As haze-gray as a battleship, the Brown Building never did fit its name. But that’s what the local cops called the two story structure on the edge of town, so who was I to nitpick? I was just some young punk with a TV camera on his shoulder, surprised to be allowed inside the detective’s headquarters and always a little relieved to leave. It hadn’t been that many months since I was still pretending to be a college student and avoiding law enforcement every chance I got. Now, beefy dudes in short sleeve shirts and shoulder holsters ushered me into backrooms to gawk at bricks of weed, recovered guns or some schlub in cuffs getting his thumbs blackened at the fingerprint machine. It was the dawn of the 90’s and the hottest show on TV was COPS. Every Saturday night, the nation tuned in by the millions to watch real life police officers go out on patrol. The job itself was old, but that kind of access was something new. Suddenly, every small town cop, backwoods deputy and ham-bone sheriff was suddenly ready for their close-ups. That’s where I come in, a mostly sober 22 year old in love with the lens and the places I could take it. For the first couple of years, I took it to the Brown building, or at the very least, its parking lot.
A low slung gravel strip with just enough room for a dozen unmarked Crown Vics and two or three TV station news cars, the small parking lot behind the Brown Building was the scene of many a suspect’s perp-walk debut. Countless are the times I raced to that lot with the sole mission of putting some freshly arrested suspect on the evening news. Thirty years later, the sound of feet scuffling over rocks immediately takes me back to the Brown Building lot, where I learned the art of the grab and made some lifelong friends along the way. Andy, Paul, Carolyn and Woody were slightly older and far more experienced and together they taught me the way of the walk-down; how to bag as many different angles of a few short seconds while being in place should the shackled captive choose to confess on the way to the pokey.
Don’t laugh. It happened.
Mostly though, the schmuck in custody bit their lip, remaining silent as me and my buddies swooped in with our logo’d lenses and leading questions. Accused murderers, suspected thieves and the occasional arsonist were regularly frog-marched into the Brown Building under a crush of local lenses. Some hung their heads, others shot angry glances and mumbled curses under their breath. A few of them still stomp through my subconscious: the hulking Marine in a torn hospital gown, accused of killing his family hours earlier. A scary biker in shackles and tats, who made it very clear he wanted to stomp a mud-hole in this cameraman’s candy-ass. The aging matriarch of a crack dealing clan who stared down my camera before hocking up a slow-motion glob of hillbilly spit that damn near landed in mind’s eye. Usually, though, it happened in a flash - with the ‘bad guy’ and a detective in tow disappearing into the Brown Building. Its heavy gray door would slam shut, a thunderous sound often followed by nervous laughter as we news crews critiqued each other's performance and played back our tape.
Those days are long gone. A few years after my time there, the city abandoned the Brown Building, moving their Detective Division to a shiny new fortress downtown. Now, curious camera crews have to call ahead and talk to shiny new Public Information Officers, slick individuals whose main mission seemed to be deflect and delay. Backdoor walk-downs are a thing of the past. Now officers bring in their suspects through a guarded sally port, well out of range of the Fourth Estate. Maybe that’s for the best. Even those accused of the most heinous crimes deserve a little dignity as they enter the Judicial System. Maybe. But I for one am so glad I got to cover the lurching parade of thugs, saints and felons with so few restraints, happy to have learned all that I did there, forever grateful I got the chance to sling a lens down at The Brown.
Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go find my heating pad.