My Reporter’s Life, Part One: Pain and Suffering at the San Diego Police Department

by on October 16, 2018 · 5 comments

in History, San Diego

Credit: Min An / Pexels

By Bob Dorn

I worked for the San Diego Evening Tribune for approximately eight years and 11 months. I was just 13 months short of being vested in the retirement program when I quit. That’s okay.

If I’d stayed on at the paper I might have gone fully crazy.

I was 28 when the Trib hired me out of a small-town daily in New Jersey’s rural northwest. I think somewhere I still have a picture of myself at the Sussex County Fair — taken by the staff photographer who’d accompanied me — as I tried to milk a Holstein. Standard stuff for small-town dailies back then.

I asked the wise guy Italian Assistant Managing Editor named Larry Lusitana why he’d hired me, and he said: “We’ve had good luck with people from New Jersey.” It was only after I’d left the paper that I found out Lusitana was from that state.

Ego …

… is a great big part of reporting; it’s both a hindrance and a necessity.

Some young cats will walk into a place they’ve never been before and act as if they own it and have the right to sniff the corners of the rug. That’s a necessity; you cannot fear asking an admiral the rank of the person who prepares his coffee and how much (s)he is paid.

The line between confidence and arrogance is a shifty one. What’s App, is not what’s apt, you know what I mean? Neither is Twitter. But Nexus is very, very necessary to solid reporting, of that you can be confident.

Lots of young reporters will confuse their access to the high and mighty as evidence of their own prowess when their access to power is supplied by the news outlet they work for. If you want that admiral to cooperate you’d better not piss on his Persian carpet.

Egotism is not just a disease of the young.

I remember waiting for the elevator some time near the end of my stay at the Trib. I’d downed a dry turkey sandwich on limp white bread in the company cafeteria when three of the Union‘s veteran editors ambled toward the doors for the same ride downward to their newsroom. I’d always been uneasy around them, probably because they were the admirals of Copley’s flagship, while the Trib was considered the shabbier relative, comprised partly of former navy and army journalists who smoked and joked and were generally more human.

One of the Unionistas at the elevator, a woman, seemed uneasy; the two others were openly thuggish. I was among 12 of the Trib‘s staffers who’d just won the Pulitzer Prize (more about that later) and the Union at that point never had that ultimate high award, so I was tempted to think their unhappiness was related to us punks winning the blue ribbon.

I stepped aside to let the three in and said something like, “Union first.” The dude editor who’d worked for the Washington Post muttered something like, “The way it ought to be” and I came back with, “Not if you’ve just won a 12th of the Pulitzer Prize.”

The other male of the threesome, who’d won a Pulitzer while at PBS, said, “Well I have the whole of one.” Nya, nya. Age doesn’t cure egotism.

I can’t remember any stories I wrote during the first six months I spent in the Trib‘s newsroom on general assignment, except for something on Gigi, Sea World’s baby killer whale. I must have passed muster because after that probationary period I was sent to cover …

The Police Department…

Screen cap via NBC7 Video

… which caused me to get up out of my bed at 5 a.m. so I could reach the beautiful Old-Spanish main station on the Embarcadero, long ago torn down and replaced by Seaport Village). In the darkness, the fog horns were blowing as I neared the station. How could I not be reminded of Max Miller’s memoir, I Cover the Waterfront, set in the place where I was walking?

By landline I’d first check in with the city desk to see if anyone had called with a tip the city editor might want a story on — an overnight murder or crash, or house fire, say — and then I’d look at the felony sheets from the previous night, before making rounds to the various departments.

Burglary …

… detectives seemed the least likely to have a story. There were so many incidents to be investigated, so few suspects to be arrested that breaking and entering was a bore, even to the cops. They talked to each other a lot to break the monotony. One of them wore suspenders, Chicago-style.

A few days into that first “beat” I entered Burglary and saw that The Suspendered One was surrounded by a few others looking over his shoulders at a small number of pictures shot by the photographer assigned to the division. One of them rolled his eyes when I entered the room and whispered something to the detective holding the prints.

He smiled at whatever was said and called me over, then explained the pictures were of a burglar interrupted and thoroughly shot up by a surprisingly adept and well-armed homeowner.

“You wanna see the photos,” he said. No, I didn’t, but I said, sure, what’s up, trying to act like it was all in a day’s work.

The young black guy was dead at the scene from multiple gunshots, at least one of which was to his groin. Someone, presumably on the overnight crew of uniformed officers, had removed the man’s pants to reveal his testicles distended probably to three times their original size. I wrestled down my reaction, maybe because I’d noticed the detectives were so intent on showing me the photos.

It was probably a test. Was I experienced? Or was I some hippy with a wannabe Afro?

Narcotics and Plainclothes

Low rider getting ticketed by SDPD. Photo via UC San Diego archives.

Burglary was certainly plainclothes, which allowed them to drive unmarked cars as well as Dacron pants and white shirts. That way they could avoid being hailed by citizens who might complain about their neighbor’s dog barking all night.

As invisible — or even disguised entirely — were the narcotics cops. Checking in with the Narcos I was immediately struck by how many there were. It seemed that every week I would see one or three undercover people I hadn’t noticed on previous visits to that department. I wondered if they were rotated in and out frequently, to avoid being ID’d by sellers and buyers, and thus made useless.

The SDPD was not Mayberry hoosiers; this was a department that knew how to fool. The agents would come from wherever, dressed either as hippies or business guys. I’m convinced many of them smoked, or otherwise used, so they could seem credible on the street.

One of them, quiet and vaguely intellectual, with a biblical beard, told me how much he enjoyed sitting on the swing he’d mounted on his front porch listening to music and smoking dope. One day, when I checked in at the department to see if anything had been busted open overnight, he and one other agent were together with the department lieutenant.

In front of his superior officer and the other narc, The Bearded One invited me over to his place so that we might get loaded. The two others said nothing and waited to hear how I responded. I didn’t. I wasn’t looking for a friend and said nothing.

You could see plainclothes people in internal affairs, and other departments, too, coming back from wherever, dressed like bums, youngish and hairy, or older, straight and business-like; perhaps they were DA investigators just visiting their lesser paid brothers.

A traffic division sergeant whom I truly admired and liked told me about one of these unknowables. “Don’t get him angry at you. He kills people.” My head went to who was killed and why, and why the sergeant was telling me? Did he expect me to do something about? If I questioned him I knew I couldn’t quote him.

There was no civilian review board, let alone any oversight of the department by some recognized outside authority like, say, the City Council? There was the internal investigations unit but they were beyond questioning, like archangels or today’s Republicans. A cop might shoot somebody. The DA would not prosecute.

Friday Night Depression

Pressure on reporters and editors is — or ought to be — moral and ethical. If a journalist must tell the truth it will take a lot of heart. You see pain and suffering and look for their cause; that’s one of the higher motives driving reporters to cajole private citizens and public officials, or to follow the records through various court departments.

Even after gaining the evidence, the story might be handed to someone else, or it might not even be published because it wasn’t, as they say, strong enough. If you know that your own comfort shouldn’t be more important than the truth and that your own judgment should be challenged by peers, you will feel heavy pressure.

The love of my life quickly picked up on all the difficulties I was facing long before we married and termed the anguish the Friday Night Depression, which was most severe at the end of the week because there was nothing to do before Monday to ask what had happened.

By Saturday, with herself, a few touches of marijuana and friends over meals, combined to recharge me.

Also, there were the copy kids — Paul, Janella, Hector, a young Samoan whose name I can’t remember — who, among other tasks processed the wire copy and did the weather page for the national news. All of them knew how to dance and jive to cut the deadly seriousness around them.

Someone might call out, “Beat yourself up, Paul.” and Omundsen would slap his face loud enough to make a noise, and beat his chest or arm with his fist.

The best prank of all was Gregg’s Walk, named after City Editor Jack Gregg, who’d stand up at his desk and step to the next desk and the next until everybody looked up and, finally, cheered, allowing him to return to his seat in the beehive.

Next: Some Big Developments

Originally published at San Diego Free Press

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

HereSince1973 October 16, 2018 at 4:45 pm

The public library has a copy of “I Cover the Waterfront”. I have read it. Well written, but there is a theory that Max had help from a female. Believe there is an article at the San Diego Reader website.

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Rufus October 17, 2018 at 7:59 am

Great story! Love your writing style. Brought back really old memories of the UT and PD.

Back in the 60s the UT would use high school student-reporters to gather high school sports scores. I was that guy at my school. I’d dutifully made the call to the UT after each football, basketball, and baseball game, giving the score and short highlights to somebody on the other end of the phone. The next day every high school team’s stats would show up in tiny numbers in the morning paper.

One day the UT hosted a bunch of us down at their old HQ at 3rd and Broadway, just west of Horton Plaza. Gosh that neighborhood was gritty back then, but the grit dissapeard quickly when we were invited into the cavernous printing plant. That was cool! Sooo many paper would come off that printing line, then loaded into distributor’s vehicles.

As far as the old PD building near today’s Seaport Village, I had to go down there one day to claim some property the cops found after my car was burglarized. Gosh, it was like some old film noior scene. That building was so very cool, with cops lined up for some sort of inspection in the patio. Years later my wife and I were going to Kansas City BBQ and had to park next to the old PD HQ, which by that time was being used by Cinderella Carriage rides. My old memories were quickly altered by the sight of horse stables in the same patio and the smell of horse pee and poo. Yikes, what a memory shift.

And finally, we visited the newest evolution of the old PD HQ last year…a touristy-trappy collection of shops and restaurants. Most of the old buildings were still there and nicely renovated, which provided me with a third memory shift of that same scene.

And finally, how many of you folks have been in San Diego long enough to know what the “green sheet” was??

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bob dorn October 18, 2018 at 11:59 am

So good to hear someone else was reminded of the noir quality of those days, when you could sniff the bad stuff in the air. Now, everything’s pretty well covered up.

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Frank Gormlie Frank Gormlie October 18, 2018 at 12:15 pm

This is a wonderful series, Bob Dorn – congrats! Just posted Part 2 on the OB Rag today.

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Frank Gormlie Frank Gormlie October 18, 2018 at 12:16 pm

I think the photo is great. Where did you find it – or was an editor’s contribution?

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