Proceed with Caution

There are all sorts of sub-genres in mystery fiction. One of the most popular is the Police Procedural. I’ve read a lot of them and have even written some, but I proceed with caution because the credibility of the procedural is dependent on the author’s accuracy in the arcane arena of actual police procedures. All sorts of mistakes can undermine the story.

Here are a few minor/major errors that shout out at readers that the storyteller has not done his or her homework:

Name the Ranks

In San Francisco a city police detective is called an ‘Inspector.’ It’s the same rank as a Detective on other forces, but switching out the words is an obvious mistake.

Real Sources Not Fiction

A writer using old movies and vintage episodes of Law and Order as their primary source for facts about the NYPD might not know that in 1995 the Transit Police and Housing Authority Police forces became part of the general NYPD. Check facts on official websites if you don’t have a friendly cop in your network.

Federal Jurisdiction

Some crimes are always investigated and prosecuted by local law and justice professionals. Other crimes are federal (FBI, regional U.S. prosecutors and courts). Some crimes can be prosecuted in different courts on the basis of federal or local/state laws. And some criminals face charges in both arenas. Check the charges and the jurisdictions to be sure which is appropriate to your story.

Remaining Silent?

“You have the right to remain silent…” The familiar ‘Miranda Rights’ started with a Supreme Court ruling in 1966 concerning a coerced confession. The Court overturned the conviction of Ernesto Miranda. (He was later retried and found guilty on the basis of other evidence.)

Some of us read (and see) both U.S. and British crime dramas. The British version is different. In the U.S. there is a fundamental right to remain silent and the choice not to speak cannot be used against the accused in court. In Great Britain there is a right not to say anything, “but it may harm your defense if you do not mention when questioned something you later rely on in court.” Basically, state your alibi ASAP in Great Britain or suffer potential consequences.

Note to writers: Don’t mix up the U.S. and British arrest procedures!


  1. Yes! Good list!

    Also, do a little research into how guns work. No, “Detective Mark Wrench flew backwards as the perp fired a .38 special straight into his chest.”

    And none of this ridiculous nonsense where they somehow get their gun unholstered and fire before some guy ten feet away can charge them. Sheesh!

    • Candy Korman

      Guns… yes. In real life, they are used infrequently. They are dangerous to the cops, bystanders, criminals, victims… everyone. There are procedures that relate to their use. And yes, the impact of a gun varies. Some are easier to use. Some are NOT part of a standard protocol. And, believe it or not, few cops are expert marksman capable of making spectacular trick shots. They have to pass tests on the range and be trained, but that doesn’t make them the superheros (or ninjas, or psychics) they often appear to be in fiction.

    • Candy Korman

      I honestly think that the sub-genres of amateur sleuth and private detective are so big because the procedurals are so tricky to write!