TECHNICALLY SPEAKING
WHERE TO LOOK

For a basic primer on what it is to be a law enforcement officer, check out Spartan Cops, a clean, simple site offering articles and videos such as “What is the Best Martial Art for Police Officers?” and “Tactical Handcuffing Made Simple.”

Once you’ve learned to handcuff your writing partner to his desk just right, move on to PoliceOne.com, one of the most popular police resources on the Web. Here you’ll find news, gear guides, chats, forums, and a huge link list.

RealPolice and Officer.com offer similar resources that are slightly less comprehensive, but also slightly less overwhelming.

And, of course, there are hundreds of police bloggers musing over every possible aspect of life with a badge. It’s worth noting that the political views of the typical law enforcement officer differ somewhat from those of the typical Hollywood screenwriter, so if your persuasion hangs slightly to the left, put away your ACLU card, take a deep breath and be prepared. I personally like the Mr. Police Man blog, even if he thinks Michael Jackson was a “slime ball.”

Writing on the Beat
Written by Denis Faye

After 28 years with the Los Angeles Police Department, 16 spent on the SWAT team, you’d think retired officer Randy Walker had seen it all. However, despite advising on just about every aspect of police work for dozens of films and television shows, including Speed, Se7en, L.A. Confidential and SWAT, he’s the first to admit gaps in his knowledge.

“You have to be honest with the filmmakers you’re working with. There’s no one cop on the planet who has done it all,” says Walker, who created his police technical advising company, Call The Cops, to solve just this problem. “There’s no way you can be a veteran in homicide, worked the SWAT team for 10 years, worked vice and done all this other stuff. It’s just impossible, so what I always tell filmmakers is, ‘You’re going to have questions that I just don’t have the immediate answer for. But what I will do is find out.’”

Even though Walker is in the process of winding down his advising career, he was still happy to chat with Technically Speaking about life on the beat. And why wouldn’t he? He just finished his first writing assignment, an episode of the TNT police drama Saving Grace, so he’s one of us now.

What does Hollywood get right in television and movies?

Today’s filmmakers tend to get the uniforms and the tactical equipment and the weaponry correct. I think part of the reason is that it’s harder to fool the public about things law enforcement – about the way we dress and handle things – then it was in the 1960s. They’re just so much savvier about law enforcement. People pay a lot more attention to the details then when Broderick Crawford [in Highway Patrol] was taking his revolver out of his waistband and shooting something 200 yards away.

What do they get wrong?

What they get wrong, in my opinion, is the demeanor or the character of the officers. Captains of police, or sergeants or lieutenants or supervisors don’t scream at policemen. In my 28 years, I never had anyone yell at me to do my job properly or that I had done my job improperly.

When I see the big captain come into the room and say, “I want this homicide solved in three days!” I mean, please. Give me a break. And I think the general public is much more aware of how these investigations go. A lot of these shows like 48 Hours have enlightened them that most of these cases don’t get solved in three days.

As a technical advisor, when I started in 1988, I needed to remind myself, as well as the guys I was working with, that they weren’t making a documentary about law enforcement. This is filmed entertainment. We have to know they’re going over the top with it. We have to know that, of the writers, 98 percent of them have never been involved with law enforcement, so they don’t know how we talk, they don’t know how we walk. They can only talk to us to understand how we think.

What I used to tell the filmmakers was that we’d give them a foundation for reality. Especially a spec script writer, we can give you the foundation for reality, and you’re going to take off with that. Whether you want to stay with that or not, that’s entirely up to you.

Do they use a lot of our suggestions? Some movies, most of them. Some movies, few of them.

I see what you mean. To use two examples of movies you’ve done, Point Break and Speed. I love those movies, but no one watches them for realism.

But here’s the point: if the cops look like cops, it becomes a better film. If they walk and talk like cops, it becomes a better film. Graham Yost wrote Speed, and he had Keanu Reeves [cast] as a captain. But when I met with Jan [de Bont, the director] and the other filmmakers, I pointed out that we’re dealing with a very young character here. He’s 25, he’s one of the door kickers. He’s an operator. They’re policemen, not captains, they have two stripes on their shirts. Mr. de Bont, to his credit, said, “Yeah, we need to put two stripes on his shirt. We need to make him one of the guys.” When you watch Speed that comes through. He fits in. He’s just another member of the SWAT team.

But those suggestions you gave Jan de Bont didn’t really affect the plot. Do you ever read a script where there’s something that’s just flat out wrong in regards to representing the police?

I’ve turned down scripts that represented the police badly. I’ve done scripts, too. The last feature I did was called SWAT. For heaven’s sake, former SWAT team guys were two of the criminals in the film. That didn’t make me happy.

Six out of 10 movies depict law enforcement. I always tell filmmakers, how would they feel if every movie they ever watched, the director was a big, fat guy eating donuts?

Granted, we’ve had crooks and morons, but enough’s enough. It’s the same for writers. What if every movie about writers portrayed you as pedophiles? You’d say, “Enough with the pedophiles! A lot of us are really good guys.”

Well, actually, in the movies, writers are usually neurotic idiots – and that’s actually true, so I can’t complain.

Yeah, question aside, I do have to say that 99 percent of the people I’ve worked with in this business have been really respectful and courteous. My relationship with the majority of the directors I’ve worked with has remained really positive, and it was an honor to work on most of those films, even though some of them didn’t have the best depiction of policemen.

What would you like to see in a cop movie, just once?

I’ve been trying to write a book about the LAPD and the SWAT team for years, and I’ve got maybe a foot of research material. The reason I mention that is that the one thing I keep finding in my research is character. That’s really true. I think character is something that the majority of law enforcement officers have. I know that for writers, “character” means something a couple lines below the slug line, but I’m talking about character that is what someone is made out of. The guys I worked with, almost to the person, had great character.

I’d like to find out how many people who have worn an LAPD badge that have been involved in criminal activity. I bet it’s a very, very small percentage.

Yeah, well, I guess people who do their jobs don’t make for high drama.

True. You know, I’ve written a television episode. I understand what it’s like to be a writer and what it’s like to work within the perimeters of your characters. I understand that a lot of characters are rough around the edges, and they do things that are maybe a little different than what I did and what I worked with. And that’s what makes good television, so like I said, we had to remind ourselves that it was filmed entertainment.

What are some of your favorite cop movies?

I think the best police movie ever made was Dirty Harry. Not the sequels like Magnum Force, but the original.

Because Magnum Force had corrupt cops?

I can deal with Magnum Force. I understand the premise. I understand the movie ideology behind it. I got it. I don’t have a problem with it. It made for a great movie. But Magnum Force was one of those movies early on where people said, “Wow, we can make the cops bad guys and it works out really well.”

I’ve talked to some filmmakers over the years about it and a lot of them have the same feeling. Your antagonist and your protagonist have to have the same kind of abilities or your hero’s not going to look like a strong character. If your bad guy is a weakling or easily overcome, how tough does that make your good guy look? So, we want to make our bad guys pretty strong. Well, who better than a guy who wears a gun all the time and is supposed to know how to do all these secretive high-tech things than a cop? We do make good antagonists. I understand that. I just wish, every now and then, we could be the good guys against the bad guys.

But with Dirty Harry, I remember watching it in the movies thinking someone got it right. The reason I like it is that here’s a guy who does his job, he may be kind of a loner, an unusual kind of character in himself, but it’s him against a bad guy. The bad guy’s not a cop, or a CIA agent or some hocus-pocus operative undercover. He’s just a nut and those are the kind of people we deal with all the time. In my 16 years on the SWAT team, I never dealt with a barricaded suspect in a hostage situation who was a crazy FBI agent or some undercover CIA guy. They were always just regular citizens who were desperate. They were under the influence of narcotics; they got caught in the middle of a crime, family issues, passion. Those are the people police officers come into contact with on a daily basis. Dirty Harry, to me, was good guy versus bad guy and he did what he had to do.