The Strange Poetry of Police Reports

I don’t live very well. I’m poor in a town that’s seen better days. I’m poor in a town that closes up as soon as it’s dark out. I’m poor in a town that is wracked by paranoia and fear and sees gun control as a nebulous evil scheme perpetrated by faraway cities. To the extent that I have an inner monologue, my prevailing concern is alienation. In a town so private and quiet, it’s very easy to think I’m the only person who doesn’t live well.

Which of course is bullshit. Most people don’t live very well. They just hide it. They’re poor and lonely in their apartments, or their houses, or their cars, and they drift around their respective niches on the outskirts. But still it’s easy to make the mistake of feeling special, as if I’m the only twenty-something who’s poor and lives in the sticks.

I’m on the internet too much. I spew thousands of words on bands that will never play in my town, and I say phrases I’ve never heard anybody use in real life, like “avant-garde” or “outsider art” or “content.” And I’m just hollering into the void. It’s all alienation, the whole way down.

How do I cope? I read sheriff and police reports.

I read them because my town is uncomfortably quiet, because its character doesn’t present itself out in the open. During my phase when I was basically a drifter with a student loan, I’d go out on the weekend and walk around for sometimes 8 or 9 hours, looking for something worth photographing. Just waiting for something to happen. And almost nothing ever did. I never got any idea how people lived, why the place existed. I still thought I was special: the lone survivor of economic apocalypse.

Reading the sheriff’s report levels the playing field. It’s not a newspaper. They don’t have to sell or distribute. It’s not a PR firm. There’s no image to maintain. It’s just an honest depiction of what the sheriff sees when people call. And the narrative synopsis of a particular call is never misleading. It’s how people live in this town, with the artifice stripped away.


Beneath the quietness, it gets dark right away.


There’s a predictable pattern of the daily narratives. As much as half of every report was accidental 911 calls by children. And many of the calls were dead ends, where someone saw, for example, an unfamiliar RV across the street a few hours ago. People were always overeager to report innocuous hooliganism. Several reports were just disinterested follow-ups on teenagers who were caught with beer or cigarettes in the high school parking lot.

So there was a lot of white noise. Accidental 911 call. Johnny has a carton of cigarettes. Accidental 911 call. Dog in the road. Accidental 911 call. Transient apprehended buying cigarettes for a “Johnny.” But then out jumps strangeness again.


The result is a very specific picture of a town. There are recurring names, of repo men and feuding neighbors. There are recurring themes. Often, it’s escape through drugs or alcohol. As well, a kind of paranoid ghostliness, a sense that people isolated outside of town let their imaginations run wild when a tree branch falls over.


Many of the entries from surrounding communities are the only significant public record of people so isolated that they barely exist, farmers who no longer do a lot of farming and people whose world hasn’t changed much since the Carter administration. People with signs that say things like “STICK YOUR FIRE TAX GOVERNOR MOONBEAM” and “SOCIALISM = COMMUNISM.” Places where the only concession to modernity is a satellite dish.

Entries from the outskirts of town are usually startling. After the comfortable noise of kids calling 911 and Johnny with his Marlboros, you’ll find one near the county line and hope it’s about a pet llama that cries too much or a cow blocking the road, because if it’s not, the entire first act of a Lynch movie just happened. Someone dangerous who appeared and then was gone. A nude woman standing on a secluded hill. A man dressed all in black with his head hanging low. Property disputes are a pleasant relief after a few entries of rural terror.


The dichotomy is striking. In the town itself, people are quiet, and generally afraid of rising crime rates. But out in the country, where there are houses not meant to ever be found, there’s a sense of lawlessness, where people have been too hardened by rain and fire to care if Johnny stole a beer from the convenience store. Anything illegal that can happen with a chainsaw happens in the country. Chainsaws and shotguns come up almost as often as people in the rural reports.

But really, that kind of doom doesn’t come up often. More common is people doing their best in an area hit hard by the recession. People who got desperate and stayed desperate. People who are too concerned with staying above water to worry about alienation or loneliness and must accept it.



Looking at the realities of crime in a small town is a look over the emotional fence of those places where nothing ever seems to happen, where isolation is almost encouraged. It’s what a town looks like without the selective filtering of a Wikipedia article or a nice stock photo. And there’s something beautiful about that.

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  • Dragoon21b

    This reads like “Howl”…I can’t help but wonder if the past decade hasn’t created a new generation of “beats”…I wouldn’t be surprised…they have cause to be

    • This is from the most recent Arcadia, CA police report:

      Saturday, March 15:
      13. Just before 11:30 a.m., an officer made contact with a subject who was unlawfully camping on the side of the 99 Cent Store, 140 East Duarte Road. The subject’s camp site had grown significantly larger since a week ago when the same officer directed him to stop camping. The 68-year-old White male was cited in the field without incident.

  • Wisdom Lover

    I too live in a small town–not quite this depressing though–and I like to read the police reports. Here is one I found:KITTEN STOLEN — Caller in the 400 block of East Gobbi Street reported at 10:16 p.m. Saturday that a neighbor’s kitten had been stolen. The caller later reported that the animal had been returned.

  • PubOption

    What does RP mean?

  • mtn_philosoph

    Wow, Kaleb… you’re writing about my town now? Actually, most of the police reports here sort out into three broad categories: 1) driving while intoxicated, which about half the time includes… 2) possession of small amounts of demon hemp weed and asst. paraphernalia, 3) violations of orders of protection.Incidents of graffiti tagging get major coverage in the local press here because they are so rare.During the winter, especially early in the season, there are also… 4) road mishaps, involving vehicles which… (a) slid off roadway / failed to negotiate curve / skidded into oncoming traffic lane and (b) came to rest / collided with… (c) guardrail / tree / snowbank / another vehicle (or ) (d) rolled over. Driver(s) / passenger(s) complained of… (e) neck pain / back pain / no injuries reported and (f) refused treatment / was transported to (local emergency room), where he(she)(they) was(were) (g) admitted to (hospital) / treated and released. Driver was ticketed for… (h) crossing the center line of the road / following too close / speed unsafe for road conditions / no tickets issued / accident is still under investigation.

  • maco415


  • James McCarty Yeager

    fine work indeed mr horton. you remind me of this fine passage of english fiction: Holmes had been buried in the morning papers [in the train] all the way down, but after we had passed the Hampshire border he threw them down and began to admire the scenery. It was an ideal spring day, a light blue sky, flecked with little fleecy white clouds drifting across from west to east. The sun was shining very brightly, and yet there was an exhilarating nip in the air, which set an edge to a man’s energy. All over the countryside, away to the rolling hills around Aldershot, the little red and gray roofs of the farm-steadings peeped out from amid the light green of the new foliage.“Are they not fresh and beautiful?” I cried with all the enthusiasm of a man fresh from the fogs of Baker Street. But Holmes shook his head gravely. “Do you know, Watson,” said he, “that it is one of the curses of a mind with a turn like mine that I must look at everything with reference to my own special subject. You look at these scattered houses, and you are impressed by their beauty. I look at them, and the only thought which comes to me is a feeling of their isolation and of the impunity with which crime may be committed there.” “Good heavens!” I cried. “Who would associate crime with these dear old homesteads?” “They always fill me with a certain horror. It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.” “You horrify me!” “But the reason is very obvious. The pressure of public opinion can do in the town what the law cannot accomplish. There is no lane so vile that the scream of a tortured child, or the thud of a drunkard’s blow, does not beget sympathy and indignation among the neighbours, and then the whole machinery of justice is ever so close that a word of complaint can set it going, and there is but a step between the crime and the dock. But look at these lonely houses, each in its own fields, filled for the most part with poor ignorant folk who know little of the law. Think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on, year in, year out, in such places, and none the wiser.” —“The Adventure of the Copper Beeches,” Sir A. Conan Doyle (1892)

  • wallydog

    There’s a song about your town.

  • NadRettek

    Nicely written, sir. I too enjoy a good perusal of the local sheriff and/or state police reports. We were even peripherally involved in one once.

  • malsperanza

    Good clean plain-voiced writing in the best American idiom. Well done.

  • Wisdom Lover

    Here’s a good one:WOMAN POOPED IN FRONT OF BUSINESS — Caller in the 300 block of South School Street reported at 9:51 a.m. Wednesday that a woman defecated and changed her clothes in front of the business. An officer responded but she was gone, and he left a message for the streets department to clean up the mess.

  • MilwaukeeKent

    Nicely done, Horton! These have an evocative, “Our Town” (the play) quality to them.Years ago when I did filing work for the Municipal Court here, I’d read the citations and some were pure poetry. This the exact wording for one I did turn into a poem, providing only the line breaks.SUBJECTSubject was observedLaying with another subjectBeneath a treeIn the middle of the cemeteryAfter duskAnd during a full moon