I don’t chase too many squad cars these days, but there was a time when my sole journalistic focus was that of the crime and grime variety. Homicides, bank robberies, stand-offs and drive-bys; grisly scenarios that played out with great regularity in the housing projects and trailer courts of Eastern Carolina. Despite its small size, it was a highly competitive TV news market brimming with rookie news crews and enough steady downtrodden suffering to keep their dilapidated live trucks crisscrossing the region at break neck speed. With a growing Rolodex of weary detectives, ghetto preachers and assorted kingpins, I feasted on the underbelly of the evening news until eventually I grew full. These days I follow a rather mellow beat but not so in the beginning. As a result, memories of my early twenties play out like one long, black and white episode of COPS.
In an area where TV stations lived and died by the police blotter, the walk-down was king . Every night, the cops paraded a new defendant through the region's living rooms, but only after they marched through my lens. Back-pedaling with a face full of viewfinder, I learned to navigate every pebble of the Detective Building’s gravel parking lot as shackled strangers cursed my camera or most often, hung their heads in blame . To astute viewers it was little more than cop-shop filler. But to my buddies and me, every walk-down was an athletic event and we threw out our shoulders and contorted our souls to document them in proper cinematic style. From low slung 'Darth Vader entrance' shots to the extreme tights of the suspect's eyes to the obligatory cuffed-hands close-up, my pals and I learned to bag a dozen different shots in the half as many yards between the idling police car and the battered back entrance of the Detective's Building. When the cops really want their bad guy to make the news, they's park as far away from the door as possible, giving me and lenslinging hoods plenty of time to swarm. Many a newscast opened with footage from that very lot and the slow-motion highlights still loop endlessly in the edit bay in my head. I suppose therapy would help.
But who needs an overpriced analyst when I can pour it all out to you good people? Don't answer that, just keep your eyeballs moving and we'll get through this. Next, I wanna talk about round-ups, that time honored tradition of following law enforcers as they serve warrants based on all those proverbial 'six month investigations'. Operation: Street Sweep, Code Name: Fishnet, the cops always came up with some loopy name for their planned apprehension of street level drug dealers. I didn't care what they called it; I was just stoked to be along for the ride (in the front seat, no less!). I remember hiding behind scraggly trees as beefy undercover detectives who didn't want to be on TV banged on trailer doors in the middle of my viewfinder. I recall squinting through a lens at a groggy crackhead as he blinked repeatedly at the men in blue windbreakers standing over his head. Looking over at me, he gave an acknowledging nod, much like he would if we'd passed each other outside a convenience store. And I remember the prison yard death stares of countless shackled strangers as men in clip-on ties and flattop haircuts high-fived each other around them. Good times.
But my interaction with the PO-lice wasn't always on foot. I've ridden shotgun in more marked cars than some rookie cops. Sometimes I've tagged along with a particular officer just to get footage of him or her behind the wheel, but the fun doesn't usually start until I join them for patrol. Seatbelt enforcement, impaired driver watch, speed limit crackdown; I've tagged along with Johnny Law on almost every kind of mission there is. Not only did it throw my shoulder out of whack but it changed the way I drive. Take speeding for example. I used to race fifteen miles over the posted limit no matter where I was going, but finally the ride-alongs (and expensive tickets) finally slowed me down. Why? Karma, baby. Hovering over a police officer as they issue some poor schlub a citation isn't just awkward, it's wrong. God knows the last thing I want to see when I'm diggin' my liscense out of my wallet is some loser with a lens pushin' in for a better shot of the veins bulging on my forehead. No, with my luck, Geraldo Rivera himself would pop out of the squad car and demand to know why my sordid floorboard is the gore-splattered bone-yard of a thousand doomed ketchup packets.
Maybe I don't miss working the cop-shop beat after all.