So, you want to be a police beat reporter. Who can blame you? It’s good work if you can find it. Builds character and occasionally ulcers.
Imagine: Working the late shift so that your day begins when most people are going to bed. It’s a shift that will make you a stranger to prime-time television. While all your buddies are yapping about “Breaking Bad,” you’ll just be discovering the joys of “My Name is Earl” as it heads into syndication.
Work the police beat and you get to call people at home as it closes in on midnight. They’ll call you all sorts of names. They will go off on 10-minute tirades about common courtesy. Then they will answer every one of your questions and a few extra because — well, let’s be honest here — it’s downright shocking how many people are drunker than monkeys by the time “The Walking Dead” is over.
And don’t forget that special relationship you’ll develop with the police. They’ll love you one week, hate you the next. Enjoy conversations with newly promoted desk sergeants who are terrified to the point of paralysis by the idea of providing information to journalists; who will freeze up and fall over, like one of those fainting sheep you see on YouTube, before answering a single question.
You: “Hello, sergeant. I would just like to confirm that somebody robbed the adult novelty store this evening and that officers are looking for a dozen inflatable suspects with shocked looks on their faces.”
Sgt. Paralysis: “Store? Suspect? Evening? I never said any of that. Don’t you attribute any of that to me. Did somebody tell you I said that? I never said . . .”
Or maybe you’ll get the crusty lieutenant who isn’t afraid of anything but who just happens to despise all reporters as a rule. Hates ’em. Has so ever since he got burned by one back in the day when cops walked beats, carried billy clubs and said “Nyah, see?” after every sentence.
Bonding with cops is a special talent you must acquire. They must neither like nor loathe you. Instead, you must seek their respect. If you can achieve that, you will be rewarded with a fair level of information and maybe — just maybe — they will overlook that thing you were caught doing behind the dumpster.
Don’t forget the special access you’ll have to thieves, bullies, killers, drug pushers, animal abusers and other scoundrels. Once you earn their trust by smoking with them, drinking with them and openly admiring their tats, a special relationship will blossom. So special, in fact, that they will visit you at home, call you at all hours, and sometimes hide in your back seat while you’re out on a date.
Work the police beat and you could crack the big case. Solve a murder or blow wide open a case of political corruption that will shake the community to its core.
Or you could end up writing a story about the weather because — I mean, come on — there isn’t all that much crime around here and God knows people need to know when snow is coming.
Work the police beat and complete strangers will give you news tips wherever you go.
“You want a story to put in your Sun and Journal?” the store clerk will say, leaning over the counter in conspiratorial fashion while you’re just trying to buy a bottle of Yoohoo. “I got a big one for you.”
And then you will spend the next 45 minutes listening to the clerk go on about how his civil rights were violated when he was kicked out of Walmart for not wearing pants. Once you really establish yourself as the go-to guy for crime news, hot tips like this will follow you wherever you go.
Stick around the police beat long enough and just about everyone, including people who claim to love you, will begin to ask: “So. When do you suppose you might work your way up to a real position?”
You could single-handedly find D.B. Cooper and wrestle him to justice, and there will still be plenty of people who insist on using the affectionate term “cub reporter.” Or, God help you, “Cubby.”
I’ve been on the police beat here since 1994. Still love it, too, if with a little less intensity. I used to be greedy about my beat. If it was a Saturday and I was technically on vacation to celebrate my honeymoon on the day of a dear family member’s funeral, I’d still come screaming back to Lewiston if I thought the substitute police reporter was about to stumble onto a hot story. And by “hot story” I mean anything greater than a jaywalking.
But I’ve mellowed about it and now we need someone to fill in a few nights while I’m off writing cerebral, world-changing columns like this one. Could you be that special someone? Do you enjoy getting all up in everybody’s business? Can you walk that fine line between order and chaos? Are you ready to make an impact in the exciting world of crime and punishment?
It’s you. I know it is. But first, can you give us 15 column inches on the possibility that we might get snow over the next few days?
Thanks, Cubby. You’re doing great.