Thriller Thursday: Kathy Bennett on Writing Authentic Crime Scenes

Thriller Extravaganza is in full swing, and I’m excited to welcome Kathy Bennett. As a former police officer, Kathy is skilled in something writers of all stages get wrong: authentic crime scenes. Thanks so much to her for taking the time to share her secrets with us!

Don’t forget to check out the other Thriller Extravaganza posts and enter the
GRAND PRIZE GIVEAWAY.

Most of my experience involving crime scenes comes from being one of the first police officers at the scene of a crime. Technically, anywhere a crime has occurred is a crime scene, but for the purposes of this blog, I’ll be talking about a setting up a crime scene for a major crime, i.e. a homicide.

Depending upon the circumstances, setting up a crime scene can be a difficult task after the immediate chaos of the crime, or it can involve methodical evidence collection long after the crime has occurred. There are a lot of details involved with setting up and preserving a crime scene, so I’m going to hit on the basics.

One thing to keep in mind: If you are writing about an actual police agency, it is always a good idea to contact that agency and find out what their policies and procedures are. If you are creating a fictional police department, the good news is that you are the Chief of Police– you can make up any policies and procedures you want to fit your story.

Getting back to reality…

The first officers on the scene are going to want to go through the crime seen to be sure there aren’t any additional victims or suspects still present.

The key thing to think about when writing a crime scene is, no matter if it’s the patrol cop who responds to the call or the detective who will be investigating the crime, they want to preserve the crime scene as much as possible and protect any evidence at the scene. The perimeter of the scene has to be large enough to protect the scene and keep the evidence free of contamination.

Many agencies utilize a Crime Scene Log where everyone who arrives at the scene and is assigned a task or enters the crime scene is logged in and out.

Officers (or detectives) will gather information from all possible witnesses at the scene.

Patrol officers will make contact with people at locations near the crime to find and identify possible witnesses.

If the location of the suspect(s) in known, the officers (or detectives) will at the least detain, and possibly arrest the suspect.

A crime broadcast might be put out to other officers in the field if there is information about an outstanding suspect.

A diagram of the area surrounding the crime scene will be done – usually by one of the first arriving patrol officers.

Identifying information of the ambulance crew will be obtained as well as interviewing them of their observations of the crime scene, what they did, and anything they touched or moved at the scene.

Smoking, eating and/or drinking should not be permitted in the crime scene.

Once the investigating detective gets to the scene, he should make note of the officer in control of the Crime Scene Log, his own time of arrival on the scene, the exact address of the scene of the crime, the lighting conditions, the weather conditions and the outside temperature. These are details that can easily be forgotten or overlooked. When an investigating detective is unsure of these basic facts of the investigation, their credibility may be questioned during testimony.

As I said in the beginning of this blog, there are as many scenarios for setting up a crime scene as there are story ideas. However, if a writer can get the basics right, a reader is more likely to believe situations when the writer must ‘bend authenticity’ for the sake of the story.

What do you guys think? What are some of the major problems you see with crime scenes? Do you think television programs have had a detrimental affect on crime writers?

Kathy’s giving away a copy of A DEADLY BLESSING to one lucky commenter, so make sure to leave her some love!

Kathy Bennett’s career with the LAPD began in 1973 as a civilian employee. After serving eight years as a civilian, Kathy became a sworn member of the force, and was a Los Angeles Police Officer for twenty-one years. While most of her career was spent in a patrol car, she’s also been a Firearms Instructor at the LAPD Police Academy, a crime analyst in the “War Room”, a Field Training Officer, and worked undercover in various assignments. She’s was named Officer of the Quarter twice, and Officer of the Year once. 

Kathy has self-published two suspense e-books, A Dozen Deadly Roses and A Deadly Blessing. Both books became bestsellers at Amazon and Barnes and Noble, reaching the Top 100 e-books at both retailers. Find out more about Kathy at:  www.KathyBennett.com

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About Stacy Green

Stacy Green is the best selling author of psychological thrillers and mystery with a dash of romance. As a stay at home mom, she's blessed with making writing a full-time career. She lives in Iowa with her supportive husband, daughter, and their three fur-babies.
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43 Responses to Thriller Thursday: Kathy Bennett on Writing Authentic Crime Scenes

  1. Great post! I think the most unrealistic thing on the TV shows is the speed in which evidence is processed. I would think things would take longer. However, I realize things have to be done faster because of the time frame, so that kind of thing doesn’t really bother me in TV or in books.

    • Stacy Green says:

      Absolutely, Lauralynn. Even in the wealthiest of cities, DNA evidence takes weeks if not months. And the vast majority of the police force doesn’t have 25% of the capability they show on tv. Thanks!

  2. Catie Rhodes says:

    Great info, Kathy. Thanks for sharing with us.

  3. Hi Lauralynn!

    You’re absolutely right. Processing evidence can be very time consuming. But in TV they only have about 45 minutes or so to solve the crime.

    I know of one case where DNA evidence taken at a burglary didn’t get processed for a year! By the time the results came back, the guy was already in prison on another charge.

  4. kathywriteslapd says:

    Hi Lauralynn!

    You’re absolutely right. But then on TV, they only have about 45 minutes to solve the case!

    I know of one case where DNA evidence was taken at a burglary scene. The results identifying the suspect didn’t come back for a year. He was already in prison on another charge.

  5. kathywriteslapd says:

    Hi Catie!

    My pleasure! I love to talk about my former career and my new one. It’s the best of both worlds!

  6. Charlene says:

    Great info, Kathy. I don’t write suspense, but you’d be my go to person if I did. I think it’s fun research I might like to try one day. I have often wondered how accurate they are on the TV shows. I’m thinking, not so much. What do you say?

  7. kathywriteslapd says:

    Hi Charlene!

    I think there is a lot of ‘creative license’ that goes on in a TV show. Right now, the most realistic cop show I’ve seen is Southland, which is supposed to be about the LAPD. However, even with a former LAPD officer as an advisor, there are some huge stretches. But by the same token, if people saw how police work REALLY is, they’d be bored to tears most of the time.

  8. Sue McGinty says:

    Great stuff, Kathy. May I repost the link on our Central Coast Sisters fan page?

  9. Thanks for this great info. I honestly don’t know enough about police procedure to notice mistakes a writer makes (unless they’re something that should have been common sense, like not eating or drinking on a scene), but my husband has a degree in criminal justice and it immediately turns him off a TV show or book when he sees mistakes. I think as writers we need to be as accurate as we can while still leaving out the “boring parts.”

    • Stacy Green says:

      I know a decent amount, but my hope is that my books will be strong enough that even the pickiest of people will be satisfied. Many in your husband’s field have said the same thing. Great point, too. Leaving out the boring parts and being accurate are a tricky mix.
      Thanks!

  10. kathywriteslapd says:

    Hi Marcy!

    I very much agree with you. I brand myself as providing Authentic Crime and Arresting Stories, so I try to keep things as accurate as I can.

    I’m pleased to say that most cops or former cops who’ve read my book and written to me agree that I ‘get it right.’ Of course, they’re usually talking about the department politics etc.

  11. robena grant says:

    Excellent advice. Thanks, Kathy.

  12. Another great post, Stacy!
    Kathy – I know just enough about law enforcement procedures to get it all wrong! LOL! Fortunately for me, I’m creating a fictional unit in my paranormal thriller. But I like to know how the “real” law enforcement professionals do things so that I don’t have to stretch things but so far. 🙂 Thanks for all the tips!

    • kathywriteslapd says:

      Hi Jennifer!

      Well, cops sometimes run into people who might be considered being from another world – but those folks are usually just really drunk or on drugs!

    • Stacy Green says:

      All the credit goes to Kathy. I think one of the biggest mistakes writers make is thinking what they see on television is accurate. Thanks!

  13. rozlee says:

    I’ve sworn off cop shows now that DD#2 graduated from police academy. My imagination doesn’t need any help filling in the dangers she might face. Granted, she’s on a college campus, but as my other daughter, a PhD candidate points out – grad students are nuts!

    I’ll leave the crime scenes and suspense to you. Thanks for the info. Filing it away for future reference, just in case!

    • kathywriteslapd says:

      Hi Roz!

      Congratulations on your daughter’s graduation. Being a cop is not for the faint of heart.
      I guess not for parents either.

      I’m happy to be in my own little world of crime, murder and cops.

    • Stacy Green says:

      OMG, I don’t blame you. I would hate for my DD to become a cop. Thanks for stopping by!

  14. My brother-in-law is a police officer, and suggested I run around the house holding an imaginary gun, then try to point at something straight on. He said many writers fail to convey how tough it is to shoot a gun, particularly when you’re wiped.

    Another great post! Thanks so much, Stacy and Kathy.

    • kathywriteslapd says:

      Hi August! (Love the name)

      Your brother-in-law is so right. I think that is a perfect example where Hollywood gets it wrong. They’ll have a cop character go into some lengthy foot pursuit and then get into a gun battle where they make some miraculous shot. Not at all easy to do.

    • Stacy Green says:

      That’s a great point. I’ve heard it from many cops, and I’ve always heard that many cops aren’t great shots. Glad you enjoyed!

  15. kathywriteslapd says:

    Stacy;

    Thank you SO much for having me on your blog! Your readers brought up some great points about the unrealistic way crime scenes are portrayed on TV and in films. The good thing is that most of them know that television and movies are NOT the places to go for authenticity.

    Many police agencies have Citizen Police Academies where citizens can go to learn what it takes, and somewhat what it’s like to be a cop. Most people come away with a new respect for those who wear a badge.

    Thanks again!

    • Stacy Green says:

      You’re very welcome. Thanks so much for teaching us about such an important topic. Getting crime scenes right is so tricky! Great point about the Citizen Police Academy! Will have to check that out.

      Thank you!

  16. C. K. Crouch says:

    Kathy awesome post and thanks Stacy for having her. I laugh at the stuff on TV now and I do understand the time restraints. I still enjoy them. Do detectives visit most crime scenes? Thanks for sharing your knowledge with us again.

    • kathywriteslapd says:

      Hi C.K.!

      If you’re talking about homicide, yes, detectives do. But your ‘run-of-the-mill’ property crime most likely won’t see a detective. In fact, the average detective (not one working in a specialized unit or detail) spends much of their time at their desks.

      • C. K. Crouch says:

        Thanks Kathy I have a burglary (remembering a home can’t be robbed) and I was trying to figure out if anyone would show besides the partol officers. Thanks again, from another Kathy writing as C. K. 🙂

      • Hi Kathy!

        I didn’t know if I should address you as Kathy or C.K. Didn’t want to foul up a pen name!

        The only other police personnel that might show up would be a fingerprint tech – unless there was something more than a generic burglary.

      • C. K. Crouch says:

        It doesn’t matter I can’t seem to get the pen name going. I’ve been Kathy for so many years I was like maybe I should forget it lol. I had the heroine’s laptops stolen and they aren’t sure how the thief got inside no broken windows or anything.

    • Stacy Green says:

      You’re very welcome. Thanks for stopping by!

  17. We had a homicide detective to speak at our chapter meeting and he said they use the team (Major Crime) approach, so the lead detective actually is at HQ directing traffic. Some of them never go to the crime scene, although he always does, eventually. But he said he was often one of the last ones there, because he’s setting up workload, teams, and organizing the investigation. I was quite surprised.

    working in health care, I know it takes 6 weeks to get DNA results, so I always laugh about those results on T

    • Stacy Green says:

      I’ve seen that approach on The First 48 and shows similar to that. It always surprises me, because on television – and in many books – the detectives are the on-the-scene stars.

      Thanks!

    • Hi Louise!

      That’s the thing about writing about police agencies, they don’t all work the same way. That’s why I always recommend that if you’re writing about a real police department or agency, that you check with those folks on how they do things.

  18. Hey Kathy and Stacy, thanks for a great post! I am bookmarking it for future reference. The one that always gets me on TV is when police officers (usually detectives who would definitely know better) walk around a crime scene handling things without gloves on. The did this on Criminal Minds the first season and it made me want to throw something at the TV. That show gets the psychology right (at least most of the time; I’m a psychologist) and they get the dynamics of a federal agency right, according to my retired federal worker husband. But they don’t put freaking gloves on to handle evidence at a crime scene? Really?

    • kathywriteslapd says:

      Then the print guys will print the area around where the laptops were prior to being taken. They might also print anything else the heroine tells them has been moved.

    • kathywriteslapd says:

      Hi Kassandra!

      Oh, I’m with on this one. I was just watching something the other day (can’t remember what it was) and I saw that scenario happen. Oh! It was the original Hawaii Five O. I’ll give them a pass because that show was filmed in the early 70’s and although print technology was there, I don’t think regulations were nearly as stringent.

      No excuse for today’s detectives though…

    • Stacy Green says:

      LOL Kass. Yeah, you see that sometimes. CSI kills me. All their high tech gadgets 99% of police officers (and medical examiners) can only dream off.

      Glad you liked!

  19. Pingback: Crime Writer/Detective on Authenticity

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