The Best Police Blotter in America—Revisited

Was I totally wrong to praise the Sheriff’s Calls column in the Point Reyes Light?

How do journalists balance the pleasures of quirky local news with the more serious stories that others might find cruel?

Photo by Vadim Ratnikov/Shutterstock

Last week, I wrote a story about what I called, somewhat brazenly, “the best police blotter in America”: a weekly column published by a small newspaper in Marin County, California, called the Point Reyes Light. The column, written by the paper’s editor, Tess Elliott, details the sometimes mysterious, often very funny complaints that residents of west Marin make to their local sheriff’s office. Here are a few representative entries from this week’s edition:

TOMALES: At 6:52 p.m. a stocky man with a missing front tooth was walking around the elementary school grounds; he said he had lost his drone.

BOLINAS: At 11:22 p.m. deputies woke a man sleeping in his van, telling him both about complaints by neighbors and the absence of any law prohibiting vehicle habitation, leaving him to decide what to do.

LAGUNITAS: At 10:05 a.m. [a] neighbor called about the two cats and two dogs of a woman who had been arrested several days earlier. Deputies checked on the pets.

The column’s charms are hard to resist. Thanks in large part to Elliott’s evocative writing style, which she honed while studying poetry at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University, the items offer a pointillist portrait of a bewitching region populated by idiosyncratic characters.

My story got passed around approvingly by people with connections to Marin County, as well as some outsiders who saw the appeal of the column’s eccentric approach to the tried-and-true police blotter form. One reader, however, took issue with my paean to Sheriff’s Calls. A former Light reporter named Summer Brennan, who grew up in Marin and is publishing a nonfiction book about the region this summer called The Oyster War: The True Story of a Small Farm, Big Politics, and the Future of Wilderness in America, wrote a blog post sounding a note of caution about consuming the column as entertainment, as I had encouraged readers to do. “This is going to be an unpopular opinion, but it feels callous to me to take people’s calls for help, which serve no functional purpose to the community at large, and turn them into public spectacle,” Brennan wrote. She noted that even though Elliott leaves out people’s names and most identifying details, in many cases locals can figure out who the items are about. This is especially troubling, Brennan wrote, when it comes to serious situations involving domestic abuse, mental illness, or drug abuse, all of which appear with some regularity in the column.

Brennan, who spent five months reporting for the Light in 2012, also told a story about her grandmother, whose death in 1997 followed a long and painful illness; the death was reported in the Sheriff’s Calls. “There it was, between humorous anecdotes about escaped cows and neighborly squabbles,” Brennan wrote. “I felt something like a rock falling in my heart to see it there, presented as entertainment. I felt sad and exposed. I wished fervently that it hadn’t been included. No one had asked us.” 

Brennan’s argument touched a nerve with me. By holding up the pleasures of the Sheriff’s Calls column, had I been complicit in something that others might find cruel? Did the anonymous individuals who appeared in my story feel violated by the spotlight Elliott, and now I, had cast on them?

I called Brennan, who now works as a communications consultant for the United Nations in New York, to talk about Sheriff’s Calls. She made it clear that she wasn’t trying to shame anyone for getting a kick out of the Light column and that she understood why it’s so much fun to read. She said she used to enjoy the Calls herself, before she started thinking about them more critically.

“Growing up as a little kid the only thing we cared about in the Point Reyes Light was whether they reviewed our school play or not, [but] people start to pay more attention to the Calls as teenagers because they’re sometimes quite funny,” she said. “You sit there with your family and read the Sheriff’s Calls and laugh.”

It wasn’t until her grandmother died—Brennan remembers the news being reported in the Sheriff’s Calls as a “body” being removed from someone’s home—that she became more ambivalent about it and started thinking of it more as half police blotter, half gossip column.

“Some of these communities are so small that it’s very obvious who a call is about,” Brennan told me. “People will speculate, ‘Was it them, or was it them?’ There might be some side-eye glances at the grocery store that weekend.”

It had occurred to me, while I was writing my story, that the Sheriff’s Calls probably play differently with west Marin residents than they do with people like me, who live thousands of miles away and can enjoy them at a safe distance. Elliott had told me that she leaves out details she feels might violate people’s privacy, which she described as “a gesture to people’s dignity.” I was satisfied by that. But Brennan doesn’t think the anonymity solves the problem.

“The thing to remember, and what people can forget, is that it’s not fiction,” she said, adding, “These are people who called 911 in the middle of the night because they were afraid … they’re asking for help, usually because they don’t know who else to ask, not because they’re trying to call attention to themselves in any way.”

Brennan allowed that this isn’t always true—that a lot, if not most, of the calls Elliott includes in her column are innocuous. (Brennan noted that she had ended up in the column several times for trivial things, including once for calling in a stray bull wandering in the middle of the road.) But her broader complaint about the column is worth considering. It points to questions about journalism that reasonable people can and do disagree about. What stories do journalists have a responsibility to tell? And when does the pain and embarrassment of telling a story outweigh the value of recounting it?

Brennan’s point of view is that journalists must acknowledge the power dynamic between themselves and those they cover, “and not just mine people for material.”

“Just because something makes a great story,” she said, “doesn’t mean it needs to be shared with the world, especially if it’s not your story to share.”

I put Brennan’s argument to Elliott, and she emailed several points in response. First, she said, much of what appears in her column has already been discussed by locals by the time it appears in print:

Summer is absolutely right: many readers will recognize some of the calls’ sources and subject matter. … But that’s part of rural or village life; it’s a totally different experience than that of the anonymity of urban life. Even without the Sheriff’s Calls, news spreads like lightning out here; I’ve many times been amazed at how quickly people know about some event or news concerning myself that I had thought only one or two other people knew about. You can’t blame the spread of news (or gossip, if you want to judge it) on our Sheriff’s Calls. Certainly they are another way people come to know about things, but usually a week or more late and probably after people already heard about it, if it was a significant event, like a death or an arrest.

Then Elliot made a point that was more philosophical:

I believe human beings amplify their suffering by holding onto it too tightly, identifying themselves with it so personally that they alienate themselves from others and from the universal experience of being human. I think there is much true succor to be had from understanding that one’s suffering is a universal experience. (My background in Buddhist practice and theory contributed to this belief.) What I tried to express to you [when you interviewed me] is how these calls can serve as a reflection of how we are all subject to both trivial and major pain and conflict, fear and emotion. Ideally that reflection would give us some relief from the acute problems of the day. It should be a connective force. And what ends up to some people as humorous in the calls (it’s important to note that I do not deliberately write humor) gives the sweetness and levity that accompanies the bitterness in life.

This characteristically thoughtful response from Elliott reinforced my sense that there’s nothing inherently immoral about publishing the Calls or taking pleasure in reading them. While the reality of small town life is that news has the potential to make things awkward for the people it affects, it seems clear to me that there’s something worthwhile about describing the world, and the sad things that happen in it, with honesty.

Yet there’s also an argument to be made that the news should not be serving as a “connective force” that puts readers in touch with life’s bittersweetness—that’s the job of art, in which real people can be spared and fictional characters sacrificed in their stead. Elliott had told me that her journalistic vocation and artistic nature are in conflict when composing the Calls, and I think it’s that conflict that makes the column so unique, and enjoyable. As Brennan notes, however, it’s also what makes it potentially hurtful if one of the points in Elliott’s pointillist painting happens to be you.