Q&A with Dr. George Kirkham, the "doc cop"
ONLINE COLUMN: Web Savvy
Published: September 1, 2009
Where does a budding crime writer find information that lends credibility on police procedure and protocol? You can start with top crime expert Dr. George Kirkham. Kay B. Day
Popularly known as "the doc cop," Kirkham is one of the most respected criminologists in the world. Professor Kirkham taught at Florida State University, and after two years, decided to become a police officer too. As the first "doc cop," Kirkham worked in high crime areas. He served as a police officer and professor for 18 years. His many professional honors as a criminologist include The Distinguished Service Award, The Freedom's Foundation at Valley Forge Award and the J. Edgar Hoover Award. Dr. Kirkham has served as a consultant to over 50 American law enforcement agencies at the federal, state and local levels. He has been called upon more often than any other criminologist in the nation to serve as a case consultant and expert witness in civil and criminal actions involving police, jail and private security issues. His experience as a consultant to both plaintiffs and defendants throughout his professional career encompasses more than 1,500 cases in all 50 states.
|Dr. Kirkham's new book, Ivory Tower Cop, written with co-author Dr. Leonard Territo, was released in August. The doc cop agreed to answer questions by e-mail after we talked on the phone.|
Q: What motivated you to become a police officer after earning a doctorate in criminology, and what was the single most important thing you learned once you served as a police officer?
A: As a graduate student at UC Berkeley during the sixties, I sometimes walked to class past rows of cops in riot gear, my eyes still smarting from the residue of tear gas following a campus demonstration. I didn't like cops. Years later, as a liberal young assistant professor of criminology I was challenged by some of my police officer students to come down from the proverbial "ivory tower" and walk in their shoes—as a beat cop in a high crime inner city area for six months. The "up close and personal" experience that followed was a real epiphany that opened my eyes to both the horror of violent crime and my own weaknesses as a person in the face of it (e.g., chronic fear, anxiety, feeling overwhelmed by line of duty events like homicide and rape that jolted me again and again). Dr. George Kirkham
Q: For a writer interested in doing true or fictional crime, how would you suggest going about authenticity? Are there good online resources a writer might use?
A: Whatever your subject, there's no substitute for getting as close to it as possible. As a criminologist, I've always believed in the value of "participant-observation" when it comes to studying crime and criminals. Even before I donned a police uniform, that perspective led me to work as a counselor in a major state prison (where I survived a riot in my cell block and my supervisor was stabbed to death in his office not long after I left). I was also a juvenile probation counselor and spent two years at a county jail studying jail inmates on work release. The Internet is a cornucopia of valuable information on virtually every aspect of crime (whether true crime or fictional accounts of it). No subject is too technical or beyond the reach of your keyboard: for instance, I'm now consulting on a case involving the brutal murder of a female real estate agent. As a criminologist, I had no idea of the magnitude of the problem until I began researching it online.
Q: How do you plan to use the Web to connect with readers of your new novel? Will you use social networking like Facebook and Twitter?
A: One of the wonders of the Web is that it affords writers and readers an opportunity to connect and interact. I will have a "Contact Author" section in my Web site (www.ivorytowercop.com—which my Web designer tells me should be up and running by mid-September). As I work on the sequel to Ivory Tower Cop (entitled The Paper Man), I hope to have considerable feedback from the readers of my first book (e.g., was it a "page-turner" for them? What did they like most and least about it? Did they come away with a better understanding of forensic investigation and the work of sexual battery detectives? How did the relationship between Dr. David Roth and his female partner work for them? etc.). Since we write for readers, it's important to know what they think! I plan to use every available Web tool (e.g., Facebook, Twitter).
Q: Tell us a little about your new book Ivory Tower Cop and what motivated you to write it.
|A: Ivory Tower Cop involves conflating two true stories: my six months as an inner city cop in a major metropolitan area and actual police efforts to capture a dangerous serial rapist who preyed exclusively on successful professional women. The idea of blending the two stories (and relocating the drama to Miami) was the brainchild of my co-author Dr. Leonard Territo, a veteran rape and homicide detective who was a key advisor on the Ted Bundy murders and is co-author of the nation's most widely used criminal investigation text. The story answers the question: what would it be like to be suddenly handed a gun and badge and thrust into the role of a cop with very little training and zero experience (which is essentially what happened to me)? |
Q: Do you find a lot of misinformation in crime novels and in serial crime shows on TV? Can you give us a couple of examples?
A: Dr. Territo and I often say that if you turn the stereotypical TV or movie cop upside down, you have police reality: e.g., TV cops use their guns often (the average cop never fires a gun in the line of duty) and always shoot with deadly accuracy (real cops average only 3 hits out of every ten shots fired in combat situations). 'Dirty Harry' would never wait for back-up on a dangerous call or use cover and concealment in lieu of charging with gun blazing into harm's way. And on and on. Popular police authors—who are almost invariably lay people with no police background—make (and get away with) numerous police technical errors in their writing (e.g., "I flipped the safety off my .357 magnum"—that's a revolver, a weapon that doesn't have a safety). As criminologists and ex-cops, we're obviously not expected to commit such gaffes.
Q: Who's your favorite crime writer and why?
A: That's an easy question to answer: Joseph Wambaugh. He was a full-time LAPD detective sergeant while taking creative writing classes at night, raising a family and managing to write a first great novel in his spare time (The New Centurions). Knowing the amount of time and concentration writing a novel takes, I have no idea how he managed to do it! Yet he did and his writing has gotten even better with each of the many books he's authored. He was kind enough to review my autobiography Signal Zero some years ago.
Q: What's the most significant change in law enforcement as a result of the Internet and other technology?
A: There have been so many important changes produced by the Internet and modern computer technology. I would say that providing an instantaneous link between the 750,000 men and women in some 40,000 local, state and federal agencies who make up the American police community is by far the greatest single accomplishment. Every conceivable type of information can be instantly shared (e.g., from stolen vehicles and wanted felons to missing children). In my own work, I have seen how the in-car video camera tapes increasingly used in patrol vehicles safeguard the rights of both officers and citizens by removing all doubt as to what was said and done during an encounter.
Dr. George Kirkham's Web site:
Joseph Wambaugh's Web site
--Published Sept. 1, 2009
Join us next time as we look at bloggers' rights and how anonymous postings and an FTC ruling could change the way some writers do business.
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|Kay B. Day|
Florida journalist Kay B. Day has won awards for poetry, nonfiction and fiction. The author of two books, she has written for The Christian Science Monitor, United Press International, The Florida Times-Union and Sky News. To read Kay's other Web Savvy columns about writing for the Web, click here.