I've been inspired recently by writings from an unusual source -- Sgt. Jennifer Shockley of the Unalaska Police Department. Her brief, inventive and colorful retellings of the activities of fellow officers appear in publications throughout Alaska and are followed online by readers sprinkled throughout the world.
I must also admit to a bit of envy.
One of my jobs as a cub reporter for the Peninsula Clarion in the early 1980s was straightforward:
1. Walk over to the Kenai police and fire departments and pick up the stack of photocopied activity reports.
2. Add them to the reports that a colleague had collected in Soldotna.
3. If anything looks interesting enough to turn into a story, make some calls and flesh out the details for a full story. Otherwise, include the rest in a series of terse encapsulations, usually one to three sentences each, to run in a single column down one of the local news pages.
More often than not, those public safety briefs might look something like this:
At 12:04 a.m. Thursday, Kenai Police responded to a report of a disturbance in Ordinary Subdivision. Investigation resulted in Jane Doe, 34, being removed from the residence and taken into protective custody. At the jail, Doe became combative with officers, was charged with disorderly conduct and held at the jail pending arraignment.
This brief is mildly interesting and has potential, but it lacks the precision and detail that could bring it to life, even in one to three sentences.
A more effective brief might be something like this:
At 3:49 a.m. Monday, Soldotna Police observed a running vehicle stuck in a snowbank at the south end of the Safeway parking lot. The driver, in attempting to get the rear tires unstuck, had worn them down to the steel belts. Investigation resulted in the arrest of Joe Blow, 21, who had a breath alcohol content of .221 and was held at the jail pending arraignment.
Although plenty is left unsaid, enough information is provided for readers to draw their own conclusions and perhaps get a chuckle at the same time.
That is why I enjoy Sgt. Shockley's renditions, such as this:
"Officer watched three extremely intoxicated and giggling louts urinate on the road, on themselves, on one another, and on a taxi in front of the Harbor View Bar. The wet-legged men abashedly explained to the admonishing officer they had been kicked out of the bar before having an opportunity to use the restroom there."
When I inquired recently about the police blotter at the Unalaska Department of Public Safety, I received a polite reply from Deputy Chief Mike Holman.
"I am glad to hear that you appreciate the colorful and witty writing style that Sgt. Shockley uses to describe many of the incidents occurring here in Unalaska. As you can imagine, many of these incidents have a humorous component, and our intent is to show that side without ridiculing anyone."
In order to avoid ridicule, Shockley includes specific names only when arrests are made. Otherwise, she punctuates her writing with concrete details, vibrant word choice, understatement and her self-described "acerbic wit" to open a tiny window into each incident.
The Unalaska Police Blotter has become enormously popular since Shockley took it over, being featured in a 2009 Los Angeles Times article and a 2012 report on National Public Radio.
'Sneaking in limericks'
Shockley, according to her self-penned Unalaska Department of Public Safety bio, has had a varied work experience, including 10 years in rural aquaculture and commercial fisheries programs in Cameroon and the Bering Sea/North Pacific.
Originally from Texas, she was hired as an Unalaska police officer in 1998 and spent a year serving with the United Nations Mission in Kosovo in 2005, returning to the Unalaska department as a sergeant in 2006. In addition to her police credentials, Shockley has college degrees in wildlife and fisheries science.
I asked about her writing process.
"The blotter was assigned to me sometime in 2006. It was at the time simply an assignment, and a rather time-consuming one at that. I started adding some humor here and there more as a way to make the task a bit more bearable. After a few of them made it through to publication and received good public response, I was given considerably more leeway in terms of what and how I write the blotter.
"I've tried sneaking in limericks from time to time, but our administration has always taken them out before publication. How much I enjoy the challenge is largely dependent on the rest of my workload, and how much material I have to work with. I'm only present for perhaps 10 to 15 percent of our calls for service, so I have to rely on the responding officers to take note of interesting, unusual or funny aspects to them. I was fortunate to have had a couple of officers who not only recognized the absurdity of so many of our police calls, but had a writing style that was able to capture it. Officers like that make my job much easier."
Shockley has been into books since her second-grade teacher, Mrs. Reach, instilled in her a love of reading, and her literary sensibilities shine through at times, as in these recent postings:
March 15, 12:28 a.m. -- "Two men got into a fight after one man, attempting to protect his buddy's tater-tots, told the tater-taker that he was the bigger and badder man. The tater-tot skirmish ended with one bloody nose and two ripped shirts."
Then, less than 15 minutes later: "A drunk who offered to help police with an assault investigation walked up to one of the tater-tot combatants, shoved him across the face and identified him by labeling him with a vulgar, Oedipus-type epithet. Brent D. Thomas, 45 yoa, was subsequently taken into custody for Harassment II."
My former English students should appreciate and understand the Oedipus reference. I laughed out loud when I read it.
Sometimes, Shockley said, she has so much good material to work with that it's difficult to be brief.
"But that's all part of the creative challenge I set for myself. How can I paint a word picture that is factually correct, somewhat humorous and preferably less than about 60 words in length? Having a good vocabulary helps in this regard -- the perfect word can sometimes take the place of an entire phrase in addition to setting just the right tone."
Another of her challenges involves being discreet while simultaneously informing and entertaining.
"I know there are some who wouldn't believe it, but I do consider what the nature of the call is, who is involved and how much is or is not appropriate to share," she said. "It's a bit of a balancing act, trying to juggle the public's right to know in a general sense, the public's right to know from a legal standpoint (i.e., what would be available anyway through freedom of information sources), the privacy of those involved. … And there are, of course, the forever-unnamed-but-known-by-all who make regular appearances in the blotter. Some of these people are so well known in the community that I needn't violate or abuse anyone's privacy, and yet everyone knows who I'm discussing."
The L.A. Times called Shockley's postings in the blotter "a literate, witty and often hilariously calm voice of reason in this outpost of human foibles."
The craziness, she said, peaks whenever fishing peaks in the international port, and she estimated that about 80 percent to 90 percent of the department's service calls involve alcohol.
"We certainly have a few residents who are habitual troublemakers in some capacity or another," she said. "But by and large, most of our crime -- by which I mean actual criminal activity as opposed to the simple calls for various assistance -- is perpetrated by the transient population. We see an enormous dip in criminal activity during the months when there are few/no commercial fishing seasons open and (we) may go weeks without making any arrests between Thanksgiving and Christmas (typically the slowest time of the year for fishing)."
Three short postings from October illustrate some of the alcohol-fueled calls made by officers.
• Oct. 5 -- "Officer intervened in a heated discussion about manliness, during which two intoxicated men were exchanging choice words while a third drunken male fell upon a garbage can and then to the floor. Officer advised an intoxicated male whom he had found on the floor at the base of a garbage can that he was not allowed to enter or remain upon any licensed premises this night."
• Oct. 5 -- Officers responded to a bar after being advised that one patron had responded poorly to accusations about being part of ISIS."
• Oct. 10 -- Caller reported that all of his belongings, including his wallet, a check for $5,000 and some sleeping pills, had been stolen from his hotel room during the night. An officer responded to the caller's room and quickly located both the wallet and the check in the room. The caller, who had a surprising inability to remember anything at all about the previous night, was grateful for the assistance."
Shockley does no writing outside of her police work. Although she admitted to "occasional moments of great inspiration," she said she has never felt that she "could make a living, or even part of one," with her writing. (I have to disagree. I think a book entitled "The Greatest Hits of the Unalaska Police Blotter" featuring paranoid wives, aspiring vampire boyfriends, wayward pets, glowering eagles and battling, boozing fishermen could sell very well. I'd buy a copy, and I know I'm not the only one who appreciates a keen sense of humor.)
Shockley said life has taught her that "there is almost always something funny, unique or absurd in even the most trying times, if only one takes the time to look for it."
I agree, sand I hope that Shockley continues to capture the essence of the Unalaska beat with the same flair for many years to come.
To read some of the most recent blotter postings, visit www.ci.unalaska.ak.us/publicsafety/page/police-blotter.
Clark Fair, a resident of the Kenai Peninsula for more than 50 years, is a lifetime Alaskan now living in Dillingham.