I bet you didn't know that, for one day a couple weeks ago, I was the Broward County Sheriff. Well, not really the sheriff. I couldn't actually arrest anyone (at least, I don't think I could have). But the Sheriff's Office donates a program called Sheriff for a Day to various charities to auction off, and I was lucky enough to win a day for my family and me.
Our tour guide and host with the most was Detective J.R. Cimoch, who was not only lots of fun, but had an interesting life story. He had been on SWAT and the Gang Unit, among other wild and crazy assignments, in Dade County before he moved to Broward. He's the real deal - a tough guy with a heart of gold. So I asked him a question that's been bothering me.
A couple weeks ago, on the new show Alcatraz, they used an old trope that my husband and I absolutely hate. There's a hostage situation. One guy, two cops. The bad guy puts the gun to the hostage's head and says, "Drop your weapon or I'll kill him." The cops drop their weapons. In this episode, the bad guy then had them cuff themselves and he ran. Even worse, they knew he was intending to kill the hostage. Aargh! Why would they drop their weapons? Later, in the same show, the same big bad did it again, and our heroine was getting ready to (idiotically) drop her gun again when her boss blew baddie's brains out.
So I tried to research it. Should the police officer drop the gun? I actually ran across this article, saying that cops used to drop their weapons, and that it all changed after Columbine. That didn't make any sense to me either. Why would they ever drop their guns? So I asked J.R. He said he would never, ever, have dropped the weapon. He started in the 1980s, way before Columbine, and he was never trained to drop it. Here are some of the reasons why:
Wait for opportunity: While you might not have a clear shot now, the hostage could move, kick the guy, or struggle. The bad guy might sneeze or move in range. You would never want to lower the weapon. You might get an opportunity to take the shot.
He's going to kill you: If you drop the weapon, you've given him all the power. He will probably kill the hostage and you.
More weapons for bad guy: You've just handed him another weapon. Heck, his might be empty or even a toy (I saw a toy gun in the evidence room that looked darned real).
So can we all agree never, ever to write another scene where the cop drops the gun? If you need to have the bad guy get away, have him distract your cop characters, don't let them corner him, or do something, anything else to write the scene that isn't completely stupid.
I also asked J.R. about another trope: three baddies point weapons at our hero cop. Should he drop the weapon then? The answer is yes. The bad guys could have already shot him, so it's self-preservation time. He may still end up dead, but that's one situation where it makes sense to drop the weapon.
We had a fantastic Everglades air boat ride, a harbor tour with the Marine Unit, tours of the communications area where they handle 911 calls and the crime lab. Here's one thing I confirmed, and that I always preach to writers: the experts love to share their expertise. I got to ask all kinds of questions of the real CSI people (who uniformly hate the CSI TV shows). Here's some more interesting stuff I learned:
Drugs smell godawful: We got to see the drug storage room (from the doorway only, peering in). We were hit with an overwhelming stench. When I asked the guy in charge of the room what the smell was, he said, "What smell?" He was used to it after all these years. But the smell is terrible. If you're writing about an evidence room that has drugs, don't forget the smell.
Superglue is awesome: Did you know that if you heat Superglue it creates a white substance that sticks to fingerprints and makes them visible? I read that in some book and thought it might be B.S., but it's true. They took us into a room that has huge Superglue ducts and air vents. They can bring an entire vehicle into the room, heat the Superglue, and fingerprint the entire vehicle at once. When they see the prints, they can use the black powder to lift them. They also have small tanks for using Superglue on guns and small objects.
Superglue is poisonous: Don't try the fingerprint trick at home. The byproduct of heated Superglue is cyanide. Wouldn't that be a great way to murder someone in a story? You're welcome.
Marijuana looks like a lollipop: When you stick a marijuana leaf under the microscope, it has these little things that look like lollipops sticking out of it. That's the THC. Yes, they can bust you for a teeny leaf.
Water stops bullets: To get the ballistics off bullets, they shoot them into giant water tanks. I saw this on Mythbusters too, where you dive down in a pool to avoid bullets. A 45 caliber bullet goes pretty far, so make sure you dive to the bottom of the deep end. And better learn to grow some gills, because you'll have to hold your breath awhile. It was pretty cool to watch them shoot the bullet and see the striations. One thing I didn't know about ballistics is that the firing pin also creates a teeny dent that acts like a fingerprint on the casing.
Forensic artists really can reconstruct faces from skulls: I asked the forensic artist about Angela from Bones and all her artistic miracles, and she laughed. They simply don't have the high tech stuff that she does. However, they really can do reconstruction on a skull to figure out what someone looked like. They can figure out what a young person would look like when older from their pictures. They can work with an eyewitness to get a reasonable picture of a criminal.
Forensic artists are lie detectors: One thing I had no idea about is that forensic artists can tell if a witness is lying. They work with detectives to tell them when the witness is making it all up. And apparently about 70% of sexual assault claims are bogus. Frequently the witness will admit they're lying once they're confronted with the lie. So remember: forensic artist = b.s. detector.
Sweat leaves DNA: Another thing I read recently that I thought might be B.S., but it's true. They can swab your steering wheel and get all kinds of DNA.
I could have spent another couple hours with the crime lab people. We learned about crime scene photography, how they shoot great pictures from helicopters, why you should never give a kid a toy gun that looks real (I'd like to know why toy makers even make those things), and that fingerprints come back from AFIS within a minute or so.
We had a great time, and would like to thank Detective J.R. Cimoch and all the folks who met with us at the Broward County Sheriff's Office for a wonderful day.
Remember: when in doubt, call up an expert. They love to talk to writers. They'd love to read a book or see a TV show that isn't laughable to them. They might even let you come in and see their work for yourself. Just don't forget them in your acknowledgments.