Saturday, March 28, 2009

Police and Thieves

Note: I just "graduated" from Madison's nine-week Citizen's Police Academy. In a nutshell, it's a series of three-hour classes where the cops bring in someone from each division to talk about different aspects of the Madison Police Department. It's strictly an educational thing -- there's no authority or badge or firearm you get for participating. But I learned a lot, and I would recommend the class to anyone who's interested in the way the department works.

At any rate, Public Information Officer Joel Despain asked me to pen a piece about my experience in the class for the MPD newsletter.

The evening after leaders from the Madison Police Department and the city press corps sat down last summer to talk over the increasingly frustrating communications gap surrounding the stranger homicides the department has been investigating, I half-jokingly wrote, on my blog, that the whole thing reminded me of, "a massive, gloves-off counseling session between a married couple that hasn't spoken in months."

There were certainly more than a few uncomfortable moments as, one by one, the sides aired their grievances. There are likely a few issues we’ll never come to a complete consensus on. But at the end of the day, we were able to agree on a few crucial points.

While our methods may differ, the media and the police share a set of common goals—we strive to keep the public informed, and in keeping them informed, we strive to keep them safe.

But more importantly, furthering those ends requires keeping an open line of communication and maintaining a sense of trust between all parties. Like any other relationship, the link between cops and reporters can’t be taken for granted, or else it will fall apart entirely. It’s something we have to work on together, constantly.

That kind of effort doesn’t come easy when a tight city budget scales back the overtime that’s available or waning ad revenues lead to yet another round of layoffs in the news room. It’s certainly more efficient in terms of man-hours to deal with each other as faceless voices on a phone line, but that kind of nuts-and-bolts approach does a disservice to the hardworking parties on either end, as well as the people we’re supposed to serve.

So when I heard about the opportunity to enlist in the Madison Citizen’s Police Academy, I seized on it eagerly. If nothing else, I figured it would be a chance to get to know a few more of the faces that work beyond the public’s realm of perception and learn how they do their jobs.

And I certainly got that chance, but more importantly, the citizen’s academy leant me a deeper understanding and appreciation of the depth at which our police department operates. Granted, my perspective on the department’s goings-on is still limited, but I was awed by the competence, dedication and attention to detail the public servants our class met bring to their jobs.

Viewed from the outside, the police department appears to move like some sort of autonomous, headless beast (much how the media appears to operate, from an outsider’s perspective). But on a closer approach, one begins to grasp the number of levels that have to mesh in order for the department to work, from the beat cops that show up at a crime scene to the investigators that figure out what happened to the Crime Response Program that comes in and helps the victims start to pick up the pieces.

Again and again throughout the citizen’s academy, I had these kinds of Eureka moments. It certainly makes sense that Madison has a need for a group that helps crime victims cope with the turmoil they’ve been through, or a gang task force that knows more about how gangs operate than the gang members themselves, or a unit that focuses on the well-being of the officers themselves as they cope daily with stressful situations everyday civilians go out of their way to avoid.

But these vital programs go unnoticed and unappreciated by most civilians, until recently myself included among them.

So it was, in going to these weekly classes, I came to expect to be surprised by what the various presenters had to offer, and I was never disappointed. I also had the chance to surprise a few of them as well, as those who came to know me as something of a deadeye with a 9-mil can attest to.

But while the evening at the MATC training range was certainly the most exciting of the classes, it was informative as well. I was more than a little alarmed to learn I had honed my skills with a firearm on video games at bars that are more technologically advanced than the simulators we train our own police force on.

The understanding and respect I took away from the nine-week course will do more than just help me as a journalist. While the Madison Citizen’s Police Academy should probably serve as a prerequisite for any reporter in this city, the benefits I took away as a civilian are universal to any citizen of our city.

I owe my thanks to Lt. Melissa Schiferl for organizing the class, to the various presenters for their candor and taking the time to share their world with us and to the Madison Common Council for having the wisdom to resist one city leader’s attempts to gut this gem of a program during last fall’s budget process.

As police and media, we will have our inevitable misunderstandings, arguments and even occasions where we have to call each other out for being out-of-line. But if we can continue to build the relationship between cop and reporter, we’ll be able to settle those disagreements with a heated discussion over a brew instead of a cold war.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

And We're Back!

An old pop-punk band once sang, "It's good to be bad if it's better than bored." I think that's a fair assessment of the situation, but as I've grown up, I often find myself substituting "busy" for "bad." Either way, it's better than boredom, a condition I have not suffered from since moving to Madison.

Misbehavior and activity both are easy to overindulge in, but this past week, activity took a clear first place in my list of priorities. I can tell by the bags under my eyes, the week-old pile of unfolded clean clothes in the living room and the dirty dishes stacked next to the sink. And, far from being bored, I was red-lining like an overstrained engine for much of the week, but it didn't feel half bad.

And I got to get back into the filmmaking groove for a weekend!

Come to think of it, I was reminded a lot of college, and a little surprised at how easily I fell back into the ol' triple-the-caffeine-regimen-and-grind-on-through mentality. But buzzing around like a hummingbird of some kind took its toll on my blog entry total for the month, and I apologize for that. I assure you there's plenty to talk about, and I'll try and catch up as best as I can.

For starters, my buddy Griff just got back from serving his country for 15 months in Iraq (and not his first tour either) and I was stuck in a city council meeting the night of Saint Patrick's Day. Sure, they're two seemingly unrelated factoids, but the chance to welcome an old buddy home in style and a need to do something Irish prompted us to road trip it down to Chicago to see Flogging Molly at the House of Blues.

It was my third or fourth time seeing the band live, but I was still blown away by their energy and talent. And it was damn good to have Griff home.

Tuesday's city council meeting went off without a hitch, even if I was a bit tired out from staying out until four in the morning, and then some of the best people in Madison treated me to a fantastic Wednesday night on the town in celebration of the earth's 24th trip around the sun since the day of my birth. I tried (and failed at) sleeping off my hangover before work on Thursday, then braved a County Board meeting with a wicked headache. And then there was Friday.

I've always been a distant admirer of Wis-Kino. It's a local collaborative of Madison film makers, and I went to a few screenings in its heyday, but never really dug in with any gusto. My mistake, but following an unpleasant taste left in our mouths by a brush with the Wisconsin Film Festival, some colleagues and I were aching for a means of cleansing our palates. Lucky for us, Wis-Kino's 48-hour film Kabaret was right around the corner.

The idea? Assemble a team, report for duty, receive the "secret ingredient" and build a film around it in less than 48 hours. There are no trophies, no best actor awards, no flowery speeches -- just those who run themselves into the ground trying to make their five minute film and those who don't. Anyone who knows Tim, Aaron and I knows we don't do projects halfway, so the weeked rapidly turned into an exhaustion race to see who could kill themselves the fastest.

We put together a good crew of people and got our assigned secret ingredient -- "bailout" -- and then we got right to work. Here's a timeline of the weekend from my perspective, and because it's getting late and I need to catch up on a little more sleep.

7:00 PM -- The primer screening begins at Hilldale. 48 hours from now, our final project will be due. Aaron drinks a lot of whiskey.

9:00 PM -- The crew rallies at a handy nearby location where we finalize our assignments for the weekend. Then we begin one of my favorite processes, writing by committee. In two hours we have a concept tied together by a string of potential gags.

11:00 PM -- A few crew members head home as we get into the nitty-gritty of script-writing. Half a dozen of us sit down at computers and begin writing individual scripts.

11:30 PM -- Draft deadline: We get back together, none of us with a complete script, and take turns reading what we have. Kilgore insists on placing a joke about fatties in the film. The rest of the committee insists it would be wasted air in a five minute film.

2:00 AM -- We have outlined a script. Tim carries two pages of scribbled notes and six different scripts covered in cross-outs and circled text back to his apartment and sits down to hash out the final draft. The rest of us hit the sack by 3 AM.

4:21 AM -- An email arrives in my and Aaron's inboxes. The subject header is "script." There is no text in the email and no attachment. I am fast asleep and don't notice. Tim may be so tired he can't properly send an email attachment, but he has nonetheless completed the final draft of our script.

8:15 AM -- I am up and consuming coffee at a prodigious rate. I call Tim to make sure he's bringing extra copies of the script, as we will not be able to print any.

9:00 AM -- Cast and crew rendezvous at the Lindsay, Stone and Briggs ad agency, our primary locale. We set up base camp and start work on the costumes and props we will need. Our prop, costume and grip master Ellie quickly becomes my new hero.

9:30 AM -- I meet Steffen, our cinematographer, for the first time. He also becomes my hero. I take him through the script, then walk with him through each of the areas we will be shooting in and discuss shots.

10:30 AM -- Scene by scene, I start pulling our cast to run lines. For a five minute film, there's a lot of damn memorization in this flick.

11:30 AM -- I remember that I, too, have lines I need to memorize. This comes as a great shock to me, as I have not acted in some time and worse, we're supposed to start shooting at noon.

1:00 PM -- We start shooting. It wasn't learning my lines that slowed us down, but obtaining a makeshift camera dolly that had disappeared somewhere in Madison.

3:00 PM -- We begin rolling film on the fire escape scene. This is somewhat treacherous, and I am alternately convinced that Jeff is going to fall to his death or Erica is going to keel over from heart palpitations. None of this influences me when we push through the entire scene without pausing for a break. We are chasing daylight, goddamnit.

3:05 PM -- Crowds alternately gather and then break up below us, watching the drama unfolding high above them over and over again. Jeff's lunatic giggling and Tim's attempts as a "police officer" to talk him down are apparently fairly convincing. One high schooler shouts up to us between takes she almost dialed 911. I was two steps ahead of her and called Lt. David McCaw at the Madison Police Department at 2:30 to let him know what we were up to.

5:30 PM -- We wrap the treacherous fire escape scene after Aaron nearly kills Erica by reaching out to grab a flying piece of bailout check and Erica thinks he's going to jump. I decide I'm never going hiking with Erica.

6:00 PM -- We wrap the last of our outdoor shots on the ground. The cast and crew are getting crabby -- low blood sugar. We take 60 and get some good eats nearby. It's the first non-bagel food I have had all day.

7:30 PM -- Aaron puts on a fresh pot of coffee, we shake off the exhaustion and get back to cracking. We shoot the last group scene and dismiss some extras, then shoot the one-on-ones. Cast members start dropping like flies as they're dismissed.

12:00 AM -- We start rolling on our last scene at a different locale, the vending machines at Midwest Family Broadcasting. The infamous line, "Salsitas, NICE!" is born in a moment of divine improvisation. We wrap and roll.

2:30 AM -- Sleep.

8:30 AM -- Consciousness hits like a baseball bat... Coffee, shower, Lindsay Stone and Briggs.

9:30 AM -- Aaron and I get cutting at his office after he picks up the captured video from Steffen. We don't quite have the coverage we want for the conference room, but we can make it work.

10:00 AM -- Strutt shows up, and we have a 15 minute sit-down as I take him through the script and explain what we will need for a score.

10:15 AM -- Strutt leaves LSB for his house on the south side, where he will compose the film's score.

12:23 PM -- Somehow, there's an email from Strutt with a link to eight distinctive pieces of scoring for moments in the film... I am in awe of this man for about the twenty-third time in my life.

1:36 PM -- Timmy calls, then joins us in the editing studio. It seems surreal to be editing frantically with them on something that's not "Your Signs." I deal with it.

3:04 PM -- Erica calls... I tell her it's going to be tight. We're worried.

3:40 PM -- Kilgore texts me for the third or fourth time that afternoon, antsy to see progress. He tries to bribe me with ice cream. I cave in.

4:00 PM -- Kilgore shows up without ice cream. We let him see our progress, then send him off for ice cream.

4:30 PM -- A lot more non-editors have started hanging around the studio, which has some nerves on edge, but it seems like we're going to make it now.

5:00 PM -- We have a rough cut that runs 5:20. We need to get it under 5:00.

5:20 PM -- Our cut now runs 5:04. I say it's close e-damn-nough. Timmy throws a line back at me from a year and a half ago when we were working on the Christmas Special sequel: "We've gotten it this close, let's cut it all the way down."

5:30 PM -- We start our rendering process. A power outage or hard drive failure now will ruin our lives, but none seem forthcoming.

6:00 PM -- I am laying on the hard floor breathing deeply, listening to the computer click. I hate rendering.

6:05 PM -- Our render is complete. Aaron starts burning the project to a DVD.

6:20 PM -- We have two DVDs with the screening-cut of Monsieur Maintenance on them. I tell Aaron he is to submit the second copy if I am killed in a fiery accident en route to Hilldale.

6:45 PM -- I am not killed en route to Hilldale, but submit the film to the guy at the door, count the number of entrants above me on the list, then pump my fists into the air and proudly declare, "Third Place!" He looks at me like I don't get it. I look at him like he doesn't get it. We were probably both right.

So all in all, a trying but rewarding experience. My favorites of the night were Rob Matsushita's "Extremed," starring the fabulous Emily Mills, and Josh Klessig's Ethology. The Decider did a write-up on the Kabaret which is definitely worth a read. Those itching to see the final cut of Monsieur Maintenance can check back here in a week. Tim, Aaron and I agreed we want to tack about ten seconds back onto the film and clean it up, and then we'll be posting it on Youtube.

And it sounds like we'll be rallying the same crew to participate in the July Kabaret. Steffen, Ellie, Jeff, Kilgore, Erica, Katie, Adam and Branton were just too good not to work with again.

Now I'm going to sleep, damnit!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Art of the Moniker

Maybe it's a goofy thing to get excited about, but when I saw the Cap Times headline today that read, "Parka Bandit Hits Again," I let out a whoop, then nearly fell out of my chair in a fit of maniacal chuckling.

No, I was not delighted at the news that some low life had held up his sixth, seventh or even eighth convenience store in a week. And no, I am not in fact, as some have suggested, moonlighting on the side as the Parka Bandit myself, though in my darker, broker hours... Well, we'll just leave it at that.

But I was excited to see the Parka Bandit in the headlines because I coined the term "Parka Bandit" on-air in the middle of last week when I first found out some goon was knocking over gas stations with a black coat's hood cinched down tight over his face. Police spokesman Joel Despain heard it and loved it and ran with it in one of his press releases, and Channel 3 and the Cap Times took it from there.

I had no idea the term would end up being this persistent, but with every store the Parka Bandit hits, it becomes more clear a term is needed to refer to this thug, and I'm pleased mine made the cut.

Again, it seems like a silly thing to get excited over, but I feel like I've achieved some legitimate accomplishment, some rite of passage.

Before I go on, it sounds like this slimeball hit a convenience store again tonight, though a little earlier than he usually strikes. It's the same MO all up and down, though. The suspect walks into a gas station in a black coat, his face covered by the hood, and makes to order a pack of smokes. When he has the clerk's attention, he flashes his piece, they throw money on the counter and he walks away.

It isn't brain surgery. It isn't rocket science. In fact, it's so simple-minded and myopic that this guy has all but guaranteed he's going to be caught eventually. Let's face it. All it would take is an enterprising bystander who realizes that hood cinched down so tight really limits this guy's peripheral vision to bash him over the head with a heavy jar of salsa, and the Parka Bandit's reign of terror would be over.

I've talked to a few police officials about the case, and they all say the same thing: he's not the brightest crayon in the box, and he's probably trying to feed some kind of drug habit.

That's part of the reason I felt coining a moniker for the Parka Bandit was appropriate. Right now, this guy thinks he's walking away with easy money, night in and night out, and he thinks he's pretty tough getting it with a handgun. Others could see his example, and in their own simple, short-sighted ways think they've found a great way to earn a few bucks themselves.

In the long-term, the Parka Bandit will be caught, and he will be locked up in jail for a very long time. But until that happens, we as a society need to make it clear that the bandit's behavior is simply unacceptable. It will not be tolerated. While jail time will make an example of the Parka Bandit eventually, until then he deserves every ounce of our collective derision, accumulated disdain and outright mockery.

Potential copycats need to see that there is nothing glamorous about being a two-bit thug with a handgun, a goofy disguise and delusions of grandeur. Who knows? The Parka Bandit may be a victim of his own circumstances, stealing money to pay off a dangerous debtor or fund his own sick mom's cancer treatment, but he lost any claim for sympathy when he carried a firearm into public and used it to endanger the lives of his fellow Madisonians.

Because as easy as he is to mock, the Parka Bandit and his ilk are two things above all else: dangerous menaces and timebombs waiting to go off. Every time I see a press release come down the pipe about this guy, I hold my breath and hope this wasn't the time the clerk wasn't quick enough with the cash for his liking.

While 95 percent of this sleeze only carries a weapon for show and would never actually use it on an innocent, there's always that dangerous element that's too drugged up or too disconnected from reality or just too nasty to let something like decency stop them from crossing that final line.