Humor on the police beat p. 14

By: MIKE KOSCHIK ANY NEWSPERSON WHO'S worked the police beat, especially in a small town, knows how dull and stupefying it can be.
Drunken driving, vandalism and the ubiquitous "domestic dispute" make up the bulk of the reporter's police log stories. You can only be limitedly creative with that kind of fare.
Or can you?
At the Monroe (Mich.) Guardian, they've made the local crime report one of the best-read features in the 13,000-circulation weekly. The column draws readers, but not because they want to see whether their wife-abusing neighbor has finally been cited or if that hot-rodding teenager down the street has been caught speeding.
They read the Crimewatch column because it's funny.
Yes, that's right, humor on the police beat. The items from the police log are reported factually in the Guardian, but with tongue in cheek.
The pieces are written in a manner that hurts no one, especially the individuals involved. This is done in part by not using the names or addresses of the perpetrators.
More importantly for the police beat writer, he's permitted to use his imagination and produce some creatively written pieces.
In one item Crimewatch reported: "Nowhere in the Book of Wisdom will you find the names of a pair of Monroe motorists who recently made the acquaintance of a Monroe County Sheriff's Department deputy and his radar gun.
"The deputy clocked the pair going 62 mph in a 50 mph zone. The flashing lights and rapidly approaching cruiser didn't seem to affect the mission of the driver at first, but eventually he decided to pull to the side of the road after weaving in and out of both lanes.
"When asked how much was consumed, the driver wisely, and oh so eloquently stated, 'Enough.'
"True enough, it was enough," said the Crimewatch report. After failing a series of sobriety tests, the driver blew a .24 on the breathalizer (NOTE: .10 in considered DUI in Michigan).
"So drunk was he that his female companion had to get the wallet out of his pocket for identification. At one time during the tests, he stated to the officer, 'You might as well arrest me.'
"Ask and ye shall receive," noted the Crimewatch writer. "The man was tanked in the county pen and his license destroyed."
Not bad prose for a banker. Yep, among the astonishing facets of the Crimewatch column is the fact that it is written by a bank employee.
Earl Duby, a 23-year-old who works in the audit department of a Monroe bank, writes virtually all of the columns as a stringer.
Duby, who has been writing since high school but said he can't make journalism pay as a full-time career, has been stringing for the Guardian for about five years. He started doing the column "because I needed the money. Dan (Rowe, the Guardian's editor) told me to go to the courthouse, pick out the reports I wanted, but to not use names or addresses. The most important thing he said was to 'have fun with it.' "
Rowe conceived the idea for Crimewatch in 1994 when the Guardian switched from Thursday to Sunday publication.
"We had always veered away from crime news, because the daily paper (in Monroe) does a thorough job covering that area," said Rowe. But with the publication change, he also did some redesign of both the layout and content of the paper. He wanted to do some type of report on local crime activity "because it happens and we feel we'd be an incomplete paper without some coverage."
Crime reports "can be the driest thing in a newspaper and straight police log stories wouldn't have fit our purpose" as a weekly which usually reports about people's activities in the community and gives major coverage to local events such as the Thanksgiving parade, said Rowe.
"In addition, we recognize that fear of crime is widespread and, although that fear may sometimes be unreasonable, we don't want to contribute to people's concerns with detailed blood-and-guts reports," Rowe noted. "Crime, per se, is not a funny situation," he stated.
But it is a facet of human behavior and an important area of journalistic interest. So Rowe decided that the Guardian should take a less-threatening look at crime.
"We don't get into reporting really serious stuff nor do we do anything on drunk[en] driving accidents," said Rowe.
Or, as Duby put it, "no rapes, no murders, no child molestation, even though they occur here just like anywhere else."
"We pretty much stick to petty crimes, but even then we don't treat them entirely lightly," said Rowe. "We make a point of including the punishment that's meted out."
Rowe believes most incidents that end up on the police log in a community such as Monroe are the result of ordinary citizens in a moment of aberrant behavior.
"Most things that you pick up off a local police blotter are the result of what I call 'a dumb attack,'" he said.
"The person involved is already usually embarrassed or resentful, and we don't see any point in adding to his woes," by publishing his name or even identifying the neighborhood in which the events occurred, Rowe noted.
"As a weekly, we feel we have a level of social responsibility to meet. Our purpose is to inform and entertain. But, being journalists, we believe we can report on these events with a jaundiced eye and, with that view, there's often a certain amount of humor involved."
The reports are a window into the human psyche.
For example, one Crimewatch item reported that a man noticed his estranged wife sitting in his car parked in front of his house. Later, he found one of the tires was flat.
The man called sheriff's deputies to arrest the woman. But, after checking, the officers found the vehicle was registered in her name. There's no law against flattening one's own tire they told the disgruntled complainant as his soon-to-be ex-wife went free.
Another story showed how plain dumb people can be. The Guardian reported: "The Monroe man was tooling about town in an uncleansed car when Monroe police pulled him over because his license plate was so dirty the officers couldn't read the numbers or the expiration date."
The driver couldn't produce a vehicle registration, claiming he had just bought the car that day. When the police then asked for the bill of sale and transfer form from the previous owner, he couldn't produce those, either.
When the officers explained that they pulled him over because of the dirty plate, he responded that the plate wasn't even his and didn't belong on the car.
"The driver quickly caught his mistake and tried covering it up," the Crimewatch report continued. "He was just going over to a friend's house . . . and didn't think it would be a problem to throw on a plate from another vehicle."
The final straw came when the police found that the vehicle identification number had been removed from the car's dashboard.
The report concluded: "The car was towed and impounded. The driver, who failed to clean his plate, was excused from the table . . . " with a citation.
Still another item told of a man stopped by sheriff's deputies for speeding. When he exited his car, the deputy noted an alligator clip on the vehicle's floor. "Curious that, an electronics hobbyist, perhaps?" wrote Duby.
After writing a ticket, the deputy asked if the vehicle might contain any weapons or drugs. "The driver assured the officer nonesuch were therein contained," the news report continued.
The officer asked if he might look inside the vehicle and the driver consented.
"Within the car, the deputy discovered a cooler which allegedly smelled of marijuana, a box of plastic bags, a hand scale, and a plastic bag containing green stems and seeds.
"Patting down the driver to assure he was unarmed, the deputy asked him to empty his pockets and discovered a bag containing a compressed portion of a green, leafy substance with an odor similar to that of marijuana. The driver explained . . . he had purchased the material some four or five days before and it had slipped his mind" that it was there.
Reporter Duby isn't above using some editorial license to express his opinion of a malefactor. One item reported the actions of a man who was in the process of ending a three-year relationship with his girlfriend who was four months pregnant with the couple's second child.
He "allegedly grabbed the woman by the hair and slammed her head into a parked car, then pushed her around the parking lot and knocked her down."
He then proceeded to do the same thing to a female friend of hers.
The reporter opined: "Pity horsewhips aren't as handy as once they were. This fellow sounds like a candidate for application."
Duby said writing the column "helps me vent" when people upset him. He describes the reports as "just social commentary ? my little outlook on life." He loves writing the reports and "it's not hard for me to be sarcastic," he said.
Producing the column takes less than two hours each week, Duby said. He spends about an hour leafing through the complaint books at the county sheriff's office and the city police department, then returns to the Guardian's offices in a 19th century mansion to do his writing.
The Guardian's headquarters, constructed of red brick with a mansard roof, is of Italianate design and was built in 1855 by a local winery owner. It is listed in both the Michigan and Federal registers of historic buildings.
Located on First St. in this city of 23,000, 35 miles south of Detroit, it sits directly across from the building that houses the community's daily paper, the Monroe Evening News, prompting one wag to describe the area as Monroe's Fleet Street.
The Guardian is part of a seven-paper chain, located in the southern and southwestern Detroit suburbs.
Duby noted that he has to be careful in what he writes about in this conservative Midwestern community located in the extreme southeastern corner of Michigan on the western tip of Lake Erie ? he can't push the envelope too far.
Nevertheless, he sometimes borders on the risqu?. One item reported that a man told police that "somebody had stolen one of his balls."
It seems the complainant had been at a local lanes bowling with two balls, one of which turned up missing. Duby concluded the report: "A diligent search of the premises revealed no misplaced balls and nobody had turned any balls into the lost and found. Luckily, the man had a back-up ball, and it only takes one to get the job done."
While that kind of indecorous writing might not turn a hair in many places, this is a community where the publication of a wire service drawing of the profile of a woman's bust accompanying an article about breast implants brought down the wrath of an editor on the wire desk.
So, while Rowe believes that "if you don't push the envelope, it becomes permanently creased," before printing Crimewatch, he wields what he describes as "my editorial stiletto."
Apparently, Duby's pen and Rowe's blade are doing the job. It is one of the most popular features in the Guardian.
Although no formal survey has been taken, based on comments received by the paper's staffers, it's one of the things people look for, said Rowe. He noted that he has received only two significant complaints about the column since its inception, both relating to its making light of a serious situation.
Perhaps the best judges of the value of the column are the one group of people most often referred to in the reports: police agencies. Rowe noted that he has "never received a complaint from the cops" and has been told that the county sheriff thinks Crimewatch reports "are hilarious."
Monroe County Undersheriff Ron Cole thinks the column is "a bonus to the community," because it sometimes gives a view of law enforcement that
isn't conveyed in routine police news.
"We need the kind of (crime) reporting we get in the Evening News," he said, but this lighter treatment sometimes makes a more lasting impression on a reader than the routine reporting of facts."
While some might quibble about the Guardian not using names or addresses of malefactors, Undersheriff Cole said he's occasionally received suggestions from citizens for investigations based on reports they read in Crimewatch.
Rowe admits that being a weekly and not being the community's paper of record gives him the luxury to report about crime in the way the Guardian does. He makes no pretense about the column; it's "an entertainment feature and also a social commentary."
Rowe sums it up: "Crimewatch is intended to be a look at the passing scene with a mildly jaundiced eye."
?(Earl Duby, a 23-year-old who works in the audit department of a Monroe bank, writes virtually all of the columns as a stringer) [Photo & Caption]


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