Writer’s Police Academy Part 2: K9 Units by Sarah Madison

I confess, when I saw the K9 handler pull up on that first afternoon at WPA, during the open Q&A session with various law enforcement and emergency personnel, I was immediately drawn to watch. Having owned many high-drive German Shepherds myself, I couldn’t help but admire the power and beauty of these dogs, as well as the appreciate some of the similarities between these working dogs and my own.

But it was impressed upon us just how different these dogs are from any family pet.

I’ll try to make sense from my hastily scribbled notes.

The K9 units are subdivided by specialty training: SWAT, patrol, drug work. A typical shift is 10 hours/ day (though the officers are paid for eleven hours, to include grooming and care of the dogs), four days on, four days off.

Unlike the other units, the drug units frequently rely on sporting dogs for drug work—Labradors, Pointers, etc. It makes sense, as many of these breeds have been selected for their sense of smell as well as a willingness to retrieve. Handlers are only allowed to stay with the drug unit for 5 years before moving into another division—presumably to help prevent burnout.

Most of the ‘police’ dogs are imported from Germany. Handlers undergo six weeks of intensive training, but it can take up to a year before the handler/dog team is call ready. Handlers are expected to train daily. The length of time spent training depends on both handler ability and the capability of the dog.

The cost of a single dog plus training runs between $12-13 thousand dollars—it’s a major investment for a police department. The K9 handler spent a good deal of time discussing protecting that investment, as there had recently been a local case of a dog dying in a police car due to overheating. The cars have fixed grills in them that allow the windows to be rolled down without the dog being able to leave the car. Newer police K9 units have heat sensors that will roll down the windows automatically if the car becomes too hot. Lights and sirens also go off, and a text is sent to the dispatch, the handler, and the captain. As a system of fail-safes, it should be foolproof, and yet many departments have older vehicles well-past retirement age due to budget cuts. All three management systems failed in the case of the heat-related dog death.

There are protection vests for the police dogs, but they are seldom used because they weight between 40-50 pounds, greatly hampering the dog’s ability to do its job. No officer will send their dog in on a ‘suicide mission’, but they will put the dog in danger to protect a fellow officer. Ultimately, the police dog is a tool, much as a service weapon. The speaker stated that the dogs weren’t considered part of the ‘use of force’ continuum, but unfortunately, didn’t explain that statement further.

The average working lifespan of a police dog is eight years, after which they are retired with the handler or euthanized. These dogs are NOT socialized. Walking on a leash in the neighborhood is not an option. The handler who spoke with us estimated his kennel arrangement at the house cost about three thousand dollars to make a safe, dog-proof environment. While euthanasia, if the handler is not prepared to retire the dog at his home, may sound cruel after a lifetime of service, it is preferable to the practice of auctioning off retiring dogs to the highest bidder, which some cash-strapped communities have done in the past. The liability of doing such a thing has probably ended this practice for the most part.

The handler and dog are a team—the dog is rarely out of the handler’s sight, and is the handler’s backup in any given situation. Handlers have a remote control which can open the rear door of the police car and release the dog. The handler can direct a search, direct an attack, but in an open brawl, the dog cannot distinguish friend from foe and will attack the most animated person. This is because the dogs are selected for having a strong prey drive, which means they go after anything that moves. I have personal experience with that, as my last shepherd had a strong prey drive. The very first time he laid eyes on a black bear, he chased it up the side of a mountain!

Dogs are usually trained to ‘bark and hold’, which means they will go up to a suspect and bark but not engage unless the suspect moves. If a dog is already lit up with excitement, however, training may break and the dog might engage regardless.

Dogs are frequently used as a locating tool. The handler referred to ‘walkaways’, which are people who are either suicidal, have dementia, or walked out of an assisted living situation. Dogs are used to locate people in buildings or parks, finding them much more efficiently than a human searcher could do.

Dogs are also frequently utilized at traffic stops because an officer can only hold a driver for so long without probable cause, but if a dog alerts on a car, they have probable cause.

The thing that the handler reiterated the most was that, though he would bawl his eyes out if anything happened to his dog, he was prepared to sacrifice his dog’s life to save a human being. The bond between handler and dog is great, but ultimately, the dog is there to be used.

Tune in next time, when I’ll treat you to the highlights of body armor and how it stops certain kinds of ammunition.

In the meantime, check out the reason I wanted to go to WPA in the first place, the FBI guys from the Sixth Sense series!

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Writer’s Police Academy Part 2: Death Scene Investigation by Sarah Madison

Last month, I wrote a general introductory post to Writer’s Police Academy and my experience there. For this month’s post, I’d like to go into more detail. As I mentioned in the previous post, attending WPA is a lot like going to any big continuing education meeting. A variety of seminars are listed simultaneously, and you must pick and choose which to attend. Also like a CE meeting, there were loosely defined tracks: several classes on arson, for example, or legal issues.

Because I already have somewhat of a medical background, I initially decided to forego the more medical seminars and attend courses where I thought my education was lacking. It didn’t take me long to change my mind, however.  In part because my background didn’t always lend itself to a direct translation into police/crime-based information, but also because this is where my interests obviously lie. To deny them would cut out an important–and authentic–voice in my writing.

This became apparent to me early on in the weekend because some of the very popular classes were limited as to the number of participants. As such, the organizers of WPA held a lottery for the courses and attendees were chosen at random. Some courses had to be limited for logistical reasons, such as the emergency driving course, or the live fire handgun class. I was lucky enough to get a ticket for both Death Scene Investigation and Ballistics.

Death Scene Investigation proved to be the first course of the day for me.

We were taken into a classroom and shown graphic images of actual death scenes, and then given the opportunity to say what we thought had occurred based on the blood spatter and evidence visible in the photographs. Before each set of photographs, the instructor gave us as attendees the option to leave the room before the next set of images were posted. Some people took the opportunity to do this. I confess, even though I have a pretty strong stomach, at times I felt a little queasy knowing I was viewing the scene of someone’s murder. That didn’t stop me from feeling a little spurt of pride, however, when after being shown photos of a brutal attack of a mother vacationing in a cabin with her two children, the instructor asked for speculation as to who the murderer was and I correctly guessed it was the estranged husband.

Now granted, the odds are high that a murdered woman is usually a victim of a domestic situation.  But when the instructor asked why I believed this was the case,  I pointed out that the woman was on vacation alone with her children, that the murderer had waited until the children had gone swimming, that the attack was brutally centered on her breasts and genitals, possibly signifying a strong personal hatred or previous sexual relationship, and that her left hand had been severed–the ‘ring’ hand.

The instructor was so pleased with my reasoning, he gave me a T-shirt!

After the initial instruction about basic procedures (more on that below), we then entered a room that had been staged with a fake death scene. We were given time to observe the evidence and then determine what took place. This was a little tricky since the room was small and there were a lot of us in it. Most of us could only clearly see a small portion of the scene. However, I won another T-shirt when asked for speculation as to what had happened and I said there had to be at least one shooter from outside, as the glass on the inside of the room indicated a bullet had been fired into the room. But I missed the bloody footprint, as well as the driver’s license (conveniently) abandoned in the trash basket.

My notes from the course are barely legible, as I wrote at top speed trying to keep up, but here are the highlights:

  1. Blood spatter goes in all directions–look for cast-off. In our arranged death scene, blood spatter had been placed on the ceiling and many of us neglected to look up. When a blade goes into a body, suction is formed around it, so if it is pulled out, the blade comes out with force and cast-off ends up behind the perpetrator.
  2. Passive blood drops don’t change size past four feet in height, therefore you can measure the size of the drop that falls from a height of under four feet to determine the height at which it fell (think of blood dripping off the tip of a knife point). There is a mathamatical formula for working this out, but don’t ask me to explain it! If a tear-shaped droplet forms as a result of cast-off, the fat end of the droplet will be closest to the source and the tip points in the direction of flow.
  3. Don’t assume all the blood is the victim’s. You may only get one chance to get a sample if it came from the murderer, so identification and preservation are critical. Knives become slippery with blood and it is easy for the perpetrator to get cut under those circumstances.
  4. A scene with a lot of evidence is frequently divided into grids (much like an archeological dig)
  5. Every death is treated as a homicide until proven otherwise.
  6. A void pattern can be as important as a spatter pattern (ie, what was in the way of the spray and where is it now?).

You can’t assume the perpetrator has left the scene–so you must complete a search/clear building first. Victims can only be assessed–not declared dead (coroner must declare death). A first responder can only say “pulse/no pulse.” The coroner is often an elected official with no real medical background. Larger counties will have both a coroner and a medical examiner, but it depends on the state.

The first responders will use codes when calling for backup because people listen to police scanners. An officer cannot assess/help/call for backup until the home is cleared.

One thing that came up again and again during the weekend is how often murderers confess to their crimes. It’s almost as if committing such a horrific act weighs on their conscience to the point they can’t help but confess given the slightest opportunity. Spontaneous utterance (confession) can be accepted, but an officer must Mirandize immediately afterward.

Officers on the scene can question anyone present to get background statements but there is a fine line between a witness and a suspect. When in doubt, read Miranda rights, but that may shut a witness/suspect down.

If a witness/suspect asks if he should get a lawyer, the correct response is to say, “It’s up to you. I’m not in a position to tell you your rights.”

If a suspect doesn’t call 9-1-1 immediately after a situation that ends in death, then self-defense credibility drops rapidly.

Once you’re assigned to a crime scene, it’s yours until the investigation is complete to avoid cross-contamination of a scene. If a crime scene occurs in a private home, the entire street will be closed off until secure.

That’s pretty much what I got out of the course–that and the realization I had halfway decent observation skills! I enjoyed the class so much I revised my planned schedule so that I could take more courses that were similar. I also learned there is too much to learn in a single course! I took notes, but quickly realized I’m going to have to invest in some more reading material if I want to be truly accurate describing crime scenes. I have a book on blood spatter on my Amazon wish list now. 🙂

And of course, I want to go back to WPA again!

Tune in next time when I will talk about K9 units and ballistics.

Tools of the Trade: What I Learned at Writer’s Police Academy Part 1 by Sarah Madison

Something I’m often asked is how much research I do for my stories.

It’s a good question. I adore research. I’ve been known to dive into the rabbit hole and not come up for air for months. I spent weeks researching The Battle Of Britain to write a simple dream sequence for The Boys of Summer, and what I learned made me determined to share some of the essence of what those young pilots experienced in defence of their country–far beyond the intended scene.

I used my own experiences as an event rider when writing Fool’s Gold, a story set in Olympic level sport horse competition. I once wrote a story about a main character who suffers a spinal cord injury, and immersed myself in both medical texts and the writings of survivors of such injuries.

When I decided to write a series of stories with FBI agents as characters, I knew I needed more than my love of shows such as Bones, NCIS, or The X-Files to give me a feel for how crimes are investigated (even if there is a paranormal element). Among other books, I read A Very Special Agent: Gay and Inside the FBI by Frank Buttino. I also read books on forensics, profiling, and true crime accounts of hunting serial killers. My wish list on Amazon has everything from bloodspatter analysis to books on training cadaver dogs.

So you can bet when I first heard fellow author Eden Winters speaking of her experiences at Writer’s Police Academy, I was all ears. Then I found out Jamie Lynn Miller had been going for years and had fantastic things to say about it. So when Shira Anthony asked if I’d like to share a room with her, I jumped at the chance.

I had a terrific time and I learned a lot. I would definitely go again, given the chance. Because the first thing you need to know about Writer’s Police Academy is that you simply can’t fit it all in on one trip. There are too many courses, there’s too much information and too little time. It was a jam-packed weekend, but that’s a good thing. Think of it like a continuing education seminar in which four different courses are offered at the same time and you have to choose which to attend. It means you have to come back!

The second takeaway lesson I got from WPA is that there’s a reason you’re drawn to certain things. Given I have more of a medical background than the average person, I decided to avoid much of the crime scene courses and concentrate instead in areas where I had little experience, such as ballistics or arson. But shortly into the first day, I realized that I had a natural affinity for some things, and that by avoiding them, I was actually turning my back on the kinds of things I was not only interested in, but most likely to include in a story. I rapidly reassessed my schedule and changed it accordingly. I also changed it when I heard a particular class was good or fun. The great thing about WPA is most courses were offered more than once, with a couple of exceptions. That meant you could pick up something the next day that conflicted with a different lecture before.

So while I took copious notes at the speed of light (just like being in school again), what I really got out of the lectures was a better sense of what I wanted to know more about (and where to find out more about these subjects) and potential contacts for questions among the speakers, many of whom were happy to give out their emails to answer any questions that might arise about procedure, etc.

WPA is held in Greenbay, WI. The venue was pretty amazing. The hotel was a stone’s throw from the airport, and the amenities pleasant. WPA works in conjunction with Northeast Wisconsin Technical College to put on the Academy every year, drawing on the lecturers from the college and volunteers to put on a great program. They also get some pretty amazing authors as keynote speakers for the big dinner at the end of the weekend. Tami Hoag and Lee Goldberg were the 2016 speakers. Ms. Hoag in particular was delightful, but I regret to say I could barely keep my eyes open by the time Saturday night rolled around. The buses rolled out at 7 am, which meant you had to have grabbed breakfast and be ready to roll. Classes were scheduled tightly, and sometimes the logistics of choosing to attend two different lectures on opposites sides of campus left you running in August heat for a bus to take you to the next class–or just running, period.

Snacks, sunscreen, sunglasses, bottled water, and a jacket for when you’re in air conditioning were all essential, as were sensible shoes. And don’t forget your camera! For those who arrived early on Thursday afternoon, there was a prison tour, as well as a special ops demonstration of equipment and police dogs in the parking lot coinciding with registration. I confess, I found the heat debilitating after my long flight, so I probably didn’t take full advantage of the demonstrations.

Our first day started out with a bang–as we rolled into the campus parking lot, we were greeted with a major accident. Two cars were involved. There was at least one obvious fatality and several serious injuries. Some people were still trapped in one of the vehicles, and the driver of the van appeared to be under the influence.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As we watched, police and rescue vehicles came roaring in and took over the scene.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We got to see the ‘jaws of life’ in action, as well as watch as the police put the impaired driver through sobriety tests and then arrest her when she failed. The procedures were narrated throughout so we could hear as well as see what was going on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then to our amazement, a helicopter arrived to airlift out the victims!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And that was all in the first hour! You can see why it will take me several posts to go through my experiences at WPA. I want to give as much detail as I can, as it will help solidify the information learned for me as well.

In the meantime, the newly expanded version of Unspeakable Words (Sixth Sense Series Book One) was released on March 1o, 2017! You can check out the series and see while I thought Writer’s Police Academy was such a great idea.