By Jacob Quinn Sanders
Neck immobilized, strapped to a gurney in the back of an ambulance, I couldn’t move. Minutes earlier, I’d been upside down, glass everywhere, trapped in a T-boned, flipped Rav4 in an intersection a few blocks from my house in North Little Rock, Arkansas.
I hadn’t lost consciousness, so before the ambulance left, a police officer had some basic questions for me to write down on his form: Name, employer, occupation.
“Jacob Sanders?” he asked. “‘Up to my ass in alligators’ Jacob Sanders?”
The very same, I told him.
“Anything you need,” the officer said, “you just let me know.”
And so now’s probably a good time to back up a little.
I was a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Covered law-enforcement across a lot of the state, but mainly the police departments in Little Rock and North Little Rock.
To the unobservant, the two cities could very much feel like one. Arkansas’ largest city and its capital separated from the city borrowing most of its name and holding a smaller fraction of its population by the state’s namesake river. Drive across one of the bridges and not much changed that would be visible from the inside of a car.
The police departments kept largely with the civic identity of each — big and self-important on the one side of the river, smaller and more outwardly neighborly on the other.
The police chief in North Little Rock was a man easy to get along with. If you showed you had a genuine interest in his department, in his city, in the people in his care, he was usually happy to make time for you.
Trick is, he did go on vacation from time to time. And this time, his public-information officer was off, too.
The person left in charge for anything of note was the major-crimes captain.
That man didn’t like most people. Badge, no badge. Rank, no rank.
He especially didn’t like reporters.
The Democrat-Gazette was not yet an up-to-the-minute news organization on every little thing, so the goal was to get the basics and knock out a few paragraphs for the paper the next day without straining too hard.
Inevitably, there was a minor shooting. A person was wounded at an apartment complex where it was not surprising someone was wounded.
I drove over to the complex but missed what minimal action there would have been. Then I called the captain to get the basics from the report. Wasn’t official yet, he said. Call back later.
So I called every half hour. No information to release or simply no answer.
My editor was frustrated. I was frustrated. All we needed were those couple of paragraphs — call time, call type, confirming the address, name of the wounded person, did the person live there, that kind of stuff. Nothing complicated. Nothing exciting.
The report he’s theoretically waiting on is simply awaiting his review in order to be official. I know the officer’s written it and a sergeant’s signed off on it. I know how this all works.
Finally the captain told me, look, he’s got a lot going on and my request isn’t that important: “I’m up to my ass in alligators,” he said.
No information, no matter how basic, was forthcoming.
I went to my editor. People should know that’s what he said, I told him. I’m going to quote him directly in this little brief. From there, you can do what you like. No hard feelings if you have to take it out — but I’m putting it in there.
My editor thought that was a pretty good idea. But we had a hurdle to clear.
Our copy desk tended toward the conservative in terms of what kind of license they’d allow a reporter on what should generally be pretty formulaic stuff.
We went to the copy desk in advance to make sure it got through.
I wrote it. It got published. Editors loved it. Other reporters loved it.
I didn’t have to wait long to find out what other people in the department thought of it. My cell phone rang at 8:30 the next morning. It was the public-information officer — a sergeant himself. He was still on vacation and had nonetheless heard about a little item in the paper buried inside the local section.
“What the hell did you do?” he asked me.
Why sergeant, I said, whatever do you mean?
“You’re gonna hear from the chief today, I hope you know that.”
He knows where to find me, I said.
My phone rings about 1:30 in the afternoon and it’s the chief.
“Jacob, what are you trying to do to my department?”
I asked him what that meant, and he said it made the department look bad, made him personally look bad, and that the captain was livid.
I asked if the captain disputed the accuracy of anything that had been published and the chief said no.
“That’s not our issue here,” he said.
We talked a little more about how it’s my job not to cover for his department or make them look one way or another but that basic and public information isn’t usually an issue between us and when it is, my duty is to the people who read the Democrat-Gazette.
We agreed to disagree. Still friendly, still professional.
But it didn’t quite stop there.
A lot of folks in the department didn’t much like that captain either. They made, essentially, a meme. Made photocopies and stuck them up all around the department. This captain’s head on top of a little sailor-suited boy astride a massive alligator. Right there in glorious black and white.
One guy made sure I got a copy. It remains among my favorite reporting mementos.
The crash was a few months later. And I had no idea what that officer was going to say when he got so excited about who he had tied down in front of him.
“Man, that was the best thing ever,” he said. “That guy’s such an asshole.”
Now it’s about a decade later. Now I live in Pennsylvania. Now I write code for a living. It’s a different life.
That story has stayed with me. A favorite war story, something to make other journalists laugh, the sense that one of the best pieces I ever had published was just four paragraphs long.
I decided to memorialize this appropriately. Among my handful of tattoos, there is one on my right forearm, just where it swings level with a certain area just below my waist.
I am, rather permanently, up to my ass in alligators.
Jacob Quinn Sanders is a Californian by birth, an Oregonian by upbringing, an Arkansan by experience and a Pennsylvanian by recent habit. A former reporter and editor and now a software developer working to contribute new tools to journalism, he spends too much time away from saltwater and too much time in front of a screen.
Editor’s note: We’re both former journalists now. But when we met about 15 years ago, I was a recruiter for The Oregonian and Jacob was a college student. We’ve kept in touch through the years and his many moves, and I have loved his many contributions to VOA. Great writer. Great sense of humor.
Tomorrow: Monique Gonzales | The meaning of democracy