Diary

James Lasdun

I’ve often fantasised about writing a police procedural series. Sometimes the fantasy gets to the point where I start sketching out ideas, but invariably I come up against the double problem of my ignorance of how the police actually proceed and my private veto against fiction requiring serious research. So I stop. But something made me try again, and a few months ago I came home from my local Barnes and Noble with a stack of books about US law enforcement. I now know all about Luminol, Spiral Search Patterns and Bindle Paper. I understand the protocols of Search and Seizure. I’m up on Curtilage and the Exclusionary Rule, I can inform you about the finer points of hierarchy in a Detective Division and I can read Spatter.

Soon I was supplementing the books with crime coverage on the internet: police blogs, legal Q&A sites, live-streaming murder trials. I don’t have much stomach for the grislier end of the American murder spectrum. Nor am I drawn to high society or celebrity murders. But murder in the middle-class suburban household interests me quite a bit. Perhaps it’s the way those confidently articulated visions of domestic happiness – 1960s split-level ranch houses, 1990s McMansions – suggest murder as just one among many activities foreseen by their ample, leisure-dedicated spaces.

Along with half the country I followed the trial this spring and summer of Casey Anthony, a young Florida woman who went clubbing after her daughter disappeared, and told police the girl had been abducted by a nanny who turned out not to exist. The toddler’s body was found off a suburban drive called Suburban Drive, and whatever happened to her happened nearby, at the house where Casey lived with her parents – mother a nurse, father an ex-cop – in an Orlando subdivision. The bungalow looks blandly ordinary, but every ordinary thing and person in or around it plays some part in one or other version of the killing. Father, brother, bedroom, garage, pool, car, duct tape, doll, heart-shaped stickers, family computer: unremarkable elements, but constellated in fatally strange relations to each other. The evidence against Casey was persuasive, even without her blatant lies and the photos of her at Hot Body contests in the weeks after her daughter went missing. But it was also circumstantial, and there were concerns that jurors accustomed to the hi-tech forensic certainties of CSI might not convict without a piece of smoking DNA, especially since this was a capital case. I don’t imagine that any of them believed the defence attorney’s elaborate psychodrama positing an accidental drowning followed by retreat to ‘that deep, dark ugly place called denial’, itself the result of earlier fraternal and paternal molestation (no attempt was made to prove any of this). But they acquitted Casey all the same, and the country now has a new O.J. Simpson: an unassimilable conundrum of legal innocence and universally presumed guilt.

All of this was instructive to follow, but it couldn’t help me write sentences with gun-names and criminal actions in them, not without feeling like a fraud. Some kind of first-hand experience seemed necessary. As it happens, the police department in a town near where I live runs a Citizens Police Academy, with weekly seminars on all aspects of police work, from accident investigation to narcotics enforcement. It was set up as part of a Community Oriented Policing initiative, aimed at enlisting citizen involvement in law enforcement, though there’s also an unashamed PR element: ‘To create a better understanding and communication between the citizens and police through education’. It’s free, open to all comers, and you can attend or skip whichever classes you like. It’s held in the long, low Social Services building on the main commercial highway running out of town. There are usually about 20 citizens in attendance: retirees, some undergraduate types who I guess come from the nearby community college, and a couple of quiet men my own age whom I suspect of being rival aspiring crime novelists.

A senior detective – I’ll call him Lieutenant Arditi – presides. He’s a large, genially hyper-kinetic man with a moth-like moustache and a fund of anecdotes about farcical misadventures in the line of duty. The live SWAT training session at City Hall, for instance, with a scenario he devised, involving an anti-tax militia threatening to kill the mayor: a shopper trying out scanners at a nearby Radio Shack tuned in to the walkie-talkies and mistook the exercise for a real attack. I’ve come to think of him as ‘The Laughing Policeman’, after the book in the Sjöwall/Wahlöö Martin Beck series, which I’ve lately been blazing through.

Every week he brings in cops from different departments and agencies to show off their gear. I didn’t know what I was looking for exactly, so I paid close attention to everything and came home at night with copious notes. A cadaver dog can scent a body under water. If you tase someone who’s already been shot with pepper spray or CS gas, there’s a risk they might burst into flames. That kind of thing: potentially useful exotica, but still a little remote and theoretical.

I skipped a couple of sessions. When I returned, the topic was ‘Police Survival/ Decision-Making’, and suddenly things got interesting. The previous class had apparently been on guidelines governing the use of force, and this week we were going to be given guns and placed in situations where we would have to decide whether to use them. A sergeant led us to a darkened training room with a large screen, where Arditi was seated at a FATS – a Firearms Training Simulator, consisting of a console, a computer and a projector. Seven hundred real-life encounters, all supposedly drawn from police records, had been reconstructed with actors, filmed over-the-shoulder style from the cop’s point of view, and fed into the computer with branching variables in the plotline to accommodate different trainee reactions. Arditi explained the exercise: he would project the clips onto the screen while the class took it in turns, two at a time, to stand either side of him, armed with semi-automatic handguns modified to shoot compressed air rounds. The guns were also fitted with lasers; after each encounter Arditi would replay the scenario, this time with the students’ hits and misses flagged on the footage, bright red splats marking hits on vital organs. I felt uneasy about this rather public test of judgment and reflexes, and put off my turn for as long as I could. I’d never held a handgun before, let alone fired one.

Arditi got things rolling with an elementally simple encounter. ‘You pull over a car suspected of being involved in a bank robbery,’ the voiceover began. The voice sounded like a bad Orson Welles imitation and the cinematography was pretty rudimentary, but the over-the-shoulder point of view worked uncannily well, and even at the back of the room I felt instantly present in the situation. Through the windscreen, you watch the suspicious car ahead of you pull over onto the verge. The driver gets out and stands looking at you, motionless under the grey sky. The camera moves towards him, tracking your approach. His silence is increasingly unnerving and by now the two trainees in front of the screen are raising their weapons. Suddenly he pulls a gun and starts shooting. The two fire back. He falls to the ground, and they stop shooting, whereupon he reaches up and fires off several more shots. That’s all.

The replay showed 12 rounds fired by each student, with just a single hit to the guy’s leg between them. ‘Well, you messed up his knee pretty good,’ Arditi said, ‘but he probably killed you.’

He and the sergeant went over some of the rules and techniques discussed the previous week. The sergeant, a young, serious guy with a gold badge at his hip and a completely flat surface to the back of his shaven head, reminded people always to keep their eyes on the subject’s hands. ‘If you would’ve watched the guy’s hands at the end there,’ he began, and Arditi chimed in: ‘You might still be with us today!’ They discussed head shots versus ‘spray and pray’; even if you’ve shot someone in a vital organ, the sergeant said, they still have enough oxygen in their body to go on attacking you for another ten to 12 seconds.

‘Let’s do the one with the stepfather and the teenage daughter,’ Arditi said. A moment later we were entering a trailer home behind a female police officer while the deep voice told us we were back-up on a domestic violence call. In the bedroom a stubbly man was frenziedly trying to strangle a teenage girl on the bed. I got lost trying to imagine what motive he might have, but remembered from one of my books that motive is low on the list of things police worry about when they’re investigating a crime. Meanwhile the policewoman had charged forward at the man. She pepper-sprayed him but it had no effect and she tried her baton on him instead. Seeming to notice her for the first time, the man lunged at her waist and grabbed the gun from her holster; not, it seemed, to shoot her so much as to keep her at bay so that he could go on strangling the girl. At this point one of the two students opened fire and the scenario came to an end. The replay showed all three figures on the bed hit by bullets.

‘That’s the way it goes sometimes,’ Arditi said with a shrug. ‘The decisions don’t have to be perfect. They just have to be reasonable. Was that a reasonable decision? Could you justify it to a grand jury? Maybe.’

‘I feel terrible hitting those other guys,’ the trigger-happy civilian – one of the retirees – admitted.

Arditi chuckled. ‘You’ll get over it.’

The sergeant said you could use stress reactions such as tunnel vision, auditory exclusion and time distortion to your advantage if you made yourself conscious of them. He talked rapidly, compressing his words, so that officers came out as ‘ossers’ and firearms as ‘farms’. Ossers on a ‘hot call’, i.e. involving farms, will take deep breaths to break the stress loop. Armed confrontations usually last four seconds at most, but if you’re in control and calm you can slow those seconds down by mentally breaking them into even smaller units.

Next up was an encounter with an EDP – an Emotionally Disturbed Person – at a small country shopping mall. A worried young woman came out of a healthfood store and explained that a customer had been acting weirdly and disturbing the other shoppers. She pointed to the back of the store. Round the corner a white-haired woman on the tarmac between a dumpster and some parked cars was talking loudly to herself and making strange aggressive gestures. ‘Ma’am? Are you alright ma’am?’ Arditi called out. (Earlier, he had explained that cadets are encouraged to get thoroughly into their roles during these sessions, with lots of talking and yelling, and he tried to get us to do the same. So far nobody had, but he seemed happy to do the voices himself.) A well-dressed woman appeared out of nowhere and strode towards the EDP, asking if she could help.

‘Ma’am!’ Arditi called out, ‘please stay away from the lady ma’am.’

The woman turned pertly to the camera, ‘It’s OK, I’m a psychiatric nurse.’ She marched on across the tarmac.

‘Stay away from the lady! Stay away from the lady!’ Arditi bellowed. The students raised their weapons – more in response to Arditi’s histrionics perhaps than to anything obviously menacing about the EDP. Reaching her, the nurse placed her hand gently on the woman’s arm, whereupon the woman produced a carving knife and stabbed her in the neck and then in the stomach and then in the back, before collapsing in a hail of bullets.

There was a bit of a stunned silence. ‘Difficult situation,’ Arditi commented. One of the students asked how he should have handled it. Arditi and the sergeant mentioned flexibility, the need to be able to switch gear quickly between non-confrontational to high alert, but clearly there was no simple answer.

An office shooting followed, with workers running down corridors in panic. At first there was no way of telling who the shooter was. Everyone, from this police-eye point of view, seemed highly suspicious. I had an overwhelming wish to stop time, freeze everything so that I could inspect it properly, and could see how easily this might translate into an urge to shoot if you happened to have a gun in your hand. A man came round a corner with a high-velocity rifle. He flung it down and, in response to Arditi’s shouted orders, dropped to his knees. As the camera came closer he pulled a second gun from behind his back and started shooting.

The scenarios came thick and fast. A derelict tottered down an alley, carrying a baby in one hand and a machete in the other. He bared his teeth when he saw you. A couple fought in a pickup truck parked under palm trees, the man hitting the woman. You ordered him out and began handcuffing him and just then the woman grabbed a shotgun from an overhead rack and fired at you. A curious vision of the world, or this corner of it, seemed to be evolving: not just a place of rampant criminality, but also of instinctive hostility towards those employed to keep order. Are people really so hostile towards the police? My own reaction, on the rare occasion I’m approached by a cop, is to become exaggeratedly polite. I once almost got a ticket when a state trooper’s car came up behind me and I stopped at a green light out of sheer obsequiousness. But I’ve noticed that Americans take a more rebellious attitude. My wife becomes extremely feisty when she’s pulled over, and the cops seem to expect it, as if it’s some longstanding point of pride on both sides to play out the old roles of sheriff and outlaw.

There was a subway scene where a gangsta-outfitted guy jumped the turnstile. He moved rapidly from guilty dejection to brazen hostility, cursing in response to the demand for ID. His attitude was so menacing that when he reached into his pocket (he was just a few feet away now), it seemed inconceivable that he was going to produce anything but a weapon. One of the students held her fire but the other, a woman with bouffant hair and gold bracelets, emptied her entire magazine at him. As he fell it turned out all he had in his hand was his wallet.

‘Let’s do it again,’ Arditi said, ‘only this time don’t shoot. The story takes an interesting turn if you let it run.’

He restarted the clip. Again the guy jumped the turnstile. Again he swaggered aggressively towards the students. Again he reached into his pocket. And again, to Arditi’s incredulous delight, the bouffant-haired woman drilled him with bullets. ‘I just couldn’t help myself,’ she wailed.

I moved forward, ready to take my turn now that I’d seen I wasn’t the only ballistically challenged person in the room. The atmosphere was congenial but I was aware of various physiological symptoms of fear. The sergeant had encouraged us to use the loo before starting and I was regretting not having taken his advice. The couple ahead of me shot their way through a convenience store hold-up, a suicide and a motel-room robbery in which an armed man in jeans outside the door flashed a police badge as they approached, only to turn his automatic weapon on them a second later, the badge evidently a fake.

I stepped up to the FATS console, declaring my virginal status as the sergeant handed me the gun. ‘No problem at all,’ he assured me. He and Arditi showed me how to load the magazine and pull back the slide (both require surprising amounts of force). They showed me how to hold the weapon in both hands; right thumb in the thumb-depression, fingers in the finger grooves, palms snug around the criss-cross grip. The gun was a Glock 23: standard police issue in New York State. Like many handguns it’s made mostly of a nylon-like polymer but it felt satisfyingly dense and heavy and dangerous all the same.

We started with a drunk driver vehicle stop. A seedy old guy with a ragged moustache stumbled out of a battered Buick with his hands up, mirthfully inebriated. ‘I have a valid licence on me,’ he called out, then added: ‘I also have a gun. But I have a concealed carry permit for the gun too.’ He didn’t seem hostile, but we’d all seen enough by now not to trust anyone, and my partner and I (he was one of the middle-aged men I’d pegged as a rival crime writer) both raised our weapons. The sense of reality was extraordinarily powerful: a small part of your mind remains aware that you’re standing in a training room with a bulletless gun hooked up to a compressed air cylinder, but the rest of you is fully involved with the textures and tensions of the scene, filling the space between you and the screen with teeming impressions of tarmac, vegetation, traffic sounds, fume-filled air. As the man jabbered on, he unexpectedly plunged both hands into his jacket pockets and brought them out pretending they were six-shooters, a big drunken grin on his face. I pulled my trigger before I realised he was faking, but I didn’t squeeze hard enough to fire off the round, and my partner didn’t fire either, so the scene ended without bloodshed. Arditi commended us for our coolness, telling us 50 per cent of cadets shoot the guy. I kept mum, queasily glad of my weak trigger-pull.

We were pulling up to a bank in the next scene when we noticed a man holding a gun to a woman’s head at an outdoor ATM. Seeing us approach the man took the woman hostage and started frogmarching her across the parking lot. To shoot or not to shoot? The gun in my hand combined with the overwhelming desire to take control of an explosively dangerous situation created an almost irresistible urge to pull the trigger, but we both held off. Reaching a van, the guy opened the rear door to bundle the woman inside. Just then an accomplice jumped out of the side door with an assault rifle. We both switched targets, spraying him with bullets before he could get a shot off. The replay showed hits from both of us, with two scarlet splats from my gun – I felt pretty smug. Arditi congratulated us for reacting quickly, but pointed out that the situation remained dangerous for the hostage, and might in fact have become more so. A not unpleasant aftershock from the gun’s spirited little kick reverberated down my arm.

We moved on into a replay of the earlier subway scene. We knew not to shoot the turnstile jumper as he pulled out his wallet (though I had a strong urge to do so anyway). Holding fire allowed the story to take the ‘interesting turn’ Arditi had mentioned: a young woman came up and asked for directions while we were looking at the jumper’s ID. Taking advantage of the distraction, the man slipped off and ran behind an iron pillar further along the platform. We chased after him, and after a moment he came out with a strange look on his face.

I felt the shift in the meaning of what was happening like a key change inside me. The sergeant’s remark about breaking down the seconds had sounded a bit mystical, but I seemed to be doing just that, or at least to be consciously inhabiting much smaller units of time than I was used to. There seemed to be abundant leisure to process my purely visceral reaction into the understanding that the man had entered an irrational frame of mind. As he reached back into his pocket, I had the odd sense of being able to feel his slide into luxurious abandon, as it were in my own senses, and of knowing exactly where it would lead. Even as the gun appeared in his hand, there seemed to be long stretches of time in which to line up the sights of my Glock on him. I had to close one eye to avoid getting a double image of either him or the sights, and I vacillated awkwardly between eyes before settling on the one that seemed better, all without any great sense of rush. I even had time to register the thought that Arditi’s ‘interesting turn’ was just a confirmation of the incredibly gloomy vision of life these little tales of law enforcement seemed cumulatively to be expressing: that just about every situation will turn out bad if you wait long enough. As soon as the man raised the gun I fired four deliberate shots at him. Or at least I thought I did: the replay showed nine shots from my gun (apparently it’s common to underestimate the number of shots you’ve fired), and all but one were misses.

‘You’re serving a felony warrant on a householder in a residential neighbourhood,’ the familiar baritone purred as we moved on. The camera panned down a leafy street, and for the first time the story took us into an archetypal suburban American house; a gable-front with a big white garage extension and a circular above-ground pool. Unlike earlier scenarios, this one involved multiple encounters, each potentially lethal. A man in an apron leapt at us with a knife from behind the tile-top island in the middle of the gleaming kitchen. A pair of armed and masked home-invaders came charging out of the den. Upstairs, a bedroom door opened on a teenager with a gun to his head. The clip seemed more like a mash-up of several stories than anything that could plausibly occur during a process-serving, and it had a rather cheesy video-game quality that none of the others had had. But there was something riveting about it all the same: room after room unleashing its delirious proof of my hunch about the latent murderousness of these places. By the time it was over I was so pumped up and buzzing I could hardly bear to hand over my gun, my Glock 23, to the next student.

A school shooting followed, then a raid on a drug dealer’s HQ that looked like a scene from The Wire, but my mind was on other things. Gunplay has never featured in the stories I’ve mapped out for my detectives, and I don’t imagine it will. But certain unexpected possibilities do seem to be opening up.