Sunday, March 06, 2005

Brown Building Walk-Downs

As gray as a battleship, the Brown building did not fit its name. But that’s what the cops called the two story brick job on the edge of downtown so I didn’t object. I was too busy anyway, scrambling to detail the steady flow of crime and grime headlines that flowed through that ugly windowless structure. From its gravel parking lot out back to its tiniest interrogation room on the second floor, I put almost every inch of that place on the local news.

Getting in was tricky, at first. But sling a camera around enough crime scenes and the detectives would soon buzz you through the lobby door, especially when there was a fresh arrestee in handcuffs waiting on the other side - which was only always. I’d hate to guess how many times I breached that threshold with camera in tow, only to point it at some fine taxpayer getting their thumbs blackened for the third time in a not-so-illustrious criminal career. If you were lucky, there was evidence to photograph: duct-tape bricks of marijuana, illegal guns, black market electronics, all spread out on scuffed conference room tables by beefy detectives in short sleeves and shoulder holsters. For a local news photog, it was like shooting ducks in a barrel.

But the real action was in the parking lot, a low slung gravel rectangle with enough room for a dozen unmarked Crown Vics and two or three TV station wagons. It was this humble lot that every criminal of intrigue arrested by the city made his perp walk debut. Countless are the times I raced to that lot only to pace for hours with chain-smoking buddies until a late model sedan swooped in and all conversation stopped. The sound of feet scuffling over rocks filled the air as we backpedaled in unison, orbiting the accused with zoom lenses and leading questions. If we were lucky the cops would park in the farthest available space, giving us a long runway to bag as many angles of the walk down as possible.

Come to think of it, you could judge how much publicity the cops wanted on individual cases by the distance they parked from the Brown Building. Accused murderers, thieves and arsonists made many a forced march through the wall of local lenses; some hung their heads, others shots angry glances and cursed the assembled cameramen. All gave a show, from the drunk Marine in a hospital gown accused of torching his own apartment to swarthy bikers in shackles and tats who looked as if they‘d hunt you down given the chance. All gave a show, with their buzz-cut captors in a supporting role. Despite the revolving cast of bad actors, every performance ended the same: with the heavy metal thud of the building’s back door, often followed by a burst of nervous giggles as we lenslingers critiqued our one-eyed backpedal.

But those day are gone now. A few years back the City abandoned the Brown Building, moving their Detective Division to a shiny new fortress downtown. Now, curious cameramen have to call ahead and talk to the new Public Information Officer. Backdoor walk downs are a thing of the past. Now officers bring in the bad guys through a guarded sally port, well out of range of the Fourth Estate. Maybe that’s for the best. Even those accused of heinous crimes have a right to enter the Judicial System without a cocky camera in their face, even they have a right to a little bit of dignity on the way to the Big House.

Maybe. But I’m awful glad I got to cover the slow parade of thugs, saints and felons with so few restraints, happy to experience the Wild West atmosphere of a small city’s corral of testosterone-rich crime fighters, thankful I got the chance to sling a camera down at The Brown.

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