Writing the Po-Po: Creating Cop Characters in 2023

As a former newspaper reporter, I covered the police in various municipalities throughout my career. I interviewed LEOs (law enforcement officers) from local municipal police departments, county sheriff’s offices, State Police, and the FBI. They talked about their past cases, their routine patrols, their beefs and gripes. 

I drew upon this experience when I wrote Midnight at Bat Hollow, an unlikely prequel to Accursed Son

Midnight at Bat Hollow chronicles the origins of Reece Rokowski, Modesto Police Department bicycle officer and reluctant vampire hunter. 

Writing a police protagonist in 2023 presents a unique set of challenges: Could readers connect and sympathize with cop characters? How accurate should writers be with the truth of police operations? Can stories about the police come off as inauthentic if written by non-LEOs? Why make the hero a police officer in light of racial attacks by police?

The hue and cry by the online writing community against writing police protagonists has increased ever since George Floyd’s murder in 2020. “Don’t write cop characters,” they warn. “There are so many other protagonists you could write. Police aren’t heroes.”

In Midnight at Bat Hollow, Officer Reece Rokowski is the hero that we didn’t deserve, but got stuck with anyway. 

In Accursed Son, Reece is a loudmouth ex-cop and member of the Legion of the Lamb, a monster-hunting biker gang. Despite his obnoxious demeanor, there was a tender side to the character I wanted to explore further. He’s the lovable asshole who has your six when the shit hits the fan.

Where did this guy come from? What circumstances led to him joining the Legion? Why did the police department really fire him? 

Midnight at Bat Hollow is an origin story, but it’s so much more. 

Writing this book was a chance to wrangle with a flawed character in a flawed but necessary institution. Stories about the police aren’t as revered as they once were; the copaganda action flicks from the 1980s, with maverick cops bucking the system to dispense justice their own way aged poorly in the 21st century. The real world bled into fiction, with scandals, criticisms, and public outcry in culture wars stoked by news corporations and social media. 

Showing life as a Charles Bronson movie, where the good guy with the gun mows down several criminals at once is abominable in a time when gun violence is a daily epidemic. 

Dirty Harry blowing away street punks doesn’t resonate in today’s world with documented cases of police brutality. 

Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys? Are those who wear blue really gray in terms of their actions? 

As Reece delves into a case of a dead colleague, his life implodes. He’s flippant, brash, and committed to a career he regrets, but keeps going despite resistance from so-called comrades. 

Surrender yourself to an institution, and the institution eats you alive. Break free of the institution and you flip the power dynamics. Reece finds his purpose working in a motorcycle gang instead of within the system. He isn’t a cowboy cop (though his senior officers call him a “cowboy”) who bends the rules. He discards the rules altogether because rules are arbitrary and abused for sinister ends. Riding with the Legion is his destiny and sets up the next stage of his evolution. Character arc fulfilled, but at a price.

In writing police fiction, remember this: You will make mistakes, and that’s okay. Law enforcement, with its myriad of changing rules and various agencies and protocols is a difficult subject. It’s understandable if writers occasionally get things wrong. Most people are forgiving if you give them a good setting, relatable characters, and interesting plot. 

Write glowingly about your hero’s occupation and you might be called “bootlicker” or “fascist.” Cop heroes shouldn’t be infallible. They should work in the system up to a point, when they realize the system as a whole doesn’t work for everyone. Realizing the hypocrisy, they often team up with outsiders and solve the case on their own, their actions garnering attention from their superiors.

Here’s what I did with researching police operations for Midnight at Bat Hollow:

1. Find a police department policy manual. You can go online and access policy manuals for certain police departments. These public documents describe how police departments are structured and operate. You should be aware of how police departments are organized and who is assigned where. Policy manuals describe various regulations in detail, so if you want to know what weapons your cop hero is using, how they respond to domestic disturbances, traffic stops, and street crime, it’s all in the manual. Even if you’re writing a fictitious police department, these real-world manuals are an invaluable resource. 

2. Reference books offer detailed descriptions of police work, usually written by those with expertise. For Midnight at Bat Hollow, I used the following reference books, which are available on Amazon: 

Police Procedure & Investigation: A Guide For Writers by Lee Lofland. An excellent source of detailed information, from the internal working of different police agencies, to police equipment, search procedures, criminal investigations, working the crime scene, DNA testing, narcotics, and courtroom procedures. If you have to start somewhere, start here. 

Cops and Writers by Patrick J O’Donnell. Written by a former police officer, this book is brimming with first-person accounts of a law enforcement career, from the police academy, to applying for a job with a local police department, to hitting the streets as a beat cop. Packed with information and scenarios you could use in your stories. It’s like having a veteran cop sit you down and tell you old war stories. 

Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement by Kevin M. Gilmartin, Ph.D. This book examines the psychological problems police officers face and gives you a good idea of how cops function, what they hold inside them, and how their minds work. Written for LEOs to help them cope with stress and trauma, the book is a good reference for writers interested in understanding the police beyond the usual copaganda, so you can create realistic and relatable police characters. 

The Writer’s Guide to Weapons by Benjamin Sobieck. If you’re unfamiliar with firearms or knives and you write about them, chances are you’ll get things wrong. This book is a good guide to guns, from firearm safety, the parts of these weapons, how they operate, and the different types and uses of each one. It also has a section on knives and bladed weapons, and a glossary of terms.

3. Online resources include videos of ride-alongs with patrol officers, body camera footage of arrests, and information from those police departments will give you a front seat into their daily operations. The more curious you are, the more material you’ll seek out. 

4. You don’t have to make your cop character lovable; you have to make them relatable. The first draft of Midnight at Bat Hollow, I wrote Reece as a stereotypical wiseass cop from a 1980s movie; cocky, arrogant, obnoxious. My editor, who didn’t like police to begin with, said she couldn’t connect with him. First Draft Reece was a jerk, and it’s tough relating to a jerk. I redesigned his character by giving him PTSD, an ex-wife, an abusive father, and a gambling addiction. He’s a mess, and his life is falling apart. Having more problems than a country western song, Reece became relatable. His problems were our problems, and the relatability is what drew my editor to Second Draft Reece. “You know I hate cops and police stories, but you made me really like this guy,” my editor told me after reading the revised manuscript. Your characters can be shady as shit. They could do underhanded things. They could be corrupt cops taking bribes or worse. But make them relatable, give them something for readers to root for. 

5. Stereotypes don’t cut it. The goofus cop stopping for donuts and coffee and letting the criminals go might be comedy fodder, but that schtick really gets old. Barney Fife (now that’s a reference!) is a trope that should be buried. The overtly loud and aggressive cop is another one. Are there jerk cops? Sure. But is every cop a jerk? I don’t know. I’d like to think most of them aren’t, but flexing authoritarian muscles and grappling with power dynamics of police forces with more military-grade hardware than some developing nations is scary. When in doubt, opt for reality, no matter how disturbing it is.

6. Will writing police characters this fix things with real world police? No, it won’t. Nor should it. Reality is a mess. People are complicated. Some police are openly racist. Some are sexist. Some are homophobic. Some do unspeakably vile things and get away with it. Your job as a writer is to engage your readers with an interesting story, and that means develop a character for them to relate to, one that carries them through your narrative. The bottom line: Law enforcement is a job. it’s one facing scrutiny and criticism, one at odds with some readers. Keep in mind not everyone will like your stories because you chose a cop as the protagonist. Not everyone Ikes police procedurals or mysteries. if you’re really squeamish about writing cop characters, make your protagonist a private investigator, or amateur sleuth, or a group of rambunctious teenagers who solves mysteries. it’s your story and your ultimate creative vision. So have fun writing it.

Midnight at Bat Hollow drops June 10 from Shadow Spark Publishing. Pre-orders go live May 10. 

One thought on “Writing the Po-Po: Creating Cop Characters in 2023

  1. Fascinating post, Eric. Makes me want to explore the resources you mentioned, and write a police character myself. Most certainly it makes me want to read your Reece. Congratulations on the upcoming book!

    Liked by 1 person

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