Robert Squires was long known as the first Orange County law man to be killed in the line of duty. A former member of the Royal Canadian Mounted police, he served as an undersheriff in Orange County when he was gunned down in 1912, and the shootout where he lost his life has made it into county lore and history books.
It’s known as the Tomato Springs shootout, though historians aren’t sure it actually happened in Tomato Springs now. Most people today aren’t even sure where Tomato Springs would have been.
I was writing an article commemorating the 100-year anniversary of the shootout when I called a local historian. He gave me quick warning from the start – be careful calling him the first law enforcement officer killed in Orange County.
We talked about a lawman who may have been killed before Squires, and I made a note of our conversation. He was still gathering facts.
Court rooms are not the dramatic scenes of T.V. dramas, and I think I’d rather crack open the owner’s manual of my DVD player before sitting down and reading a court file.
The way depositions are depicted on court shows is also entertaining: so full of tension, drama, witty exchange and fervent accusations. In fact, they’re achingly technical, meticulous, and sluggishly deliberate. Extracting a human story from these documents is not easy – especially on deadline.
I almost missed the news of the year, possibly of the decade: Osama bin Laden is dead.
I was in the bathroom.
O.K., it didn’t go down exactly like that. I had just walked out of the shower when my fiance yelled out, “Bin Laden was killed!” She knows news – any type of news – will get a reaction from a news junkie like me, and this was no exception.I dropped my laundry and ran toward her and her laptop.
Had she yelled out five minutes earlier while the water was still on this might have been a funnier story.
But news like that gets any journalist going, thinking what will be the news that needs to be covered immediately and in the following days. They are the few times when you realize history is being made.
Most people seemed relieved, even joyous to the news, though some wished bin Laden would have been brought in alive to face the justice system, and doubtless, the American public. But that was not the only reaction.
Along the 405 freeway, a 50-foot graffiti was found with an upside down U.S. flag and the words “RIP Osama Forever.” The picture, captured by Orange County Register photographer Sam Gangwer, was displayed and reported in news organizations in the country.
I’m sure the news of this event will not cease. There are still plenty of questions to be asked, including details of the operation that killed the most wanted man in the world, and what the effect will be in how the U.S. will continue its war on terror, and what strategies will be implemented in Iraq and Afghanistan.
My personal curiosity also leads me to wonder: with the man who personified the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks dead, the man whose name became synonymous with terror, how will U.S. officials now present the dangers of terrorism to the American public?
They are essential, and a great tool for a reporter who is looking for facts and details in their work. But fun, no.
Unfortunately, neither are some crime stories that make their way to print. Er, online.
I think this is why I found this article from Utne Reader especially intriguing. Written by Ellen Collett, from the LAPD’s Crime Analysis Division, the article speaks to both writers and cops alike.
And if you know of a cop’s day-to-day, you might find out their job description should read more like, “officer/writer.”
Police officers spend hours writing reports, jotting down details and making sure every interaction with the public has a paper trail. In order to stay out of trouble during trial, most police officers stick to dry, fact driven reports that squeeze out any ounce of subjectivity from the events.
Collett points out to one officer, Martinez, who even though he sticks to the same rules, brings out the weight and impact of a crime. It’s an amazing lesson that can shared with police reporters hoping to make their stories jump to the reader.
From the post:
“So how can I identify Martinez from a single sentence? Why do his reports make me feel pity, terror, or despair? Make me want to put a bullet in someone’s brain – preferably a wife beater’s or a pedophile’s, but occasionally my own? How does he use words on paper to hammer at my heart? Like all great cops, Sergeant Martinez is a sneaky fucker. He’s also a master of inflection and narrative voice.”
No, not the Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson jump out of a plane and then climb Everest bucket list. But, come to think of it, the notion of a got-to-do-this-before-I-die list may be fitting.
This is the list of stories a reporter wants to write, plans to write, has started to write, but hasn’t. We all have one.
Like the child distracted by a shiny object, completely obsessed with it until the next light comes along, we start to build up the list. They’re on post-ids on the computer screen, scribbles on a moleskin notebook, e-mails addressed to yourself. However they’re listed, they’re a nagging feeling in the back of your mind because day in and day out you have to put up with the grind.
Yup. The grind. The routine and responsibilities of daily stories that have to be published in this world of immediate news.
Seems lately my stack of bucket stories has been growing faster than I can mark off. Each of them have had some level of reporting done, but they’re there. Waiting for me.
Their sentences start to construct themselves in the middle of my commute, creeping up on me while I’m stuck on the I-5 freeway. Story leads pop up in the middle of a shower, or suddenly in the middle of my sleep.
I’m not sure how other reporters feel about them, but it’s frustrating for me. Seems there are great stories to be told, and I hate holding to them for too long. But the wait is inevitable. There are daily breaking news stories that have to be covered. There are fires to be written, robberies to be covered, arrests to be published.
And the bucket stays there, getting an item picked up intermittently while waiting for someone to return a phone call – the only time I hope they take their time.
The bucket list.
It’s where good stories are sometimes developed, allowed to mature and and ripen in contrast to the immediacy of everything else. It’s where you can fiddle with stories without the pressures of a coming deadline that can’t be dropped. It’s where stories can grow, where they can be adjusted to say exactly what you meant.
Most I’ve been in are slow days with little action. But today, I shared a patrol car with three deputies in Dana Point, sharing a patrol car with each one of them as they talked about their experiences in their beats.
The day was slow with hardly any calls, with the potential of being another lackluster day, but it didn’t turn out that way. We drove through nearly every city street, to trailer park communities, government housing and one of the most exclusive communities in Orange County. We cruised through major arterial streets, million dollar communities and the alleys between hotels, behind freeways and empty lots were transients have made their tent homes.
The deputies I rode with knew the first names and criminal history of homeless men waiting at the recycling center, and of the elderly couple in the $6 million home who called authorities two years ago over a disturbance call. Deputies readily recalled the history of parolees who are often troublesome, the day-laborer who negotiates prices for the rest of the men, and of the homeowner who has the ear of one of the homeowner associations.
These were deputies who time after time demonstrated examples of knowing the neighborhoods they patrol, familiar not just the names of the players involved, but of the problems in the neighborhood that need to be addressed. And I’m not just referring to policing problems, but issues regarding neighbor disputes, familial problems, and city issues.
Instead, I was able to sit with deputies in their environment and talk about the city they patrol in, and of the problems they need to address every day.
I am working on a story regarding police services in the city. I’m sure I will share more later. But it was a good experience to ride with deputies who can share a detailed history of a city, and who are fully informed to be able to answer questions with great detail.
Not every day of work nets a thoroughly reported article that is impacting throughout the county. Some days, like this past Monday, are days that generate one tragic news story after another.
These are stories where you are trying to gather as much information as possible about a breaking news incident, and post it online with as many facts as possible. And thanks to the web, you can continue to update the story repeatedly through the day.