In a small town, the police blotter can be big news

 

The biggest deterrent to crime in a small rural town may be the newspaper's police blotter. With so little crime news, every infraction makes it into print. Worse, since everybody knows everybody, even your tiniest speeding ticket goes into a gigantic Gossip Database, to be recalled by little old ladies at the least appropriate moments.

At least, that's the folk wisdom. But I've always suspected it's more complicated than that.

I live in a town of about 2,000 people, a county seat with a bit of tourism. That's actually too big for the best kind of police blotter: the one that lists every single call any officer made. Whenever I visit smaller towns, I delight in reading what really occupies most of a cop's day: lost cats, phantom burglars, or nicked fenders.

Instead, our local paper runs a "Ledger" of court appearances. Since lost cats rarely lead to legal action, this is a higher threshold, and you learn less about day-to-day life. But you do learn names, which makes it a very popular feature. In small-town papers, the Ledger and the Classifieds — hidden on inside pages and printed in the smallest possible type — are the first things readers turn to.

The Ledger tells you who was charged with what crime, and often provides a follow-up weeks later, when the judge makes a ruling. The Fifth Amendment may prohibit a person being tried twice for the same crime, but the Ledger is less kind. When you read about So-and-So's sentence, you think, "Wow, he was just in the Ledger last month!" — thus projecting him as more delinquent than he really is.

Over the years, however, I have grown discontented with our town's police blotter. Part of it is trying to translate legal jargon into dastardly deeds. When someone I knew was arrested on marijuana charges several years ago, he was delighted that it appeared in the Ledger as "possession of a Class IV substance." He knew the gossips couldn't do much with a charge they didn't understand.

Worse, even if you can decipher the meaning, many of the crimes seem banal. Speeding ticket? Expired plates? Stop-sign violation? (I can just picture that stop sign. Nobody stops there.) Yet I'm not so morbid as to hope for a drunk-driving or domestic-partner assault.

Also tiresome is sifting through all the outsiders: the out-of-state hunting violators, the out-of-county boaters with improper paperwork, the Ohio tourists who probably still thought Montana had no speed limits. If I wanted lists of unfamiliar names, I could just read an out-of-town phone book.

But one week last winter, our police blotter accidentally acquired an additional feature: the age of the accused. I say "accidentally" because the ages have since disappeared again; I believe the paper's policy is not to print ages, but for one week the reporter forgot.

Did that week's police blotter make worthwhile reading! After all, though it's not very interesting to learn that Joe Blow got a speeding ticket, it's extremely interesting to find out how old he is.

I knew Johnnie, the shortstop on our softball team, was a crafty veteran. But 43? My goodness, that's old. My admiration for his athletic skills skyrocketed — and I immediately forgot the "registration violation" that landed him in the Ledger. And Mark: I must have missed his 40th birthday party. And Michael, whose face I can picture, though I can't remember how I met him… yeah, if I had to guess, I'd say he was about 44.

I was reading that issue of the paper at a local café. On her first day of work, the new waitress was very attentive. As I paid before leaving, another waitress formally introduced us. "Of course." I thought to myself, hearing her name. "I just read about you."

But this isn't at all anything you can say out loud: "I just read about you in the Ledger." And already I'd forgotten what sort of traffic violation she'd been charged with. So I just nodded and said something polite.

While I was thinking: "25! I wouldn't have guessed you were a day over 21!"

John Clayton is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives and writes in Red Lodge, Montana.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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