Citizen Law Enforcement Academy: Week 4

Last week, my friend Rose and I battled rush hour traffic to arrive at the Sheriff’s Crime Lab in Minneapolis on time.  While I’m pumped to visit the crime lab, I have to admit I gave up on the television show CSI years ago after Director Gil Grissom fell in love (or lust or whatever) with a dominatrix named Lady Heather (what the ???).

Gil Grissom & Lady Heather Source: CSI
Gil Grissom & Lady Heather Source: CSI

With 30 minutes to kill, Rose and I hit Hubert’s Bar for a quick drink.  It’s karaoke night and we’re treated to one-hit wonders from the 70s, 80s, and 90s as interpreted by several inebriated individuals.  I decide to sing along with one contestant who’s belting out “What’s Going On” by 4 Non Blondes because the lyrics really capture my thoughts that evening:

And I say hey…And I say hey what’s goin’ on

And I say hey… I said hey what’s goin’ on

And I scream from the top of my lungs

What’s goin’ on

At Hubert’s?

Some pretty scary karaoke, that’s what.

Rose at Hubert's Source:
Rose at Hubert’s Source:

Ears bleeding, we head over to the Sheriff’s Crime Lab which provides forensic support to over 35 local, state, and federal agencies.  The crime lab’s departments (called sections) include Crime Scene, Evidence, Firearm and Tool Mark Examination, Latent Print, and Biology/DNA.

Director Scott Giles kicks off the evening with an overview of the crime lab.  Interesting fact #1: Over 50% of the crimes investigated by the lab relate to property crimes.  After he says this I think, I wish I’d known about the crime lab when my car got broken into in Uptown.  Adding insult to injury, the thieves took my spare change and useless loyalty cards but left all of my CDs behind.  Hey, I have good taste in music.  Really.  (See section on karaoke above.)

Crime Scene Tech Source: Star Tribune
Crime Scene Tech Source: Star Tribune

Working on property crimes related to cars, homes, and businesses, the crime lab has identified several offenders through their forensic databases.  Interesting fact #2: one of the largest and most-used forensic databases is called CODIS.  It houses DNA profiles for over 14 million offenders.

One of the scientists explains that property crime offenders are often involved in other types of crimes.  “For some criminals, break-ins are almost like their day job,” she says.  By identifying the perpetrators of property crimes, the crime lab can help law enforcement agencies to get violent offenders off our streets.

The highlight of the evening is our visit to the Biology/DNA section where we learn how DNA is extracted.  Interesting fact #3: DNA evidence needs to be kept in a dark, cool and dry environment but does not need to be refrigerated.  In the lab, DNA samples are put into test tubes and a reagent is added to amplify the DNA sample.  The test tube is then put into a machine called a thermocycler which is cooled down to four degrees Celsius so that the DNA will replicate itself.  Interesting fact #4: DNA will not replicate if it’s one centigrade above four degrees Celsius.

Unfortunately, we aren’t able to enter the laboratory for fear of contamination but Suzanne Weston-Kirkegaard, the DNA technical lead, more than makes up for this by sharing on-the-job tales.  One of her best stories involves the Corn Dog Caper where a small-time burglar smashed his way into an office building and then went bananas.  Like a deranged Goldilocks, he ate food from the employees’ communal fridge, leaving behind a half-eaten corn dog as well as a large sample of DNA which led to his identification and arrest.

The Corn Dog in Question Source: HCSO
The infamous corn dog. Source: HCSO

Suzanne tells us that cases like these aren’t as uncommon as you’d think.  Apparently, some burglars like to leave mementos.  Like bodily fluid mementos.  I won’t get into specifics, but let’s just say I’ll never look at the bottle of ketchup in my fridge the same way again.  Yuk.

Ketchup Source: Ildar Sagdejev
Ketchup Source: Ildar Sagdejev

Next week, there will be tasers and rifles and guns, oh my!

Citizen Law Enforcement Academy: Week 3

Lethal Weapon moview poster Source: Wikipedia
Lethal Weapon movie poster Source: Wikipedia

Last week’s class took us off the edge of the map and into Brooklyn Park where Hennepin County’s Enforcement Services is headquartered.

Little did I know we were in for an action-packed evening of the “Lethal Weapon” kind, with demonstrations by the Emergency Services Department (ESD), Special Operations Unit (SOU) and Volunteer Services Department (VSD).

The Emergency Services Department (ESD) is comprised of patrol, water patrol, transport, special operations, and the K-9 unit.  The patrol unit does pretty much what you’d think it would do: emergency response and the servicing of civil papers and warrants.  Interesting fact #1: By law, arrest warrants must be served after 7am.  Many are served at 7:01am.  “So, if you’re a criminal, set your alarm clock before 7am,” an academy classmate says.  After a short pause, the police officer who’s been speaking to us replies, “Yeah, I don’t think the homes we go to have clocks.”  Well alright, then…

The water patrol unit is staffed to a large extent by volunteers and is tasked with law enforcement on the waterways and with patrolling 104 lakes and three rivers.  Minnesotans, can you name all three rivers in Hennepin County?  I got two: the Mississippi and the Minnesota.  The third is the Crow.

During the summer, one boat is permanently stationed at Lake Minnetonka to deal with its drunken horde of weekend warriors.  The officers said they do a lot more educating of the public than enforcing of the laws.  Interesting fact #2: After two hours, a water patrol search and rescue will morph into recovery mode.

The Special Operations Unit (SOU) includes the Emergency Management Team, Hennepin County Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Tactical Response Team, Emergency Services Unit (ESU), Special Response, and Critical Infrastructure Protection Patrols.

Weapon of Mass Destruction           Source:

The WMD team deals with biological, radiological, and chemical attacks.  They hold training sessions at high-risk targets including the Mall of America, Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport, and the Mississippi River and transportation targets like buses and the metro system.

They wear hazmat suits with external air tanks (similar to ones used in scuba diving) or else suits with built-in, recycled air units.  The WMD officer says the recycled-air hazmat suit makes you feel like you’re suffocating.

Me as the Pillsbury Doughboy with my husband, Harlan

I can relate to this feeling of suffocation, having once been paid $75 in graduate school to dress up like the Pillsbury Doughboy.  I will never forget the few seconds before the nasty recycled air kicked in and I could finally breathe.

The highlight of the evening is our visit with the Emergency Services Unit (ESU) which is basically the SWAT team.  ESU is involved in hostage rescue, barricaded suspect situations, and high-risk warrant service.  The SWAT team is involved in about 65 to 70 operations each year, mainly in Minneapolis.  “You should smell the testosterone when they come back from serving a warrant,” one of the female officers says, making the ESU team blush.

SWAT Team                                                  Source: Kennedy Space Center

We get to look at their cool gear which includes guns, shields, and vests.  One of the rifles is specially equipped with foam bullets to mark a suspect with paint and bring them down with minimal injury.  “We aim for the big, meaty parts,” one ESU officer says.  “Backs, butts, and thighs are best.”

They let us pick up their riot shields. One is built to stop handguns and the other, rifles.  The handgun riot shield weighs about the same as my son, a 30-pound toddler.  “Now, don’t throw out your back picking up that shield. I don’t want you to call in sick to work tomorrow,” one of the officers says to me.  I give him a look.  I’m a stay-at-home mom: My job is 24/7 and unfortunately, I can’t call in sick.  Ever.

SWAT Team Source: The New Yorker
Source: The New Yorker

The other riot shield made to stop rifle bullets weighs at least 50 pounds.  It’s crazy heavy.  “Who carries this?”  I ask.  “There’s one guy on our team who can hold it the entire length of a raid.  He’s huge.  Otherwise, we take turns holding it,” one officer says.  “And we use both hands to hold it,” another one adds.  “I don’t.  I just use one hand,” a third officer says.  The other officers just raise their eyebrows at him.  It takes a lot of cojones to be a part of the ESU team: I’m sure some braggadocio is par for the course.

We’re also given the opportunity to try on their heavy green flak vests.  I’m eyeing one of the vests when an officer says, “Careful.  You’ll mess up your hair.”  It’s like he’s waved a red flag under my nose.  I lunge for the vest.  “I’ll take that,” I say. Someone from the Sheriff’s Office takes a photograph of me.  In my mind, I looked like this:

SWAT team member                            Source: Wikipedia

But I’m pretty sure I looked like this instead:

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles           Source: Rolling Stone

Stay tuned: this week, we’re going to tour the Crime Lab.

Who are you, you, you? I really wanna know….

The AWP Conference: Is It For Crime Writers?

AWP conference
AWP 15 Book Fair Source: AWP Twitter

About 13,000 writers flocked to Minneapolis last week for the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Conference.  I knew the conference catered to the literary (or as one presenter put it, “boring”) crowd, but since it included many workshops and a gigantic book fair and was being held here in town at a fairly reasonable cost, I decided to give it a go.  Plus, its 24/7 event schedule gave me a valid excuse to stay in a hotel for two nights and temporarily ditch my day-to-day responsibilities as mother and wife.  Basically, this conference had me at hello but was it a worthwhile event for a writer of crime fiction?

If you want to know more about the conference-at-large, check out Peter Mountford’s hilarious and definitive article.  Here are some tips for fellow crime writers who are considering a future AWP conference.  Note:  At some point, you’ll have to admit to the literary fiction attendees that you are a *gasp* commercial fiction writer:

  • Don’t overschedule yourself. I attended 12 workshops on craft (about 4 per day) which gave me time to walk the book fair, eat lunch (the lines were super-long at the convention center), and avoid the feeling that my head was going to explode from the knowledge dump each workshop provided.
  • Skip sessions led by magazine or book editors. You already know how to get published: write something great, research the publication and editor, and submit proofed work in the exact format requested. I just saved you about 2 to 3 hours at the conference. You’re welcome.
  • Pick workshops that will boost your areas of weakness as a writer. As a first-time mystery novelist, I went to sessions that addressed plot, time and structure, genre fiction, crime fiction, noir fiction, violence, and how to write a sex scene. There were gems to be had in all of these workshops:
    • Plot is Character: Make $h!t happen. If you have a good voice, you can fix your plot.
    • Learning and Teaching Plot: Plot that feels inevitable but surprising stems from an understanding of how particular people behave in a particular situation.
    • Sex Scenes by Women, About Women: How do people secretly relate to one another when the doors are closed and people aren’t wearing their public faces?
    • What’s Wrong with Writing Genre?: Write what you know with a twist.
    • Substance as Style: What Noir Can Teach Us: In noir, the protagonist actively participates in his own demise by the choices he makes. As someone who’s writing what I call “medium-boiled seaside noir”, I love this definition.
  • Introduce Yourself to the Panelists. They want to meet you. Really. I finally mustered up the courage to do this on Friday afternoon with fellow Sisters in Crime members, Cathlene Buchholz and Sherry Roberts. We introduced ourselves to crime fiction panelists/novelists, Michael Kardos and Lori Rader-Day, who’d been signing books the night before at Once Upon a Crime mystery bookstore with Jessie Chandler. Both Michael and Lori were very generous with their time, and we were able to snap this photo with Lori before saying goodbye.
From left: Jessica Ellis Laine, Cathlene Buchholz, Lori Rader-Day, & Sherry Roberts
From left: Jessica Ellis Laine, Cathlene Buchholz, Lori Rader-Day, & Sherry Roberts
  • Attend Author Readings. I am kicking myself for not attending readings by Shannon Olson, Cheryl Strayed, and T.C. Boyle. On Saturday afternoon, I closed out the conference with authors Ana Mendez and Dani Shapiro who were interviewed by a moderator and later read from their work. It. Was. Amazing.
  • Go To After-Hours Events.
    On Thursday night, I went to the Loft Literary Center’s Awesome AWP Party with two writerly friends, Ann Bremer and Kayla Gray, who like me have taken several writing classes at the Loft. We met Peter Mountford there, author of the aforementioned AWP conference article, events curator for the Hugo House writing center (Seattle’s version of the Loft), member of the Seattle Seven writing group which includes Erik Larson (be still, my beating heart), and taker of the photo below.
From left: Kayla Gray, Jessica Ellis Laine, & Ann Bremer
From left: Kayla Gray, Jessica Ellis Laine, & Ann Bremer

Later that evening, Ann and I attended the AWP Dance Party at the Hilton Minneapolis which was hysterical for reasons too numerous to mention here.  Remember that movie White Men Can’t Jump?  Well, they can’t dance, either.

Friday night, Ann and I switched it up and went to Think Piece Publishing’s Pints and Prose event at Kieran’s Irish Pub with fellow mystery writer, Tes Brown, and her husband, Mike.  We heard stories and music by Julie Barton, Andy Steiner, and Honeydogs frontman, Adam Levy.  Janet Burroway (author of Writing Fiction) read from her memoir, Losing Tim which recounts the suicide of her sonI was reduced to tears within seconds.  Tes came to my rescue with a handful of paper napkins.  It was a beautiful and thought-provoking night.

Long story long, crime writers: The AWP conference isn’t geared towards genre writers, but it was fun and I learned a thing or two.  I’d definitely consider attending another one if I could drive (instead of fly) there again.

Citizen Law Enforcement Academy: Week 1

Source: Hennepin Co. Sheriff's Office
Source: Hennepin Co. Sheriff’s Office

Last week, I’m wandering around South 4th Street in Minneapolis with my face buried in a map when a woman wearing a uniform asks me, “Are you here for visiting hours?”


“You’re not here to visit someone in jail?”


Turns out the building I’m looking for also houses the holding jail, but I’m heading there to attend the Hennepin County Sheriff Office’s Citizen Law Enforcement Academy instead.  The academy is a six-week course offered free of charge to anyone who is interested in learning how law enforcement and the criminal justice system work.

“You’re probably going to learn a lot tonight.  A lot,” the uniformed lady says before she points me in the right direction.

After being herded through a metal detector, our group of thirty is escorted upstairs into a classroom.  Four of my classmates are fellow Twin Cities Sister in Crime members: Theresa Weir, Kristin Lerstrom, M.E. Bakos, and Midge Bubany.  Also present are Midge’s husband/chauffeur, Tim, and a friend from my mystery writing group, Rose Stanley-Gilbert.  A female deputy tells us they’ve had several crime writers take this course including Sister in Crime’s own Julie Kramer.  It seems we’re in good company.

Tonight, we’ll be hearing from Sheriff Richard W. Stanek and several departments in Investigations including Criminal Information Sharing and Analysis (CISA), Detective Unit, and the Violent Offender Task Force (VOTF).

Citizens Academy week 1
Sheriff Stanek presents at the Spring 2015 Citizen Law Enforcement Academy. Source: Hennepin Co. Sheriff’s Office Facebook page

Some of the officers seem to get a kick out of having crime writers in the audience.

One of the detectives ends his presentation with a special request for the Sisters in Crime members: “I know you’re all looking for material.  If you use me as a character in your book, please make me taller than I am in real life.”

The highlight of the evening is a presentation by two officers assigned to the Violent Offenders Task Force (VOTF).  Comprised of deputies from the Sheriff’s Office and from some of the higher-risk cities within the county, VOTF works with data analysts in CISA to identify both crime trends and the most dangerous criminals in Hennepin County at any given time.

Since they work undercover, I’ll refrain from describing the VOTF deputies other than to say they are a writer’s dream come true.  I’d love to take the deputies’ quirky looks and personalities and just drop them —plop– straight into my story.

Things I learn from the deputies:

-VOTF is a young person’s game.  Eventually, you will age out of VOTF, probably after five years.

-They wear normal clothes and drive unmarked cars.  They are nic-certified, meaning they can field test for narcotics.

-They have some cases that are assigned to them but in general they get to create their own investigations.

-Their work usually involves busts where they find “a couple of guns and some drugs”.

-It’s hard work to cultivate informants and yes, informants are as annoying as you’d think they’d be.

The deputies spend a lot of time chasing down or babysitting their informants but, as one of the deputies says during their presentation, “What am I gonna do?  Get information about drug dealers from you?”  He bends down and looks at me.  “Do you know any drug dealers?”

It’s a rhetorical question, right?

At the end of their presentation, the VOTF deputies allow us to handle confiscated weapons including an AK-47.  We also get to try on bullet-proof vests.  I wish I could have taken a photo of the SinC members wearing those vests, but photos were forbidden due to the sensitive nature of the VOTF deputies’ work.  I hope we can get a group picture soon.

AK-47 Source: Wikipedia
AK-47 Source: Wikipedia

As the lady in uniform predicted, I learned a lot.  Can’t wait to see what week number two of the academy will bring.

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