Public Service Announcement: A team’s only as strong as its weakest link.
Great. Glad we got that cleared up. Now we can move on to the really revolutionary stuff.
But wait, how are you going to make that cliché into an interesting story structure, or even just a memorable scene, for your groundbreaking police procedural thriller? Sure, it’s true for a group of cops the same way that it’s true for a sports team, but you can’t hold a reader’s attention by just telling them flat out. You have to find a way to make it interesting and new, through specificity. Longtime cop-turned-author David Putnam offers some real-life examples from his experience with weak links, or, as he creatively calls them, “pizza guys”.
The Pizza Guy
By David Putnam
Throughout my 31 years in law enforcement, I have run into many Pizza Guys. This is not necessarily a derogatory term; it’s more a classification, and one I coined out of necessity for officer safety. Other agencies, I’m sure, have their own names for them. Not only do they exist in every law enforcement organization, but they’re in every business as well.
I’m an avid reader, and have never seen an author make use a Pizza Guy as a main character—not in the way a Pizza Guy operates in real life. I have pondered using a Pizza Guy in my novels, but as yet have not found a place for one. And if I wrote the events in which I was personally involved with these guys, the reader might call foul and say, “That would never happen.”
For most of my career, I worked SWAT, narcotics, special teams, Violent Crimes, and Criminal Intelligence. These teams were mostly comprised of men and women who’d proved their ability or competence, and were lucky enough to be chosen out of a crowded field of competitors. These teams can be highly technical, and it’s dangerous if every member is not competent and always paying close attention to details.
In a dynamic SWAT entry where the team has to cover and move, cover and move, each member has to be able to depend on each other. An error, even a small one, could be fatal. This applies to high-risk search warrants in narcotics as well.
The unfortunate circumstance in law enforcement—in any job where humans are involved—is that people are chosen for these positions, not because of their competence and ability, but because “He’s a good guy.” Or the guy did a special favor for a Deputy Chief, and the chief is repaying a debt.
The Pizza Guy moniker came about during a briefing on a big operation. As the case agent, I was designating team members and team leaders to execute search warrants at multiple locations. When I finished giving the instructions and asked if there were any questions, one member I had forgotten about, maybe subconsciously, raised his hand and said, “Hey, what about me?”
I looked around and said, “You’re going to get the pizza.”
Henceforth, whenever we had an operation and assignments were given out, there was always one slot left out for “The Pizza Guy”. In most cases, the Pizza Guy, if he were smart enough to figure it out, didn’t mind. He liked the status of being on SWAT, or on Narcotics, but not necessarily going through the door on a high-risk entry.
Here’s a classic example of a Pizza Guy. My team was running down a homicide suspect and we hit a house where the suspect had been minutes before. We’d just missed him. Inside the house, we found another male who was on parole and in possession of a firearm—a felony. We handcuffed him and set him on the couch, pending transport to jail.
When you have multiple Pizza Guys, you try to spread them out, put them on different teams, one each. That particular day, we were running with two. I asked the sergeant to step outside away from the parolee so he couldn’t hear us, leaving the two Pizza Guys to guard the parolee. Pretty soon, one of the Pizza Guys shows up outside to listen in on what the plan was going to be. A couple minutes later, the second Pizza Guy shows up outside and the sergeant says, “Hey, who’s watching the crook?”
We ran back in and the crook had fled with the handcuffs.
In another incident, our team worked a highly sensitive narcotic surveillance, a high profile conspiracy. We rotated the “eye”, the point on the surveillance. Our Pizza Guy took his turn. After a few minutes, I tried to raise him on the radio. He didn’t respond. I had to break from my position to check on him. He was asleep in his car, his seat back. I took a Polaroid picture in case he ever complained about running for pizza.
On the Violent Crimes team, I ran an operation trying to snare a crew of serial bank robbers. I had six teams of two, set up on possible bank targets that the crime analysis unit had given us. Each team of two sat in their cars in the bank parking lots, and if the robbery crew pulled up to rob the bank, the team would put it out over the radio and wait for back-up.
We’d been set up for three hours. Around lunchtime, dispatch advised of a silent alarm at one the target banks. Every team broke from their location and drove like hell to the bank being robbed. The team sitting in the parking lot of the bank being robbed was comprised of two Pizza Guys, and they wouldn’t answer their radio. When we got there, the Pizza Guys looked surprised. They hadn’t seen a thing. They were both eating tacos right in front of the bank.
A plumber driving by saw the suspect run from the bank, spewing red smoke from the dye pack in the bank money, and followed him. The plumber took a huge pipe wrench from his truck and chased the bank robber into a restaurant, where he held him at bay in the restroom until we could get there.
The use of a Pizza Guy in novel might work as in individual incident, but unless the novel was a comedy, I don’t think he would work as a main character.
David Putnam always wanted to be a cop. His career in law enforcement has spanned over 30 years. He has worked in narcotics, served on FBI-sponsored violent crimes teams, and was cross-sworn as a U.S. Marshall, pursuing murder suspects and bank robbers in Arizona, Nevada, and California. Putnam did three tours on the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s S.W.A.T. team, executing dynamic entries, hostage rescues, and serving as team sniper. He has also worked in Criminal Intelligence and Internal Affairs and has supervised corrections, patrol, and a detective bureau.
After 28 years of California law enforcement, Putnam moved to Hawaii where he worked as a Special Agent for the Attorney General, investigating smuggling and white-collar crimes. Putnam is now retired and lives in Southern California where he farms organic avocado trees, reads and writes, and attends writers’ conferences with his wife and fellow writer, Mary. The Replacements follows The Disposables in Putnam’s Bruno Johnson series. Reach him at http://dwputnam.com/
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