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.