Sunday, February 03, 2008

Lee Lofland on Challenging Poe, Spotting Bad Apples and Securing the Scene

Lee, you are a retired law enforcement official. You were a sheriff’s deputy, a patrol officer, and a detective. What made you choose to be a cop?
I discovered the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine at an early age and those wonderful stories sparked my interest in solving crimes. So, my interest in law enforcement and the world of sleuthing evolved when I was a child. My ultimate goal was to be a police detective. The desire to work in law enforcement was also paired with the longing to be a writer. I was a huge fan of Poe, Dickens, and my relative, Dr. John Lofland, the first Poet Laureate of Delaware, who was a great friend of Edgar Allan Poe.

Your website details some of the cases you solved. When you came upon the scene of a murder, what’s the very first thing you would do? I often hear people say it’s to “secure the area,” but what does that entail?
You’re right. It’s the duty of the first officer who arrives on the scene of any crime to secure the area—keeping people outside and all potential evidence inside. Evidence contamination can ruin even the best of cases.

Sealing the scene can be something as simple as closing a bedroom door, not allowing anyone inside, or, it can be as elaborate as cordoning off an entire city block with crime scene tape, uniformed and plainclothes officers, vehicles, and barricades. Whatever it takes.

Normally, patrol officers are the first officers on any scene since they’re the officers who receive and answer the radio calls. Once they’ve assessed the situation they’ll call in whatever manpower and experts (detectives, medical examiner, DA, etc.) that are needed.

There must be some aspects of trying to solve a case that you had to learn from experience. Can you share one or two?
I don’t think anyone starts out as a great investigator. It takes years of learning, watching, and hands-on practice to perfect the craft. Even then, not everyone is cut out for the job. It takes a special person with a sort of built-in radar for understanding the criminal mind and his behaviors. That’s why most detectives have worked as uniformed police officers for several years before making the transition to investigator. In fact, most departments require officers to serve several years as patrol officers before they’re eligible to become detectives.

Solving a crime is a lot like solving a jigsaw puzzle in reverse. You start with a completed picture, working backwards, removing the pieces one-by-one until the last section in your hand reveals the killer’s name. It takes an experienced investigator to sort through all the puzzle pieces, deciding their importance or relevance.

An experienced, well-trained detective is persistent. He knows the solution to the crime is always present. He keeps the rule--whenever someone enters a crime scene he leaves evidence behind; when he departs, he takes evidence away--in the back of his mind. This is true, without fail. The evidence taken, or left, by a perpetrator may be something microscopic, but they’re no exceptions to this rule. If a crime goes unsolved we can only draw one conclusion. There’s no such thing as a perfect crime, only flawed investigations.

An experienced investigator must be a good actor. She must be able to walk-the-walk and talk-the-talk of every single culture in the world of criminals. If she’s investigating the president of a corporation she must be able to fit into the business world. If she’s investigating an ordinary street-drug dealer, then she’s got to be able to sit on the curb and talk crank craters, rooster, and rocks with the best of them. If you don’t know what that meant, you need more experience.

A skilled detective must be an excellent liar. He’s got to have the ability to sweet-talk a confession out the most hardened, streetwise criminals around. He must have the ability to out lie the best of liars.

There are many more, but I think you see my point. These attributes are not ones that most people have imprinted in their DNA. Generally, these should be learned experiences for police officers. If not, they, too, would make good crooks and it’s often been said there’s a fine line between the two.

That's interesting. You taught at a police academy. Were you able to tell if a young person was a good candidate—and if he or she was a bad one?
Normally, yes. Most departments have thoroughly screened the recruits, physically, morally, academically, and psychologically before they ever make it to the police academy. Academy training is very intense. It’s a grueling experience and the bad candidates quickly begin to stand out from the others. Still, bad apples fall through the cracks, but it doesn’t take long to find them once they get out on the street. It’s not always the cream that rises to the top.

Your website says you have a direct connection to Edgar Allan Poe. What is the connection?
I was recently asked this very question during another interview. I’ll repeat my answer here.

My late relative, Dr. John Lofland, was the first official Poet Laureate for the State of Delaware, my home state. He authored the poems in the book The Poetical and Prose Writings of Dr. John Lofland, the Milford Bard. The book, The Life and Times of Dr. John Lofland, the Milford Bard, is a detailed account of my relative’s life. Of course, he wrote other poems and books, and, yes, he and Poe were great friends. Buddies.

In fact, in 1830 Dr. John Lofland accepted a challenge from Edgar Allan Poe at the Stars and Stripes Tavern on Water St. in Baltimore, Maryland. The challenge was to see which of the two could write the greater number of verses. Poe lost to Lofland in the marathon contest and was obligated to pay for dinner and drinks for his good friend. I like to think this as proof a Lofland received the first ever Edgar Award, dinner and drinks from Poe himself.

Wow. That is a priceless connection. You once shared a funny story about your grandson with me, saying that he mentioned to his mother that he had a “prostitute teacher” at school that day. :)

Did becoming a grandfather change your perception of fighting crime? That is, did it give you a feeling that you had to keep the world safe for these little ones?

My grandson didn’t come along until well after I’d retired, but I raised my daughter during my career in law enforcement. For many of those years I was a single parent. It was tough, but we survived without any serious damage to either of us.

What made you write your book, Police Procedure and Investigation? Is it used as a manual by some police departments?

I don’t know about its use as a manual for law enforcement, but I know the book is on a great number of shelves in police departments across the country. I’m contacted all the time by police officers who have questions or comments. Some of the greatest compliments I’ve received have come from people in law enforcement. However, the best accolade I’ve received to date was from a woman who told me one of my real-life stories in the book actually made her cry. That’s not a bad compliment considering the book is a reference book.

I’ve been extremely pleased to learn that the book can be found in many academic libraries from coast to coast. Not only is it in major universities and law schools, but it’s being used as a study guide in some high school classes. In fact, I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to several high school classes about the topics in the book. It’s such an honor for me to share a part of my life and experience with others.

You also wrote a novel called The Trapper. Had you always wanted to write fiction?
Well, this book is no longer titled the Trapper. It’s a work-in-progress and it’s in the final stages of the final rewrite . . . finally.

Yes, fiction is what I want to write, but I keep getting interrupted to write nonfiction. I guess that’s a good problem to have.

As long as you're writing, right? You seem to have a very full schedule. Are you one of those people who retired and found himself twice as busy?
I’m very busy, but I’m having fun. Besides, it’s a lot safer writing about this stuff than living it.

True. You’ve started a new blog. What’s it about?

I’m really excited about my new blog, The Graveyard Shift. I receive hundreds of emails each day from writers seeking answers to their police procedure, CSI, and forensics questions. Over time, I started seeing several of the same questions popping up time-and-time again so I thought it would be great if I had a common forum to share my responses. It’s also a great place for some of the many other experts out there to share their knowledge and views and I welcome their comments. Police work and laws vary so much from one area to another so it’s great to talk about those differences.

Soon, I plan to have guest bloggers who are experts in their field, such as forensic anthropologists, weapons experts, and forensics and high-tech crimes. I’m fortunate to have so many friends in so many different areas of law enforcement. People who visit the blog will have access to a plethora of experts. I’ve already lined up a stellar group of professionals who’ll be sharing some pretty interesting information.

Another thing that’s unique about The Graveyard Shift is the photos I’m using. They’re all current and, they’re real-life pictures taken by me or friends of mine in the law-enforcement community. I have a stockpile of photos from sheriff’s offices, police departments, morgues, autopsies, prisons, jails, undercover operations, weapons…well, you name and I think I’ve got a picture of it somewhere. If not, I can probably get one within a matter of minutes.

Some of the images I have are from police supply companies, such as Sirchie Fingerprint Laboratories. Sirchie is one of the leading supply companies for police evidence gathering and testing equipment in the world. I’m fortunate to have such a great contact. They also supplied some of the photographs and technical information for my book.

I’d love to hear everyone’s questions, comments, ideas, and suggestions for blog topics. Please stop by.

You recently posted a “ten commandments” of how NOT to represent police in fiction, simply because these trends aren’t realistic. Does it surprise you how often people assume some of the TV stereotypes are true—or that there are TV stereotypes?
I see this all the time in books. Writers use television as a source for their research and that’s simply not a good idea. There are too many TV falsehoods about police, CSI, and forensics to list in this interview. My advice to writers is to contact their local police, courts, fire departments, EMS attorneys, etc. to get information about their local laws and policies. Of course, they can always contact me and I’ll point them in the right direction.

What are you reading now?
My reading interests vary. I normally read two or three books at once, both fiction and nonfiction. I just finished a book called Flashback by Gary Braver. It’s an excellent book and I highly recommend it. I’m also reading Ken Bruen’s American Skin, and The Beautiful Cigar Girl by Daniel Stashower.

Are you writing another book?

In addition to the novel I spoke about earlier I’m co-writing a kid’s book called Everything Kids: I Want To Be A Police Officer. My good friend, Becky Levine, and I thought this would be a fun book to write as a team. The book is scheduled for release in early 2009.

I have also begun a new fiction project that I’m very excited about—more than any other. I’ve already started mapping out the plot and the characters have already decided their parts. They’re anxiously waiting in the wings, ready for me to say the word “action.”

How’s 2008 been for you so far?
Aside from the fact I live in Boston and hate snow and cold weather, not bad. My wife, Dr. Denene Lofland, and I moved here last winter for her job. Now, we’re counting the days until we head back west where we belong.

Thanks for chatting, Lee!
Thanks for having me, Julia. It’s been a pleasure.


Dani said...

Great interview. I'm hopping straight over to the blog! My brother the vice detective might really like it, too.

Julia Buckley said...

A vice detective! Very cool. So what's the most common vice?

Anonymous said...

Mr. Lofland, I am also a Lofland, and have just found a lot of us by googling our last name. I will have to get your books, and am interested in your grandfather. I would like to contact as many Loflands as I can to see if their is any family connection. Good luck with your books. Kathryn Lofland Lewis

Anonymous said...

Kathryn - Feel free to email me at

Anonymous said...

Good job! :)