For a few years now, a local law enforcement officer, Sergeant Jennifer Shockley, in the remote Alaskan town of Unalaska, has been logging crime complaints on their local public radio station site as a way of keeping the community updated. Soon after its inception, the KUCB Police Blotter had gone globally viral because of her unique wit and wordplay in relating these reports.
To set the scene – Unalaska is an island town, just off mainland Alaska, with some 5000 inhabitants and roughly 100 square miles of water and 111 square miles of land.By volume caught, it happens to be the largest fisheries port in the US. Some folks there can trace their ancestors back thousands of years to the original Aleut or Unangan tribes, before even the Russian fur traders came over in the mid-18th century and way before the United States purchased Alaska from the Russian Empire in the mid-19th century. So, it is a small town with a very distinct history and close-knit community. And, clearly, from the blotter entries, very active in terms of wanting to keep crime off the streets.
By volume caught, it happens to be the largest fisheries port in the US. Some folks there can trace their ancestors back thousands of years to the original Aleut or Unangan tribes, before even the Russian fur traders came over in the mid-18th century and way before the United States purchased Alaska from the Russian Empire in the mid-19th century. So, it is a small town with a very distinct history and close-knit community. And, clearly, from the blotter entries, very active in terms of wanting to keep crime off the streets.
Sergeant Jennifer Shockley is originally from Texas, and had led quite an adventurous life, traveling around the world with the Peace Corp, before reaching this remote corner of the US for a job. Here’s a lovely little audio interview with her – some droll personal stories. She had not intended to stay for too long in Unalaska when she had first arrived but, it seems, she’s now there for good.
When she first started chronicling the details of incoming police complaints online, it was more for efficiency and utilitarianism than anything else. Typically, the complaints range from “eagle aggression to intimate encounters gone awry”. There’s the odd ghost haunting report or call about vampire attacks or an invisible prowler. Also, a fair number of drunk and disorderly reports. Shockley’s love for language and wordplay soon got the better of her and she started writing these brief reports as if they were either the ledes to some very interesting stories or flash fiction. Fame began to spread far and wide. Per the NPR story linked above, the site’s Google Analytics Reports show that they have thousands of readers, and many across Europe and South America. At one point, she even got a call from a literary agent and there was some talk of a book, although it does not appear to have materialized.
The minimalist entries are sometimes funny, sometimes straight, and always leave one curious about the rest of the real-life stories behind them. For instance, this one:
Trespass – Saturday, 29 June 2013, 5.35 AM
Caller wished to have a woman trespassed from his residence. He later changed his mind and wanted the trespass order lifted.
Don’t you wonder what their relationship might be and what made the man report the trespass and then change his mind?
Here’s another interesting one:
Harassment – Wednesday, 10 October 2012, 4.13pm
Two taxi drivers reported that they were each being harassed by the other, via rude phone calls. An officer suggested they might want to consider not phoning one other, thus possibly alleviating the problem.
What on earth could these two men have been saying to each other and why?
A couple of funny ones:
Assistance Rendered, 24 February, 2012, 1.56pm
Officers responded to the airport regarding a report of a drunken man causing numerous problems in the terminal. Investigation revealed that a single besotted man had roundly cursed airline employees and attempted to pick fights with no less than five people. His last victim, who told officers he was performing a community service, smacked the drunk on the head and then stood over him and told him not to be so rude. None of the victims wished to pursue charges, as they all felt justice had already been served.
Suspicious Person/Activity, 7 December, 2011, 5.26pm
A twitchy bunkhouse resident claimed, among other things, that his housemates have been removing his fingerprints from framed photographs in order to incriminate him in nefarious crimes. An officer advised the man to better secure his personal belongings and suggested that reducing illicit drug use might also reduce his paranoia.
Now, there are many police blotters online these days, but none written in quite the precise, dry, droll manner of Sergeant Shockley of Unalaska. She mused, in one of the radio interviews, how she’s still in search for those stories that will allow expression as the perfect palindrome or limerick or poem. Based on her work so far, I have no doubt that it is only a matter of time before we see those forms appear on the site as well.
What all this brings to mind is the funny true crime reporting by others. One particular classic collection is from 1906 and published as Novels in Three Lines, by Félix Fénéon and translated by Luc Sante. Fénéon was the brilliant reporter at Le Monde (some say it was Le Matin) in France, who reported witty, erudite, distillated versions of true crime (murders, duels, stabbings, beatings, infanticide, suicide, thievery – you name it) and caused much hilarity for his readers. Here are some examples:
The Blonquets stank of drink. A saloon-keeper in Saint-Maur dared refuse them service. They slew him with an indignant dagger.
Bassinet, a ragpicker of Versailles, found 40,000 francs’ worth of bonds and, just as in Mirbeau’s The Pocketbook, he gave them back.
“Ouch”, cried the cunning oyster eater, “A pearl!” Someone at the next table bought it for 100 francs. It had cost 30 cents at the dime store.
For the fifth time, Cuvillier, a fishmonger in Marines, has poisoned himself. And, this time was definitive.
At the home of Gabrielle Contret, whose charms are well-known in Lunéville, was seized an apparatus for counterfeiting Belgian écus.
At the station in Macon, Mouroux had his legs severed by an engine. “Look at my feet on the tracks!” he cried, then fainted.
Brandy he thought. Actually it was carbolic acid. Thus Philibert Faroux, of Noroy, Oise, outlived his spree by a mere two hours.
The name of a man arrested in Blainville as a spy: Tourdias. His age: 24. His profession: traveling salesman of bandages and medicine.
Fénéon had two other claims to fame – discovering Georges Seurat and being James Joyce’s first French publisher. Yet, he remained mysterious and preferred to stay relatively anonymous for most of his life. He was also an anarchist who worked at the Ministry of Defense – which makes for a whole different twist to his life story that we’ll get into some other time.
As I said earlier, these days, Twitter enables pretty much everyone to create 140-character comic sketches of pretty much everything. But, the literary skills, witty wordplay and the ability to see the world just that little bit differently from everyone else – these aren’t quite so easily accessible. With Fénéon and Shockley, the genius of their brevity is that they’ve managed to precisely capture the absurd, tragic, comic and strange in their telling of true crime stories.
By the way, if you happen to be a writer, these little reports are terrific writing prompts as well. Try it.
PS There’s a whole literary genre of true crime reporting in the novel form, like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. We’ll get to exploring that separately sometime.
UPDATE Dec 19, 2013: Here’s another police blotter reporting true crime in humorous ways. They’ve managed to turn it into a book too. A little town called Bozeman in Montana.