David Simonize me
March 17, 2007 12:26 PM   Subscribe

What can I do to learn more about crime (without becoming a criminal)?

I write crime fiction, and am looking to seriously expand my knowledge base of cops and robbers and all that good stuff. I'm not looking for any book suggestions (I have shelves of them). Instead, I'm looking for either a part-time job or classes to take. The obvious job for me would be a reporter on the police beat, so suggestions relating to that are welcome, but I'm looking for other ideas as well. (I don't have a lot of non-writing job experience). As far as classes, I'm not as interested in theories of criminology as I am in forensics, interrogation techniques or other hands-on training.

The more concrete the suggestions, the better. I live in NYC.
posted by Bookhouse to Society & Culture (16 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

Here's your job.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:41 PM on March 17, 2007

Best answer: This is probably a helpful resource: the Criminal Justice System Handbook for New York.

My town does an introduction to the Criminal Justice System. Maybe New York does something similar?

Take part in the Civilian Observer Ridealong Program.
posted by MsMolly at 12:42 PM on March 17, 2007

This crime scene class looks promising . . . It's in Massachusetts, but perhaps you have a similar program in your community.
posted by Sassyfras at 12:42 PM on March 17, 2007

When I was younger I picked up a lot of information (whether it was accurate or not...) from street-level marijuana dealers. These were typically formerly homeless kids who worked for an intermediate. They'd be on the streets asking people if they wanted to buy, then run your cash up (the better ones would front) to some apartment and come back with a baggie. Many work in pairs - usually a girl and their boy; the girl would typically stay with the buyer and the boy would do the running.

Perhaps find a talkative one, build up a relationship, and smoke some dope with them?

Are there halfway houses in your area? It's possible that some convicts that have recently or are presently going to be released are lonely and might not mind sharing tall tales with a writer.
posted by porpoise at 2:03 PM on March 17, 2007

I went to the free Citizens Police Academy in my city. It was ten three hour classes taught by the same teachers who teach the police department trainees. It was worthwhile. We got a ride on the auto test track. We got to shoot pistols in the range and fire tasers. They explained their up to date criminal profiling criteria. We did a citizen ride-along for an eight hour shift. And they taught us a bunch about all kind of crime. There were two crime writers in the class.

Maybe the public relations department of your police department does something similar.
posted by bukvich at 2:09 PM on March 17, 2007

The most I learned about crime is when I interviewed a stool.
The guy had been talking to the police for a year. He wanted to make a buck before disappearing in a new place under a new identity. So I was hired by a publisher to interview him and write a book of his "confessions".
He was heavily protected: always surrounded by 6 or 7 armed plaincloth cops, except at the police headquarters where I interviewed him, where there were more armed cops.
The guy had been a criminal all his life and was nearing 40 at the time. He had been into bank robbing, loan sharking, cocaine trafficking.
He couldn't read and barely write. But he had a fantastic memory, which was very useful when he was loan sharking and now when he was telling everything to the cops and and a little to me.
It was 25 years ago. I saw him 3 times 3 hours (9 hours of tape), plus a lunch in restaurant along with 7 cops.

Now and then the topic comes up and people think this is a very cop-and-robber style story. It isn't.

It's a sordid tale. He had been in and out of prison since his teens. He wasn't into assassination himself but had seen people killed around him. He had bargained with the police because this time he was risking a minimum of 9 years and his own brother and friends, rather than protecting his turf while he was in prison, took away his business and contacts without giving any cut to him or his wife and kid.

He wasn't complaining: it was his life. But, when simply put on paper, it's only a sad and fucked up tale. It stripped away any glamour that may have clinged to my ideas about criminals.

It shouldn't be too difficult for you to find a few criminals and to interview them. I can guarantee that it's an interesting experience.
posted by bru at 4:04 PM on March 17, 2007

In the UK there is an organisation called Victim Support which relies on volunteers to provide emotional support to victims. Volunteering there has given various people I know a good insight into "volume" crime - ie the bread and butter end of the criminal justice system (theft, the lower end of assault, etc, plus the sheer tedium and bureaucracy of how the courts system can sometimes work). I've no idea whether there is an equivalent in the US, but as a general point getting involved in charities that work in criminal justice, whether on the victim or offender side, may give you an inside insight without actually becoming a defence barrister, or a police officer, or a prosecutor, or whatever.
posted by greycap at 4:23 PM on March 17, 2007

I'm not sure if it'd help with the "gritty details" you'd want as a writer, but a lot of universities have "criminal psychology" courses. A friend of mine is training to be an anthropologist, and took several courses treating this general topic. The one she talked about the most was "Pychology of Deviance." I'll ask her about the texts she used and report back here.
posted by Alterscape at 5:15 PM on March 17, 2007

Best answer: Have you looked into courses at John Jay College of Criminal Justice? It's part of CUNY.
posted by rtha at 5:38 PM on March 17, 2007

Oh - and I've noticed that crime fiction writers often thank police officers in the front of their books; have you considered getting in the good graces of your local precinct?
posted by rtha at 5:40 PM on March 17, 2007

Best answer: If you want a window into the quotidian offending that makes up the bulk of the criminal justice case-load, get yourself along to court for a few weeks. Spend the bulk of your time listening to plea hearings: you'll get both sides of the 'story' in a short space of time. Contested hearings and criminal trials provide a different window into the controversy that surrounds criminal cases, but they often get bogged down in levels of detail that are of little interest to anyone outside the case itself.

At the heart of every crime, and every court-case that results from one is the same question: why do people do the things they do? Even the most mundane case often has a fascinating story at its heart.

If you do this for a few weeks, you'll begin to recognise the court reporters. Befriend them and they will be able to point you to the more interesting cases, or more interesting legal practitioners. Lawyers are for the most part far more likely to tell you war stories about their greatness than they are to give you any insight into the process.

Other people who would be useful to talk to would be the support workers who make up the infrastructure in actually running a justice/penal system. Parole officers, drug and alcohol counsellors, Salvation Army chaplains etc. There are a million stories out there in the big city, and these people can tell you quite a few of them.
posted by tim_in_oz at 7:19 PM on March 17, 2007

Response by poster: I actually live down the block from the Brooklyn courthouses ... how do you find your way around one?

Thanks for everything, eveybody.
posted by Bookhouse at 8:29 PM on March 17, 2007

Ask at the counter. Here in Australia, you would ask to be shown to the 'mention court', but your system may well be different. As a starting point, ask the counter clerk to show you to the busiest criminal court in the building - it will invariably be the court in which most of the plea hearings for minor matters will be heard. Don't wear a suit unless you feel like being pestered for legal advice. A shirt and tie without a jacket should set you apart from both the lawyers and their clients. Turn your cell phone off, stand when other people stand, and sit up the back.
posted by tim_in_oz at 8:41 PM on March 17, 2007

Best answer: This is how New York City/County Court is set up (based on my experience with the Manhattan courts, but I am pretty sure Brooklyn will be similar):

Arraignments - this is where people show up within 48 hours of being arrested. The prosecutor will say what they are charged with. Then the prosecution and defense will argue why the defendant should either be kept in jail until bail is posted (and how much that bail will be), or if they should be released with no bail. Every case, misdemeanor or felony, goes through the arraignment courtroom. You'll get to hear the "story" of each case and each defendant who passes through, on a wide variety of cases, about 2 minutes per case. These are open to the public.

Grand Jury - felony cases must be indicted by a grand jury. These hearings are not open to the public.

General Parts - this is where misdemeanor cases go after arraignments but before trial. Mostly the lawyers and defendant show up to set schedules and consider plea offers. I think felony cases are not assigned to general parts, but are assigned to a specific courtroom. These are open to the public.

Trial Parts - this is where the <1 0% of misdemeanor cases which haven't plead out eventually end up. trials are, of course, what you expect from tv, although probably less dramatic. trials can last from an hour a misdemeanor case to two weeks or more for a homicide. these are open to the public unless there is a specific reason the court has closed the proceedings (usually because it involves a defendant under age 18). br>
So, just show up in court a pick a room. I'd suggest starting with Arraignments. If you read about a case in the paper you'd like to follow, you can ask the Clerk's office when the next date is and what courtroom it's in, or look on the Docket (that day's schedule) posted in the lobby to see if there's any trials going on.
posted by falconred at 10:29 PM on March 17, 2007

Followup to my earlier answer: my criminologist friend was reading Theoretical Criminology, by Vold, Bernard and Snipes, 5th edition, and Deviant Behaviour by Erich Goode, 7th Edition.

I have not read these texts myself, but it's apparently what the ivory-tower set is using to ponder the criminal mind. I guarantee you they will be dry, but might provide an interesting coda to your court-observation experiences. Not sure what kind of library you'd find them in, but, maybe worth a shot?
posted by Alterscape at 9:10 AM on March 18, 2007

Do some ridealongs, with cops, if you can, or elsewhere. I do child protective services, and have had reporters do ridealongs with us...it's very useful, I think. What I have learned in my job (and we are spending lots of times with the same folks cops spend time with) is that the reality of this life is so much more sordid than it is portrayed in the movies. It's not James Bond, SPECTRE, persian cat crime lords...the majority of criminals are folks with no money, houses that smell, mattresses on the floor, food rotting on the counters, cats and dogs shitting on the floor and no one picks it up, a transmission disassembled in the bathtub, toilet that doesn't flush, baby with ten pound diaper hanging off her butt, same guy having kids with lots of different women in the community, blah blah blah. There is a smell that is unforgettable in most these houses-of sour milk and sweat and shit and old cigarette smoke. The houses are almost dark and closed up, with something hanging over the windows...There are often photographs of the kids, badly framed and hung, all over the walls. There is usually a nice TV and folks, especially those dealing, always have great cel phones :)

I'd say get to court, watch a bunch of low level cases (which are nothing like court in the movies) and then see if your local cops or social workers will let you ride along.
posted by purenitrous at 10:31 AM on March 18, 2007

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