Sunday, September 19, 2010

Cracking the Code

When you’re a police reporter, the scanner becomes your constant companion.

That’s where so many stories begin. You’re sitting at your desk, making the daily phone calls to the various police departments you cover, looking for news.

And then that scanner starts beeping over your shoulder.

The dispatcher calls out the numbers, the codified mayhem that tells you if there’s a fire, car wreck, or armed robbery happening somewhere in your coverage area. You listen for the location, who is responding, and then decide if it’s worth going out there yourself. Some days that scanner can feel a lot like a ball and chain.

I was a police reporter at the Pocono Record in Stroudsburg, PA for five years starting in 1988 and it didn’t take me long to memorize the important numbers.

Back then an armed robbery was a page one story—“page one all the way,” as my editor used to say; but, given the way the Poconos have grown, I don’t think a stick-up rates more than a fewer paragraphs today.

There was a brief period when I actually had a scanner going on in my apartment so I could hear police calls in my off-hours. I’m happy to say that particular laspe of sanity quickly passed.

On one especially active night, when I was the only reporter in the newsroom, my editor, fearing the worst, looked at the scanner and said “unplug that thing.”

I covered a lot of wild stories in my time as a scanner rat—huge pile-ups on I-80, suicides, multiple-alarm fires—all sorts of grisly incidents where I got the chance to see the carnage behind the codes.

It was exciting, but I’d rather dig ditches than go back to that line or work. Or at least I think so.

Yesterday for some reason I found myself recalling a story I covered that had started when I heard an unusual code coming out of the scanner--I think the dispatcher said something like “Code 15.”

There wasn’t the usual 10-prefix, as in 10-45 for a car accident or 10-55 for a fire, but I got the feeling it was important, so I picked up the clipboard that held several pages’ worth of police and fire codes and went down the list.

I didn’t find anything until I looked at the ambulance code list-I hardly used it—and there it was: “Code 15—Gunshot.”

Somebody got shot? That was normally a police call because usually the cops had to get the shooter, but this one was coming in as ambulance call.

The dispatcher read off an address in Mount Pocono and then finally spoke English: “Gunshot wound to the head.”

There were no doubts about whether I'd go or not. I was out the door, in my car, and heading north on I-80. When I got to Mount Pocono, I found the street where the home was located and drove until I saw the ambulances and police cars.

Back then the town had it’s own police department—there is a regional force there now—and the chief, Dave Swiderski, filled me in on what had happened.

Dave said two teenaged boys had somehow gotten hold of a handgun and, well, you know what happened next. The gun went off accidentally while one boy was holding it and his friend was hit in the head.

There was no shootout, no robbery gone bad, no domestic assault; there was no bad guy or gang banger to be handcuffed and thrown into the back of a patrol car. It was just two kids making a terrible mistake.

At the Scene

The victim was in very bad shape and he was going to be flown by helicopter to a hospital in Allentown. His father, a volunteer firefighter, would be called out to help set up a landing area for the chopper. The police wanted to get to him first and tell him what was going on before he found out at the scene.

I’ll never forget how Dave started to leave and then he turned back and looked at me.

“Some days I really hate this job,” he said plaintively.

I hung around the scene for a little while longer. A man who turned out to be the shooter’s father was standing by himself nearby shaking his head.

“I can’t believe this is happening,” he said, his voice cracking.

I didn’t ask this man any questions—there was no point in harassing the guy. I went back to the office where I learned that the victim had died and that the police weren’t to going file any charges against his friend. I wrote up the story and went home.

The case faded from my memory, since there was always plenty of mayhem going on to keep me busy. But perhaps 8 or 10 months later, the story made a return visit to my life.

I was back in Mount Pocono on a cold winter’s night. Members of the county drug task force had picked up a heavyweight cocaine dealer who was hiding out in Miami and brought him in to face charges in Pennsylvania.

The guy had a house in town and after he was arraigned and taken to jail, I walked around asking people in his neighborhood if they knew him, what he was like--the usual reporter stuff.

I approached two teenaged girls and it turned out they went to school with the dealer’s son—he’s a nice kid, they told me. I got some more quotes from them and asked their names.

“You can’t use my name,” one girl said. “My dad really hates your paper.”

I wasn’t very fond of my paper myself at that time and I was tempted to tell her that, but instead I asked why.

It turned out that this girl’s dad was also the father of the boy who had died in the accidental shooting so many months earlier; the girl was the dead boy’s sister.

She said her father was angry that my story had mentioned the name of the boy who had accidentally fired the gun. The boy was a minor and he hadn’t been charged with anything, so the families felt there was no reason to print his name.

All I could say was that the police had given me the name, but that’s awfully weak. Juveniles who commit actual crimes never see their names in print; why did we treat this kid differently? I wish I had thought of that when I was writing the story.

The girl started to tear up and I apologized to her and quickly left.

Mount Pocono’s a small town, so I guess it wasn’t too surprising to meet up with someone connected to a story I had covered.

But this chance meeting reminded me that the scanner can't tell us about the people who are suffer in these incidents and that there is no code for the pain I saw in that young girl’s eyes.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What an exciting job! But it's so true, what we see as headlines in a newspaper, are connected to real people. For them, it's not just a headline, sadly, it is real.