Thirty years is a long time to be a police officer but Veronica “Ronni” Blackwood says that she misses being on the street since she retired in 2009. The audience at Centuries & Sleuths listened attentively as the veteran police woman talked about her experience in the Chicago Police Department. She appeared as a guest speaker for Sisters in Crime, an organization for people who read and write about mysteries and crime novels. The audience asked her question after question about police procedures, what it felt like to be a woman on the police force in the Eighties (she didn’t have problems but knows other women who did), whether she still carried a gun (she does), and what she likes to read (historical fiction, especially periods prior to 1300).
Blackwood said that her high school class mates had predicted that she would be in law enforcement but she was a waitress first and volunteered for Court Watchers in the early Seventies, which was an eye-opening experience in how the courts run. She started in law enforcement in the men’s maximum security division at Cook County Jail. One of her jobs was to go through inmate’s mail for contraband. Apparently, the senders were exceptionally clever about what they hid and where they hid it. Blackwood said that she didn’t have problems with the inmates for the most part but she did occasionally have problems with other officers. She said she believes that being at the jail was good training for being a street cop because she truly understood what it meant to incarcerate a person. She thought the experience made her less likely to abuse her authority as a police officer.
She met John Wayne Gacy because she had to escort him to Cook County Hospital a few times while he was in the jail. She said he was creepy, and if someone as self-possessed and physically capable as Blackwood (She received five Department Commendations and 200 Honorable Mentions during her career) found him creepy, he must have been uber awful.
Most writers of crime fiction are not police officers and have limited experience with law enforcement, so to have the opportunity to question someone who had been with many different areas of the police department (Patrol officer, Evidence Technician, Tactical Unit, Crime Lab) was helpful to getting their portrayals done with some accuracy. And evidently, most writers need a lot of help, even in Hollywood with consultants on the payroll because Blackwell said that most TV shows are so unrealistic that she doesn’t enjoy watching them.
Some surprising things I learned from her talk:
- About 90% of all evidence that is collected at a crime scene is never analyzed, due to time limitations, lack of technology, limited manpower and other realities of police work.
- Car computers, e-mail and cell phones have been a huge help to law enforcement
- Even once a police officer has retired, he or she tends to keep thinking like police—noticing open windows (burglary in progress?), people meeting on the street (drug deal?) and generally being hyper-aware of what is going on
- That what you hear about the physical toll of police work is true
- She has earned two master’s degrees, one in Criminal Justice and one in Criminal and Social Justice.
Centuries & Sleuths regularly hosts meetings of the local chapters of Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America.
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