Last month I wrote about being accurate in your writing—getting the facts right. I need to make a distinction since you are, after all, writing fiction! You need to be accurate where you can. For example, a Smith and Wesson .38 calibre revolver has six shots, not five or seven. That’s a fact. Forensics tests can take months before results come back. But can your character pull some strings to get it sooner? A bottle of Scotch? Hard to get Broadway tickets? That’s believable.
There’s also a difference between being factual and realistic. One February night in Calgary we were working from 9 pm to 7 am. It was minus 25 Celsius. Snow and ice everywhere. The only vehicles on the streets were taxis, tow trucks and police cruisers. We’d key the microphone on the radio every thirty minutes or so just to make sure it was still working. In ten hours we were not dispatched to a single call and few of the twenty plus police cruisers were either. As a chapter in a book it would be as boring as our shift. But, it is factual—that’s the way it happened—it’s the reality of police work in February in Calgary. As a writer I’d better find a way—create some fiction—to enhance that chapter or delete it!
TV has created a number of shows with specialized teams. These teams have five to seven members, each with a unique specialty so they can handle any situation. In reality, few if any of these teams exist as shown. There may be teams of the same or similar name, but having them composed of team members, each with a unique specialty is a TV creation. TV and Movies has to keep the costs and cast numbers low, thus the specialization. In reality, detectives would enlist the help of specialists in other departments for extra help. Michael Connelly does this especially well with his Harry Bosch series.
The exception, though, is a tactical team, known in the United States as SWAT, and in Canada by many names, but most use the term ’tactical’. Each team is composed of six to ten members with at least two members of the team specializing in the following areas: bomb tech, sniper; less lethal and breaching to name a few. The longer a member is on the tactical unit, the more specialized skills they will have.
Back to the specialized teams. On TV, the specialized team flies into another city and has black Suburban’s at their disposal. As the drama comes to a close, they locate the suspect, jump into their Suburban’s and race across the unfamiliar city hoping, that despite the 15 or 20 minute drive, they will be in time to save everyone.
Hello! Every major city in North America, heck, every major city and most small towns have a police department that prides itself in a 5 minute (or less) response time—no matter how busy they are. An armed suspect holding hostages who has already killed several times is a high priority! Officers about to write a traffic ticket will toss the driver’s license back into the car, sprint to their cruiser and respond. Cops on break will respond. Locker rooms will empty and that house and neighborhood will be surrounded in minutes.
On TV, backup is seldom called. In real life, backup is almost always called.
Back to the Suburban’s. Responding lights and siren right up to the house is unrealistic. Good drama, but hardly real. A cop knows the value of a quiet response. Sirens would seldom be used, and never within a mile or more of the target house. Flashing lights would only be used as necessary and they would be shut off many, many blocks away. Finally, cops would never park in the driveway. First, you have given away the element of surprise. Second, you have put yourself within a deadly tunnel where you are exposed. Third, you have limited your escape route. The closest vehicles would park a block away, with other units blocking intersections in a fan out from the target house. When everyone was on location, and the plan was communicated, then they would approach the house.
So, next time you see a police vehicle racing down the street without lights and siren, it may be for something very serious where being quiet is an advantage. Or, it could be a two for one donut sale! Thought I’d say that before you did!
While all cops and paramedics carry flashlights, it’s not so they can search a house. Dramatic effect of TV no doubt—the beam of a flashlight swinging around the room. The tension builds because you know the suspect is waiting to jump out. The flashlight is also a very good defensive weapon, but I’ll save that for another time.
The benefit of 2016, or 1979, or 1950 is that every house has lights! And cops know that. Why take a chance searching a dark house—light it up! The suspect already knows you are there. The goal is to find the suspect quick—not play hide and seek!
Back to the tactical teams. A primary role of a tactical team is to enter and search dangerous areas—like a house with an armed suspect. They wear ballistic helmets, ballistic vests, have superior guns (MP5/MP10, AR15/M16, C8 Carbine) and most of all, they train for this every day. So, when the tactical team is called to the scene, they’ll clear the house, then the detectives and other police officers will enter. However on TV, it seems most of the time the tactical team is only there to knock down the door clearing the way for the unprotected detectives to walk into the line of fire. The tactical team does look cool in all their gear, so it does make the scene look more dramatic for our TV heroes’.
A few last TV/Movie annoyances that probably don’t have anything to do with your writing but I’ll throw them in just for fun because they don’t happen in real life and they annoy me.
- Tires squealing on gravel or dirt roads.
- Lights and sirens while driving down a rural road or up a long farm driveway.
- Police vehicles or ambulances using sirens into an established scene that is hours old.
- And finally, the ambulance with the corpse leaving the scene using lights and siren.
Till next month…
Things TV and Movies Gets Wrong in Police and Medical Procedurals was originally published in OPAL Publishing, February 2016. To read the original column and other great information go to: