant. She snatched the paper and shoved it down the front of her dress; they wrestled her and took the paper back. With Mapp in cuffs, they proceeded to search her house. Inside a trunk in the basement they found pornographic books and pictures (the property, Mapp said, of a previous tenant). They arrested Mapp and prosecuted her for possession of illegal pornography. No warrant was ever produced at trial. It’s pretty clear none ever existed.

Mapp appealed her conviction all the way to the Supreme Court, arguing that because police did not have a warrant, the search violated her 4th Amendment rights. Therefore, she said, the evidence should be thrown out of court and her conviction overturned.

In Mapp v. Ohio, SCOTUS agreed. They articulated the exclusionary rule, which says that illegally obtained evidence can’t be used in court. This is a powerful rule because it means that sometimes people we know are guilty will still go free because the cops screwed up. But, the Court said, the rule was the only realistic way to deter police misconduct and protect constitutional rights.

As you might imagine, the exclusionary rule has been unpopular among a lot of people. Over the years, SCOTUS has carved out a number of exceptions to the rule. But the heart of the rule remains intact.

And this concludes our whirlwind tour of warrants!


Warranted: arrest warrants

Last week we discussed the general requirements for obtaining a warrant. This week we’re getting more specific—we’re talking about arrest warrants.

Just to review, an arrest is a type of seizure, and therefore the requirements of the 4th Amendment apply. But even though that amendment implies you need a warrant, a long series of cases says not so much. In fact, police never need a warrant to make an arrest if the person is suspected of a felony. They also don’t need a warrant to arrest someone who’s committed a misdemeanor in their presence. So the only time they must have a warrant is for misdemeanors that the police didn’t witness. This constitutes a pretty small proportion of arrests, so in practice, arrest warrants are rarely required.

However, even if police don’t have to get a warrant prior to making an arrest, they might choose to do so. Why? Well, a warrant offers some potential benefits:

  1. It gets the suspect’s name into the system. This way, if the suspect is later stopped for something else—perhaps something small—police can easily tell whether he’s wanted for another crime. One of my students once failed to pay a speeding ticket or appear in court, so a warrant for failure to appear was issued in his name. Later he and a buddy decided to go swimming in an apartment pool after hours. Someone complained, cops came, and when they checked Steve’s name, there he was. He ended up spending the 4th of July weekend in the local jail.
  2. With an arrest warrant, the police can enter any property where the suspect is, without getting a search warrant. Absent an arrest warrant or search warrant, police can’t enter private property unless they are in hot pursuit of a fleeing felon (that is, the crime has just occurred) or some other emergency exists.
  3. Before getting an arrest warrant, a cop has to convince a magistrate or judge that there’s probable cause that the suspect committed a crime. This provides somewhat of a guarantee that the arrest won’t later be thrown out (by a judge) for insufficient evidence.

Even when a warrantless arrest is made, police must still have probable cause. An arrest made with less than probable cause is illegal and will be invalidated, ending the case.

Incidentally, want a plot bunny? Alma invites her friend Brad over to her house, unaware that Brad has an active arrest warrant out in his name. The cops see Brad enter her house and barge right on in after him. Too bad for Brad. But also too bad for Alma, who’s been packaging heroin in her living room. When the cops see the drugs, they arrest her too.


Warranted: general requirements

For the next few weeks we’ll be tackling a big subject: warrants. This week we’ll talk about general warrant requirements, next week is arrest warrants, and the following week the focus will be on search warrants. Finally, we’ll discuss what happens if police violate the warrant requirements.

The part of the US Constitution that applies here is the 4th Amendment:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Okay, fine. So the amendment says that we have the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. Great. And if the police want to get a warrant, they need probable cause.

So first off, what’s a search or seizure? Well, a search is government intrusion into a place or thing in which the owner has a reasonable expectation of privacy. If a cop overhears my phone conversation while I’m sitting at the adjacent table in Starbucks, that’s not a search because I can’t reasonably expect privacy. But if she grabs my phone and starts scrolling through my texts, that is probably a search.

A seizure is a meaningful interference with property or with a person’s freedom. If a cop tows my car away, that’s a seizure. If she slaps cuffs on me and hauls me off to jail? Also a seizure.

Great. But, um, what’s probable cause? The courts have been reluctant to define it too precisely, but basically it means there’s enough information that a reasonable person could deduce that evidence or contraband is likely in a particular location or that a specific person has committed a crime. It’s more than a hunch, more even than a good guess, but it’s far less than beyond a reasonable doubt, which is the standard of proof required for criminal convictions.

In simplest terms, the 4th Amendment says that in order to search or seize property or arrest someone, a police officer must have probable cause. And she must present her evidence in a sworn statement to a neutral party—a magistrate or judge—who will determine if probable cause does indeed exist. Furthermore, the warrant has to be specific about the place that’s being searched and what’s being searched for, or the identity of the person who can be arrested.

Now as it turns out, the use of warrants is more complicated than that. We’ll get to some particulars in the next two weeks.

Another thing to note now, however, is the procedure for obtaining warrants. The cop can show up in court. But almost all jurisdictions allow phone warrants as well, in which the transaction occurs via phone instead of in person. This is helpful if time is of the essence, e.g., the evidence is likely to disappear.