Monday, August 06, 2007

The Citizen's Academy: A Win/Win Situation

by Donnell Ann Bell

When I started my fiction career, my protagonists consisted of lawyers, politicians, bankers and engineers. But I loved mystery suspense and naturally a cop or two always existed on the fringes. But I could never bring myself to make my hero a cop. Why? Because even though I’d watched every cop show from Dragnet to the Streets of San Francisco to Hill Street Blues to Law and Order, studied police procedure and bought every Deadly Dose book available, I didn’t know cops. What made them get up every morning or how they thought. And because I didn’t know them, how could I get into the head of one and create a three-dimensional character instead of a paper doll look-alike of one of these famous shows?

So when someone told me that the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office had a Citizens Academy, not only did I enroll, I was the first in line. The secretary handed me the forms saying, “Don’t worry, you have plenty of time.” At that I smiled. She didn’t have a muse sitting on her shoulder arguing the point.

So how did the Citizens Academy help me bring a character from flimsy cardboard to dimensional? It started from the sheriff on down. He started out the six-week session and explained what it was like to be a politician, to answer to the county and its budget constraints, to oversee the massive Criminal Justice Center (e.g. the El Paso County Jail) and be held accountable. He also talked about personnel, he made us laugh, talking about how deputies can’t drive and how he wished he could take the reverse out of squad cars at times. And then he became serious and discussed the very human component and made us consider the issues we wouldn’t normally consider.

Next came the commanders and the workshops, and again the stereotypes were left at the door. When the Vice commander arrived in his tie-dyed shirt to talk about narcotics, meth labs and undercover work and showed up with a marvelous sense of humor and a twinkle in his eye, he eradicated every preconceived notion I’d ever held.

On television we see the vice cops enter the premises and take the bad guys away. We know there’s often the risk of the lethal bullet. On the other hand, we don’t see the health risks they take entering these contaminated sites on call outs, or the mental anguish they face when they see what a methamphetamine dealer puts his child through, cooking crystal meth right next to the Frosted Flakes and his teddy bear.

Thanks to the Citizens Academy, I’ll never look at entering a hotel room the same way. One vice cop said even when he’s on vacation he carries a can of spray starch. When he enters the room he sprays it on the wall. It doesn’t hurt the wall he said, but if the wall turns black, he not only leaves the room, he goes to the front desk and demands his money back then leaves the hotel. Meth not only kills its victims, it leaves a trail of destruction from innocent bystanders, renters, landlords and neighbors. I can’t stress how aware this made me of this cancerous threat to society, or how much I support stiffer laws and penalties of both users and the greedy idiots who make the stuff.

The six weeks covered every department, from computer-aided analysis crime-scene re-enactment, the detective division, guns/shooting range, patrol, the victim’s advocacy, search and rescue, homeland security/emergency response, internal affairs to a tour of the jail and dispatch. And as I sat through these courses and learned what it took to run this well-oiled machine, I got a glimpse of what made these people tick. One, they were selfless, two they were fearless and three, they didn’t require much sleep or praise.

And the muse sitting on my shoulder went “Aha,” and my first cop protagonist came to life, resulting in a 2007 Golden Heart finalist nomination. Do I recommend the Citizen’s Academy? Heck, yeah. I also recommend taking it a step further. If you have the opportunity to get involved with your local law enforcement, do so. Become a volunteer or even a recruit. That’s what the Citizens Academy’s about, after all. I give you my word; you’ll get more than you’ll ever give back.

Donnell Ann Bell worked in nonfiction for years before trying her hand at her true love, fiction. A finalist or winner of several nationally recognized writing competitions, her most recognized work, Walk Away Joe, was a finalist in Romance Writers of America® prestigious 2007 Golden Heart competition for single title romance. Thanks to the Citizen’s Academy and the generosity of other law enforcement personnel, Donnell has gotten over her fear of writing cop protagonists. As a matter of fact, she now welcomes the chance to tell their stories. Check out her website at www.donnellannbell.com

49 comments:

Annette said...

Welcome to Working Stiffs, Donnell!

Can you elaborate a little about the spray starch in hotel rooms? That fascinates me.

Tory said...

Your blog definitely made me want to take the citizen's academy, Donnell. What was the biggest myth you had about policemen that got blasted away during it?

Glad to have you on board!

Donnell B. said...

Good morning, thanks for inviting me to blog, Annette. Actually, the man giving the talk about the spray starch was a sergeant in vice. I was impressed at how honest he wanted us to be with our kids. When we satt down with our kids to talk about drugs, he said, tell them the truth. We don't want them to smoke pot because it's illegal and can have a negative effect, but when it came time to talk about meth, meth's purpose is to turn you into an addict. Many meth dealers won't even touch it The meth pusher sure won't take it, and meth kills.

Joyce said...

I actually got my job here at Shaler PD because I attended one of our Citizen's Police Academy. When I sent a resume, they recognized my name.

Unfortunately, we only had 2 academies. It was too much work for everyone involved and they did it in what little spare time they had-unpaid.

It was a lot of fun and it'll definitely give you the basics of what happens in law enforcement. It also gives you good contacts for when you have questions about what you're writing.

Thanks for blogging, Donnell!

Nancy said...

Wow, great blog! And great website, too, Donnell! I love Coach!

Donnell B said...

Good morning, Tory. Hmmm, I guess when I went in to the C.A. I had these stereotypes so deeply ingrained, I didn't see the very human side of a cop, that they have families they're worried about, and that it's not just putting the bad guys away, They care about that victim! I saw a lot more of this when I became a volunteer. I also learned that most cops have a great sense of humor AND that some of the stereotypes we see in movies and on TV are well-earned. I hope this makes sense?

donnell b. said...

Joyce, ditto that. I'm sorry about the lack of resources. That's another drawback. If they have the resources to put on a citizens academy. My recommendation to any who don't have one. If they live close to another city or town, it's worth the commute.

donnellb said...

Thank you, Nancy. I love Coach! I love his message too. Being a writer takes a bulldog determination! Makes you wonder if Coach got rejected once or twice ;)

Annette said...

Well, Joyce, unfortunately you've answered my next question which was, do we have these citizen's academies in the Pittsburgh area?

donnell b said...

Annette, the more people who talk this up, the more the police and sheriff departments might *find* the resources to fund a Citizens Academy. Remember, it's not just about writers, it's about public support, finding volunteers, letting the public know why cops might take twenty to thirty minutes to get to a call out... because they're handing something else on the other side of town. More on that later if you're interested ;)

Joyce said...

Annette, last year I think Allegheny County, either the PD or the Sheriff's dept. had one out at that technical school in Oakdale. PTI? Give them a call and see if they are doing it again.

donnellb said...

And even if your police/sheriff's department doesn't have a Citizen's Academy, remember you can always request a ridealong. Talk about taking your classroom to the streets. My first ridealong was in winter and it was freezing! I had my cuddleduds on, coat etc. and my deputy drove with his window down. As my teeth chattered away, I said are you cold? He said, I'm listening. Kind of re-emphasized that ridealong wasn't about me and how seriously he took his job.

Liz Lipperman said...

Hsy, Donnell, great topic. A lot of my friends went to the CA and loved it. After reading your blog, I definitely will make that a priority.

Sad about the effects of meth. I have a friend whose son is in the depths of that hell. She can only stand helplessly by and pray. I didn't know about the cancer effect. That's scary.

Thanks for the blog. I can't wait to see how you used that for Joe.

donnellb said...

Good morning, Liz, thanks for stopping by! I'm sorry to hear about your friend's son. Cancer is my term for meth, I believe I said it has a cancerous effect (e.g. growth). You should have seen some of the before and after pictures the sergeant showed us. One a gorgeous, gorgeous girl, with perfect skin, perfect teeth, and a few months later rotted skin, horrible skin where she'd scratched. Yeah, I want to do that to my body. Not!!!

When you consider what's in meth, e.g. Sudafed, Acetone (the stuff we use to take nail polish off) Red Phosphorous, Iodine crystals and anything the drug dealer chooses to toss in (it's not like he has a quality control center to answer to), it's like playing Russian Roulette with our health.

And these guys cook this stuff ANYwhere, in hotel rooms, in the nicest neighborhoods (don't be fooled) even in the back of vans. It's cheap to produce, easy to hook. For a noncaring meth dealer it's a cash cow come true.

Madge Walls said...

I did the Sherrif's Academy in Colorado Springs, too, and found it one of the most fascinating things I have ever done. Everyone was so professional, so dedicated. It erased every negative preconception I had about law enforcement. The final event, a ride along with a deputy on his 10-hour ovenight shift was amazing. We zipped along the dirt roads of Eastern Colorado from call to call, which included a Vietnam war vet who seemed to be still at war, but with his neighbors this time, and a farmer who was irate over the invasion of his fields by a neighbor's herd of goats. The stench was enought to put anybody off. Donnell, you did a ride along. Comments on yours?

Lee Lofland said...

Great blog Donnell. I, too, suggest that all writers of crime fiction, mystery, police prcedurals, etc. attend a citizen's police academy and/or a ride-a-long. It's an eye-opener to say the least.

To touch on the meth addict thing, I have to say they are truly pitiful, as are crack addicts. I've arrested many of these folks and it almost always broke my heart to do so. They truly need help and jail isn't always the answer.

I, too, always rode with my window down. It's a habit I can't seem to shake.

I know this isn't exactly the place to write this, but I know I can catch several friends at once so I'll take a chance (sorry Donnell). I just returned from speaking for the Willamette Writers Conference in Portland, Oregon. My book made it's debut there in the Barnes and Noble book store (it's actually scheduled for release this week) and sold out in the first few hours. I was very pleased.

- Nancy, did you get my email last week?

Joyce said...

Congratulations on the book, Lee! I can't wait to get a copy.

donnellb said...

No worries, Lee, congratulations on your book and your signing. Hope it was successful!!! My daughter lives in Seattle now, I hope the scenery around that part of the country was beautiful. And yes, jail isn't always the answer for the addicts, they need treatment. So what say you about the people who make the stuff?

donnell b. said...

Madge, hi! Thanks for stopping by. Hmmm. I’ve done several ridealongs and each had something amazing to offer. Like the deputy who sped over Roller Coaster Road (the name says it all!!) to warn kids off the not-yet-frozen lake (P.S. I think he got a little satisfaction out of my white knuckles.)

To the MAN who’d put out a restraining order on his significant other and when the deputy and I walked to the door, he invited us in and said, you know my ex looks a lot like her (pointing to me… Yikes) !!!

To the night we went to an elderly man’s home who was panic-stricken and confused because his caregiver hadn’t shown up. Colorado Springs was in the middle of an ice storm and as cops and firefighters went out and shoveled his walk, I had the opportunity to sit with him while firefighters and cops on scene went out and shoveled his walk. I even volunteered to help shovel and the cop said, are you out of your mind? Let something happen to our ridealong. No way! My point is there’s so much these people do behind scenes we never see.

There’s also the part I learned that cops have to be skilled arbitrators/part parent, listening to the “he said, she said” scenarios. I also realized cops are very savvy, able to cut through one side of the story to hear the real truth, e.g. a woman who claimed her husband had been beating her and she was afraid only to learn they were in the middle of a custody battle and it would look very good for her case if he were taken to jail. Gosh, this post is getting longer than my article! Sorry. Anyway, I can’t recommend ridealongs enough to stimulate the muse. P.S. I never use actual happenings in my stories. On the contrary, I veer far, far away.

Joyce said...

Like you mentioned, Donnell, one of the things that amazed me when I started working here was the behind the scenes stuff no one hears about. We have a large elderly population in Shaler and I couldn't tell you the number of times officers responded to calls for someone who couldn't work the thermostat in their house, or needed help getting in or out of a chair, etc.

ramona said...

Gee, Joyce, you mean I could have called the cops to help me figure out the scary new multi-car parking meters at the beach? Darn. I did consider calling the fire department. I was (almost) that desperate.

Very informative stuff, Donnell. There are no citizens academies in my immediate area, but anyone over 18 can request a ride-along. I've been thinking about it. A ride-along, in August, in a beach town, with a summer cop--how much fun would that be? I wonder if it could include a meter lesson?

donnellb said...

Joyce, my apologies if this comes in twice, I’m an inept blogger!

Re: your comment as to what these men and women do behind the scenes. Exactly. And what you’re talking about is what I like to bring to my writing. Take that scene where a cop leaves feeling pretty good about himself, to the next call from dispatch involving a shooting or an armed robbery. He goes from being a savior to the bad guy in an instant, because the next person he may face might be a *cop hater*. He does this all day long for eight to ten hours straight. You can almost see the adrenaline/blood pressure soar when this happens, and then think about this. He can’t shuck this all ofd and leave it in his locker--he takes it home with him.

This is what I try to bring to my writing and not just the action scenes. How do ya’ll feel when you read books that have action/action/action (and I admit I love them too!) But do you feel like you know your protagonist when you turn the last page?

Jean said...

Hi Donnell--
Great Blog!!!! I haven't done a cop for the same reasons, though after the ATF stuff that I did with KOD, I gathered a lot of personalities. Reserved emotionally for the bomb dog owner, serious and a crackup for the SEAL bomb guy who was the one who suited up to go check out the package... serious, snappy and to the point for the ATF arson female director. Interesting. All very professional. I'll have to check out Atlanta for a Citizen's Academy.

donnell b. said...

Pretty fun, Ramona, I recommend you doing that ridealong on the beach whole heartedly! Good luck with those parking meters. My city just changed ours from nickels and dimes to accepting only quarters! Somebody ought to call a cop!

donnell b said...

Hi, Jean! Thanks I’ll pass on your compliments to Working Stiffs; they do a great job, don’t they? What you’re doing is so wise. It’s all well and good to do the research, but part of writing is getting into character, much like an actor does during each performance. Your research on the page may be 100 percent spot on, but writing is about feelings, and making your reader react. Great comment!

Kristine said...

Welcome, Donnell!

I would love to take a citizen's academy, and your post today just confirmed my desire to do so. I can't get the spray starch in the hotel room image out of my mind. Yikes.

Joyce said...

Ramona, cops love to help a damsel in distress!

I like the idea of a beach ride along.

Edie said...

Great post, Donnell! I don't write cop books, but if our sheriff's department has a citizen's academy, I'll sign up. I'm sure I'll learn a lot. And the next time I go to a motel, I'll bring along a can of spray starch. Yuck.

Lee Lofland said...

The general public simply doesn't have a clue about a lot of the things police officers do.

For example, I've answered calls where I've lit pilot lights on furnaces, reset electrical breakers, changed flat tires, retrieved a cat from inside a wall, helped a man down from his second story roof (he became scared after he went up to retrive a kite), took a sick puppy to the vet, delivered a baby, performed CPR twice, and helped an elderly lady up off the floor after she'd fallen.

These are just the beginning, and cops all across the country do things like this each and every day.

Lee Lofland said...

Joyce, it looks like we're building steam for the Police Academy For Writers.

donnell b said...

Kristine, thanks for the welcome! Yes, the spray starch did quite a number on me as well. Can you imagine what it was like to be my high-school aged kids at the time? I sat them on the couch, paced back and forth and basically did what the sergeant advised. I tried not to scare them with the Every drug out there can kill you scenario. I pointed out it was illegal, drugs are addictive and harmful, and I expected them to respect the law. But then I added, what I'm getting at is please, please, please don't ever do meth. And without missing a beat, my son said, Dang, Mom, that was my next step.

I'm going to let him out of his room when he turns 30 :)

Karin* said...

Donnell, I really enjoyed your blog. Write on!

donnell b said...

Hi, Edie, thanks for stopping in! Sorry I scared you with the spray starch, but it's a sad fact of life. Oh my gosh, can you imagine the run on starch at the supermarket. Instead of Sudafed being locked up behind the pharmacist counters, store clerks will be in constant restocking mode. I can just hear store managers saying, what's up with this?

donnell b said...

Thanks, Karin :)

donnell b said...

Lee, thanks for more expansion on what cops do. And thank you for your service. I imagine you made a few frowns turn into smiles and made a difference in some otherwise sad outcomes. It's nice to see success coming your way!

ramona said...

Lee, I noticed that you did NOT mention rescuing someone from an evil parking meter.

Joyce, I actually figured it out myself, eventually. I did receive some helpful advice from a bystander. It was "It helps if you kick it, lady."

Joyce said...

Lee Lofland said...
Joyce, it looks like we're building steam for the Police Academy For Writers.

Lee, I think you're right. I have some ideas about that. I'll send you an email.

Barbara M said...

Great blog, Donnell!

Did the officer tell you what the black on the wall means? That someone manufactured meth in the room, used it in the room, or what? Regardless, I'm a little nervous about hotel rooms now!

I've never been to a Citizen's Academy, but I did attend the KOD tour in Reno a few years ago -- learned a lot about internet predators. Very scary stuff.

donnell b said...

Hi, Barbara, thanks! You know, I can't recall he gave chemical specifics of what it meant; it was enough for me to trust with him it meant nasty business. When a hazmat team goes to clean up a meth lab, they go to some very intense precautions, e.g. protective clothing, masks, eyewear, etc. Producing meth/crack et al is explosive. Plus, people assigned to clean up the stuff want no part of breathing in the toxic stuff and that includes the dealers they put into the squad cars. When cops establish a meth lab, they quarantine an entire area and even spray down the inhabitants before they let them into squad cars. It's not only big business for dealers, it's scary business.

donnell b. said...

Baraba, after all that I babbled on and didn't answer your question. The fact that the wall turned black did in fact signify meth had been cooked in the hotel room.

Anonymous said...

Donnell,

What a fantastic post! I respect the way you thoroughly investigated the background of your cop protagonist while helping your community. When WALK AWAY JOE sells, your readers will sense the veracity of your protag and you'll hook them from page one!
Thanks for sharing your story.

KJ Howe
www.kjhowe.com

Felicia Donovan said...

Donnell, thanks for the great post. With almost 10 years in law enforcement and a mystery author, I can assure you that most police departments welcome citizens who want to know the real truth about the work they do. Citizens Academies are a great way to give the reality of police work vs. the TV version where cases are solved in 60 minutes.

As for the spray starch, it will sometimes highlight iodine, which is a key by-product of meth production.

I've tried to be as realistic as possible when writing The Black Widow Agency because I know how irritating it is when I watch a show where they declare they have the DNA results from a crime scene processed that morning. Just doesn't happen like that.

I would encourage anyone who has the interest to ask for a "behind the scenes" tour. Most departments are happy to oblige that and welcome citizen interest in the work they do.

Felicia Donovan
www.feliciadonovan.com
www.blackwidowagency.com

donnell b said...

Kim, hi!!! What a nice thing to say. I had a ball researching Walk Away Joe and I appreciate you stopping by and for your support! Thank you.

donnell b. said...

Felicia, thank you so much for the explanation. How interesting about the iodine interacting with the spray starch! And thank you too for your service and I'm thrilled to see your background paid off for you in your writing. I've had wonderful behind the scenes tours as well and it indeed made an impression. Thank you!

Joyce said...

Anyone who lives in the Pittsburgh area who wants a tour of the Shaler PD. Let me know and I'll show you around.

Laurie said...

Donnell--

I really enjoyed your article. What a great experience! Was there any physical training for you involved or was it all observational?

donnell said...

Laurie, I'll leave this blog with this final comment. I'm glad you enjoyed the article. The Citizens Academy is observation although there is some walking. Touring the jail, touring the evidence room, touring the divisions, etc. Also, the Citizens Academy isn't just about narcotics, although it is a big focus thanks to our society. There are many fuctions of police departments and the C.A. focused on them all. Sign up if you can! Thanks for having me, Working Stiffs :)

jo robertson said...

Donnell, what a great post! The experience with The Citizens Academy sounds wonderful. I wish we had something like that in my community. Great fodder for your writing! jo

Anonymous said...

Great blog! I really enjoyed it. Wow, next trip - stray starch.

All the best,
Gail Fuller :)