In every police station across the country, no matter how big or small, you will find an arrest book.
Handwritten into the arrest book will be the name, address and age of every person arrested that day in that particular police jurisdiction, along with the specific criminal charge or charges that police arrested them on, and the date and time they were booked.
By law, the arrest book must be open to the public 24 hours a day so the public can see who has been taken off the streets by their government, unlike in those Third World countries where police occasionally snatch people off the street and just shrug when family and friends show up asking what happened to Uncle Pasquale.
In addition to the arrest book always having to be available for public scrutiny, the arrest book must remain intact without any missing pages, and once information is written into the book, it can not be changed or erased or covered up in any manner. The book is always left out at the booking desk, with the pages spread open, and there is room to write in about forty arrests on each page.
Back in the late ’70s and early ’80s in the Deep South when I was a police beat newspaper reporter, the arrest books were giant leather-bound tomes with ledger pages that looked a lot like the log Ebenezer Scrooge used to write down the money that people owed to him. As a police reporter, I routinely made the rounds of the city police departments, the sheriff’s offices and the state police offices to look at their respective arrest books to see which lucky people would become fodder for the pages of the next day’s newspaper. The arrest book was very impartial. It didn’t matter if you were a skid row bum arrested for vagrancy or if you were the son of a state senator arrested for date rape. If you got popped, you ended up in the arrest book. No exceptions.
The arrest book is monitored by a desk sergeant who is also the person you talk to if you don’t have a phone to call 911 and instead walk to the police station to let someone know you’ve just been carjacked. Just like in the movies, the desk sergeant is always a cantankerous mofo who never smiles and will actually get a pained look on his face whenever a citizen walks in.
Part of my beat included a few smaller city police departments within our two county area, and one, in particular, looked like it was the setting for that classic 1960s movie In the Heat of the Night. Every cop on that tiny force was short and fat, was the spitting image of Rod Steiger from the movie, and invariably was called Bubba, regardless of what name his parents had christened him with. I say “his” name because there were no female cops on this particular force, and the only blacks and Hispanics ever in that building were the ones behind bars in the jail on the second floor.
When I checked the arrest book late one night at that police station, I had to do a double-take. I could not read a single word on the two open pages. Because they were covered, actually soaked, with blood, still shiny and wet.
I looked at the desk sergeant, back at the arrest book, and back at the sergeant.
He did the same, looking at me, then the arrest book, then back at me. He smiled.
But of course, he did not say a word. He was enjoying himself. If I wanted to know what happened, I would have to ask. By and large, desk sergeants are all assholes.
“So, what happened?” I asked.
“What do you mean?
“The arrest book.”
“What about it?”
“It’s covered with blood.”
Like I said, assholes one and all.
I didn’t say another word. I would not give him the satisfaction.
Finally, he spilled. Turns out two Bubbas had arrested a black guy for a barroom brawl at one of the local juke joints. While they were booking him, he kept getting louder and louder, his major complaint being about why he had been arrested while the other guy wasn’t. Despite the fact his hands were cuffed behind his back, the man-made the grievous error of switching from complaining about his arrest to questioning the sexual proclivities of the mothers of the two Bubbas. Whereupon, one of the Bubbas placed his hand on the back of the man’s head and then slammed his face into the middle of the arrest book, shattering his nose and spraying the pages with crimson blood. The complainant had then crumpled to the ground, out cold.
“That’s why the book is covered with blood,” said the desk sergeant. “And you know I can’t tear those pages out.”
“How am I supposed to read who’s been arrested today?”
“Not my problem.”
He was right. Not only could he not tear the pages out, the most he could do was wipe up the blood with a paper towel, and if the dried smeared blood made it hard, or even impossible, to read the writing on those two pages, nothing could be done. Changing anything in the arrest book would be like screwing around with the stone tablets the Ten Commandments were chiseled on.
Over the next few months I watched as those red-edged pages went further and further to the back of the arrest book, a constant reminder of why, when you are handcuffed, you should be as polite as possible to the boys in blue. I’m sure that over the ensuing months first-time arrestees wondered what those red-edged pages were, and I’m just as sure that repeat offenders standing handcuffed in front of that arrest book knew exactly what those red-edged pages were and how they got into that condition and wisely kept their mouths shut.
The same desk sergeant was on duty one night months later as I was reading the arrest book when another Bubba walked in the front door of the police station, just chuckling away. (Spoiler alert: the n-word is about to be used; I don’t condone it, but I can’t change what was said and what I heard four decades ago.)
“What’s so funny Bubba?” asked the desk sergeant.
“You won’t believe it,” said Bubba, catching the attention of a half dozen other officers at the station.
“Do tell,” said the desk sergeant.
“Well, I was up on ol’ Highway 80, parked behind that Shell gas station. You know the one?”
“And this nigger in a big ass yellow Cadillac goes screaming by at about ninety miles an hour.”
The desk sergeant smiled as did the other cops in the station.
Bubba, warming to his story, rolled a wad of chewing tobacco with his tongue from his left cheek to his right cheek, hitched up his gun belt a bit, and said, “So I took off after him.”
“Yeah, and what happened?”
“You won’t believe it. When he saw my flashing lights behind him, he just pulled right over.”
“Nope. He pulled over and before I could get out of my cruiser, that boy jumped out of his car, closed the door, spread his legs, leaned over and put his hands on his car roof, put his head down, and was as still as a church mouse.”
“No shit. What’d you do?”
“I walked up to him and said, ‘Boy, what the hell are you doing?’”
“What’d he say?”
“He said, ‘Officer, I’s from LA. This is how we does it out there.”
“What’d you do, Bubba?”
“Damn, I was laughing so hard, I just let that nigger go!”
This was the same police department where a few years earlier some of the more industrious and imaginative detectives got into trouble for thinking outside the box when it came to interrogating suspects. They would take a suspect for a nice leisurely drive out into the woods, pop the hood of their unmarked police car, pull down the suspect’s pants and underwear, hook one end of a set of jumper cables to the car battery and the other end to the dangling balls of the suspect, rev up the car engine, and then ask, “Where were you on the night of …”
Needless to say, they got plenty of confessions and solved lots of crimes in a rather expeditious manner, simply by using a $15 set of jumper cables. They had guys confessing to kidnapping the Lindbergh baby.
But then some party-pooper blew the whistle, the Feds came in, the detectives got canned, and after that the jumper cables were just used to jump-start cars.
So much for rewarding initiative.
The Lieutenant who ran the detective division at the Bubba police department was a relatively young guy who, to me, did not seem to fit in at that police department. He was certainly not a Bubba. He was tall, good looking and always dressed immaculately in nice suits with silk ties. He was a college graduate and I spent many hours in his office talking with him about interesting subjects not related to police business. In a police station of tobacco-spitting, cowboy boot-wearing, head-bashing redneck cops, he seemed out of place.
I’m not sure how the subject came up, but one day he told me the story of how he had run over and killed a man on, of all places, good ol’ Highway 80.
He was in his unmarked detective car heading to the station one morning when a young man tried to run across the highway, misjudging the distance and the speed of the lieutenant’s approaching car. The lieutenant didn’t see the man until the last moment, tried unsuccessfully to swerve to miss him, but ended up hitting him and killing him.
“It was an accident, pure and simple,” said the lieutenant. “But you know what the worst part of it is? You can only do that once. If it ever happened again, people would start to talk.”
That’s exactly what he said.
Maybe I was wrong about the Lieutenant not fitting in.