SPS-253: How to Write an Authentic Crime Scene – with Patrick O’Donnell
Return guest to the podcast, Patrick O’Donnell, has a new book out that focuses on crime scenes and investigations. Patrick is a retired police officer and with his Cops and Writers Facebook group has created a community of those who write about crime and those who work on the inside solving it.
- Why Patrick started the Cops and Writers community
- On the brain trust of professionals involved in the group, which is not limited to cops and writers
- The learning curve involved when writing about the law and police procedures
- On the importance of factual accuracy in crime novels
Resources mentioned in this episode:
PATREON: Self Publishing Formula Show’s Patreon page
PODCAST EPISODE: James and Patrick refer to this episode of the podcast with Jerri Williams, regarding how to write about the FBI
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SPS-253: How to Write an Authentic Crime Scene - with Patrick O’Donnell
Announcer: On this edition of the Self-Publishing Show.
Patrick O’Donnell: I think it's important to have all your ducks in a row and have all your facts straight so they have an idea at least of what law enforcement is before they start maybe heading down that path.
Announcer: Publishing is changing. No more gatekeepers. No more barriers. No one standing between you and your readers. Do you want to make a living from your writing? Join indie best seller Mark Dawson and first time author, James Blatch as they shine a light on the secrets of self-publishing success. This is the Self-Publishing Show. There's never been a better time to be a writer.
James Blatch: Hello and welcome to the Self-Publishing Show with me, James Blatch.
Mark Dawson: And me, Mark Dawson.
James Blatch: Mark Dawson, how's your week going? How has it gone? It's Friday.
Mark Dawson: It's Friday the 13th as we record this so yes, so far not too bad. Busy. Lots of things going on.
James Blatch: Launched a book this week, I think.
Mark Dawson: No, it will be Monday. So as we record this so just after the weekend. It's been in launch mode this week. Actually launching two books. I've got a German translation of the 10th Milton book and the 18th book in the series, in English coming out. So I've been kind of pushing the preorder on that one and it's gone quite well. Should have about 10,000 preorders by the time we go live, which is lovely.
James Blatch: There are 18 John Milton books now?
Mark Dawson: Yeah.
James Blatch: Is he not tired?
Mark Dawson: No, he's fine. He's ready for action. I think we'll go to 20 without too much bother and then we'll see where we are.
James Blatch: How old is he now?
Mark Dawson: He's slightly older than you.
James Blatch: Oh, quite young then.
Mark Dawson: So, 62.
James Blatch: What? That's not slightly older than me. He's 62, is he?
Mark Dawson: No. I don't know.
James Blatch: How old is he? You don't know how old he is?
Mark Dawson: I do.
James Blatch: You've got to know, in his world.
Mark Dawson: I know roughly how old he is but it's one of those things that you don't really, I don't think it's really necessarily to put an age on a character.
James Blatch: You would tie yourself down a bit wouldn't you? And that would be just another thing for you to have to keep track of and remember.
Mark Dawson: Yeah. There is a Bible for the series. So I do know roughly how old he'd have to be and he is getting to the age now where he'd feel like me in the mornings after disposing of the bad guys where funnily enough, my daughter kicked me on the leg last night playing and she had her shoes on.
She must have caught my leg just on some particular part of the muscle. It was up on the thigh and I don't know if you've ever had this done before. This could have been less relevant of what we normally talk about but my whole leg locked up. The muscle kind of just locked.
James Blatch: Oh, ow. Like a spasm?
Mark Dawson: Yeah, it was exactly like a spasm and I couldn't move my leg. I had to have heat on it and then cold and it's better today. It's still sore. I can't kneel down because my leg won't... It's just locked.
So anyway, that's what Milton is like now. He has a bit of a rough and tumble with the bad guys and then he's putting deep heat into his muscles for the next two weeks.
James Blatch: Yeah. I think the average age of people in our community, people listening is somewhere between 30 and 50. It's that sort of generally from when go and meet people that's generally where they sit and-
Mark Dawson: And push it up a bit more than that. I'd say between 30 and 65 I would say. I know that's pretty wide.
James Blatch: Yeah, maybe and not so many at the 30 end. Probably is a bit more midlife but yeah, or the people at the upper end of it and we are talking to someone who's just retired from their main job in a moment today that yes, you do notice those little injuries take a little bit longer to recover from.
Having said that, I'm 53 and I ran my personal best 10K yesterday, which I was very pleased about.
Mark Dawson: How fast was that?
James Blatch: Not very fast because I've never been a great runner but it was 56 minutes something.
Mark Dawson: That's very good.
James Blatch: I was really pleased with that. Yes, life in the old dog years.
Okay, we do have a bit of an announcement. Now, I'm afraid it's a bit of a tease if you're listening to this at the time it's being released on a Friday and that is that for Black Friday we're going to do a deal. Now, normally, we don't discount the main courses for a start unless you bought a previous course are the only coupons we've ever done.
However, we now have three craft courses, which are available all year, all the time. One's on, How to Write a Bestseller the formula going into that. One is, How to Revise Your Book, to go from good to great and one is on, Cover Design so you understand the elements needed for a good cover. This can help sell your books and possibly DIY it yourself or then outsource it.
These are three brilliant courses. All three have had stellar reviews from those people who've been enjoying them and for Black Friday we are going to bundle them together at an exceptionally good price. It will run for just one week from Friday to Thursday night and that's going to be available.
We will post the relevant URL and the deal itself into our Facebook community group next week probably on the Friday itself, on Black Friday itself and just to also say, those of you who bought the Revise course in the last month, you'll get a separate email because it's a bit frustrating is it not, to have just literally paid out for one course and then see a really good deal that includes that course. So we're going to do something for them in particular.
But otherwise, even if you do own one of those other courses you might want to, for this price, it will still be worth getting the other two. So that is going to be announced in our Facebook group and via email, the usual sources but watch out for that next week. It's going to be a very limited time and then that will be it and they'll be back up to their full price of $297 each.
Okay, so with that little tease done, let's talk about our interviewee. We have one of my favourite guests on today, actually his second appearance because we caught up with him in a Vegas hotel room a couple years ago. But this is Patrick O'Donnell. Patrick is a former police officer. When we were talking to him he was about three months away from retirement of a life on the streets as a sergeant, a police officer, a ranking police officer and a sergeant in Milwaukee, in a tough neighbourhood, tough district and there were murders every few days there and he's dealt with everything that you could possibly imagine.
We did feel like we were writing the opening passages of a tragedy, didn't we Mark? It felt a little bit like it. I've got three months left on the force and you know from experience of reading these books and watching these films what's going to happen. But I'm delighted to say, and I've breathed some relief to say that he has successful retired his job. Had a pretty tough time since because things melted down on the streets in America this summer, just after he retired and he went through, he talks about it in an interview, a real period of feeling guilty about not being there anymore and helping his colleagues and friends.
But what Patrick is very good at is shining a light, shining that police flashlight on the areas of police procedure. That's the people like you actually, in particular, Mark who write stories that involve that side of life could do with knowing, not necessarily to get every single little bit right because you'd have to be geeky about it but you kind of do have to know what you're playing with, what you're deciding to stretch and what is getting right. So shall we listen to Patrick and then you and I can have a chat off the back of that about implementing some of the things that Patrick's talked about. So here is Patrick O'Donnell.
Patrick O'Donnell, we had a chat with you in a Vegas bedroom and I know what happens in Vegas is supposed to stay there but we broadcast that to the world.
Patrick O’Donnell: That does not sound appropriate.
James Blatch: It doesn't, does it? This is not great stuff. But I remember that interview being about you and your history and your running out the clock in your police career, which is amazing and it was really a great interview.
People, if they haven't heard it, should go back and listen to that but you introduced this idea of the Cops and Writers sort of workshop thing you've got, which is a community. It's a Facebook group. It's a couple of books now of really helping writers with some of the factual nitty gritty of frontline policing and do you know what? I went onto the Facebook site when I got back and it quickly became my new favourite place to go.
Patrick O’Donnell: That's good. I'm glad to hear that.
James Blatch: Now, honestly I would say it's the same as turning on Netflix and watching a crime doc, which I so also find fascinating. Just reading through some of these questions people have. I get to a murder scene, what would I need to arrest somebody who I just have a hunch about? How does that work exactly and what are the procedures? How long can I hold somebody? What if they threw the knife away? How big an area do you secure?
All these really interesting questions and you've created this community of people like yourself. You're not the only cop in that obviously who is there answering questions, former cops and other writers sharing their stuff. So that is the background. That's why you're here.
You've got another book to add to your canon of really interesting factual books on this area and that's what we're going to talk about. But before perhaps we talk about that I should say, congratulations on your retirement because last time we spoke, you were in uniform.
Patrick O’Donnell: Thank you.
James Blatch: You are now out. How is that going? Are you missing it?
Patrick O’Donnell: I'm not missing all the BS and there's plenty of that. When everything kicked off and the city that I worked in had some very serious riots, one of our police officers got shot. It was a hot mess. My guys were working 20 hour days and it was just crazy.
I had a just boatload of survivor guilt. I could not sleep at night. It got to the point where I couldn't even watch the news because I'm thinking to myself, well, why should I be warm and cosy at home while those guys are out there getting everything thrown at them, again, getting shot, getting rocks and bottles pelted at them and I am at home. So that was very tough to deal with.
James Blatch: I can understand that.
Patrick O’Donnell: My wife was very good to me and she said, "You know what? You've been through lots of riots. You've had all kinds of stuff thrown at you. You did your time." So that's the way I'm looking at it for now.
James Blatch: I was going to say the same thing. I can understand you feeling like that because it's a state of mind when things are going off. It's involved you at an intensive level for so many years but that's not the way it works. The way it works is you do your time. You do your decades and you should be happy for yourself and happy for your colleagues when they get to that point and their time is done as well.
Patrick O’Donnell: Yeah, I am very happy to be retired. There is no doubt about that. Retirement's really cool but I'm busier now that I'm retired than when I was working.
James Blatch: Yeah, well, that's partly because you built up this fantastic community, I'm sure. Let's talk about that. Let's talk about first of all the Facebook groups. So this is called Cops and Writers.
Did you start is as sort of a place for crime writers to post their questions? Was that the idea?
Patrick O’Donnell: Yes. I've published other books. I published three other books before I started the Facebook group and they had nothing to do with police work but I had people asking me questions. The deeper I got into the indie community, I'm heavily involved with the 20BooksTo50K group. I'm involved in your group and you go to conferences and people would automatically just come up to you and say, "Hey, you're the cop. What would happen if this occurred? How would a police officer handle this? Would a detective do that? Does he have enough to arrest somebody?"
And I'm thinking to myself, I should start a group helping these guys out. So I did and I also knew that I had bigger aspirations for it and part of that was writing books to help out authors and screenwriters. I love the term, dig the well before you're thirsty.
So it was a two pronged attack I guess. One was, okay, I'm going to help out these authors and secondly, this is kind of market research. Is this viable? Do you think that there's a market for a book like this? Is there a market for courses or a podcast?
I'm kind of dipping my toes in the water just to see. What I did was I started the Facebook group before I wrote the book and it just kind of exploded from there. When we met back in last November at 20 Books in Vegas, I had about 900 members. Now there's over 2600. So I couldn't be happier and it doesn't work except for the fact that I have really good people in there that ask really good questions and I have other members of law enforcement literally all over the globe. So if somebody has a question about UK police procedure, I was never a cop in the UK. I have an idea and I can help but I have UK police officers and detectives.
James Blatch: I'm just having a look now. So the most recent question posted an hour ago by Marissa is a UK question. She asks, "If the perpetrator of a hit and run is later located and is under the limits when he's found hours later but there's proof that he was in a pub earlier that day could he still be prosecuted for drunk driving or do the police need to have a positive breathalyser result?"
So these are the sorts of questions that are really good for writers to ask because the easiest thing is to make something up, some procedure and you will lose credibility not just from the odd policeman or police woman who reads your book but also from people who just know the answer to that and they've had a brush with the law or whatever it is. It's like any book and I think particularly this area because it's a very public thing, policing.
The military stuff I write, me and a bunch of geeky people like me understand some of those things and will spot errors but actually the general public don't.
But policing is very visible, very public. We're all part of it. Most of us know people who work in law enforcement. I think, it's really important to get that stuff right. So yeah, you've got an answer I think, from one of your law enforcement colleagues here in the UK who explained about something called a back calculation.
I don't know if you have that in America as well, do you?
Patrick O’Donnell: Well, what happens is that's very expensive. He doesn't mention that. So if it's just a regular drunk driver that's maybe hit a stop sign, bent the stop sign and didn't hurt anyone, odds are he'll still get arrested but it depends. If it's a week later nothing's going to be able to test that.
You could get arrested for failure to report an accident or hit and run, that type of thing but the drunk driving portion is going to be very tough. Now, if there's a death or very serious injury involved the department will spend the money and they'll do everything they can and hope that science will help out where there are blood tests and it's going to have to be blood to hopefully back calculate what the person's blood alcohol content was at the time. So it's not something that happens every day. It's rare but it does happen.
James Blatch: There is the learning process. People can start to see why this Facebook page is quite addictive to read some of these questions. Are you compiling a repository, I mean, your books are I guess sort of this but is the Facebook groups itself, I think, over a period of time it's going to become a place of really valuable knowledge. And Facebook groups aren't the easiest to search.
Is there a plan to make this a sort of database, a sort of FAQ kind of thing at some point?
Patrick O’Donnell: Funny you should mention that. I was kicking around the idea of that would be my next book, the most popular questions from the Facebook group and organise it into like say, criminal investigations, traffic stuff like what we were just talking about or just general, how does somebody become a police officer? Do the questions from actual people, from authors.
That's probably the next book and I'm going to start testing that to see if it has enough interest where people would want to pick it up. It would be something more on the lighthearted side and probably not super long but like you said, it would be a handy reference guide.
James Blatch: What are you finding out about your fellow writers? Are they coming into this group in the books you read fairly well informed or are you seeing quite a lot of mistakes in the way that law enforcement's described?
Patrick O’Donnell: Well, it depends. I have defence attorneys. I've got prosecutors, former prosecutors, former defence attorneys. They know the law pretty decent. The police officers that are in the group, they know the law. They know the proper procedures but different departments will do things different ways. So sometimes there isn't always a pat answer as far as an easy answer.
As far as authors, it depends on how much research they've done. Some are very impressive. They've done quite a bit of research. You could tell by the questions that hey, this person has spoken to a police officer or a detective or maybe they were a police officer or detective. They were involved in law enforcement somehow and now, they're writers. I have a couple of people like that in the group. So it's a wide variety.
Some people are, I don't want to say clueless but there's some people that are... The learning curve can be pretty steep and if you were never around it and all you know is what you see on TV or read in books or God forbid, the internet it's not a great place to learn.
James Blatch: It's all about the willingness to learn though, isn't it? It's about how people take it and they do occasionally get people who just sort of stubbornly think, well, I'm sticking with what I wrote originally even if it might be wrong.
But I do quite like and I've just spotted one there, an example of this where someone asks, in this case, Brendan asked, "When an attorney comes to visit a suspect is the conversation private or recorded at the precinct?" And instead of someone saying, "It's probably not recorded." Someone came in and said, "It's unlikely we'd let an attorney in at this stage."
Which is quite a big bit of information to have because whilst they could write the same scene, I suppose they'd have to add something at the beginning explaining why the attorney on this occasion got through at the precinct to that stage.
Patrick O’Donnell: Right. In 25 years of the district station's that I've worked at, I've never seen an attorney at a district station. When you get arrested, usually you end up at a district station. Usually it's the one, the geographical area where you were arrested and then you're processed. You may or may not be questioned or interrogated there. Sometimes, it depends.
The more serious the crime the less chance is that happening. You're probably going to wind up, we have headquarters. Like I said we have seven district stations. It's a city of 600,000 people, 1800 members in the department so say you're arrested for homicide. You're going to get processed and you're going to go down to or you're going to get straight down to, it's the police administration building and that's the headquarters. That's HQ and that's where the detective bureau is. So that's their backyard.
There's a city jail there. They'll get processed, the fingerprints and pictures et cetera. If they're intoxicated they can't talk to them because if you interrogate somebody that's high on drugs or is drunk whatever that interview is going to be will most likely get thrown out in court for obvious reasons. "I don't know what I was saying. I was high as a kite." Or, "I was so drunk I don't even remember talking to this cop." So it depends on what they say, personal observations et cetera.
James Blatch: Well, that's the sort of answer you get in this group is not just the answer you were expecting but somebody questioning the scene that you've set up, which is useful.
What sort of coverage have you got of the world? I can see the UK and the U.S. very commonly.
Patrick O’Donnell: Oh, it's literally all over the world. I've quite a few Aussies and people in New Zealand. Asian not too many. Canada, I have some good representation. The UK is strongly represented. Ireland, UK, Spain, France, a good chunk of Europe and like I said before, Australia, New Zealand. But yeah, it's amazing what a world we live in. 10, 15 years ago this wouldn't be possible.
James Blatch: No, it's absolutely really good use of the internet.
Patrick O’Donnell: Yes, very positive.
James Blatch: Do you think it's always important to be as factually accurate as possible in these novels or are you relaxed that if people want to go off quite a bit?
Patrick O’Donnell: What I tell people because I also consult with authors and screenwriters and I say, one of the first things I say when I start talking to them is, "It's your story but I feel there is a responsibility that you have." Especially for somebody like me, writing a police procedure, this is what happens.
The two books that I wrote in the Cops and Writers series, it's to help authors and that's the Facebook page too but also, you don't want to get called out by your readers. But one of the biggest things too is these people might actually be, that read these books might be thinking about becoming a cop. So I think it's important to have all your ducks in a row and have all your facts straight so they know that they have an idea at least of what law enforcement is before they start maybe heading down that path.
James Blatch: Yeah, so if they do go off, they're going off deliberately in a calculated way knowing what the landscape should be.
Patrick O’Donnell: Correct.
James Blatch: Okay, I suppose the other thing that is not just the nitty gritty about procedure but some of the relationships, which I think can very quickly become quite cliché in writing and this is common on TV and in films as well as books. One of them I think, is that relationship between the FBI and local police law enforcement.
We've had four FBI officers on here, on this podcast before who say, in their experience it simply isn't the case that there's this relentless tension and anger between them. In fact, it's always a working partnership and she said, no, in her experience the local law enforcement are grateful that FBI have come in and they're going to take the case or they're going to help them out with it.
Was that your experience or do you see some truth in what is always trotted out as this hostility between the two?
Patrick O’Donnell: Oh, you're absolutely right and I believe it was Jerri Williams that was on your show. She's fantastic. She has her own podcast. She has her book and a website that's very helpful for authors if you have questions about the FBI just look up Jerri Williams and she is just a plethora of information.
Yeah, like what you said, there's no big fight. There's no big, "Hey, this is my case. Get out of here." Kind of thing and usually the FBI is not going to take over. They will help. They will offer their expertise. They may have resources that a local PD do not have and they might be a little more hands on in a smaller department that doesn't have the experience say like in New York or Chicago where you have a homicide unit that's 24/7. Where I worked in Milwaukee it was 24/7. There were always homicide detectives working. There was always sensitive crimes detectives working.
So when you would have FBI usually it was task forces where you're kind of joining forces such as like say human trafficking. We would have members of our sensitive crimes division police officers, detectives working with the FBI and usually when the FBI was involved with something it would only be one or two agents. You don't have a big team of FBI agents like storm the Bastille to, "This is my scene. Get out of here, coppers." It's like, "No."
Another thing that they might become involved in is if you have serial bank robbers. Banks are federally insured so that is the FBI's turf and it's also the local's turf. In the 25 years that I worked, very rarely would you see an FBI agent at a bank robbery and I've gone to a bunch of them. But they would show up usually if there was shots fired, somebody hurt or killed in a bank robbery or say there's a crew of bank robbers and they're going from town to town or crossing state lines. Then they would get more involved.
James Blatch: Yeah, the state lines is thing is a thing in the UK now as well but kind of-
Patrick O’Donnell: Oh, really? Okay.
James Blatch: It's starting to catch up with the criminals, taking advantage of the change in jurisdictions particularly the drug's world and Mark ended up getting quite a personal view of that when there was a raid in the building adjacent to him and he had a chat with the police about it but it was exactly that. It was working with intelligence that came from London with the arrests and raids being made in Wiltshire, which are two different police forces. So yeah. We're starting to be familiar with that as well.
Okay, so that's the Facebook group and honestly I do think you can while away an evening reading through that. Then you've got these two books. The latest book is Crime Scenes and Investigations both under the Cops and Writers brand and book one was back a couple of years now I guess is it Patrick? Is, From the Academy to the Street.
Patrick O’Donnell: Yes, that came out about a year ago, last June.
James Blatch: Yeah, a year ago. Okay, when we spoke.
So the first book, I'm guessing is the background to the police training process of getting onto the frontline.
Patrick O’Donnell: Yes, it shows, how do you become a police officer. What are the different routes you could take in your career as a police officer? It will go a little bit into K9 and SWAT, motorcycle unit, horses, all the different ways you can be a police officer and it just illustrated how you become from citizen James, to Police Officer James, to Detective James if that's the route that you want to take. But the long and short of it is most people who become a police officer stay a police officer.
The overwhelming majority of the members in a department are police officers or sheriff's deputies depending if it's a sheriff's department or police department. They're the ones that do most of the work. They're the grunts. They're the ones either by choice or they just didn't do very well in a promotion exam. That might be a reason why they didn't promote or do something different. Or they're just happy where they are.
That happens quite a bit too. They have a nice assignment. They feel comfortable doing what they're doing and where I work, if you promote, like I promoted to sergeant after being a cop for almost seven years and I was slated to go day shift. I was working midnight to eight and once I became a sergeant I got bumped down to seniority, down to the very bottom of the barrel. So I was working nights again. I worked nights for 17 years.
James Blatch: Wow.
Patrick O’Donnell: I would have been day shift after almost a little over six years if I'd just stayed a police officer. But it's all trade offs. What do you want? So obviously more pay, more responsibility but more freedom and I think it was a lot more fun.
James Blatch: Do people still call you Sarge?
Patrick O’Donnell: Yeah, it's funny. I'm retired and one of my cops will see me in a grocery store or whatever and, "Hey, Sarge. How's it going?" That's the way it is and then some of them like the newer guys will be like, "Hello, sir." And I'm like, "It's not sir. I'm just a retired guy now, man. You can call me whatever you want."
James Blatch: Yeah, that's nice. Okay, so that's book one. Now, book two, which is really what we want to talk about today, which I think is as we're recording this is on the cusp of an eBook did you say, is out tomorrow?
Patrick O’Donnell: Yes. I've had it on preorder for about a week and it goes live. The Kindle version goes live tomorrow and the paperback went live I think, it was yesterday and I'm negotiating with a narrator right now for the audio book.
James Blatch: Superb. Okay, so this is, Crime Scenes and Investigations. So this book is closer to the heart of what you set out to do, which is provide a resource for crime writers to get the details right.
Patrick O’Donnell: Yes, specifically crime scenes and investigations. I go more into the detective bureau. I also do some work as far as weapons and firearms in police work and interviews, interrogations and also literally talking somebody off of a bridge, dealing with suicide negotiators. What does a negotiator do? That type of thing.
James Blatch: How much research did you have to do for this because obviously you were in uniform as a sergeant? There may have been aspects of the detective world that you wouldn't have had, you wouldn't have seen on the inside so much.
Did you have other input into this?
Patrick O’Donnell: Yes. I've literally been to hundreds and hundreds of homicides, probably thousands of crime scenes in my 25 years. When you're in a busy city where there's a lot of crime like right now, we're on track to having the highest homicide rate for any time. The only time that it would be higher was when Jeffrey Dahmer was discovered and all the people that he killed during that time because he was a serial killer. So we're on track to almost 200 homicides for this year. Last year, I think, we had a little over 100 or right under 100.
James Blatch: That's, doing my math now, but that's one a day, effectively.
Patrick O’Donnell: Yeah. Well, close to it and nonfatal shootings are probably going to be close to 500. So you can have more than one shooting a day almost.
James Blatch: This is Milwaukee?
Patrick O’Donnell: Yes.
James Blatch: How big is the city?
Patrick O’Donnell: 600,000 people.
James Blatch: See, that's the size of well, it's a bit bigger than Cambridge but I'm trying to think. That's a lot of, I mean, Cambridge will have a murder once a year, maybe.
Patrick O’Donnell: Okay.
James Blatch: It's probably two or 300,000 probably half the size but none the less, oh, that's breathtaking for me to hear that.
Patrick O’Donnell: Milwaukee's not an anomaly. It's happening all over the country. This is nothing new. I'm not going to get into politics obviously because that's a rabbit hole we'll never get out of but Milwaukee is not unique in that. We'll just say that.
James Blatch: So you set out to educate people about crime scenes.
Patrick O’Donnell: I interviewed a homicide detective that I worked with. I sat down with him and interviewed him literally then I interviewed a homicide detective from L.A. and I've talked to detectives in Florida and New York. I wanted to get a big picture because I know how my department does things and I did that as far as the police procedure stuff goes also. Just because Milwaukee does something some way doesn't mean that L.A. is going to do it the same or Chicago's going to do it the same.
James Blatch: Right.
Patrick O’Donnell: So like I said before you have a small town, maybe the FBI will give them a hand if they have something really big and then that same crime they're not going to have anything to do with it in Milwaukee because we have detectives that do this every day, whereas, say in a small town it might be like you were talking about in Cambridge. You have one homicide a year so it's like anything else, the more reps you have at something the better you get at it. That's with crime scenes, investigations, all those types of things.
James Blatch: That is actually one of the problems that crops up in the UK occasionally and I covered a very high profile murderer of two young school girls when I was in the BBC. It became one of those cases that became very famous. But one of the issues was that Cambridge didn't have the experience of dealing with murders at the time and they suddenly found themselves in a quite complicated very... So they were missing for two weeks. So there was a hunt as well.
Patrick O’Donnell: Wow.
James Blatch: And I guess that must happen in the States and I don't know if your book touches on that. There's a very big difference as you allude to being in the middle of I don't know, Minnesota or somewhere in the Corn Belt and in the middle of Milwaukee I mean.
Patrick O’Donnell: Oh, absolutely.
James Blatch: And in terms of procedures and so on, I suppose they should be roughly the same shouldn't they?
Patrick O’Donnell: Well, our ultimate goals are the same. We all have the same constitution. We all have the same rule book that is the constitution but as far as working crime scenes go it will be different.
So say there's a homicide. Where I worked we had a team of homicide detectives and you would have say, you had one or two dead bodies, you would have maybe four to six detectives that would show up to that and there would be one lieutenant. Some departments have sergeants as well that are the detective's bosses. You're going to have a bunch of cops there. You're going to have a sergeant that was me. Sometimes you would have a captain from the homicide bureau that will show up. That's usually during the day because usually the captains work during the day. They don't work at night.
You would have all these people and you might have one CSI person, the one who takes pictures, video, fingerprints, collects DNA, collects blood, that type of thing. But they don't physically collect the evidence. The detectives will document the scene. By documenting the scene, it's literally a steno pad and a pen and they'll describe in their reports because they're going to write a report later what the scene is.
A male in his middle 30s laying in the living room, face down, two apparent gunshot wounds to the back of his head. Then they'll start describing if there's any evidence, if there was a pistol found in the kitchen. This is the make, model, serial number. Then they literally have a tape measure and they just start measuring things.
Say if your homicide is outside, what you want to do is you want to have frame of references that aren't going to go away tomorrow. So a light pole, a fire hydrant, the curb line. The body was three feet from the fire hydrant, north.
There's actually software now that can map all that out for you. It's pretty amazing but you'll always have that, whereas, different departments will have maybe one or two detectives show up at a homicide and their CSI people will document the scene. They will collect all the evidence along with collecting the blood, fingerprints, DNA, all of those types of things.
James Blatch: And of course, this is critical to the process down the line so you might be a year later in a court case and if a mistake was made on that first couple of days of gathering evidence it can play havoc with a court case, which is perfect for a writer by the way, to plan why the guy gets off or whatever.
Patrick O’Donnell: Yeah, nothing happens quick. A speedy trial could be a year from now. So you think speedy is, "Oh, cool. It will be next month." No, especially like a homicide, something big like that. The wheels of justice turn very slowly.
James Blatch: Certainly it is the same in the UK.
Do you take the book chronologically? How have you structured it?
Patrick O’Donnell: Yeah, pretty much. I started with just crime scenes. Who does what at a crime scene like what I was just talking about as far as who processes the crime scene. One of the big misnomers that you see on TV or in books is you have a homicide and the first people showing up are like this little army of homicide detectives.
They usually don't show up for a half an hour, an hour after the police officers and the sergeant secure the scene. So if there's fighting with the guy who just killed somebody or anything like that, we would kind of joke around with the detectives. We were like, "You're second responders. You're not first responders."
James Blatch: Thanks for coming along.
Patrick O’Donnell: Yeah, usually they're not the ones doing the chasing. I remember my first homicide, I was still on field training. I'd probably had three or four weeks on the job and we get called to a stabbing and they gave a description of the guy and as we're getting there here comes the guy running out of the house like running in our direction. And I'm like, "Oh, okay, he's got a knife in his hand. He matches the description."
I jump out. I draw down on him and I'm just like, "Holy crap." I'm going to have to shoot this guy. I don't want to shoot this guy. I think I was more scared than him. I'm brand new and I'm just like, "So much for that job. That was kind of fun for a little bit." But yeah, they're very dynamic and they can change quite a bit.
James Blatch: I was going to ask you about that, about that beginning. But you're going to have to tell us what happened in that situation. You were scared. He's scared. You're pointing your weapon at him.
Patrick O’Donnell: Oh, yeah. I said, "Get on the ground." And he did. And, "Put your hands behind your back." And he did.
James Blatch: Thank God.
Patrick O’Donnell: I'm like, "Wow, does this happen every time?" And my FTO, the guy training me is like, "Almost never." He says, "Usually they're running in the opposite direction when they see the cops." And I'm like, "Okay, I'll take it." This is my first bag as a homicide suspect and unfortunately, the person he stabbed them in the armpit and that's not a place you want to get stabbed.
James Blatch: There's an artery around there isn't there?
Patrick O’Donnell: Yeah, pierced a pulmonary artery and I'm the new guy, so I go in the ambulance and they want me to get a dying declaration from this guy. They're like, "See if, we know who killed him." It's pretty obvious but you can't assume anything in any investigation. Maybe that was a relative and he was trying to hide the knife or who knows?
I'm trying to get a dying declaration but he's got an IV in each arm. They've got his feet up in the air and I'm like, "Well, I'm not a doctor but I know this does not look good." He just couldn't talk. He was just gurgling more than anything else and I'm in the trauma room and he crashed three times before he died.
That's another thing that just drives me crazy among many things in crime dramas is you get to a hospital and in TV they do CPR on this guy for maybe a minute and they call it. "Okay, call it. Yeah, he's dead." I'm like, "No." They work on people literally for an hour or more. They give it everything they got. I've got nothing but respect for those medical professionals that work. It's a little team. You'll have three or four doctors, an army of nurses, techs, it's amazing to watch.
But they literally cut this guy's chest open and started doing open heart massage. And here I am, I've never seen, obviously I've never seen anything like that before. Here I am, Mr. Rookie guy and I'm literally like right next to it as they're doing it because the police officer can be in the room and I'm just like, "Holy cow." I went home from work and I looked at my ex-wife and I'm like, "This is the best job ever. This is what I did today at work, honey."
James Blatch: Wow. You've lived a life, Sarge.
Patrick O’Donnell: I've got zero regrets. When I was looking back on my career and I was thinking about it and I'm like, I got zero regrets. I really enjoyed it but it was time to go.
James Blatch: You get into some of this in the book as well because that was what my question I was coming onto, is those first moments. There's a big difference between turning up, as you say, five hours later when your senior detective thinks this is a big case, "I'm going to go and have a look myself." And everything's calm and ordered and there's tape out everywhere. And the guy on the beat in uniform who gets the initial call who could be going to an active situation. It's a huge difference between the two.
Do you deal with that aspect or you have talked about that?
Patrick O’Donnell: Yes, I touch on that in the book. You never know what you're going to get. Again, as far as your story goes, you want something compelling and obviously it has to last awhile to keep your readers involved. You don't want to pump out a book that's 40 pages. That's your crime thriller or whodunit or whatever but a lot of times these crimes, it doesn't take Sherlock Holmes to figure them out.
The prisons and jails are filled with stupid criminals and it never ceased to amaze me. The truth is much stranger than fiction.
James Blatch: I suppose, we have a distorted opinion of that because we read constantly read whodunits and crime thrillers where it's not straightforward and we watch even the reality documentaries that I'm addicted to on Netflix, The Staircase and others. They're always those cases are intriguing but that belies the fact that for every one of those, there's 100 cases where you walk up and just as you say, somebody running away with a gun in their hand or a knife in their hand or whatever.
Patrick O’Donnell: Yeah, I remember again, I wasn't a rookie. I had about four or five years on and the squad area that I worked had a hospital there. So people would dump bodies off at the hospital. They'd shoot them or here's a great story.
This guy is at a bar. It's bar time. He's been chatting up this girl all night long and he's thinking to himself, well, I'm going to get lucky. He's kind of an older frumpy guy. He's probably close to 70 years old, real frumpy and just kind of clueless. This girls like, "Yeah, I'm going to go home with you tonight."
She was a prostitute but he didn't realise it. There was going to be some money transaction and she had a history of prostitution. So she's like, "Well, can you take me home first? I have to get some toiletries, some clothes or whatever." He's like, "Sure." So again, he's thinking, this is going to be the best day of my life. This is the best night ever. This is awesome.
James Blatch: If it's too good to be true it's probably not because that's the old phrase.
Patrick O’Donnell: Correct. So he drops her off. It's in a very rough part of town and he hears some kind of skirmish and he sees this girl just come tumbling down the front stairs. What happened was this woman goes inside the house and the woman that she's living with who was her partner isn't very thrilled that she's going home with a guy. So fight ensues and her partner stabs her in the chest with a barbecue fork.
James Blatch: Wow.
Patrick O’Donnell: So here's this guy going from the best night of his life to the worst night of his life in half a second. So he scoops her up, puts her in his truck. He had a pickup truck, drove her to the hospital but he actually stayed, which is surprising to me.
Most of the time when I get called to something like that there's a dead body. By then, they already have him in a room that they were working on them. I'm talking to the doctor and he says... Well, first I see the guy and he's just in shock. So I had another police officer sit on him and get his basic information and the story.
I go in the exam room and here's this woman. She's probably in her early 30s and she had two holes in her chest. And the doctor's like... By now, she's pronounced dead. She's deceased. And the doctor's like, "There's two holes here. I thought it was a shooting. I took an X-ray and there's nothing metallic in the body. And there's no exit wounds." And I'm like, "Hmm. Yeah, I don't know either."
So I make all the notifications that I'm supposed to make. Here come the homicide detectives and they're like, "Well." They're talking to the guy and it's like, "Could you take us back to the house where this occurred?" I said, "Sure. I remember where it is." So I go up there with the homicide detectives. I knock on the door, lady opens it and the first words out of her mouth were, "It's not like I killed the bitch."
James Blatch: Right.
Patrick O’Donnell: And then everybody just looked at each other like, "Oh, okay." And the barbecue fork is literally in the sink. There's still blood on the tip and you're like, "Again, I don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure this one out."
James Blatch: She saved you a lot of trouble.
Patrick O’Donnell: Oh, I've got more stories like that. Yeah, it's crazy.
James Blatch: Have you put some of those personal anecdotes into this book as well?
Patrick O’Donnell: Yes, I have.
James Blatch: Yeah, to breathe some life into it. Good, well, Patrick, time's whipped through. We have 40 minutes of talking and I could listen to you all day and I will do, at some point in the distant future where we can be in the same room at the same time over a beer.
Patrick O’Donnell: That would be fantastic. I will buy the first pint.
James Blatch: Well, I'm looking forward to that and I'm also going to get a copy of Cops and Writers because I think it's, I do think it's important. Like you say, you said at the beginning it's not absolutely gospel you've got to get everything right but if you're going to go off track you should know.
Patrick O’Donnell: Right. I think one of the problems that writers have is sometimes they become obsessed with they have to have every little fact spot-on, instead of saying the person used this chemical to try to get a blood blah, blah, blah and it's like the CSI people came and processed the scene.
There's nothing wrong with that and then if there's something that is important to the story, they got three partial fingerprints and a palm print near the body on the coffee table or whatever the case may be. So don't kill yourself with that. Do your due diligence but don't overdo it.
James Blatch: Yeah, like you say, people are interested in the story and the characters and the chain and just don't make-
Patrick O’Donnell: Oh, absolutely. I think the character is number one. The police officer and then if you have a compelling suspect or you have somebody like Dexter. I just finished watching that on Netflix. I love Dexter.
James Blatch: That's fantastic. I love that and there's lots of stories maybe not quite as prolific as Dexter of people who in every way, shape and form were right in front of you but they didn't know.
We have a famous case that bubbles up every now and again. The guy's been in prison for 20 odd years now for it but called Jeremy Bamber in the UK and they've done another dramatisation recently. It's a really interesting one because he was the one in tears and showing the police around the house for several weeks before the penny dropped.
Patrick O’Donnell: Wow.
James Blatch: And he still protests his innocence. I think, because he got so far without being nabbed he thought he could get away with it. Look, we could talk endlessly about this. We will talk again.
I would just give a shout to Jerri Williams podcast interview, which is also in our back and I can't remember what number it is but we'll get Catherine to put a link up in the screen there. Jerri Williams came to speak to us about FBI myths and that's a great interview to listen to alongside yours, Sarge. You got the whole gamut there of law enforcement and of course, the legal side. That might be your next one.
Do you think maybe moving into the process beyond the crime scene?
Patrick O’Donnell: My editor is a criminal defence attorney and I had an entire chapter devoted to the criminal justice system and some of it I got wrong. I know when you're supposed to Mirandize somebody. I know how the law works but the nitty gritty, the real bits and pieces she said. And I thought to myself, well, that could be a book. So that's, I might do the questions, the Facebook questions one first then after that it's either going to be the law and order, criminal justice system or I'll dive deeper into the forensic technology.
James Blatch: Fantastic. Well, we'll look forward to that one as well.
Patrick O’Donnell: Sure.
James Blatch: Patrick, thank you so much indeed for joining us. Congratulations on the publication of the book and of course, your retirement. Do enjoy that. You've deserved it and yeah, we'll catch up again soon.
Patrick O’Donnell: Thank you very much.
James Blatch: What an absolutely lovely guy, Patrick and I said in the interview, I love his Cops and Writers Facebook page. It's like watching an episode of a Netflix series on crime because you get all these fantastic questions about what happens at the scene of a crime and writers are mid way through a scene and suddenly the policeman's arrived or the police officer's arrived and that scratch on the head of thinking would they pull their gun at this stage? Who would they talk to? Would they believe the first scene? What's the sequence of events?
It's going to bring some authenticity to their books and what a great service to provide for authors, Mark.
Mark Dawson: Yeah, very good. He certainly, it is a service that if you're writing, well, firstly, I don't think it's necessarily one that's restricted to people writing thrillers. You could have a romance novel set with a policeman as the protagonist. There are always going to be writers looking for someone to give you those details to get them right. And Patrick, he's good at that.
Something that I have in the UK just in the middle of about 40,000 words to the second Atticus Priest book at the moment and I needed a bit of help to get Atticus into a certain situation last night and I have a friend, another author. Actually he's becoming quite successful in his own rights, Neil Lancaster, his Tom Novak series. He was a fairly senior, I think, I've mentioned in one of the podcasts before, he was a fairly senior, I think a DS and was heavily involved in the Levi Bellfield case. You remember that from another multiple murderer.
James Blatch: Awful case, yeah.
Mark Dawson: He was going around attacking young girls typically. And Neil's got lots of experience and he's been tremendously helpful for me, which we have a Facebook message, a chat going on and I just say, "I've got a problem. How do I get Atticus into this situation?" And he comes back with something that is at least reasonably plausible, which is all I really, what I need. So no, it's indispensable to have someone like that especially if you're writing something say in the contemporaneous world and you want to get the details right. You do need someone like that.
James Blatch: Patrick talked about the two books that he's got out so far, both available, which go into detail in those areas. I think, he's going to do a law process one after that and possible an FAQ style book based on the questions and answers that pop up in the group. But the group's valuable and I would recommend joining it if you write in anything like this area because people ask the questions and it's not simply Patrick as a former sergeant in Milwaukee answering questions, he's got police officers and lawyers in South Africa, lot's in the UK, Australia he's seen in every country around the world are in this group and you'll get answers.
Sometimes, you'll get a discussion between policemen about different approaches or different understandings and interpretations, which is also useful because it gives you an idea of some of the tensions that can exist at a crime scene that come in. But don't fall into the cliché of the police officers are all hating the FBI when they turn up, which we did talk about and we often talk about and Jerri, the former FBI officer dismissed out of hand and Patrick backed her up 100% and said, "They work closely together 99 point something percent of the time and they are usually relieved and delighted that the FBI have come along to help them out on big cases." So that's such a cliché in films and TV isn't it?
Mark Dawson: Where they hate each other.
James Blatch: "This is my turf." Which, I believe, is how they speak.
Mark Dawson: Oh dear. Okay, if you say so.
James Blatch: Thank you again to Patrick O'Donnell and I really hope he enjoys his retirement. Do join that Cops and Writers Facebook group. It's great fun. That's it from me. I have nothing more of interest to say. Mark, have you got anything else interesting to say?
Mark Dawson: I have nothing interesting to say at any point so no, we can be done with this I think.
James Blatch: We can enjoy our weekend much as we can in locked down UK at the moment but we'll make the best of it. Thank you very much. All that remains for me to say is it's a good-bye from him.
Mark Dawson: And a good-bye from me. Good-bye.
James Blatch: Good-bye.
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