Journalists who earn their experience on newspaper beats covering fire and police services quickly learn police graveyard humor and every fire station practical joke. It is easier to practice the jokes on rookie reporters.
While the paragraph at the bottom of this column notes I have more than four decades experience working as a reporter and editor, it does not reflect that more than half of that time involved covering courts, police and fire beats for daily newspapers.
Ask any police reporter and they will probably tell you it is the best beat on a paper. You see the best and the worst in people.
For years I have carried a quote in my billfold that explains that comparison better than I can: “I read the sports pages first because they record man’s accomplishments,” former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren once said. “The front pages record his failures.”
Courtrooms provide better drama than any television show or movie. It’s real. Under oath man’s finest and worst actions are revealed.
Juries I have observed demonstrated common sense in their deliberations. They range from deliberating less than an hour before returning a guilty verdict in a heinous crime and recommending the death penalty to reflecting tender hearts when tragedy has struck.
If you are looking for pure entertainment, find out when sessions of district court, formerly municipal court, are scheduled and reserve several hours for tears and laughter.
District courts usually provide justice on the street level. Some of the excuses offered by defendants are inventive, while others are just plain dumb. Don’t be surprised if a judge calls a defendant by his or her first name because it usually means they have met before, often several times.
Be prepared to even witness a judge shedding tears when you cover a trial involving parents charged with child neglect after they refused a blood transfusion for their child because of religious beliefs.
Firefighters have a sense of humor that can only be described as a bit warped. These are men – and now women – who eat together and sleep under the same station roof and answer hours of boredom with practical jokes.
At one station they literally lifted my Volkswagen “Bug” onto an elevated area two feet above the sidewalk. I agreed to make a donation to the department’s flower fund for ill firemen and funerals to ransom the car.
You also learn to use the backdoor when following fire trucks to a major blaze. Circling around behind the blaze can mean your car will not be blocked in by fire hoses stretched across streets.
Firemen also pass on good advice: Always approach a propane or fuel tank on fire from the side, never the end.
The end will rupture first and you have not lived until you must outrun a flaming tank that resembles a large bottle rocket.
Police for their entire demeanor have soft hearts they don’t often advertise.
A fatherly veteran deputy sheriff shot and fatally wounded a teenager in my presence as the teen held another officer at gunpoint following an armed robbery. The deputy had no alternative, but held the dying teen’s head in his lap as the youth repeatedly asked, “Am I gonna die?”
The deputy and his sheriff both cried as they testified at a coroner’s inquest.
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Larry Fugate is a veteran journalist and former editor of The Pine Bluff Commercial. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (870) 329-7010.