All posts by BJBourg

Leadership: Part 4

Despite what you’ve seen in books, TV, and the movies, the role of law enforcement leaders is to lead.

We did away with a couple of popular tropes in previous entries – leaders as worker bees, and leaders as managers who yell at their cops. But what can you replace those clichés with? What do leaders do?

The simple answer is, they lead. They also manage some, but where people are concerned, they lead. That means to provide direction and guidance to their followers, as well as resources. The direction and guidance comes in the form of communicating a vision (where are we going and how are we going to get there?), providing direction on the course, and keeping people on task. It means taking care of their people’s needs, including the resources necessary to achieve the organizational goals. It means to inspire the follower. And it means doing all of this without forgetting that each follower is a person, an individual that deserves to be valued and respected.

In most law enforcement agencies, the vertical division of labor looks like this: service delivery, first level, mid-level, and executive leadership. Service delivery is where the public receives the service. It is usually provided by officers and/or detectives. Most of the time, first level leadership occurs at the sergeant level.

Sergeants are a crucial part of any organization. They are the men and women who lead small units (ideally 5-8, most experts say) of officers or detectives on a daily basis. These leaders are still “in the trenches” with their people, and are directly responsible for making sure they accomplish their mission. They have the equally important role of caring for their people’s needs. A good sergeant makes sure his followers have all the equipment and knowledge to take care of business. A great sergeant ministers to their professional development and personal needs as well.

A sergeant might command a single patrol team, or a group of detectives. Likewise, you might find a sergeant in charge of the entirety of a small unit. This can depend a lot on agency size. On a smaller department, the sergeant might be in charge of the burglary unit as a whole. On a larger department, she might command one of several burglary units broken up by geographical area. Essentially, whatever makes sense organizationally so that she is always in charge of one small team of officers or detectives.

The sergeant is caught between a rock and a hard place in some ways. She’s no longer a worker, and can be seen by the troops as part of the “brass” (administration). But she gets pressure from the top down as well. She has to take the needs of organization and the needs of her people, and somehow come to the right equation of balance. Standing in that gap and finding a way to pull the two concerns together takes courage and resourcefulness.

In some instances, you might see a sergeant doing some of the same work their followers do, though usually in small nibbles rather than as a main course. Remember, the sergeant is in the trenches with her people, so it wouldn’t be crazy for her to occasionally get into a car chase, foot pursuit, or an arrest situation. Not crazy, but not common, either, so use this device sparingly.

By the time someone becomes a lieutenant, he is at the mid-level of leadership. Now, instead of a small team, he commands multiple teams. For example, a lieutenant may command a shift made up of three to five patrol teams. On the investigative side of the house, the lieutenant could be in charge of several sergeants and whatever their collective group would represent – Property Crimes, for example.

Higher profile units, such as Homicide or SWAT, are somewhat of an exception. These units are more likely to have a lieutenant in charge of just a single unit. This is a holdover from the command and control model of leadership, and isn’t likely to change soon. These units have critical assignments, and the belief is that they require closer supervision.

Where a sergeant’s role is focused on her team, the lieutenant has a wider span of control. While his gaze tends to remain internal rather than external in terms of dealing with problems, challenges, and opportunities, he has to take the longer view than the sergeant. It’s his job to anticipate issues on the horizon, and to convey the organizational goals to the sergeants (who then convey it to the troops, obviously).

For me, sergeant to lieutenant was the hardest, loneliest transition I made in my career. Cops all over the country tell me the same thing. That’s because as a sergeant, you’re still in the mix with your people. You don’t do 100% police work anymore, but you sometimes do. You certainly bump into on a daily basis.

As a lieutenant in most assignments, to encounter police work, you have to get up from your desk, leave your office and seek out those actually doing it. So you can see how your distance from the line is far more profound.

Around the rank of captain (on huge agency like LAPD or NYPD, this transition happens a rank or two higher), one enters the realm of executive leadership. At this level, the leader is like the captain of a ship. She is concerned with the biggest of pictures. Systems. Internal and external problems and opportunities. What is on the horizon, and how can it affect her agency? What is the chief executive’s vision? Her values and goals? And how does she communicate that to the community and her followers both?

That said, the best leaders never forget they are leading people. They proceed with the understanding that the work doesn’t get done unless real people put in the effort. They cultivate those relationships, and most of all, they care as much about their followers’ welfare as they do the bottom line.

To put it all into perspective for those of you have made it this far:

An officer worries about answer the radio call or catching the bad guy while patrolling the city.

A detective worries about building a case against that bad guy, or finding out who he is, and getting him charged.

A sergeant worries about that officer or detective having enough time, information, and tools to catch that bad guy…and stay safe in the process.

A lieutenant worries about how many bad guys are in his area of responsibility, and strategizes on how to catch more of them sooner, while being safe.

An executive worries about the impact of crime on the community, the politics in that community, whether her people have the training and tools to reduce crime, and how they stay safe in the process.

This is an extraordinarily simplified view of things, but the important piece is that it is all about roles and perspectives. You can put the situation in your novel through these filters and ask yourself:

Who should be working this case? [hint: usually an officer or a detective]

How would someone in a particular position/rank react? What would be his main concern?

With these things in mind, hopefully you can portray police leaders in a more accurate, and more positive, light.

Or not.

It is fiction, after all. And you get to write whatever you want.

Copyright © 2015 by Frank Zafiro. All rights reserved.

A Writer’s Guide to Fighting: The Jab

Welcome to the October 2015 edition of Righting Crime Fiction. This month, I’m continuing with the “Writer’s Guide to Fighting” series and moving into strikes. Authors will probably find the section on strikes, which will cover quite a number of lessons and span many months, the most relevant. This is where I’ll describe how to execute different strikes and provide the correct names for each. When it comes to fight scenes in fiction, this is where I see the most mistakes. An author might have a character knock another character unconscious with a jab or have a right-handed character deliver a left cross. While these are not “fatal” errors, readers with fight experience will recognize the lack of research and might mention it negatively in a review.

Speaking of the jab, it’s the strike I’ll highlight this month. While I’ll be speaking to your “cop” characters, these techniques are not unique to law enforcement, so any of your characters can use them. As an example, if you’re writing a romance, your protagonist could shoot a jab to the nose of your antagonist, snapping his head back and causing blood to spill from his nostrils.

LEFT JAB (to the head)

The jab is a quick, snapping punch that is executed with the lead hand. The lead hand is the left hand for right-handed fighters, and the right hand for left-handed fighter. Since your lead hand is closest to the suspect, the jab will connect at a higher rate than other punches. The jab can be used to distract an aggressive suspect, to set up follow-up punches, and can even be used defensively to disrupt a suspect’s attack. If developed properly and delivered correctly, it can be a very effective punch in your bag of striking tricks.

While it is not a power punch, a stiff jab to the face can potentially snap a suspect’s head back and stun him. This could be enough to cause some suspects to discontinue their aggressive behavior, but this will be the exception and not the norm. You should always be prepared to execute follow-up strikes after a jab, and these strikes should be delivered immediately and explosively—before the suspect has time to uncross his eyes and clear his head.

Target Areas:   Forehead, Eyes, Nose, Chin, Throat

Step One:  For maximum power, from the Fighting Stance (see Fig. 2.1) utilize a Front Step while quickly extending your left fist forward in a straight line from your chin toward the target (see Fig. 2.2). Do not lift your left elbow away from your body as your arm unfolds into the punch, because this will detract from your power and speed of delivery. Your elbow should travel directly upward as your arm extends.

2.1  2.2

Step Two:  As your left fist nears the end of the extension (approximately the last six inches of the punch), rotate your left hand sharply over in a clockwise direction so that your palm is facing the floor and your fist is at an approximate forty-five degree angle at the end of the punch, while completing the Front Step by bringing your rear leg forward (see Fig. 2.3). The rotating motion of your fist will roll your left shoulder over so that the ball of your shoulder shields your chin. This shielding of the chin will provide protection against a counter right hand. Additionally, rotating your fist to a forty-five degree angle will ensure that you strike with the large knuckles of the index and middle fingers.


Step Three: As quickly and explosively as you executed the Jab, pull your fist back toward your chin (see Fig. 2.4) and return to the Fighting Stance (see Fig. 2.5).

2.4  2.5

LEFT JAB (to the body)

Target Areas:   Chest, Solar Plexus, Stomach, Arms

Executing the left jab to your suspect’s body can be an effective set up punch. It can draw your suspect’s hands down, thereby creating an opening for a strike to the head. When executed to the solar plexus, it can cause some suspects to discontinue their aggressive behavior and sink to the ground, because this is a highly sensitive area for most folks.

Step One:  Dip your body quickly by bending at the knees. The dipping motion will lower your body and, depending on your height versus the suspect’s height, place your shoulders more in line with his torso.

Step Two:  Immediately execute the jab to the body in the same manner as previously described for the jab to the head.


Well, that wraps up the October 2015 segment of Righting Crime Fiction. If any of you have any questions or comments or suggested topics, feel free to contact me at and I will reply as soon as I can.

Until next time, write, rewrite, and get it right!

BJ Bourg is the author of JAMES 516 (Amber Quill Press, 2014), THE SEVENTH TAKING (Amber Quill Press, 2015), and HOLLOW CRIB (Five Star-Gale-Cengage, 2016).

Copyright © 2015 by BJ Bourg. All rights reserved.

Leadership: Part 3

Despite what you’ve seen in books, TV, and the movies, the role of law enforcement leaders is to lead.

In addition to the mistake I covered in the last entry (leaders as doer bees), another common mistake is to depict leaders strictly as managers (and poor ones at that). What’s the difference between leaders and managers? Well, to paraphrase Norman Schwarzkopf, you manage a business, but you lead people. In any human endeavor, a leader must recognize those elements of management (say, balancing a budget) and of leadership (dealing with people). A true leader sees each of his followers as an individual and understands that each of those individuals has his/her own hopes, dreams, fears, and desires.

In police fiction, though, most police leaders are shown as managerial tyrants with a one-dimensional concern for the outcome, at any cost. We see heroes berated for not solving a case quickly enough, or in particularly unethical instances, doing too good of a job and getting too close to an uncomfortable truth, a corruption of the system that the leader is invested in protecting. In either extreme, the leader is an obstacle to the officer or detective.

These two frequent clichés probably became clichés the same way all clichés are born – because some vestige of truth existed in them at some time in our collective history. Law enforcement is still busily chugging toward being recognized as a profession in the same fashion as the medical or legal fields. We have a ways to go, certainly, but we’ve also come miles and miles from a sometimes dirty past. A bellowing leader haranguing a poor detective is the least of our sins, and so it is an image that is reluctant to die.

But is it accurate?

Not very, at least not anymore.

Do police leaders ask for, even demand, accountability? Absolutely. But not in the bombastic way often shown on page or screen. Most police leaders are far more congenial than that. Most recognize the need for a good relationship with their followers. The scenes we read about or see in TV or movies are focused on a snapshot in time. Police work in real life is an ongoing process. There will be always be another call or another case after this one. And since we already know that it won’t be the leader who does the work to handle that call or case, who will it be?

The officer or detective, of course. The leader needs them to do the work. And people don’t like it when you yell at them all the time. It doesn’t work over the long haul. Look at any professional sports coach who was a yeller. Sooner or later, they lose the ear of the locker room, and their influence diminishes (and with it, the performance of the team, incidentally).

I don’t mean to say that there isn’t the occasional butt-chewing. What I’m saying is that it is the exception, not the rule. Good leaders don’t routinely call the men and women they lead into their office to yell at them. They do something really radical instead. They talk to them.

Can you make that work in your book? I’m betting so.

Copyright © 2015 by Frank Zafiro. All rights reserved.

Leadership: Part 2

Despite what you’ve seen in books, TV, and the movies, the role of law enforcement leaders is to lead. I know that sounds like a simple, no-duh statement, but if you stop and think about it, that role isn’t the one most often depicted in fiction. Instead, police leaders are shown as high ranking workers or as managers.

Let’s deal with the service delivery myth first.

In real life, the delivery of law enforcement services is provided most directly by either patrol officers or by detectives, depending on the nature of the service needed. Think about it. When you call 911 because someone is breaking into your house, who shows up first? Patrol officers. A leader may show up after to deal with the situation, or lead it, but unless that leader happens to be the closest unit to the scene, s/he won’t be the first responder.

Detective work is no different, though the misuse of rank is even more prevalent. Whether a burglary or a homicide, case work is completed by detectives, not by leaders. The detective is the one who interviews witnesses, examines evidence (although not all of it – technicians do some of that), interrogates suspects, and so forth.

And yet, we routinely see characters at the rank of sergeant or lieutenant doing case work. The classic buddy cop film series, Lethal Weapon, even promotes its heroes to captain while they’re still out there doing service delivery!

Why do writers do this? Frankly, without conducting a poll, I can’t answer for sure. Some of it may have to do with an unfamiliarity with the rank structure and duties associated with the different ranks. Or perhaps because they believe that giving a character a higher rank imbues him with more gravitas. Either way, it’s largely inaccurate.

On some larger departments, of course, you may still find some “worker bees” at the sergeant level, particularly in the investigate positions. But by and large, when someone promotes to sergeant, her job just became one of leadership, not service delivery.

What does that mean? Well, I will cover that in a future entry, but an analogy might be found in sports. Since football is arguably (and unfortunately) our nation’s most popular sport, let’s use that. Once promoted, a leader is less like the players on the field, and more like the coach on the sidelines. Her job is both to guide or direct the players on the field and to make sure they have the resources to accomplish the organizational goals.

It isn’t to run the ball.

Coming back to police fiction, it’s the leader’s job to guide everything from a radio call (or a case) to the direction of the department, as well as make sure the men and women trying to accomplish that have the resources they need to do it.

It isn’t to slap cuffs on a perp.

So if your hero needs to chase bad guys in cars, or on foot over fences and through alleys, and to pull out the bracelets and hook up that bad guy…don’t make her a leader. Make her an officer or a detective. Or at the very least, please make it clear why she is an anomaly.

That could work, right?

Copyright © 2015 by Frank Zafiro. All rights reserved.

Leadership: Part 1

Despite what you’ve seen in books, TV, and the movies, the role of law enforcement leaders is to lead.

In a vast majority of police fiction, whether on the page or on screens big and small, police leaders are inaccurately portrayed. The tropes usually fall into one of two categories. Either a high ranking police official is shown performing service delivery (patrol work or detective work) or more often, the leader is shown as a blustering hard ass intent upon tearing our hero to shreds with threats to either get the case solved pronto or to back off finding the truth, depending on what kind of unethical behavior he is assigned by the writer.

He. That’s another trope. Almost all these leaders are men.

Before we go any further, let me offer my own mea culpa. I am as guilty as any other writer for perpetuating these myths, especially the blusterer. For instance, my Lieutenant Crawford bedevils more than one investigator with his sarcasm and urgings to “solve the damn case.” So rest assured, I am not casting stones here, for my own sins are prevalent. If anything, that’s all the more reason I want to share some of these inconsistencies with other writers out there.

So what’s the truth about leaders in law enforcement? If you want to write realistic crime fiction, what mistakes should you avoid? What should you include instead? Well, that’s what this series of short entries is about.

First, a caveat. What I am going to describe in these entries are generally true. That’s a dangerous word, of course – generally. It means that, as the popular Internet phrase says, YMMV. Your mileage may vary. The setting you choose to write in may or may not specifically adhere to these guidelines. A little Google research may be in order if you wish to be absolutely factually accurate. But it also means that if you want to deviate for some writerly reason, you have permission to do so. These things are generally true, not universally so.

One thing that is universal is that leaders are people. In a world where the public seems to struggle to understand that cops themselves are also people, it becomes an even greater difficulty to comprehend that the leaders within that population are human as well. As with all people, they have their strengths and weaknesses, their nobility and their failings. Because police work is a human endeavor, it is perfect for the writer to explore. The very nature of the profession makes it rife for any possibilities the writer can imagine. Most of us would be hard pressed to say, “Yeah, that could never happen.”

But this series of short entries will be about what is most likely, and is intended to help you present your police leaders in the most realistic manner possible.

Copyright © 2015 by Frank Zafiro. All rights reserved.