Monday, June 27, 2005

The Death of Nathan Thomas

January 16, 1992
An armed intruder breaks into the Thomas house. 12 year old Nathan Thomas is home alone. Portland Police respond and discover the intruder holding a knife to the boys throat. When the intruder starts to cut Nathan's throat, the officers shoot and both the intruder and the boy are killed.

In this case, the city failed the responding officers. The Police Bureau had cancelled formal training for the previous two years, supervision failed and policies and procedures were not current. There was no special weapons team at the house. The officers were on their own and in that split second that defines lives and careers, they made a judgment that turned out to be disasterously wrong. The Thomas family could have owned the city and the police bureau, but instead they forced the city into making long-needed reforms, upgrading policies and providing adequate training in the hopes of preventing another tragedy.

The Thomas case is a prime example of what happens when training, supervision and policy for police fail. This case is so compelling that I've written a couple of short stories about the aftermath and how the lives of the involved officers spiral downward in the years after the shooting. In the stories at least, some good cops can never recover from that defining moment in their lives.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Movie Recommendation: The Housekeeper

Okay, I'm a sucker for French films. Even more, I'm a sucker for quiet little films that move like a Raymond Carver shortstory and have a resonant ending. No huge climax here, just the bittersweet failure of a May-December romance that never had a chance. Catch The Housekeeper on the Independent Film Channel or rent a copy at your local video store.

I give this 4 1/2 stars.

Friday, June 24, 2005

The Death of Kendra James

If you ever hear that the District Attorney is holding an inquest into a police shooting, you can figure the fix is in. The hearing is a dog and pony show to satisfy the public. In Multnomah County at least, the only verdicts available to a coroner's jury is death by suicide, accident, natural causes or homicide. Death by homicide means death by the hands of another and makes no judgement as to whether the homicide was justified or not. Ditto for the grand jury's freedom to adequately determine fault. 90% of the time, the jury will do exact what the District Attorney wants, there is no right to cross-examine witnesses. The real information comes out in the civil trial as is happening now in the shooting of Kendra James by Officer Scott McCollister. I'm not in the courtroom, but it seems that McCollister is taking a beating by the plaintiff's attorneys.

What exactly should we look at in a police shooting case? There are four elements to examine. The first is policies and procedures. At the time of the James shooting, (in my opinion), Portland Police Bureau policies and procedures did not meet current standards. They allowed shooting at a moving vehicle and were less restrictive than most other police departments in the state of Oregon. To PPB's credit, those policies have been revised and improved. The second area to examine is training. Recently, I attended a day long training session conducted by PPB's Training Division and found the Use of Deadly Force section excellent. The instructors were professional and the video game-like shooting simulator was way-cool. I do have some quibbles about how PPB trains their officers, but their firearms instruction is first rate. The next area is supervision. Most of the supervisors I've met who work at PPB are first rate, but there have been breakdowns in supervision. Look at Centralgate or the coverup of the assault on a citizen by two off-duty officers. The final area is personnel, the officer him or herself. That's what the civil trial in the James case is trying to determine: was there a failure in policy, training, and supervision, or was the individual officer at fault? I have my hunch how this one will fall, but the jury has the final say.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Reflections on being a dad

6:07 am.
A little voice drifts down the hall: "Mommy, Daddy, I want to get up." Maria props herself on one elbow. "Not yet, Roxanne, we need to sleep some more." Five minutes later: "Mommy, Daddy, I want to get up." "Roxanne," I say, "you can play quietly in your room." Of course, that isn't what she wants, and every five minutes we hear: "I want to get up." Finally, we relent and say, "Okay, come on in." A breathless bundle is instantly in our bed, snuggling, poking, patting and giggling. Another day as a parent begins.

I came to fatherhood late in life. I joke that I've been running my life in reverse: retiring from police work, going back to school for another degree, becoming a dad and getting married. Being a father is the most satisfying, exhausting and nerve-racking thing I've other done -- well, there was that guy with a gun, but that's another story altogether. I love being a Dad. I love teaching about butterflies, watching cartoons on Saturday morning (except for the Doodlebops which drive me nuts) and walking over to the park so Roxanne can play on the swings.

I worry about the job I'm doing. Will she learn the values that she'll need to carry her through life, to be satisfied with what she does and to avoid some of the pitfalls I've stumbled into. I hope so, only time will tell.

My little alarm clock Posted by Hello

Saturday, June 18, 2005

How tough is too tough?

I've been reviewing a case for Tuesday nights meeting of the police oversight committee and although I'm not comfortable discussing the details until after the meeting, the case does raise an interesting question: How far can society go when dealing with a bad person. This applies not only to police in our communities, but also in dealing with terrorists on a global scale. I'm not going to go into a political rant here, there are many much better suited to that, but I do believe that as a country based on the rule of law, there is a limit to what we can do to protect ourselves. Torture of prisoners is unacceptable. Our treatment of prisoners in Iran and Guantanamo is not justified, especially when you consider that many have been taken into custody without appropriate probable cause, nor have they been afforded due process to contest their confinement. There was a ruling a long time back in Texas (why always Florida and Texas?), that condoned the torture of a kidnapping suspect by police to determine the location of a kidnapping victim who would die if not found within a few hours. I'm not sure if the case has stood the test of time, but it is an interesting dilemma. I'm not where I stand on this one. Well, actually, if it were my child in peril, I'd be stoking the fire for the hot pokers.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Crusty bachelor finds redemption with a little girl named Roxanne. Posted by Hello

Literary Agents - Part Deux

Now that you've assembled your list of literary agents, your next step is to eliminate the scam artists. Sadly to say, there's a bunch of them. The best resources are Preditors and Editors maintained by Another Realm magazine, Writer Beware maintained by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and the Absolute Writers Watercooler. I would say that anyone that has earned the "Not Recommended" tag by Preditors and Editors or asks you for upfront reading fees shouldn't be given a shot at your material.

There are two theories about who to query first: Heavy hitter agents or hungry junior agents who work for established firms. My vote is for the hungry junior agents who are putting together their client list. You'll get more consideration and better service from them than from someone who's handling the current number one bestseller on the New York Times Bestseller list. To find these agents, check out which agents are attending the big writers' conferences and take a look at individual agency websites to see which junior agent represents your genre. Look at the literary agent forum at Writer's Net and the Absolute Writers Watercooler.

Once your list is assembled and prioritized, you can start sending out your query letter and if allowed by the agent's guidelines, sample chapters and a synopsis. You have done your query letter, haven't you? Writer's Net is great for trying out your hook and pitch on fellow writer's.

Not all agents are that easy to find. I kept seeing references to a shadow agent who I'll call Fiona Applegate (I'm protecting her identity just in case she bites on my query). She wasn't listed in Herman's book, the Guide to Literary Agents or any of the on-line directories. Google didn't have her, but I did discover that she had 20 or so clients and dealt almost exclusively by the phone. She would initiate contact with prospective clients by telephone rather than having them query her. I was intrigued and set out to discover hot to contact her. Working with several different esoteric search engines, I did find her agency and sent her a query letter. I'm patiently awaiting her call. Hope springs eternal.

Friday, June 10, 2005

How to find an agent

This is a do as I say, not as I do primer for fiction writers. I'm still looking hard for an agent to represent my mystery.

Method one: Have someone refer you to an agent.
This is the most effective way to find an agent. You're coming to them recommended by someone in the business that they trust. Most agents will give your work a hard and fair look.

Method two: Attend a conference.
Many writers' conferences give attendees an opportunity to meet agents face-to-face and pitch their work. If the agent is interested, they will often request a 'partial' (two or three chapters and a synopsis). If they're really interested, they might request to see the entire manuscript. If so, you've done a great job of selling yourself and your novel.
I've attended the Willamette Writer's Conference in Portland and ended up with three requests for partials. The Maui Writer's Conference is perhaps the best known of these events and if you make a sale, you get to deduct your travel expenses on your income tax. Other West Coast conferences that have agent conferences are:
Surrey International Writer's Conference in British Columbia,
The Southern California Writer's Confernce which holds conferences in LA, San Diego and Palm Springs.
The San Diego State University Writer's Conference

Method three: Query an agent
This is the least effective, but often necessary method of hunting for an agent. I started by establishing a list of 50 agents to query using a variety of sources.

Books: 2005 Guide to Literary Agents published by Wrtier's Market.
Jeff Herman's Guide to Book Editors, Publishers, and Literary Agents 2005; Herman is an agent and this book is standard reference for most. The problem as with most print book is that the material will be out of date as soon at the book hits the shelves, but still it's well worth looking at.

Websites: Publisher's Marketplace - Great for searching for agents by genre.
Guide to Literary Agents - Lists agents hunting for clients, but has not been updated in several months.
Agent Query - Another great resource for searching for agents.
Association of Author Representatives - Search by keyword for an agent that has agreed to the AAR Canon of Ethics
Individual agency websites: Use a web search engine; i.e., Google or Yahoo to find the web addresses for literary agencies.

Newsletters: Publisher's Marketplace issues a weekly free e-mail newsletter that lists a few of the publishing deals consumated within the last week. Though the newsletter is free, the information is limited. You can subscribe for full access to their publishing deal database for $20 a month. It all depends how desperate you are.

Your local library: Your local library is a source of free information about literary agents. Look at books similar to yours. Often, the author will thank their agent in the acknowledgement or dedication.

Next time, I'll talk about how to sort through your list to determine which agents you want to query first.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Movie Review

Saw Star Wars III recently. Amazing graphics and special effects, but unfortunately the story lacked punch. Everytime Anakin Skywalker was onstage, my attention wandered. He was all grimace without substance or depth. The good news is that Lucas finally explained how we got to Star Wars IV with Luke, Leia and Hans. Too bad they weren't in number three, too.