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For Writers, The School Of Hard Cops

Aug 25, 2012
Originally published on August 26, 2012 6:51 am

Police procedurals are the spaghetti and meatballs of television programming. With so many permutations of Laws and Order, CSI and wisecracking cops, you can practically see yellow crime-scene tape stretched around the prime-time schedule.

Sgt. Derek Pacifico spent more than two decades with the San Bernardino County (Calif.) Sherriff's Department, responding to emergency calls and walking a beat. He has investigated close to 200 murders, shootings and other crime cases.

Now, he hopes to teach novelists and screenwriters how to bring a little more realism into their crime stories. His company, Crime Writers Consultations, is teaching a course called the Writer's Homicide School in October in Southern California.

Many writers can use the help. "The No. 1 thing I see in crime scenes is people just trampling all over the place," Pacifico tells NPR's Scott Simon. "Everybody's touching something, and there's just lots of discussions and stomping around right inside of a crime scene that we would never allow."

That's not all, Pacifico says. "It's surprising to me how many people believe that most suspects will invoke their right and remain silent, when in fact, they don't." Bad guys, he adds, tend to have prepared stories that they're eager to try out. "And they're hoping that if they waive their rights and speak to us, they'll be able to baffle us, and we'll leave them alone and walk away."

But sometimes TV gets it right — for a few moments. For example, Pacifico points to an interrogation scene in NYPD Blue, where a detective initially uses "good cop" tactics to get a rape suspect to open up. "That's how we do it," he says. "The rest of the scene, he violates a couple of constitutional amendments by beating him and throwing him against the wall. That's kind of where the wheels come off the wagon with the truth. But it's good fiction TV."

There's a fine line between vernacular and gibberish when it comes to police language on TV, and much of the vernacular is regional. West Coast cops collar "suspects," while in the East they go after "perps," as in perpetrators, Pacifico says. TV can even influence the way police departments use language.

"For a long time, our crime scene investigators weren't called 'crime scene investigators.' They were 'crime scene analysts,' or 'forensics specialists,' and whatnot," he adds. "And just about everybody has now changed their scientific investigations division to be called 'CSI.' Because you gotta. You gotta answer the phone, 'CSI, Smith!' "

Why are police procedurals so popular? What kind of person becomes a cop?

"First of all, if anyone says they didn't get into law enforcement to drive a police car fast, with the lights and sirens, and come screeching into a parking lot sideways and jump out and tackle a guy, they're lying to you," Pacifico says. "There [are] other greater, noble reasons, but come on man, really? That's why we do it. It's fun. At least a couple times a week, you get another forehead-slapping moment where you just think, wow, this is what stories are made of."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Police procedurals are the spaghetti and meatballs of television programming. With so many permutations of "Laws and Orders," "CSIs," and wisecracking cops, you can practically see yellow crime scene tape stretched around the prime time schedule. Sergeant Derek Pacifico spent more than two decades on the San Bernardino County Police Department in California, responding to emergency calls and walking a beat. He's investigated close to two hundred murders, shootings and other crime cases. Now, he hopes to teach novelists and screenwriters how to bring a little more realism into their crime stories. He has a company called Crime Writers Consultations, and will be running a course called the Writer's Homicide School in October in Southern California. Sergeant Pacifico recently retired from the force. He now lives in Knoxville, Tennessee. He joins us from member station WUOT. Sergeant, thanks very much for being with us.

SERGEANT DEREK PACIFICO: Well, thanks very much for having me.

SIMON: So, when you're flipping through the channels at home and a cop show comes on, what makes you cringe?

PACIFICO: Well, the number one thing I see in crime scenes is there are people just trampling all over the place. Everybody is touching something and there's just lots of discussions and stomping around right inside of a crime scene that we would never allow.

SIMON: Anything else occur to you?

PACIFICO: It's surprising to me how many people believe that most suspects will invoke their right and remain silent when in fact they don't.

SIMON: Gee, what's the psychology behind that, do you think?

PACIFICO: The crooks think they're smarter than the cops. They've rehearsed their story and their alibi and they got to get it out. And they're hoping that if they waive their rights and speak to us they'll be able to baffle us and we'll leave them alone and walk away.

SIMON: Can you recall a scene that you think really gets it right?

PACIFICO: Yeah. There's a scene in "NYPD Blue." You know, a lot of things that usually procedurally probably aren't correct, but there's this great scene where the character Detective Sipowicz comes in to re-interview a guy who's been since put in a holding cell.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "NYPD BLUE")

DENNIS FRANZ: (as Detective Sipowicz) Brought you some coffee. You like it with cream and sugar?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) Yeah, it's good.

FRANZ: (as Detective Sipowicz) It's a hell of a place to lock anybody up. Gotta go to the john?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) Nah, I'm OK.

FRANZ: (as Detective Sipowicz) I'm Detective Sipowicz. Have a seat.

PACIFICO: The suspect, who's a rape suspect, is looking at Detective Sipowicz like, wow, this is kind of weird. You're being all nice to me and whatnot. And that's actually very true. That's how we do it. The rest of the scene, you know, he violates, you know, a couple of constitutional amendments by beating him and throwing him against the wall. And that's where the wheels come off the wagon with the truth. But it's good fiction TV and it's a good twist on good cop versus bad cop all in the same character.

SIMON: How do you shows use lingo? Because it seems to me, I must say as a practiced watcher of procedurals, that they have to use just enough lingo to sound authentic but not so much that nobody knows what they're talking about.

PACIFICO: Yeah, it's a fine line. There is definitely a vernacular in law enforcement that is regional. On the West Coast, we call them suspects. On the East Coast, I think they call them perps - or maybe that's just the New York or the New England region...

SIMON: Perps, short for perpetrators.

PACIFICO: Yeah, short for perpetrator. And for a long time, our crime scene investigators weren't called crime scene investigators. They were crime scene analysts or forensic specialists and whatnot. And just about everybody has now changed their scientific investigations division to be called CSI. 'Cause you got to, you got to answer the phone: CSI, Smith.

SIMON: Have you had screenwriters, aspiring novelists or actors say to you what kind of person is a cop? Why do they do it?

PACIFICO: Yeah. A lot of people get into it for different reasons. First of all, I mean, if anyone says they didn't get into law enforcement to drive a police car fast with the lights and siren that comes screeching into a parking lot sideways and jump out and tackle a guy, they're lying to you. I mean, there's other greater, noble reasons, but come on, man, really? That's why we do it. It's fun.

SIMON: Derek Pacifico, retired sergeant of the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department in California. He now runs Crime Writers Consultations and trains novelists and screenwriters on how to write valid, good, honest crime stories. Sergeant, thanks so much.

PACIFICO: Thanks for having me. It was a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: You have the right to remain silent while listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.