Sunday, March 4, 2012

Cop shop memories: If the walls of the vacated Duluth police headquarters could talk...

By Jim Heffernan

So, the Duluth Police Department has moved out of its long-time headquarters in City Hall. It’s the end of an era. I hate to put that in such a clichéd way, but it really is, after some 80 years in that location.

I used to spend quite a bit of time in what we at the Duluth newspaper across the street called “the cop shop.” Around the newsroom it never was referred to as police headquarters verbally. It was only called that in stories.

Newspapers, and Duluth’s was and is no exception, get a goodly amount of the news they report out of the cop shop, and its offshoot the courts. Accordingly, reporters are regularly assigned to cover police activities almost exclusively.

The “police beat” was usually given to the younger, more eager reporters back when I started my journalism career in the early 1960s. I always enjoyed covering the police, which, on most days, was fairly routine. But every once in awhile it would get hot, and then it was really interesting.

Routine coverage involved a reporter trudging across the street to the cop shop a couple of times a day and engaging whatever officer was manning the desk -- the “desk sergeant.” He took all the calls from the public. These were sometimes cops who had been injured or ailing or getting older, but some seemed to enjoy it and did long stints behind the desk.

At one end of the elevated desk where the desk sergeant sat was a lined ledger into which every call to police was recorded. This was known as the “kick book.” It was public record and the news media’s main means of finding out what was going on with the police. The desk sergeant would write the name of every caller and what that caller had said. The book also included the comings and goings of the various squads and suspects booked into the city jail so as a reporter you could get a pretty good idea of their activities.

Ninety-five percent of the stuff in the kick book was not news, but if something really important and newsworthy had happened, it would be recorded there unless it wasn’t recorded there. There were times when things didn’t make it into the kick book in a timely manner.

You get to know a lot of cops when you are the police beat reporter. Some are friendlier than others. There is natural tension between police and journalists that must always be bridged. Sometimes they don’t like it when the public’s right to know supersedes their desire to say nothing and just get on with their investigations.

I had several memorable moments in those City Hall quarters the police are now leaving – some of them involving tragic occurrences in people’s lives. There were times when you didn’t even want to go back to the paper and report things, knowing how it would affect the lives of those closely involved.

During one period of my reporting career I used to have a mini press conference each day at 10 a.m. with the chief of detectives. We usually just sat and chatted when nothing much was going on. But I’ll never forget one day when he said he didn’t have anything for me, but Superior police were holding a very prominent Duluthian on a morals charge. It ended that person’s career.

There were amusing times, too. One Sunday morning when I went in to check the kick book, I ran into an officer from my National Guard unit, wearing a disheveled tuxedo, there to bail out of jail his newly minted son-in-law who had, shall we say, misbehaved at the wedding reception the night before. The bride was not in sight. (This was not news, by the way. Family troubles usually were not news.)

I could go on and on with tales of murder and mayhem – yes mayhem -- but I’ll relate just one more memory from my days at the cop shop. One of the detective inspectors was retiring and I was assigned to do a story on his career. I had known him quite well and enjoyed sitting down with him for an interview. He’d been on the force for decades and, he said, “I never fired my gun.”

Wow. I made that a big part of my story.  Retiring veteran police officer never fired a gun in 30 – or however many – years of police work. Good angle.

A long time later, I think after the retired cop had died, I happened upon an old Duluth newspaper from the 1930s reporting that this same officer had engaged in a wild motorcycle chase of some suspects in which volleys of gunfire had been exchanged.

Hmmm. Never fired his gun, huh? Must have forgotten.

I began with a cliché, so I might as well end with one. Regarding those first-floor City Hall offices the Duluth police are vacating? If those walls could talk…   

No comments: