A few people have asked me what my favorite part was about attending the Writers Police Academy in June of 2022. After saying the simple chance to take a road trip after so long at home—we drove from Virginia to Appleton, Wisconsin—I haven’t yet come up with a good answer.
That’s because pretty much every minute of the event was fantastic! I not only got all kinds of inspiration for crime stories (not to mention at least one science fiction tale so far), I also learned all kinds of fascinating things in general.
Our first opportunity to ask questions and get hands-on was the Touch a Truck event the first afternoon. Sounds strange, I know, and I had no idea what to expect. We walked into a huge room at the convention center with what didn’t look like that much to do at first glance.
We could see a fire truck, a police car, and ambulance, a couple of black vans, and a few other exhibits. The vehicles and the equipment was great and all, but the highlight of that afternoon was the people. Every single person was ready and eager for our questions. If you’ve ever spent time around writers, especially crime writers, you can imagine how many different angles and specifics and scenarios these folks had to respond to in just a few minutes time!
And they were there for several hours, generally surrounded by a constantly changing group of inquisitive word-slingers. I know my husband Jason A. Adams and I were exhausted mentally and physically after our time there.
I can only imagine how tired the folks fielding all of our queries had to be. Yet they were unfailingly polite and friendly the whole time.
Highlights from the afternoon included getting to spend time with an adorable Belgian Malinois police dog and his handler, examining every inch of a big fire truck, climbing inside special response vans, and getting up close and personal with an ambulance when no one’s life was on the line.
And the Writers Police Academy was only getting started.
We loaded up early the next day for the quick ride to Green Bay, and the buses were full of chatter and excitement. Not because of the workshops we’d all signed up for at the Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, which ranged from Arrest and Booking, to Forced Entry/Room Clearing, to Firearms, to my personal favorite, Vehicle Extraction.
That morning we were all eager to see what the live scenario would bring. For me at least, it lived up to all the anticipation and then some.
We watched (and listened on radios) as officers responded to a car crash, including a firetruck and ambulance. We got to see one driver fail a sobriety check, and the other examined and loaded up for treatment (both actors, of course). A passenger who looked suspiciously stuffed and doll-like had to be extracted from the car.
Then the highlight, at least for me, was a helicopter flying in and landing not far from us for the final phase of the rescue.
The best part was again getting to examine all the vehicles—including the helicopter—and ask bunches of questions.
Strangely enough the thing that really stands out in my mind was seeing the chopper’s cutting blades on the front, designed to take out power lines if needed. One of those things that makes perfect sense, but it’s kind of strange and chilling all the same.
After that brilliant start to the day, we all headed to our classes. The Northeast Wisconsin Technical College does training for actual police officers, firefighters, first responders, and others, so we were with the real instructors. And in many cases, using the same equipment.
For me, that meant getting up close and personal with vehicle extraction. Seeing and hearing what looked like oversized gardening shears absolutely chew through a car’s doors and pillars was utterly fascinating.
It had never crossed my mind how all the things we seek out and insist upon in our vehicles to keep us safe, like airbags, present real challenges to people trying to rescue us.
Just imagine cutting through the side pillar to get into the back seat, and accidentally deploying an airbag, especially if the trapped person may have a spinal injury. Or getting a door removed and putting it on the ground, only to have another airbag deploy. Now you’ve got a heavy missile in an already dangerous situation. (the solution is to put that door on the ground paint-side down)
Definitely sobering to think about how all the wonderful modern advances in safety technology can cause trouble on a day when everything has already gone wrong.
It’s entirely possible that I enjoyed getting to operate the huge cutting tool myself a little too much. But since I was with a group of writers, everyone completely understood. After all, they got the chance to shatter the windows and flatten the tires.
My day wrapped up with a classroom session about arrest and booking procedures, and a demonstration of how virtual reality is used for training. Both were real eye-openers for me as far as how law enforcement works, and as inspiration for future stories.
Day two had us heading out to a driving facility. Anyone who knows me well can guess how eager I was to get behind the wheel of a police SUV on the training track!
And, anyone who knows me well wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to hear I started the day learning about K9 operations. After a fascinating presentation about how these amazing dogs and the officers who serve them operate—from training through active duty to retirement—we writers again had a bumper crop of questions.
The one that surprised me at first was mine about the differences between male and female dogs. Turns out the boys are much better suited for the job, mainly because they can more easily be trained to react aggressively when the situation calls for it. Not that they’re vicious, though they do behave differently than most folks lucky enough to live with dogs expect.
The truth is these dogs see the whole thing as a game, and they’re eager to do whatever it takes to get their reward.
Sure, some react to food treats just like the goofy girl curled up on the couch next to me right now. But one of the dogs we saw working would do just about anything to chew on his favorite piece of garden hose!
As far as the girls go, they’re far more likely to be watchful and guarding than aggressive. I can vouch for this with my own experience. The first dog to live with me when I moved out on my own was a German Shepherd, Great Dane, Labrador mix with the rather goofy name of Golly.
Yes, she was gorgeous, and she was much, much smarter than me at eighteen. Probably smarter than me now.
Anyone who visited us during all the fifteen years of her life will remember how closely Golly watched them. Once you eventually won her approval, she’d relax. Before that?
You’d never make a single move without her paying very close attention.
My second session was Vehicle Contacts, and yes, I did pick every class I could get that involved cars. This one focused on how police officers approach traffic stops, and the challenges they face. Watching the angles and lines-of-sight and risk assessments from the outside changed my perspective on the whole procedure.
I will pause here and say each and every person I interacted with—whether a police officer or EMT or firefighter or jail booking agent—was willing to answer the tough questions about our current era without stonewalling or getting defensive. I was constantly impressed with how well they handled the heartbreaking and even upsetting examples writers brought up.
Last for me for the day was getting behind the wheel myself: something I’ve wanted to do since before I started driving. The practice track had curves and cones set up, and we had a couple of practice laps with the instructor driving to see what we could expect.
Then it was my turn.
I’d love to report that I set the track speed record, but the truth is I doubt I ever topped forty-miles-per-hour. This was more about vehicle handling, and keeping control with abrupt maneuvers we’re not used to dealing with on a daily basis.
But yes, it was all kinds of fun. And no, I didn’t knock over a single cone.
I came away from that experience realizing how many sloppy, lazy, bad habits I’d fallen into in nearly forty years of driving, even though I’ve always been conscious of safety. Well, aside from seeing the speed limit as a suggestion on the highway (never in residential areas).
Simple things like keeping two hands on the wheel and not letting the wheel slide through my hands on a turn seem harmless, but it would be so easy to do that at the wrong moment. I’ve been practicing better habits ever since, and I plan to take an advanced driving class as soon as I can.
It is kind of crazy that so many professions require continuing education, but we start driving as teenagers and rarely ever take another class!
Other sessions available that day included Defensive and Arrest Tactics, Body Cameras, and Tribal Policing.
And since I’m a crime writer, I can’t possible skip the wonderful evening presentations. One with Anne E. Schwarz, the journalist who broke the story about Jeffrey Dahmer. Another with Dr. Katherine Ramsland, who teaches Forensic Psychology and has interviewed Dennis Rader (the B.T.K. Killer) many times. And my favorite, Alan Hardwick speaking about his involvement with the 9/11 Commission.
I would absolutely recommend the Writers Police Academy, and not only to crime writers. My experience with this kind of event is it expands my imagination, and sets up story seeds in all kinds of genres that wouldn’t have been there before. And as a citizen, everything I learned was invaluable.
The truth is as much as I enjoyed the classes I took, I truly did wish I could have attended them all.
More than enough reason for a return trip in our future. If you do decide to make the trip to Wisconsin, don’t miss the Mars Cheese Castle just over the border from Illinois, or one of the many other fine purveyors of dairy-based treats and all kinds of goodness!
To learn more, including about the excellent online workshops from the Writers Police Academy, including the upcoming 2023 edition visit www.writerspoliceacademy.com.