It was the dawning of the age of ‘COPS’ and my small market newsroom feasted nightly on a diet of easily-scored crime and grime. I myself was young and dumber, living on Ramen Noodles, blue lights and scanner traffic. If handcuffs and adrenaline weren’t involved, I simply wasn’t interested in pointing my camera at it. Luckily, action and mishap abounded; between the three counties I covered, there was more steady bloodshed and wife-beater buffoonery than you could ever shake an oversized bag phone at. Already enrolled in the Roy Hardee Spot News Institute, I studied under a trio of street-level lens-masters, fierce competitors named Paul Dunn, Andy Cordan and the wizardly Woody Spencer. Together, these three wise cameramen showed me the Ways of the Photog, all while eatin’ my lunch on a daily basis. Somehow, I got through it.
I digress though, which is probably something you should expect by now. I’m just trying to capture the madness of that brief point in time in the early Nineties, when every hard-ass with a badge clamored for close-up and I was welcome anywhere. Take the early morning drug bust. A time honored tradition among the tri-county taskforce set, these pre-dawn raids on street level dealers are more fun than a thousand stale press conferences. Laws and attitudes have changed since then, but for a brief time in the early nineties, the local ‘cop shop’ beat was a wild west frontier of its very own. I of course, was a willing participant and not always a very smart one. Back then I’d strap myself to the hood of a police cruiser if I thought it meant a funky shot. At the very least, I’d get up early and meet a rolling posse of undercover agents for a breakfast of grits and biscuits before ‘jumpin’ in shotgun’ for a few dozen rounds of squad car round-up. Back then, even I loved the smell of mace and videotape in the morning.
But it rarely amounted to that, as the targets of these raids barely batted an eye at the sudden ambush of handcuffs and high-and-tight haircuts. Mostly they seemed annoyed at the timing of said arrest, much like a sailor learning he’s about to deploy. More than a few cocked an eyebrow at me, taking in my lens and logo as stocky men in jeans and windbreakers went through his pockets. Sometimes they’d smile to reveal gold teeth or point me to their tattoos. Other times they’d swell their chests and shoot prison yard stares at my never blinking lens. Once a huge redneck in an unbelievable mullet body checked me into a wall as his beefy escorts dragged him out of his double-wide. Perhaps by accident, the deputies missed the last step coming out of the trailer and the shackled man went down hard on the concrete before being stuffed into a marked car.. More likely, the sworn officers were simply on a task force high, intent on carrying out Operation Pipe Cleaner or Task Force: Elm Street or whatever manly code name they were using that week to make themselves feel like they were on a much nobler mission, not just escorting guests through the revolving door of our nation’s justice system.
However I wasn’t there to judge, but to record it for the greater good - or at least a tease-able story in the Six. If I was jazzed on the access, some of the Po-leece were a little over the top. I remember one marathon ride-along when a certain police chief who popped up front and center in my lens, (Hege-Style!), gun drawn and jaw set as his most beefed-up deputy used a battering ram the size of a torpedo to break down the tissue-thin door of a broken down crack house. Once open, the cops in mirrored sunglasses poured through the door and up the stairs; I followed the blue glow of the viewfinder bouncing in my face. Suddenly I was in a squalid bedroom, taking it all in on a one inch screen. As a half dozen men with bad moustaches pointed their pistols and barked at a sleepy man in his underwear, I swept the room with my lens and listened to the police chief breathe heavy in my earpiece, As he caught my lens attention, the camera savvy lawman doled out rusty Miranda Rights in a dripping southern drawl, the groggy rock-seller blinked slowly and asked for his cigarettes. As the man with the thousand yard stare caught sight of my camera, his eyes widened and he smiled.
“Is this gonna be on COPS?”
The deputies nearly choked on their chewing tobacco laughing at the man as they drug him out of his bedroom. Later we chuckled about the man‘s remark again, gathered out by the roadside like the Scooby-Doo Gang at the end of an episode. But I had to run, as my bosses wanted a noon live shot from the police station. I made it that day and ended turning my umpteenth early morning drug round-up into quite a bit of evening newscast fodder. By the time I headed for home that night I had worked a 14 hour day. Ninety minutes after I arrived at my apartment, my wife shook me from a deep sleep and thrust car keys in my face. Eighteen hours later, we welcomed our firstborn child into the world.
Funny thing, life.