Crime Division: Jack of All Trades—The Life of a Patrol Officer by Laurel Heidtman

From 1977 to 1988, I was a police officer in an Ohio city with a population of approximately
60,000. Our department had a hundred or so sworn officers when I started, but by the time I left, that number had been reduced due to budget constraints. We operated our own
communications center and our own jail, including holding federal prisoners under a contract with the U.S. government. During my time there, I primarily worked patrol but also did stints as a communications desk officer, a corrections officer, and few short-term assignments in partnership with agents from the FBI and AT&F, as well as a few short-term undercover assignments for my own department.
However, I never worked as a detective, and therefore, I’d make a lousy fictional protagonist.
All fiction, even the most epic, is like a microscope. Alfred Hitchcock said that “…drama is life with the dull bits cut out,” but too many unrelated exciting bits doesn’t make for good drama either. If an author recorded everything that occurred in a protagonist’s life—even if every moment was exciting—the book would do little more than make a great doorstop.
Jamie Reagan and Eddie Janko of Blue Bloods notwithstanding, most fictional police officers are detectives. Even in Blue Bloods, when Jamie and Eddie are involved in something interesting, they stay involved until the show is over. The viewer never sees the myriad other calls they answered during their shift.
In the real world most police officers are assigned to patrol, and in the real world, all detectives were patrol officers—usually for many years—before they got their detective shields. A good patrol officer has to be a jack of all trades. In the course of one 8-hour shift, a patrol officer might respond to a traffic accident, notify a family that a loved one has died, break up a bar fight or domestic disturbance, respond to a rape and accompany the victim to the hospital, search a building that has been broken into, or quell a riot. All of those are exciting, but no common thread ties them together other than the patrol officer herself. Some of the situations might require further investigation, but the patrol officer will not be the one to do it. And in the course of one 8-hour shift, a patrol officer might do nothing more exciting than take a theft report, write a few speeding tickets, and get a bat out of someone’s house. If it’s night shift, he might shake the doors on a few businesses to make sure the staff locked up; if it’s day shift, he might have to testify in court. Not exactly the stuff of high drama.
Most departments are open to having citizens do ride-alongs, so if you don’t already have some familiarity with police work, you can contact your local department and request you be allowed to ride with an officer for a shift. It’s a great way to see what a real cop does and a great chance to get answers to questions that your story needs answered.
Just don’t expect it to be as exciting as a ride-along with Jamie Reagan.
All fiction is like a microscope trained on the real world, examining and illuminating a small portion at a time, and crime fiction is no different. Jamie Reagan of Blue Bloods notwithstanding, most fictional police officers are detectives. Whether in an hour-long episode of a TV drama or in the 300-400 pages of a novel, the protagonist is tasked with investigating one crime or a series of related crimes. The viewer or reader gets to know the detective and his/her partner, the victim/victim’s family and often the criminal as well.

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