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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