Tuesday, April 03, 2007

With Great Dread

Ken Corn, on responding to spot news that hits home...

You never know what to expect when you're a photographer working the night shift on a Saturday night in a city as large as Charlotte. I've pointed my lens at riots erupting in uptown after a New Year's Eve countdown. I've witnessed the aftermath of a shoot out between two rival gangs at a neighborhood block party. I've seen more twisted metal and broken glass piled high in city streets than your average tow truck driver. Yeah, you just never know what kind of images you will record when covering the news on a Saturday night.

Reporter Frances Kuo and I had just wrapped up an eleven o'clock live shot at a DWI checkpoint when my cell phone started ringing. Our work shift usually ends after the eleven o'clock show. But more often than not, we have to visit another crime scene or two before we can turn in the live truck keys for the night. Knowing the ringing box on my hip probably meant there was a scene somewhere waiting for us, I hesitated to unclip it from my belt.

I did not expect the words that flowed out of the electronic speaker pressed to my ear.

"We have a cop shot, up off of Milton Rd."

News photographer auto pilot kicked in when my brain registered the magnitude of the sentence I just heard. I handed the phone over to Frances so she could write down the details while I looked for the next exit off of the beltline. I could feel adrenalin seeping into my blood stream making my foot heavy on the gas petal. My mind started running scenarios of what we should do when we arrived on scene. We needed to find witnesses to interview. I needed to capture officers and other emergency workers rushing to the scene with my lens. Frances needed to find the public information officer to confirm the information our assignment editor had heard over the scanner. We needed to be on the scene right now instead of twenty minutes away.

The feeling that we were missing the best visuals and the best sound to tell the story caused time to stretch into unbearable lengths. Sitting at a stop light became physically painful. I would drum the steering wheel and bounce my foot rapidly against the break petal to bleed off excess energy produced by the adrenalin. I felt like a thoroughbred pressing up against the starting gate waiting for it to swing open so I could leap out onto the track and run.

While sitting at one red light close to the scene, two patrol cars came speeding up behind us with their lights flashing and sirens wailing. They swerved out left of the center line and passed our van in a blur. Before they disappeared on the other side of the intersection, three more cruisers sped into the same junction from the opposite direction. They passed each other like jet planes flying maneuvers during an air show. I wanted to jam the gear shift into park and grab the camera to capture this high speed ballet on tape. But I knew I could never get the camera out of the back quick enough to get the shot.

"I'm missing all the best video," I said as Frances continued to talk on the phone and write down notes.

Keeping my foot from smashing a hole through the floor of the live van became an increasingly harder task as we got closer to our destination. With every screaming police cruiser sailing by our lumbering beast, the impulse to hammer the gas grew. Just when I thought I couldn't hold back anymore I saw the roadblock ahead. Several white and blue Crown Victorias dammed up the intersection diverting traffic flow away from the road I wanted to take. Knowing it would be a waste of breath and time to ask if I could gain access to wide open space just beyond the dam, I scanned the area for an entrance to a parking lot. In this part of Charlotte, strip malls with endless parking lots line the streets. In most cases, I can get much closer to a scene by navigating the maze of blacktops between businesses. Tonight, I was able to slide passed a few drug stores and fast food joints before being stopped by a patch of undeveloped land. Time to let the thoroughbred out of the gate.

As I jump out of the truck, I'm formulating a plan in my head as to how I'm going to do two jobs at the same time. The station wants us live as soon as possible but I also need to gather video of what is happening at the scene. Which should I do first? With a quick glance at my surroundings I see the roadblock with a half dozen officers directing traffic. I know these officers will be performing their assigned tasks for several hours and there will be plenty of opportunities to get video of them later after a live shot. I start raising the mast to tune in a live shot signal.

While the mast slowly grows out of the top of the van, I hear a siren getting louder and louder. I let go of the switch that raises the mast and grab the camera. I run out into the street just in time to capture an ambulance thundering through the roadblock on its way toward the scene down the empty road. When the speeding truck disappears into the apartment complex where the shooting happened, I go back to setting up the live shot. This routine happened several more times as more and more police cars and emergency vehicles converge onto the scene. It takes me longer to set up the van for a live shot but knowing this is a story we will cover for the next several days I must capture images that show the immediacy of the scene right now. I'm in the middle of an intense juggling act.

The blaring sirens keep coming as I work on getting the shot ready. Fortunately there is enough time between zooming cars and trucks to get set up. Frances had squeezed a few details out of the police department's public information officer and we are ready to break into programming to tell Charlotte that two police officers were shot responding to a disturbance call. While we are live on the air, several more police cruisers zip past the roadblock we are using as the back drop of our shot. I instinctively push the lens off of Frances to fill my viewfinder and televisions screens across the city with an image of a speeding police car. Frances describes the situation as I show the scene to the public.

We perform this task several more times during the next couple of hours. After our last shot of the night the public information officer offers to give a brief statement about the situation. By this time all the other news organizations have arrived and are eager to get any reaction from the police department on record. We gather in a huddle around officer Fey as he shares with us the few facts he knows. Close to the end of the makeshift press conference, I throw out a question I'd been thinking of while officer Fey confirmed the facts we already knew. Police departments function like a large extended family. When one officer gets hurt in the line of duty, they all feel grief and pain just as if a blood relative were hurt. Basically, officer Fey was a member of a family who was suffering at the moment. So I asked him how he felt about the tragedy playing out just down the street.

"It's heartbreaking," Fey said. "Hearing your dispatcher say those words, `we have two officers shot from the North Tryon Division,' makes your heart skip a beat."

I had similar feelings when the same call came from our assignment editor earlier in the evening. A close personal friend of mine also wears the dark blue uniform and beehive shaped badge of the Charlotte Police department. He works the overnight shift every Saturday night. The shooting happened on the side of town he patrols. Now that the adrenalin rush of covering the story has subsided, my mind starts to let emotions surface.

I remembered that my friend works in the Independence division next door to the North Tryon Division. This eases my mind for the time being, but later as I hear the rumors that one of officers has died, I start thinking of the officer's family. My friend who wears the same uniform lives on our street. We go to the same church. His kids come over to our house to play with my children. I see or talk to someone from his family nearly everyday. I don't want to think about what if...

My shift is over and I have the next few days off from work. But the tragedy of a scene I witnessed Saturday night still plays over and over in my mind as if I'm still working on this story. I feel sorrow for the Police Department as well as for the loved ones of our fallen heroes. I feel anger when I see the video of the suspect on television. I wished crime and violence would cease to exist putting me and my friend out of a job.

Thank you, officers Sean Clark and Jeff Shelton, for giving your lives to protect us so that we may live in peace.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Corn....this is a good piece. I spent 13 years toting a piece and I still feel a bond to police officers. Thanks for saying those kind words. By the way the check is in the mail....I'm watching the new blog...keep up the good work.
Dick "Crookedpaw" Carney