by Donnell Ann Bell

When I started my fiction career, my protagonists consisted of lawyers, politicians, bankers and engineers. But I loved mystery suspense so naturally a cop or two always existed on the fringes.  Still, I could never bring myself to make my hero a cop.  Why?  Because even though I’d watched every cop show from Dragnet to the Streets of San Francisco to Hill Street Blues to Law and Order, studied police procedure and bought every Deadly Dose book available, I didn’t know cops.  What made them get up every morning or how they thought.  And because I didn’t know them, how could I get into the head of one and create a three-dimensional character instead of a paper doll look-alike of one of these famous shows?

So when someone told me that the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office had a Citizens Academy, not only did I enroll, I was the first in line.  The secretary handed me the forms saying, “Don’t worry, you have plenty of time.” At that I smiled.  She didn’t have a muse sitting on her shoulder arguing the point.

So how did the Citizens Academy help me bring a character from flimsy cardboard to dimensional?  It started from the sheriff on down.  He started out the six-week session and explained what it was like to be a politician, to answer to the county and its budget constraints, to oversee the massive Criminal Justice Center (e.g. the El Paso County Jail) and be held accountable. He also talked about personnel, he made us laugh, talking about how deputies can’t drive and how he wished he could take the reverse out of squad cars at times. And then he became serious and discussed the very human component and made us consider the issues we wouldn’t normally consider.

Next came the commanders and the workshops, and again the stereotypes were left at the door.  When the Vice commander arrived in his tie-dyed shirt to talk about narcotics, meth labs and undercover work and showed up with a marvelous sense of humor and a twinkle in his eye, he eradicated every preconceived notion I’d ever held.

On television we see the vice cops enter the premises and take the bad guys away.  We know there’s often the risk of the lethal bullet.  On the other hand, we don’t see the health risks they take entering these contaminated sites on call outs, or the mental anguish they face when they see what a methamphetamine dealer puts his child through, cooking crystal meth right next to the Frosted Flakes and his teddy bear.

Thanks to the Citizens Academy, I’ll never look at entering a hotel room the same way.  One vice cop said even when he’s on vacation he carries a can of spray starch.  When he enters the room he sprays it on the wall.  It doesn’t hurt the wall he said, but if the wall turns black, he not only leaves the room, he goes to the front desk and demands his money back then leaves the hotel.  Meth not only kills its victims, it leaves a trail of destruction from innocent bystanders, renters, landlords and neighbors.  I can’t stress how aware this made me of this cancerous threat to society, or how much I support stiffer laws and penalties of both users and the greedy idiots who make the stuff.

The six weeks covered every department, from computer-aided analysis crime-scene re-enactment, the detective division, guns/shooting range, patrol, the victim’s advocacy, search and rescue, homeland security/emergency response, internal affairs to a tour of the jail and dispatch.  And as I sat through these courses and learned what it took to run this well-oiled machine, I got a glimpse of what made these people tick.  One, they were selfless, two they were fearless and three, they didn’t require much sleep or praise.

And the muse sitting on my shoulder went “Aha,” and my first cop protagonist came to life, resulting in a 2007 Golden Heart finalist nomination.  Do I recommend the Citizen’s Academy?  Heck, yeah.  I also recommend taking it a step further.  If you have the opportunity to get involved with your local law enforcement, do so.  Become a volunteer or even a recruit.   That’s what the Citizens Academy’s about, after all.  I give you my word; you’ll get more than you’ll ever give back.

This article originally ran on the Workingstiffs Blog

Copyright© 2007 Donnell Ann Bell