Chris Baughman isn’t a writer. He’s the first to tell you that. He’s a cop. He works Las Vegas vice, chasing pimps and prostitutes. But sometimes art comes from these kinds of places, from the harrowing scenes of real life, from places that defy logical explanation.
“I didn’t know if I could write or not,” the detective says. “But I felt like I needed to.”
So he’d come home from working the Vegas streets, sit down at his computer, and let the words flow:
The left side of her head is swollen, blackened no doubt from where the aluminum bat swung wildly against it. I’m not sure which is more horrific; the gash that zigzags along her nose and down her pulpy jaw, or the cuts and scrapes covering her neckline and coursing a trail down to her arms.
Soon, the release became an obsession. He wrote every night. Sometimes he’d write in the daytime, on his downtime at the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, jotting notes to transcribe later. It was cathartic, yes, but it was also purposeful. His true-crime stories seemed to want out of his head and onto the page, where they could reach other people. “I really feel like the words I put down almost aren’t even mine,” he says. “I feel like it wrote itself.”
His book, Off the Street: One Detective’s Quest for Justice ($16), was just released from the Southern California-based Behler Publications, the first of a three-book deal. In the debut, Baughman tells the true story of a Las Vegas prostitute trying to get away from a violent pimp, while exploring his own deeply felt mission to save the victims of sex trafficking.
Detective Baughman is one of a growing assembly of Las Vegas police officers who’ve written books—some fiction, but most nonfiction—creating a mini-genre of crime stories from Las Vegas. They add to a national pool of police authors, more than 1,100 of whom network on Police-Writers.com. Retired Los Angeles Police Department lieutenant Raymond E. Foster, the author of nine books, started the resource seven years ago.
“[Law enforcement] is an apprenticeship tradition; it’s passed down generation to generation,” Foster says. “You learn by hearing the stories of the cops before you. So it has a rich storytelling tradition, a rich oral tradition, and so it’s quite natural for these storytellers to be here.”
Ten years ago, Metro Sgt. Randy Sutton felt the literary call after 9/11. “I felt extremely helpless in not being able to help over there,” he says. “So I thought if I wrote, I might be able to bridge the gap between the public and police a little.” He began writing his own stories, and he also solicited stories from cops around the nation. Soon he had a collection of tales suitable for publishing, True Blue: Police Stories By Those Who Have Lived Them (St. Martin’s Press, 2004). The proceeds went to families of 9/11 victims. It was the first of three books that he’s published. Among stories from small-town cops and World Trade Center first responders, True Blue features a story Sutton wrote about a little girl, Jackie, whose life he saved after she was shot in the face during a drive-by shooting.
“It’s a dark book, but these are the stories that bubble to the surface,” he says. “They aren’t the happy times. But it’s an artistic endeavor. You’re using your creativity and dealing with feelings.
“I love words, and reading is one of the most important forms of communication,” Sutton says. Writing leaves a personal legacy, and I believe leaving a legacy is very important.”
Writing is also a key component of police work. Every day, Foster says, cops write reports on the crimes they’re working that tell who, what, where, when and why. “You write all the time,” he says, “but police reports are about telling what happened. Good writing is about showing a story. Many cops have difficulty going from telling to showing.”
In passages of Off the Street, Baughman seems to have successfully made that transition:
While rounding the corner from a small office into an adjacent bedroom, a child emerges. He is no older than 6, with golden-brown skin, dark curly locks, and the face of his mother, and he has placed himself right at the end of my barrel. The bottom falls out of my stomach. Feelings of shock and terror for this young boy momentarily override my system. Now inside the kill zone, his pie-plate eyes well up with tears, and he sprints for the back bedroom.
While true crime is the dominant form of writing among police officers, fiction and technical writing also have a role. On the other hand, comedy takes over in a new book by a Nevada Highway Patrol officer, Confessions of a Las Vegas Motorcop (3L Publishing, $15). Author H.D. Justice—a pseudonym—tells dozens of funny stories: pulling over a nearly naked woman, being hit by tomato slices someone tossed from their car, listening to the tall tales of drivers trying to get out of speeding tickets.
Justice’s book came out of a daily diary he kept, and it shows an entirely different perspective on policing. “I kept it on the lighter side,” he says. Some friends of his wife had heard him casually telling funny stories from the job, and suggested he collect them—which he already had in his journal. “But I never thought I’d write a book,” he says. “I guess when you combine motorcycles, cops and Vegas in one package it seems interesting.” The book was published this year, and he’s already had two book signings on a 2,500-copy first print.
Still other cops have written in genres outside of law enforcement. Sports journalist-turned-Metro officer Beth Choat wrote a young adult novel, Soccerland (Marshall Cavendish, $17). Some officers around the nation have taken on poetry—Texas officer Sarah Cortez won a PEN literary award after writing a collection of poems called, How to Undress a Cop (Arte Público, 2000).
“We have stories to tell,” Foster says. “More stories than most other professions.”
Local Cop Authors
Stu Michaels, You Can’t Make this Up!: Cops, Crooks, and Celebrities from Brooklyn to Las Vegas (LifeStories, $18). This New York detective-turned-casino security boss shares his past experiences.
Kim Thomas, Vegas: One Cop’s Journey (Stephens Press, 2010). With an MFA in Creative Writing from UNLV, this Metro detective offers up his first novel: a cop coming-of-age tale.
Beth Choat, Soccerland: The International Sports Academy (Marshall Cavendish Corp/Ccb, 2010). In this novel by a Metro officer, which has nothing to do with law enforcement, a young soccer player aspires to play on the U.S. women’s national team.
Sgt. Randy Sutton, A Cop’s Life: True Stories From Behind the Badge (St. Martin’s, 2006). Two years after the success of his first book, Sutton writes 20 autobiographical shorts.
Marc C. Barry, Society’s Warrior Class: Inside a Policeman’s Mind (Trafford Publishing, 2006). This veteran Metro officer strives to show the humanity behind the badge.
Gordon Yach, Las Vegas: A Cop’s View of the Glamour, Glitz, Graft, Good & Evil of Sin City (Xlibris, 2002).
Harry Fagel, Street Talk (Zeitgeist Press, 1999). Poetry from a local cop/spoken word performer.