Writers' Police Academy at GTCC gives authors a taste of realism

Sep. 09, 2013 @ 10:21 AM

Rue Elliott eyed the man cautiously, tightening her grip on the Glock semiautomatic pistol in her hand.
The man looked harmless enough, standing there with a cell phone in his hand, until he suddenly pointed the phone at an approaching police officer and fired at point-blank range. As the officer collapsed to the ground, Elliott realized that hadn’t been a phone in the man’s hand, but a cleverly disguised gun.
At the sound of his pistol, Elliott instinctively raised her gun and began firing shot after shot, her heart pounding. The assailant turned to flee but dropped to his knees, felled by a bullet that had hit its mark.
“That gives me a new respect for law enforcement,” Elliott said Friday, a few minutes after the deadly encounter. “You wouldn’t think to just walk up on someone holding a cell phone that you’re taking any risk. And to think that officers are doing stuff like this all the time.”
Elliott, of Suffolk, Va., was one of 200 authors who descended on the Guilford Technical Community College campus Thursday through Sunday for the 2013 Writers’ Police Academy. The annual event offers writers a hands-on, interactive experience that enhances their understanding of law enforcement and forensics, with the ultimate goal of making their novels more realistic.
In Elliott’s case, her simulated shooting encounter was part of an interactive, live-fire experience that places participants in a variety of scenarios law enforcement personnel might face in the course of their jobs. The assailant she encountered was actually a video projected onto a large screen in front of her, and when she fired her modified Glock at the screen, the simulator recorded where her shots landed.
“I got a couple of kill shots,” the murder-mystery writer said, “but a lot of wild shots, too. I have a gun, and I always thought I was safe if somebody came to my house, but now I know my chandeliers are at risk.”
More to the point, though, she learned about the stress officers deal with in high-pressure scenarios, something she thinks will help her when she writes about such scenarios.
“If I’m writing from the perspective of law enforcement personnel, I’ve felt some of that stress that they feel,” Elliott explained. “And if you know what an experience feels like, then you can translate that to paper so that when someone reads it, they feel it. As an author, that to me is the most important thing.”
Other interactive experiences include an ambulance-driving simulator, building searches, patrol ride-alongs, an underwater evidence search, high-risk traffic stops and a fingerprinting class. Other classes focus on such topics as gangs, human trafficking, mass shootings, cold cases and courtroom procedures.
Lee Lofland, a novelist and former police detective from Savannah, Ga., founded the Writers’ Police Academy in 2009, with the goal of helping writers add realism to their fiction.
“As a fan of fiction, I saw so many things that were wrong in novels — especially police procedure and crime — and it bugged me,” Lofland said. “... So I had the idea of doing a hands-on type of conference where writers can get their hands dirty and see what it’s really like — get inside a police car, shoot a gun, fingerprinting, handcuffs, the whole works.”
The event ended up in the Triad after Lofland serendipitously met GTCC criminal-justice instructor Andy Russell at a campground. Lofland mentioned he was looking for a facility to host the academy, and Russell volunteered GTCC as a possibility. School officials agreed, and this was the event’s fourth year at GTCC.
Area law enforcement agencies provide personnel and equipment to assist with the conference, but Lofland also brings in national experts whose knowledge bases include everything from forensics to the FBI. This year’s conference also included a keynote address by New York Times best-selling suspense author Lisa Gardner.
“This is as close to police academy training as you can get without giving away every single secret,” Lofland said. “This is real police academy training.”
Writers pay $255 to attend, and profits from the conference go to the GTCC Criminal Justice Foundation.
“We capped it at 200 people, and we sold it out in six days,” Lofland said. “And we probably turned away another 200 or more.”
In addition to all of the practical information that’s provided, writers get the benefit of rubbing shoulders with other writers, including the likes of such leading authors as Gardner, CJ Lyons and Hank Phillippi Ryan.
“We share ideas about lots of things,” said Sharon Hamilton, an author from California. “The networking is really important.”

jtomlin@hpe.com | 888-3579