COPS ON THE BEAT
We don’t normally think of cops as having much to do with poetry. During my 30 years with the Portland (Oregon) Police Bureau, my interest in it was at least tolerated. I was editor of the police union newspaper and was able to use that medium for expressing what poetics I might think appropriate to the union cause. I admit straying from time to time from unionism in order to expose the readership to the joys of poetry for itself.
I never received any complaints about doing this. A fellow officer would sometimes ask me to explain what in hell I was trying to say. It seemed to me that this is about as much as any poet can expect from his or her readers. Someone had read the stuff and reacted to it.
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Cops actually do have more in common with poets than one would think. Police officers are always writing. They used to do it in donut shops, but now on computers. Relevant detail must be written down, with strict regard for detail and accuracy. Isn’t this what a poet does?
It’s a task for both poets and cops to render experience into words. As with the poet, the cop must be a careful observer. The initial police report is where all investigation must begin. The success or failure of an investigation can be determined by the writing ability of the first cop on the scene.
I taught report writing to cops at the police academy and always asked that they write a poem. I would offer comment as if it were a poetry workshop. I believe the experience taught them the importance of careful writing. They produced some remarkably good poems.
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If the street cop is called to investigate a crime, his report will wind up in a Detective Division detail according to the type of crime committed, which could be burglary, auto theft, larceny, homicide, fraud or something else.
I once worked in the Larceny detail as the detective in charge. In some ways, it was like being an editor for a literary magazine. Reports (submissions) from street officers would flood in, and it was my job to reject or accept what would merit further action. Literary merit (a well-written report) would catch my eye. It meant we could depend on the report and the officer as to the facts and their reliability in a prosecution.
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One might say that police reports should be free from passion and personal opinion, two things poets freely indulge in. But good poetry should evoke passion, not talk about it. And a sparse, carefully written police report can evoke tears.
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On a weekend night a district cop can spend his shift racing from one “family disturbance” to another. Drinking and fighting seem to be a weekly ritual in some households. The arrival of the cops can be the dispute’s climax. It’s when the participants have someone to judge the merit of their grievances against one another.
As routine as these calls might be, they would occasionally evolve into something quite unexpected. When I worked the street, I could count on a weekly call to the home of a particular family. I came to know the scrapping husband and wife, and would try to advise them on the futility and even hazards of their way of life. But their fighting seemed to be as addictive as their drinking. My arrival was part of the way the scene had to play out.
Once, when I got my usual Saturday night call to the house, the husband, quite sober, invited me in. “Emily is leaving,” he said. “We wanted you to know.” She sat on the couch crying, a suitcase at her feet. I was stunned. I wouldn’t see them again.
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“A policeman’s lot is not a happy one” runs a refrain from The Pirates of Penzance. The observation is regrettably still true today, although we would probably feel uncomfortable with a cop who took joy in his work.
We are wary of the police in the way we are wary of poets. They are both reminders of the strains and hazards of being human. We think of criminals as lacking in humanity. Those I’ve known are remarkably ordinary people. They have human needs which they fulfill in all-too-human ways.
Cops are either protectors or thugs, depending on the authority they work for. Like soldiers who can’t choose their battles, they go after whomever their superiors say they should. Poets aspire to act freely. As expansive as language is, poets can only work within its limitations. Knowing the limits and possibilities of your material is a basic requirement for any art. It’s called creativity.
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Cops work within the law and are confined by it. Within those limitations, it’s surprising how much creativity goes on.
When I was a detective, I took an under-cover assignment as a means of effecting an arrest on a Mr. Jim Elkins (now deceased), who had earned the reputation of Portland’s crime boss. Being the pro that he was, he had avoided all police efforts toward putting him in jail. I posed as a petty crook and was eventually able to not only meet Elkins but to be accepted by him as a close companion. For months I shared the criminal life with him. I was able to avoid a criminal act myself, but while I was trying to catch “Big Jim” and others on charges that would stick, I enjoyed a privileged and favored lifestyle as personal friend to a high-level crime figure. When I finally arrested him, it felt like a betrayal—which it was.
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There is also isolation. It’s a condition for all writers trying to get the right words down. For cops it’s more of a lifestyle. Part of it is that they do a lot of shift work. It’s surprising how much this puts you out of phase with the rest of the world. Like many people, cops like to go out after work to have a drink and relax. I knew cops who worked the graveyard shift and would gather at a tavern at eight in the morning. To be awake when most everyone else is sleeping is a particular kind of isolation. If you work the swing shift, you don’t have the evenings for normal socializing, and you hang out with other swing-shift cops.
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Cops and poets are intruders into other people’s lives. They both probe for character, motive, history. They both eavesdrop and want to know what people are up to. A person of interest can wind up in a poem or in jail. In any case, the interest is self-serving. Cops and poets take what they need from their person of interest and move on. Whatever other problems are uncovered in the process are for someone else to deal with.
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In the old TV series Dragnet, the detective Joe Friday was always asking witnesses for “just the facts.” During my detective years, I came to realize why he would say this. As soon as people learn they may become part of a crime investigation, many of them will try to exaggerate their part in it. People also will see an interview as an opportunity to explain to an authority figure how they themselves had been the target of injustice, straying away from the relevant details. Cops, like poets, appreciate words used sparingly and to the point.
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At one time in my police career, I was assigned to Radio Dispatch. It was before the use of civilians for such duty. The system was quite simple then. A phone call to the one police number connected you to a knowledgeable woman at a switchboard. She sent calls for help to us in Dispatch. We would first start a district car to the address. In the time it took the car to get there, we would keep the caller on the line and extract as much information as we could so that upon arrival, the responding officer would have a complete and up-to-date idea of what was going on.
I once talked to a caller who could hear a prowler breaking into her house. She told me she had a gun. The man coming onto your porch now, I told her, is a police officer. Don’t shoot him. The need for the right use of language here was obvious.
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Poets seldom advise us on how to behave. The police do. But poets also try to get to a truth that applies to everyone, which is what the law does.
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Poets and the police bring the world to account. Both try to hold us to hard truths about what our behavior says about us.
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There’s sort of a complementary opposition to the way cops and poets deal with emotions. The poet tries to evoke them, and the cop tries to calm them. In order to do either, both cop and poet have to know something about the human psyche. Motive is always an element in the investigation of any crime. There are crimes of passion and crimes of opportunity. Behind both is a human emotion, hate or greed perhaps, which the police investigator looks for.
Poets take no responsibility for what legal consequence their writing may stir up. But the law is based upon an assumption the poet also makes. It takes the view, as the poet does, that human behavior is consistent enough to be predictable. A crime or a poem says something about all of us.
—from Rattle #37, Summer 2012
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