Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Does Crime Fiction Help Criminals?

John McFetridge

Two things brought this to mind this week; first, I’m working on the pilot script for a possible new TV show about drug cops so the producer set up meetings with some drug cops, and secondly I read the book, A New Kind of Monster: the Secret Life and Chilling Crimes of Colonel Russell Williams and in both cases there seems to be the desire to keep some police procedure secret.

When meeting with the drug cops they were very open about a lot of their methods, a lot of the ways they use confidential informants, undercover operations, surveillance and various forms of wiretapping but once in a while something would come up – or really, start to come up – and one of the cops would say, “We’d prefer that didn’t go in the show.”

The explanation was usually that nothing they do is really secret, eventually it all comes out in court, but if some of the things they do haven’t been used in court yet they’d like to keep it quiet.

I guess we can have all kinds of discussions about a potential police state, the cops being agents of the government and the requirement that they be transparent in their activities and all that, but we do want them to catch the bad guys and we’re mature enough to understand that requires some leeway.

Especially when it comes to catching the really bad guys like Russell Williams.

The story generated a huge amount of press in Canada. Russell Williams was convicted of over 80 break and enters in which he stole women’s underwear and then, as any reader of crime fiction would expect, he started breaking in when women were home, then brutally assaulted two women and then brutally assaulted and killed two women. It was likely only the beginning of what would have turned into many, many more murders had he not been caught.

The crimes took place in two locations – a suburb of Ottawa where Williams lived with his wife and in the small towns close to the air force base he commanded.

The book, as the title would suggest, tells the story of Williams’ life in some pretty good detail. From childhood, through high school, university and his career in the air force. Lots of personal and career details are laid out.

But when it comes to how he was actually identified and caught the book – like the official story – is oddly short on detail.

A police profiler was consulted about the break-ins and underwear thefts in Ottawa and did say that the perpetrator was likely to escalate into more serious crimes but he's never heard from again in the book. A lot of the break-ins in the smaller town went unreported. The two assaults were reported, of course, but they were in different jurisdictions and not initially linked to each other or the murders.

Then a woman was murdered in her home in a small town near the air force base where she was stationed as a corporal and where Williams was the Colonel in charge. There were no suspects and no leads – at least none that were publicized. In fact, a couple of months later there was a newspaper article that said the police expected the investigation to be lengthy.

And then a young woman in another nearby jurisdiction went missing. From the very beginning, as the expression goes, foul play was suspected. The young woman lived on a rural road and her car, purse, phone and all her personal possessions were still in the house. The whole region went into action searching the nearby woods, putting up posters, starting Facebook pages and doing everything they could.

One lead the police had was an SUV seen about 150 yards from the young woman’s house the night she disappeared. It’s not entirely unusual for a vehicle to be parked on a rural road, but it’s unusual enough at night that people noticed it (one person who noticed it was a police officer). No one took down a licence plate number or could identify what make or model the vehicle was.

Three days later the police set up a roadblock on the rural road stopping and asking people if they saw anything suspicious the night the young woman disappeared. The police at the roadblock were also secretly measuring the wheelbase of any SUVs that stopped and they were looking for a particular tire tread.

Williams was one of the first stopped at the roadblock (which was set up only a few minutes after he left his office thirty miles away and started to drive to his house on the same rural road). According to the book the police officer who spoke to Williams knew him and knew he was the colonel in charge of Canada’s largest air force base (the jumping off point for our troops heading to Afghanistan). The wheelbase of William’ vehicle did not match the size they were looking for but a younger cop (almost every person in the book is named and even given some background information, even the cop who stopped Williams is named, but this younger cop isn’t) said that he thought the front left tire had the same track they were looking for and radioed in a request for surveillance on Williams.

Three days later, a Sunday, Williams was back at his home in Ottawa and the police phoned him and asked him to come in for a quick chat, saying they were just clearing up some final details from their roadblocks and wanted to eliminate the non-suspects. Williams agreed to go to the police station and an hour later showed up ready to talk.

What followed was a six hour interview conducted by a detective who, among his other specialized training, spent time at the FBI criminal profiling center in Quantico (the first press reports said that this detective, hundreds of miles from where he is based, just happened to be in the police station in Ottawa that Sunday). The interrogation has been called “masterful,” and “textbook,” and many cops feel it will be used in training for years to come.

And the book points out that the cop who handled the interview was one member of a much larger team. Search warrants for Williams’ two homes, two vehicles and office at the air force base had been prepared and as the interview progressed, the interrogator getting more and more information out of Williams and even getting him to offer fingerprints, DNA samples, and an imprint of his boots, the search warrants were executed. On his home computer were hundreds of files with thousands of photos from the break-ins, detailed descriptions and even videos of Williams committing the two murders.

Because of the huge amount of evidence and the confession obtained during the interrogation Williams did not go to trial and pleaded guilty to 88 charges including two counts of first degree murder. There was all the talk of saving the victims’ families the grief of a trial and saving the expense and even of saving Williams’ wife further torment.

But also, I think, the guilty plea allowed the police to keep a few more secrets.

I don’t think there’s a crime writer in the world who could write the scene in which, based on the fact that a young police officer “thought” one of the tire treads looked like one that matched a vehicle that may have been close to the home where a woman had been abducted, he could overrule an older, more experienced, higher ranking officer at the scene and set into action a huge team of police officers that would in three days have completed a detailed background profile on the suspect, connected and collected details from the previous two assaults and the previous murder (all information used by the interrogator), prepared search warrants, matched physical evidence and arrested one of the top military men in the country who had been above suspicion – and who had never in his life ever been under any kind of suspicion. The book goes to great lengths to detail just what a boring guy Williams was, how through all the military scrutiny on him before each and every promotion there was never anything to make anyone suspicious.

So how did the meeting go where someone said, “A rookie thinks one of this guy’s tires might be a match, let’s go all out on him,” and no one said, “He’s the highest ranking military officer in the province, he’s been decorated numerous times, he’s never done anything suspicious in his life, sure, get the top interrogator we have and bring in sixty cops working overtime on a Sunday.”

And no one said, “If we’re wrong that’ll be it for all our careers.”

On the second to last page of the book it says that Ontario Provincial Police at first announced that when the thirty day appeal period had passed they would be willing to entertain questions about their investigation, “But then, when the thirty days elapsed, orders came from newly minted commissioner Chris Lewis... out of deference to the victims and their families, it had been resolved there would be no more discussion of the Russell Williams case by the police.” The author then lists a few questions that will never be answered, among them, “... whether Williams was ever under police scrutiny before he was questioned at the roadblock that night (from the outset, the OPP was adamant he was not, but doubts persisted).”

But like those drug cops we’re talking to about the TV show, these cops seem to have some secrets, some things they don’t want disclosed. Maybe it’s because they feel they made some mistakes and additional crimes were committed that could have been prevented (most cops I’ve met feel guilty about not catching every single criminal even though it’s not humanly possible).

More likely I think it’s because the cops know that the criminals have learned an awful lot of the techniques and methods used through true crime books and crime fiction. It’s a tough balancing act sometimes between blind faith in authority and giving them the tools to do their jobs. There’s a huge and growing conspiracy theory industry questioning everything that’s ever happened. No official story is ever accepted at face value these days.

So, what do you think? Should the police have some secrets?


Steve Weddle said...

Not just crime blotter stuff, but terrorism, too.
Remember all the kerfluffle when reporters started writing stories about how the Feds were tracking the terrorists and folks went crazy saying the reporters were tipping off the baddies?

I've covered many court cases in which the big clue was something dumb like this tire thing. The sort of thing that would never work in fiction because no one would believe it.

How often does a cop claim probable cause based on the fact that the dude he stopped was 'acting weird.' Does the cop not want to reveal his secrets? Are these secrets embarrassing, illegal or just simply 'trade secrets'?

Very cool post, sir.

Benjamin Sobieck said...

In another life, I was a crime reporter. I never worried much about inspiring more crime, because I figured the only people reading the newspaper needed help putting their shoes on and digesting food.

You know what does, though? Prisons. May as well rename them "crime idea factories."

Al Tucher said...

This also reminds me of the prostitute murders currently under investigation on Long Island. One hypothesis attributes law enforcement experience to the killer, but other observers have said, what the hell. Maybe he just reads the newspapers.

John McFetridge said...

Well, Steve, by not having a trial we'll never know how important the tire thing was. I was just trying to picture the scene where that huge team of cops was assembled to go after a senior military guy with a perfect record and I couldn't imagine the dialogue. Of course, maybe that's my problem as a writer.

And Benjamin, the complaint in Canada is that we never put guys in jail long enough, so maybe that's a good thing, less time for them to learn.

Al, yeah, maybe he just reads the papers or watches CSI and Dexter.

No wonder the cops guard the few secrets they have so tightly.

Dana King said...

I don't mind cops keeping investigative techniques to themselves: interrogation techniques, crime scene evidence collection, cross-referencing evidence, stuff like that. What worries me is how they get some of that evidence. Were they holding back a investigator's trick, or covering up a database that holds data of potentially illegal origin?

I hate typing that; I know it sounds paranoid. On the other hand, ever since the Patriot Act was passed and became generally accepted, confidentiality and privacy are based on muddy foundations, at least in the States.

John Kenyon said...

Fascinating post. I suppose I see the point of law enforcement, but I also can't imagine that most criminals are spending time reading crime fiction or watching cop shows to glean tactics and tips for becoming more successful. These aren't managers-in-training reading "Good to Great" looking for a leg up on the competition.

Diana said...

At the end of one of Tom Clancy's books published in the late 1990s, the antagonist of the story flew a 747 into the capitol building killing the US president, vice-president, and almost all of the members of the cabinet and congress. After 9/11, members of the intelligence community said that they had never considered that an airplane could be used to take out a building. I wondered at the time if no one in the US intelligence community had ever read a book.

Convicted felons do read while they are in prison. It's about the only thing that they can do while they are incarcerated. That and talk to each other and compare notes.

And really, they don't all have to be readers in order to get that information from a book. It could be read by a friend or family member and the information passed on. "Dude, this is how they figured out it was you."

Charlieopera said...

I'm with Benjamin on this; prisons are the ultimate career criminal schools.

The Williams thing was on Dateline (or something like it not long ago but I remember when you first posted the interviews, John). Fascinating stuff.

On another note, the Bills fired they're head scout over the draft. Head scout? Ralph Wilson keeps his job (if he had any brains he'd fire himself). Talk about crime. Geesh.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Amazing I can live a few hours away and never hear the name Russell Williams. Why don't we cover Canadian news more fully?