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Calling on the Cops: Developing Police Sources for Your Research

Pub Date: Jul 20, 1997 | Columnist: Daniel A. Byram

"You, too, are being silently interviewed by your subject".

Calling on the Cops: Developing Police Sources for Your Research

By Daniel A. Byram, Retired Undercover Cop

Authorlink! Arizona Correspondent

Good mystery and police fiction writers know that getting accurate background and technical information about law enforcement can be vital to making their novels believable–and salable.

But when you don't personally know a homicide detective, narcotics cop, or federal agent, what can you do to develop these sources for your research? It's tough to meet cops cold, so here are a few tips from my own perspective as a retired investigator:

1. KNOW WHAT YOU ARE LOOKING FOR. Getting to the right agency is half the battle. Before calling anyone for an appointment, learn all you can about which specific department handles the type of case you're researching. If your story centers around a female federal agent working counterfeiting cases, go to the library or the Internet and search for articles relating to counterfeiting investigations. You will find that the Federal agency involved is the United States Secret Service. Follow up with a search of related articles to determine the general image and mood of the organization. Check out any available books about the agency and study everything you can. Many of the pertinent questions for your story will emerge from your own initial investigation.

When you know all you can about the agency, follow up with a phone call to the closest office. Get an appointment to personally interview anyone in the department who is willing to visit.

2. SET THE STAGE FOR A PROFESSIONAL INTERVIEW. When you meet, be prompt and appear professional. Cops size people up quickly, and they prefer a conservative appearance. It's a little like undercover work, you don't want to show up looking like Dennis Rodman, because you, too, are being silently interviewed by your subject. If the officer thinks you're clueless or flaky, they'll probably blown you off.

3. AVOID AMATEURISH OPENING STATEMENTS, such as, "I'm a new writer and I don't know where to begin?" You will probably get helped to the door. A cop arrests people for a living, and doesn't have any idea what you need.

4. BUILD YOUR CREDIBILITY. Give the officer a thumbnail outline about your completed research. It makes you look more professional. Explain your mission in one or two short sentences–that you are writing a book or article about such-in-such, and you would like to solicit their help. In advance of the interview, clearly write out your goal, and prepare specific questions. For example, background information might include questions about equipment, work schedules, selection processes, training for the unit. You might also want to ask about requirements for bi-lingual officers, or special training for the bomb squad or SWAT team.

5. PHRASE QUESTIONS FOR MAXIMUM FEEDBACK. Avoid questions which can be answered "yes" or "no." Instead, use open-ended questions. For example: "What, personally, has been your most interesting operation as an officer?" Entice the officer into telling you his or her personal experiences. Most of us, even cops, enjoy talking about ourselves.

6. GET THE OFFICER TO BUY INTO THE PROJECT. He or she will give you more information if they feel a sense of personal ownership. Ask them to review the draft manuscript when it is completed. Give the officer a business card and ask for a call if any interesting cases develop that might be suitable for books or articles. If appropriate, offer a credit in the article or book. You might consider writing a short article about your project for the department or agency newsletter. Ask for referrals to other possible sources. And always follow up with a thank-you note and a letter of praise to the person's supervisor.

Breaking through the thin blue line may seem difficult, but officers respond to people who are forthright, prepared, and professional. Don't be discouraged at initial failures. People who reject you probably wouldn't have given a good interview anyway. Seek out another source and try again. And remember, determination is the key to reaching your goal. Dan Byram retired from law enforcement after 23 years. He spent most of his adult life as an undercover cop and a commander of undercover operations. He writes about and teaches a college course on police procedures. He is also a novelist. Contact Dan at: dbyram@danielbyram.com

Copyright, Dan Byram, 1997