What’s the Writers Police Academy? A hands-on conference teaching you about law enforcement, forensics, and emergency medical services.
I’m a doctor, which means I expect conferences to teach me something (it took me a long time to realize that other people go to “network” and “hang out with friends”). I can’t waste a lot of time on useless retreats. So was WPA worth flying to Wisconsin in the middle of August? You can judge for yourself, based on my top 5 teachable moments.
Trigger warning: #3 has a staged but disturbing photo.
5. Talking about Killers
Most of us know that psychopaths lack empathy and remorse. I also knew that they’re easily bored and seem to need more stimulation. But I never fully understood the difference between sociopaths and psychopaths until this lecture by Katherine Ramsland.
Both types can kill. But here’s a thumbnail version of the difference:
SOCIOPATH: I may be absolutely ruthless with outsiders, yet care about people within my group. I’m like the mafia. I can have a brotherhood or sisterhood.
The key is the word “social” in sociopath.
PSYCHOPATH: it’s all about me. No one else matters. I might pretend to care, if there’s a benefit to me. But otherwise, back to me.
The great thing about Katherine Ramsland is that she based her talk on evidence. For example, not all serial killers are psychopaths. Not all psychopaths are serial killers. Although people like to believe it’s a direct relationship because it’s simpler, you should go with science. And always keep an open mind. If you jump to conclusions too soon, it will often be the wrong one.
4. Native Gangs
It’s always inspiring to meet real-life heroes. Arguably, I work with them every shift in the emergency room. But it’s a different type of heroism for someone like Officer Matt, who might have to break down the door of someone from his own tribe, looking for drugs, while the kids in that house sit blank-faced, staring at the armoured police, because it’s just one more thing they have to endure. But Officer Matt comes back later to bring them a Dr. Suess book so that they remember him for that and not just the violence. He also participates in the group blanket-making every Christmas
A per capita payment is the money that each tribal member receives from casino income. It can be minimal, like for the Oneida tribe, where they pool their money for health care, education, and other services, or it can be $10,000 a month. It sounds wonderful, especially for babies who are born into the system and have the money held in trust for them until they’re 18—except that gangs have sprung up to prey on underage kids who’ll turn over their “eighteen money,” without question.
3. Blood Spatter
We spent the first part of the class talking over real-life cases. The first took place in a remote cabin. Two children, 6 and 8 years old, went down to the beach without their mother for just 15 minutes and came back crying. The cabin owner called for help, but he was hysterical and couldn’t explain what was wrong except “She needs help, she needs help.” The police officer came in with his gun out, and his job was to clear the cabin. Even if he saw someone who needed help, he had to say only, “Stay there” and keep moving from room to room, making sure that the perpetrator wasn’t lying in wait.
Once done, he could circle back to the master bedroom, where the mother had been attacked, and determine if she had a pulse.
We spent the next part of the talk reviewing the fictional staged death scene in the next room (above), trying to piece together clues.
Hint #1: always think of blood spatter in three dimensions. Don’t forget to look at the ceiling and the walls as well as the floor.
2. Shoot/Don’t Shoot
Stand up. Pick up your modified gun, which uses a CO2 cartridge to fire a laser at the screen projecting the scenario. You are now an officer on duty.
You’ve been called to a domestic disturbance. An officer meets you in front of the house and says, “We heard a woman screaming. I’m going to take the back door. You take the front.”
Walk up the front door steps. You can hear your own breathing and hear your own footsteps.
What’s that in the front window?
You see a man standing and the woman on the couch. The man turns around, and what’s that he has in his hands—?
Shoot or don’t shoot.
I love dogs. I love their commitment to putting their pack above themselves. I love their shagginess and their sloppiness and their big, big hearts. I will always pick werewolves over vampires.
So no wonder I enjoyed reading Robert Crais’s Suspect and the sequel, The Promise. And no wonder I jumped on the K-9’s.
Meet Pal. Purebred German Shepherd direct from Germany. Four and a half years old, 92 pounds. His officer spent six weeks in Albequerque training with him, but now every day is training. Pal can sniff out drugs, but he most loves to track people. When he gets the command to bite, he will latch on to any available body surface area, and he will not let go until you choke him off.
He lives in a $2000 kennel that Dernbach built him out of his own money. The kennel is so large that he has his own couch, which he tears up. When the couch is completely shredded, Dernbach puts it out on the curb and picks up the next curbside couch for Pal.
He is not a pet. Do not pet him. He will, in fact, attack the officer’s other, personal dogs. He stays with his officer/trainer on duty and goes home with him as well. When he’s outlived his ability to serve, there are two options: euthanasia, or the officer/trainer takes him home. Fortunately, they never choose euthanasia.
Pal is a tool. And yet, he’s still a dog. He wags his tail. He loves the chew toy, and when Dernbach gets distracted by questioning, Pal chews the strap off the chew toy. He sneaks toward Dernbach when possible. He’s independent, not cuddly. “When other guys in the station would be lying on their dogs, Pal stayed five feet away from me. But it’s good that he’s bull-headed. Other dogs will start searching and then come back and keep checking with Daddy. Pal will keep going.”
Bonus: another dog! I also loved, loved, loved Ted, the PTSD dog. If Paul, the retired cop with PTSD who became a police counsellor himself, takes off Ted’s vest, Ted knows he’s off duty. He just wanted to explore the room, taste my friend Eleanor’s coffee, and trot up and down the aisles. At one point, when students surrounded Paul with questions, Ted came up to Paul, reared up on his rear legs, placed his paws on Paul’s shoulders, and looked him in the eyes, grounding him.
We were surrounded by bullets and bombs, both literally and figuratively at this conference, and more and more in real life. That just makes me love dogs even more.
The bottom line: was Writers Police Academy worth it?
I go to conferences for three reasons: so I can learn, so that I can meet people, and so I can write more and better stories. I learned a lot at WPA, and it was super easy to make friends. In fact, I hung out with the guests of honour an almost indecent amount as well as making new Facebook pals and deeper friendships. I even sort of crashed a birthday party on the last night.
Want to take $100 off your $395 tuition? If you join Sisters in Crime for the first time ($50 fee) and immediately sign up for WPA for the first time, WPA will take $150 off your tuition, a net benefit of $100. Sold.
Any cautions? Obviously, this conference is oriented towards law enforcement, and most people were also vocal gun advocates. Your political views may not overlap, but in general, most people are hard-working and good-hearted.
But in the meantime, WPA is an awful lot of fun.
P.S. Stockholm Syndrome–CBC’s pick for one of the best crime books of the season–is now on sale in Montreal at Librairie Paragraphe Books, thanks to the magic of CBC Radio Homerun’s Richard King! More ecstatic raving to come.