The police procedural is a subgenre of the mystery novel. It has been around since the 1940s, and it’s based on what the police do daily.
To say that this is a mildly popular subgenre is a bit of an understatement. It has infiltrated not only the mystery genre but also Hollywood. There are countless TV shows and movies that follow law enforcement officers in their quest to bring bad guys to justice.
And with so many TV shows and movies, you’d think it would be easy to find the information you need to write your own cop story. However, Hollywood gets things wrong, which is why you need to do some research.
But don’t fear it. I’ve got a list of resources to help you get started and some practical writing tips to help you reinvent the subgenre. Why don’t we start looking at what a police procedural is first?
What is a Police Procedural?
Before we get into anything else, let’s start with that definition:
Police Procedural: a television series, film, or novel in which the emphasis is on the procedures used by the police in solving the crime.
The police procedural focuses on how the police solve the crime. It’s not solely based on their keen sense of observation like we see with Sherlock Holmes.
Instead, it focuses on specific actions real police officers and investigative professionals use to solve the crime. This includes gathering evidence, canvassing neighborhoods, interviewing witnesses, etc.
According to CrimeReads, there are three types of cop novels: the lone wolf, the full force, and inside a cop’s mind.
A cop story starts the same as any other mystery. A crime (usually a murder) has been committed. But instead of calling in your amateur crime-fighting whiz, you get the professionals. Our tale unfolds from the perspective of the police officer called in to help.
This officer may be working on their own or with a partner. Regardless, your main character relies on other people in the station for help. It is generally this character’s insights and doggedness that unravel the mystery.
Loners and rogue cops are plentiful in this subgenre, and many have trouble with authority and always seem to be in trouble with their superiors. They are also often the target of a psychopath and have difficulty cooperating with the FBI, the DA, journalists, and their spouses.
Sometimes the story continues outside of official police hours. These scenes depict cops at the bar drinking together and swapping stories. These individuals are dealing with various issues, such as helping their kids do their homework, getting through a divorce, money problems, etc.
The police procedural is an ensemble piece. You need multiple characters to help solve the crime, using real-life police work.
Police Procedural Research Resources
Now that we know what a police procedural is and how it’s structured, we need to do some research. Your first instinct might be to start binge-watching all of the cops shows on televisions, like Law & Order, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, or Castle, but please be aware that Hollywood gets things wrong. It means you need to do some legwork that doesn’t involve a TV screen.
Thankfully for you, I have compiled a list of resources for you to use:
Get to Know Your Agencies
Depending on how populated your country or city is will dictate what types of law enforcement are in the area. For example, there could be city police, county sheriff, and state police in the US.
And depending on how big the area is, there may be several departments within each of those departments, like DARE, SWAT, narcotics, etc. However, if it’s a smaller outfit, then the officers may wear many different hats.
There are also jurisdictional issues and rivalries between the different arms of law enforcement and among specific departments. And you could also have issues between local outfits and federal law enforcement branches, like the FBI or CIA.
How do you get the information you need to write a realistic police force? The best way to do that is to talk to your local police departments. Many of them offer ride-along programs, where you can shadow an officer for a shift.
Like the FBI, some law enforcement agencies offer a citizens’ academy, where you can learn about all kinds of law enforcement activity from counter-terrorism to firearms training. This type of training takes place over several days.
Another excellent resource is The Writer’s Police Academy. They offer a four-day intensive with firearms training, crisis scenarios, and forensics.
But seriously, the best way to find out more information about the police and their methodologies is to talk to them. You or someone you know is likely friends with a cop, so do some networking.
The Different Agencies
Here’s a list of the different agencies worldwide and where to go for information (Thanks, Louise Harnby). Forewarning: most of these resources are for UK agencies.
MI5 – the UK’s homeland security service
Visit the official site of MI5. There’s information on how it handles covert surveillance, communications interception, and intelligence gathering, plus a brief overview of its history since its creation in 1909.
Christopher Andrew’s The Defence of the Realm is the first authorized history of the service. Published by Penguin in 2010, it’s available on Amazon and in major bookstores.
Visit The National Archives and type MI5 into the search box. That gives you access to all the files that have been released into the public domain to date.
National Crime Agency (UK)
The NCA protects UK citizens from organized crime. Its website has articles and reports about cybercrime, money laundering, drugs and firearms seizure, bribery and corruption, and trafficking.
I recommend looking at the NCA’s free in-depth but readable reports such as the National Strategic Assessment of Serious and Organised Crime 2018, which outlines threats, vulnerabilities, the impact of technology, and response strategies.
MI6 (SIS) – the UK’s secret intelligence service
Visit SIS’s official website to find out how it handles overseas intelligence gathering and covert operations. There’s a brief overview of the service’s history and some vignettes that illustrate how intelligence officers operate.
Keith Jeffery’s MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service 1909–1949 is ‘the first – and only – history of the Secret Intelligence Service, written with full and unrestricted access to the Service’s closed archives between 1909 and 1949. If you want historical information, this is an excellent place to start.
GCHQ – Government Communications Headquarters (UK)
The GCHQ website is worth visiting for an overview of GCHQ history, operations, various operational bases, and how it works with Britain’s other security services to manage global threats.
For a more in-depth study of the service, start with Richard Aldrich’s GCHQ: The Uncensored Story of Britain’s Most Secret Intelligence Agency.
FBI – Federal Bureau of Investigation (US)
The FBI’s website has the usual overview material of how and why, but I think the go-to resources are the likes of the free Handbook of Forensic Services, the Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Center (TEDAC) page, and the training guide.
The easiest way to navigate the site is to head to the FBI home page and scroll down to the footer’s links.
NSA – National Security Agency
The NSA website is the place to go for twenty-first-century code-breaking information, and there’s a ton of information about cybersecurity and intelligence. Head for the Publications section to get free access to The Next Wave and various research papers. The material is dense but could be just the ticket for building backstories for cybergeek characters.
This is the world’s largest police force with nearly 200 member countries. The Expertise section of its website has tons of useful and readable information on the procedure, technical tools, investigative skills, officer training, fugitive investigations, border management, and more.
UK police forces
Police procedures will vary depending on where you live. You can access a list of all UK police force websites here: Police forces, including the British Transport Police, the Central Motorway Policing Group, the Civil Nuclear Constabulary, the Ministry of Defence Police, and the Port of Dover Police.
Read Books on the Police Procedural
As with any other genre, you should read what’s being published in it. Most of these published writers have already done their homework, and you can check to see if they list their sources.
Nonfiction is also an excellent resource for crime writers. Lee Lofland has written a book for writers that comes highly recommended, and Michael O’Byrne’s updated 2015 The Crime Writer’s Guide to Police Practice and Procedure might be worth the investment.
Blackstone’s Police Manuals are another resource available to you as a writer. They are updated each year, and you can pick up the previous years’ edition on eBay.
Use the Web
There’s no excuse for inaccuracies when referring to legislation and criminal offenses. It’s all right there on the web for you. The Crown Prosecution Service Legal Guidance pages list every piece of legislation. Consulting Cops also offers a range of helpful resources.
Many police officers are active on social media, so this is your invitation to procrastinate and browse the internet for police blogs that you like and find informative. Don’t forget to dip in regularly to stay up to date with how today’s cops are feeling, the cases they’re working on, and the pressures they encounter.
YouTube and Wikipedia are also great places to start looking for information. There are thousands of hours’ worth of real-life video footage on YouTube, and Wikipedia covers everything (but double-check the info on there).
Here are some Wikipedia searches to help you get started:
- Law enforcement in the US
- Police officer ranks (international)
- Murder (crime definitions)
- Firearms policy in the UK
Hire a Professional
Advising writers is a lucrative side-line for many retired police officers. Most authors don’t have a BBC-sized budget, and you should be wary of entering a cash relationship with someone. Most police officers are happy to lend their expertise for free, but if you need more help than the occasional chat, make sure you do your research.
That grizzled ex-detective superintendent with 30 years’ experience of Major Crime will undoubtedly know his stuff, but he’s been retired for 20 years: is he likely to be up to date? And the traffic sergeant charging by the minute for his expertise may know dangerous driving from undue care, but how is he on witness protection issues? Ask for credentials and testimonials before getting your checkbook.
Know the Legal Stuff
Part of knowing what the police do on a given day is also about the legal definitions of what crimes they are investigating. I know you’re not writing about the legal side of an investigation, but it does have a bearing on the crime your characters are handling.
For example, do you know the difference between first, second, and third-degree murder? If you do, that’s great; I have a follow-up question for you, how about the difference between manslaughter and third-degree murder? Not so sure? Well, then you should start looking into those technical terms.
Here are some resources to get you started:
- Lawtons Solicitors’ website has an excellent Knowledge Centre (UK) filled with articles on parliamentary acts, offenses, criminal charges, and police procedures. What are the drug classifications in the UK? and Police Station interviews are just two examples.
- Crown Prosecution Service (UK): The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) website provides detailed prosecution guidance for criminal justice professionals. It is incredibly dense but valuable.
- Department of Justice (US): The DOJ site offers advice on the Attorney General’s role, the organizational structure of the department, lots of statistical information, and maps of federal facilities.
Writing a Historical Police Procedural?
I’ve got resources for that too:
- Victorian Crime & Punishment includes a prisoner database and case studies of real crimes and trials.
- The National Archives holds historical records of serving officers in the Metropolitan Police and the Royal Irish Constabulary.
- The Police History Society documents police museums, collections, historical societies, and related resources.
- US crime writer Jason Lucky Morrow hosts a true-crime blog called Historical Crime Detective. High profile cases are not rehashed and retold.
How to Write a Convincing Police Procedural
Okay. That was a lot of information, so please feel free to bookmark the page and come back to it whenever you want because we are shifting gears. We’re now going to look at putting that research into action.
Here are my tips for writing a police procedural:
Understand the rank hierarchy
According to KT Editing Services, most writers forget there are specific ways officers relate to one another and a chain of command. So make sure you look at police hierarchies and find out how each tier relates to one another.
Don’t sweat the small stuff
Don’t get too hung up on making every single detail correct. If your story is exciting, well researched, and well written, readers will suspend their disbelief for trifling matters. As long as you put the effort in to make it as authentic as feasibly possible without ruining your story or making it too dull and convoluted, then your readers will be happy.
Do your research
Most of us are not cops, which means that we have to rely on what we read and watch for information. So double-check your sources and talk to the people who investigate crimes for a living. They know what it’s like to be a police officer more than anyone else.
What does it mean to be a cop?
In light of recent events in the US, writers have the opportunity to redefine what it means to be a police officer. We have the creative license to create a new law enforcement code and explore what it would look like.
So don’t feel limited to what we’ve known up until this point. Feel free to come up with something new and attempt to reinvent the genre. However, your readers will expect you to hit beats while also exploring something new.
The police procedural brings the real-world into fiction in a way many genres try to emulate. It’s based on tiny, significant details readers and protagonists follow as they try to prove who did it.
In today’s political climate, the detective’s role will change as many people call for police reform. It brings a new opportunity for writers to help shape what law enforcement will look like while recognizing the atrocities.
As writers, we are tasked with record keeping and shaping the police procedural future (at the very least). But to do that, we need to conduct our research carefully to ensure an accurate portrayal of those who lay down their lives to protect us.
**I am aware of the political undertones in this post, but it is not a conversation I would like to have at this time. I want to focus on writing. My heart and sympathies go out to those who have lost their lives at the hands of the police. I hope those affected find the justice they deserve.
Did I miss anything? Where do you go for research? Please let me know in the comments below.
Stay safe, everyone.
Until next time.