Photo: Kelly Bracken
Retired law enforcement officers are funny creatures. Emancipated from the job, many nonetheless revisit it in their sleep with a frequency that may well surprise those still on duty.
Recently, I had a dream in which I was once again working patrol. But rather than writing or dictating our reports, we were drawing them.
The report writing room became a drawing room populated with cops whose talents at rendering were as varied as the subjects they tackled. Some employed the kind of basic stick figures normally found occupying the lower left portion of rear vehicle windows, while others favored a kind of bobble-headed imagery evocative of a Charles Schulz pulling a Joseph Wambaugh. A sizable representation were downright abstract despite their creators' best efforts for them not to be. None appeared to have been graduates of any of the art schools appearing on matchbooks and the back pages of comic books.
For my part, I proved remarkably adept at channeling the style of MAD magazine's Dave Berg (most counter-intuitive as I would have chosen Neal Adams in any conscious reality).
The whole thing seemes pretty bizarre now, but it is a habit of most dreamers to wholly buy into the precepts of whatever their subconscious mind has conjured for their nocturnal entertainments and I am no exception. Certainly, I found it most agreeable that the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department's motto—the ill-defined "A Tradition of Service"—had given way to a new credo: "A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words—or Thirty-to-Life."
Still, there were problems.
Some deputies had a difficult time drawing things to scale or in proper proportions (you thought Barbie's boobs were unrealistic...?). Others repeated the same rendering 10 times (and in the case of one unfortunate LAPD/CHP use-of-force incident involving some dude named R. King, 57 times). The traffic guys were embedding diagrams within diagrams, leaving audiences wondering where the investigative narrative began and ended and thereby proving themselves as masters of the confused narrative in multiple media. And while the department afforded its every badged Norman Rockwell all the drawing paper they could want, it was with the expectation that they'd use only what they needed.
The reviewing watch sergeant proved no fan of the arts—at least as it was perpetrated by his underlings. Still, he took his job seriously for he knew that some editorial cartoonist who would sure as hell be doing his own version of events, and that his would be the one the world would see and talk about. As such, he treated absent panels like the missing 18 minutes of Watergate tapes. "Look, Picaso, what the hell happened to his nose? Did the suspect do that? Or did you?" He said, berating one of the patrol officers.
Still, it didn't matter whether someone was a cubist, an impressionist, or an expressionist—as police "Etch a Sketch" artists everyone was expected to offer up their talents, even if their choice of medium was pastels, colored pencils, or fingerpainting. In some cases, their natural Warner Brothers style complemented the subject matter, as when some Romeo patronized the wrong bedroom window and daddy beat the crap out of him in much the same manner the sheepdog would take care of the coyote.
Typically, even in my dream I was bitching and whining, wondering why we couldn't just take pictures in the field.
What did it all mean?
I'd like to think that the point of the dream was recognizing that no matter how naturally capable any given deputy is within law enforcement, all are expected to produce an accurate transcription of their investigations. And that no matter how reasonable the expectation, they will invariably exhibit varying degrees of proficiency at the endeavor. Some will needlessly repeat theselves, others will gloss over pertinent details, and some outsider who isn't even privy to the particulars of the case will have the final say in the news media.
But then I might be drawing something else. A bad conclusion.
The seeds for the dream may have been planted in the form of a chat I had with a gentleman recently. The man had at one time worked for the Los Angeles times and had known the Pulitzer prize-winning editorial cartoonist Paul Conrad, as they'd worked in neighboring offices.
The Paul Conrad that he had known made no secret of the curmudgeonly contempt he held for certain politicians and no apologies for it. The man recalled the day that former President Richard Nixon passed away and how Conrad was walking around the offices going on and on about that "no good, crooked rotten sonofabitch," and how the following day his editorial cartoon was an image of a tombstone with the words beneath it "Here LIES Richard M. Nixon."
My acquaintance made comment to the effect that perhaps Conrad was going a little bit too far given the timing. More apoplectic than unapologetic, Conrad fulminated about how “Tricky Dick” had done everything he could to hurt Conrad personally and professionally.
"The son of a bitch had it coming."
"Oh, so this is just about a personal vendetta against the man."
The former Times employee said the cartoonist nodded enthusiastically. "You're damn right!"
Despite being of ideologically different mindsets, the two men had a pretty good rapport with one another and shortly before Conrad's retirement, the Times employee asked Conrad if he would mind signing several of his books for him. Conrad happily obliged, signing one "Keep on selling the advertising—the work you do allows me to do the work that I do!"
I was not surprised as to the nature of Conrad's inscription as the former advertising man and I agreed that advertising has always been and remains the life source by which newspapers run. Despite this fact, the Times had for years subsidized a constituency that has done everything it can to undermine Southern California businesses. The chickens have since come home to roost and the continuing exodus of businesses from Los Angeles county means that advertising revenue has dropped off precipitously, leaving the Times in the ironic position of prospectively being taken over by more conservative ownership, such as that of Rupert Murdoch.
I also found the anecdote interesting on another level.
Growing up in SoCal, I had long taken note of Conrad's style and targets. And law enforcement was often in his sights. Former LAPD Chief Daryl Gates was a common target, and Conrad's image of Gates flapping his hands at the sides of his head with his tongue sticking out is perhaps the most famous image of the man. But that wasn't to say that Conrad wouldn't take the occasional potshot at the LASD. After a shooting in which an LASD deputy shot a pregnant African-American woman during a bogus drug raid in 1982, killing her baby, Conrad drew a cartoon of a white baby and a black baby floating up to heaven with a sentiment to the effect of "What's the difference between abortion and being shot and killed by a deputy sheriff." That image left a bad taste in my mouth.
Given what the man had related to me of Conrad's editorial agenda, it makes me wonder what we, as a profession, had done to the man that so pissed him off. And what we might do differently in regards to such men today.