Monday, June 25, 2012

Hose Draggers and Blue Canaries

Colorado is on fire.  As I write this, there are fires to the north, east and west of where I'm at.  I have friends who have been evacuated and others who are manning the fire lines.  There are cops going door to door with evacuation notices and those trying to mitigate the chaos of traffic.  Still others are arresting  firefighter impersonators intent on stealing equipment. (I'm not sure but I think there's a special circle of hell for those faux firefighterss and it's really, really hot...)

The relationship between firefighters and cops is an interesting study of pig-headedness, pride, one-upmanship, and respect--although sometimes, the respect is cloaked in sarcasm and ribbing.  Truth is, when the chips are down, we bail each other out.

Firefighters refer to cops as blue canaries.  They shake their heads at our impetuousness when we enter a burning building without proper protection.  We call it heroic, they call it reckless.  We call them a lot worse, but this is a family blog....

There's a saying in most of the cops shops:  God created cops because firefighters need heroes too.  We joke that they "fight" fires but that fires don't punch back or run away.  We tease them about how heavy a television remote can be when they are reclining in their lounge chairs. Truth is, cops are mighty pleased when we need firefighters and they show up.

There's a slogan in the firehouse that goes something like this:  God created firefighters because cops need heroes too.  I actually think they came up with the phrase first, but then again, they have more free time to think this stuff up.  All I know is that when someone has a gun and is threatening a firefighter, they seem might pleased when we return the favor and show up on their calls.

What almost happens in public safety is the danger that both agencies are committed to stopping.  The men and women who don turnouts or ballistic vests are dedicated to their community in a manner that defies logic.  Normal people flee danger, not charge into it headlong. The simple fact is we are family.  Like family, we are prone to squabbling and sibling rivalries, but when the call goes out, we stand shoulder to shoulder.

And sometimes we even acknowledge that they are heroes too.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Are You Qualified?

In the last twenty-two years, I've put some rounds down range. And every time I stepped foot on the range, butterflies took up residency in my gut. It wasn't that I didn't like shooting. Au contraire, nothing like blowing holes in pieces of paper to relieve stress. Nope, I hated the qualification part.

For the record, I've never failed a range qualification. Over the years that meant shooting a 9mm Smith and Wesson, Beretta 92F, Heckler and Koch .40 cal, Remington shotgun, a Glock .40 cal., a Colt AR.  And that was just the on-duty weapons.  Add in the off-duty and I qualified with James Bond's favorite Walther PPKS .380, more Glocks and the occasional Chief's Special.  For fun, I've shot a Tommy gun, Uzi, AK, revolvers, fully automatic and semi-automatic rifles, and a cannon.  That last one was at a festival, and really, I only lit the fuse, but still.  It got your attention.

The best qualification courses incorporate movement; by the officer, the target and even the scenario.  Real-life shootings are dynamic events and officers must train to adapt to ever-changing conditions.  I loved the combat shooting. It was simple. React to the threat. Done. 

On the other hand, static targets and I never really seemed to get along. I'd adopt my modified Weaver stance, feel the breeze, size up the other guys on the firing line, breathe deeply, align my sights and halfway through the exhale, I'd pause and gently squeeze the trigger. Inevitably, I'd drop my rounds low and to the right. Again, simple. I over-thought it.

Qualifications don't end with retirement.  With some limitations, retired officers can opt to maintain their credentials in compliance with the US Law Enforcement Officer's Safety Act of 2004 that allows them to carry concealed weapons--provided they qualify with a law enforcement agency with the specific guns they plan to carry.  

The right to carry a concealed weapons is a hot topic in the nation today. Writers need to understand there is a difference between the ability to own a gun, carry a gun and conceal a gun.  The last is a no-no unless licensed with the local constabulary.  Unlike state licensing for civilians, the Federal Act allows active and qualified retired officers to carry nation-wide regardless of state limitations (with a few caveats).

This afternoon, I have a date with a range master.  I will stare down paper targets and demonstrate my shooting ability with three different handguns.  I'll have butterflies fluttering in my stomach, but over the years, I've come to realize that they are there to remind me the importance of being competent with a weapon that can as easily take a life as protect one.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Not All Cops Eat Donuts

Cops all tend to swim in the same personality pool, use the same lingo, have the same values.  So how can authors make them distinct?

Spin the stereotype.

In his book The Breakout Novelist, Donald Maass exhorts authors to mine stereotypes and then find one way in which the character turns that on its ear. (Exercise 41 for those who have the book--and if you don't, stop reading, I'll wait....)

Most stereotypes lean toward the pejorative.  The stereotypical cop, therefore, could encompass the following negatives:  Donut eater, officious, womanizer, impatient, hates people, overly suspicious, gun and gadget lover.

Drawing from the list, I describe Officer Matt Mendoza, a minor character, as seen through the eyes of my protagonist, Officer Claire Hartman.

Mendoza was a walking stereotype.  His love of donuts led to a battle with his scale, but didn't slow down his pursuit of women.  He faced every new encounter with overt suspicion and controlled it with impatient officiousness.  Despite choosing a career that professed to help people, he really didn't like them.  The only thing that flouted convention was his disdain for guns.  He hated them.  Only carried one because he had to, only fired it at the quarterly qualifications.  The brass didn't ride him too hard though.  He regularly outshot the department range junkies.  Go figure.

Or consider this:

He was the anti-cop.  It took more than a cursory glance to discern his profession.  No mustache, no string of ex-wives.  He eschewed fried dough and worked out regularly.  The only trait that outed him as a cop was his love of gadgets.  If Galls featured it in their catalogue, he had to have it.  He went on a pilgrimage each year to the Shot Show, the Mecca of law enforcement trade shows and treated the event as a religious experience; worshipping at the booths of Aimpoint and Colt, garbed in the robes of 5.11.  He had photos of himself with R. Lee Ermey and Black Hawk Down Pilot, Mike Durant.  He was the only person Claire knew who owned his own pair of night googles.

Two very different people derived from a single stereotype.

Stereotypes develop from a kernel of truth and become widely held as an oversimplified version of a particular type of person or thing. Stereotyping can be a useful tool for authors to employ as a way to shortcut the development of minor characters.  But the danger lies in relying on the stereotype to accomplish all of your characterization instead of giving the character depth and individual idiosyncrasies.

It isn't a difficult exercise, but it results in vastly improved characterization.

...oh, and I prefer scones.