WPA #3: Mind Games & Franz

WPA logoSaturday morning confirmed that my stamina is excellent from all the years I’ve worked as BC chair at USA Fencing national tournaments. Of course, the big difference with WPA, too, is that I’m not responsible for events keeping to schedule, and if I chose, could skip out on the formal program any time I wanted. That kind of freedom still feels odd whenever I travel for non-fencing events.

The morning began with another trip back behind the PSTC buildings to the River City scenario village, where the formidable Colleen Belongea, FVTC criminal justice instructor, and her crew put on a high-speed chase for us, followed—inevitably—by questions until someone decided it was time for the last question before the morning sessions began.

My Saturday sessions were more staid than Friday’s—because I’m interested in how people remember and misremember events, and the psychology of personality and behavior, I went to Robin Burcell’s session on forensic art and witness recall, and after that, Katherine Ramsland’s overview of forensic psychology. After lunch, it was former NYPD detective Marco Conelli’s take on working undercover.

Franz on table

Franz kept an eye on us all, though he wasn’t too thrilled about jumping up onto a wheeled table in the first place.

After all that sitting and listening, though, I decided it was time for a session with a bit more activity: Winnebago County Sheriff’s Deputy and K9 handler Bob Zill, with his pal Franz, another gorgeous and highly trained German shepherd. Bob told us about the work he does with Franz, about their continuous training process, and of course, answered endless questions until it was time to hit the fire apparatus bay again to see Franz do his stuff. He’s got a lot to show off, too: apprehension and arrest, drug sniffing (he’s an active scent dog, pawing at what he detects instead of sitting quietly), SWAT training, and more.

In addition to his sniffing demo, Franz also showed his apprehension skills, though his “perp” wore just a padded sleeve instead of the full bite suit. Fun facts about K9 apprehensions: almost everyone puts their hands up and surrenders when threatened with the release of a K9, and those who persist and get taken down by a K9 are more excited and impressed than upset.

Then it was onto the buses and back to the hotel for a “Getting It Right” talk from Alison Brennan, and then the WPA banquet and the hilarious Karin Slaughter, followed by the distribution of 300ish silent auction baskets and raffle prizes. (We crime fiction writers are apparently eager to donate to good causes.)

Sunday morning was the big finish–the debriefing panel with all of the available WPA instructors. After brief questions to each of the panelists and lots of thank-you and cheers for everyone involved, Lee Lofland opened up the session for—what else?—questions. One of the early questions started out with “I need to blow up a lakeside cabin remotely from a nearby road . . .” which was the sort of talk that led the hotel staff to state repeatedly that we were “a fascinating group.” As always, the questions kept coming and coming, and only ended when finally one question was designated as the last.

Which leads me to what is the best feature of WPA: It’s not that the attendees are curious and inquisitive and not at all shy about asking anything we want to know, but that the staff was just as interested and enthusiastic and eager to answer our questions. More than a few commented about how our questions made them think about what and how they were teaching, and how they could better convey what they have learned from their own experience.

One small example sticks with me. On the Sunday panel at one point, Colleen Belongea mentioned that looking down to view a driver’s license and registration during a traffic stop was one of the things that would be an automatic fail on a student’s practical exam. An officer needs to maintain constant surveillance of the scene around her because so much can happen so fast. That’s the sort of tidbit that few of us writers knew before she mentioned it. That’s the puzzle that the instructors have to solve—both for us writers and for the future public safety personnel they train—how to figure out what they know as experts in their fields so that they can transmit that knowledge.

So was WPA worth it?

Oh, yeah. No question I’ll be signing up again next year (August 11-14, 2016. Registration opens in January 2016). But next year, I think I’ll aim for more of the hands-on practical sessions to see if I can pick up more of those little details like Colleen’s, not so I can sprinkle my story with accurate factoids throughout, but to help me incorporate them in my characters’ points of view, so that they behave like the real-life models they’ll be invented from.

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WPA #2: Lights & Sirens & a Glock

WPA bag logoHopping onto the bus to the PTSC by 7:30 Friday morning felt like a relatively easy start to the day after so many years of getting to fencing tournament venues by 6:30 or 7:00. After the short drive, our four buses disgorged their nearly 300 passengers in front of the Fire Apparatus Bays, which we walked through, past multiple fire trucks and engines, out to get our first view of River City, the collection of streets, buildings, and other interesting sites that FVTC uses for practical training.

FVTC Public Safety Training Center: Rob&Spill station, Boeing 727, derailed train.

FVTC Public Safety Training Center: Rob&Spill station, Boeing 727, derailed train.

FVTC students practicing traffic stops in River City on campus.

FVTC students practicing traffic stops in River City scenario village on campus.

Many of the WPA sessions (crime scene photography, building searches, etc.) were held in various village buildings, frequently put to multiple use—one writer discovered that the smoke-filled room she crept through during a burning building search & rescue session was a perfectly normal looking hotel lobby for her crime scene photography session the next day.

It was back to the fire apparatus bays for my first session, though (I’m considering a building fire for a future book), where Chris Fischer, chair of the fire protection department, showed off both individual firefighter gear and some of his big vehicles, all while answering our endless questions. We learned about Stokes baskets for aerial rescues, why it’s not a good idea to jump off a building with just a rope tied around your waist (married to a physicist, I already knew that), and why firefighters aren’t allowed beards (interferes with good seal of breathing apparatus).

gearing up

Chris Fischer ready to gear up.

full fire gear

Chris in full gear, complete with SCBA unit (just like SCUBA, only without the Underwater part) to make him nearly incomprehensible, which is why firefighters have a whole vocabulary of hand signals. (Also, fire is noisy.)

My clean and shiny ride.

My clean and shiny (and big) ride.

Eventually, someone warned Chris to stop answering our endless questions, and we climbed up into the fire truck (with ladder) or fire engine (no ladder) for our rides through River City with lights and sirens. As I expected, the ride seemed slower from the inside—lights & sirens drives are rarely as much as 10-15 mph over the speed limit, and often slower through heavy traffic. Comfort, of course, is not a priority, though the seats accommodate firefighters in full gear, including their SCBA tanks.

Our session, of course, ran slightly long, so by the time I got there, both the  crime scene to autopsy and the fingerprinting sessions were full, so I ended up in a session on patrol work, where we heard about the “use of force continuum” and the dangers of the “sympathetic grasp reflex” (which essentially translates into “KEEP YOUR FINGER OFF THE TRIGGER UNLESS YOU INTEND TO SHOOT THIS INSTANT”).

After a quick lunch, I went to a session on interview and interrogation, which did more to confirm what I already knew than to provide new information.

Me and my perp. (Not bad for my first shooting experience, until you consider this was from 3 yards.)

Me and my perp. (Not bad for my first shooting experience, until you consider this was from 3 yards.)

My second Friday afternoon session was at the firing range, where I’d learn at least a bit about shooting a pistol. We started out in the classroom, where we learned the rules (at least the most important ones, anyway—the instructors told us that regular students put in 8 hours of class work before they are allowed to shoot the way we would). We were fitted with vests and belts, including bright orange plastic fake Glocks, and proceeded into the range, where we learned the basic stance, and how to load and fire our weapons. Then, after collecting ear protection and extra magazines, we traded in our fakes for real Glocks. I was better at it than I’d expected, though by the time we loaded our 2nd magazine, I was trying to pay more attention to my grip and form and my accuracy suffered. But with the distance we shot from, we were practically guaranteed a decent experience—after all, how badly can you miss from three yards under tightly controlled shooting conditions?

Next year, though, I’ll definitely enter the lottery for Milo, the shoot/don’t shoot simulation.

After the shooting experience, Katherine Ramsland‘s session on kids who kill was not exactly soothing, but fascinating in all its creepiness.

Then it was back on the buses, for dinner on our own (which is to say, with any other WPA attendees who happened to be around when we were ready to eat—there were lots of us and we had as much to talk about with each other as questions to ask instructors during the formal sessions. Then after the Sisters in Crime reception, most of us traipsed around the corner and across the street to the police station, where we got to watch Jaco, a lovely German shepherd, demonstrate how much faster he can run than the demo perp in the bite suit. Then, eventually, someone decided the next question had to be the last, only a half hour or so later than planned.

Next: Mind games & Franz

WPA #1: Switching Gears

July and August were not at all the months I expected. With Summer Nationals out of the way and my USA Fencing board term almost over, I’d planned to dig back into my manuscript and stay there for as long as it took to get it into publishable shape.

It wasn’t just the zigzagger I swerved to avoid on I-680 on the way home from San Jose. (The zigzagger got away clean, while my car was totaled from clipping the bumper of a pickup truck I was unable to avoid. The occupants of the pickup and I had nice chats with the CHP and our respective insurance companies, after which they continued on their way and I waited—completely uninjured, to my continuing amazement—for the tow truck, who ended up storing my totaled CR-V for four whole weeks before my insurance company, despite my nagging, managed to start the valuation process. But hey, no injuries, no ambulances, so I can live with that.) There were also a few USFA governance issues and some family medical complications, and suddenly there I was, halfway through August and nowhere near where I wanted to be with my book.

WPA program logoBut then I had the perfect event to put me back into serious crime fiction mode: I was off to Fox Valley Technical College’s Public Safety Training Center in Appleton, Wisconsin, for my first Writers’ Police Academy.

After a long day of flying, I wasn’t sure how interesting I’d find a lecture on 3D crime scene mapping, but Joe LeFevre (the FVTC criminal justice department chair who enticed Lee Lofland to bring WPA to Appleton) enthusiastically showed off the school’s Leica C10 laser scanner. Originally designed for civil and construction engineering use, the C10 is now increasingly used in such fields as archeology and law enforcement to create 3D computer models of scenes.

The Leica C10 scanner.

The Leica C10 scanner.

Joe LeFebre explaining the Leica C10's raw data collection.

Joe LeFebre explaining the Leica C10’s raw data collection.

For crime scene use, the scanner is usually set at 3 or 4 different positions, from which it collects location and color data to create a “point cloud” for up to a 900-foot diameter. At 50,000 points per second, each position takes 3-5 minutes to scan. Once the data is collected and processed, the Leica Cyclone software can create a raw 3D walk-through from the point cloud data, which can be imported into forensic CAD software.  Even the raw walk-through can be zoomed in and out, and the point of view can rotate and move through walls to view scenes from different angles. Such 3D crime scene models can be used to test the plausibility of witness accounts of events (such as where shots originated) and for courtroom presentations.

Joe also explained some of the work he’s done with others to use photogrammetry on crime scene photos to superimpose objects from those photos onto the 3D models, which can make courtroom crime scene presentations far more useful and coherent than flat photographs.

One defining characteristic of WPA attendees became perfectly clear during Joe’s presentation: we were an extremely curious crowd who would keep asking questions for as long as anyone would keep answering them. This caused problems through the entire weekend, because the WPA staff, both FVTC faculty and outside instructors, were happy to keep answering questions for as long as anyone kept asking them. Joe was by no means the first speaker who had to be rescued from both himself and the audience so that some semblance of a workable schedule could be maintained.

Next: Lights & Sirens & a Glock