This is the city, Seal Beach, California

Charles M. Kelly

About a decade ago, I took a phone call from a man who wanted to be in the Crime Log. His girlfriend supposedly shot him with a BB gun. He hadn’t reported it to the police because he didn’t want her to get into trouble. But he apparently hoped that telling me about the incident would get his name in the log. I declined as politely as I could.

My first Crime Log appeared in the July 2005 Sun. Since then, I’ve covered public intoxication, DUIs, thefts petty and grand, burglary, robbery, stalking, aggravated assault, domestic violence, rape, murder, child abuse of various kinds, and suicide. I’ve also covered a fight over the fate of a shark, an individual who hid when Jehovah’s Witnesses came to the door, and the theft of a gun left unattended for two hours in an unlocked car. During my first few months on the job I was criticized by one co-worker for making the Crime Log too serious and by another for making it too silly.  I ignored them both.

The Seal Beach Police Department recently fell behind in releasing logs. The SBPD is presently trying to catch up. I personally believe they are acting in good faith. The logs are prepared manually for the press, which is a time-consuming process for a small Police Department. They have a manpower shortage. They sent us a lot of files last week as part of the effort to catch up. Sgt. Michael Henderson, the department’s public information officer, recently told me they instituting a new records management system for the logs that should be more timely.

The police don’t tell me what to put in the log, I don’t tell them how to process a crime scene. In that sense, the system works.  No one tells us there are certain crimes we can’t cover. That said, we seldom cover suicides because it is such a sensitive matter. I once had an editor who feared adding to the grief of the families who kill themselves. I fear triggering copy-cat suicides if I write about them.

When I started this job, I covered crime in Seal Beach, Rossmoor and Los Alamitos. Part of each Monday was spent picking up the printout of the Seal Beach and Los Alamitos logs.  I don’t cover Los Alamitos any more—my colleague Jesus Ruiz at our sister newspaper the News-Enterprise does that.  Nowadays they come to me by email as PDF files instead of by hard copy. I save time making trips, but at the cost of having little direct contact with our officers. And how come some Seal Beach cops look so much younger than I am?

Normally, I read 50 to 75 pages of entries while compiling the Crime Log. This week, I counted 178 pages. The PDFs I get are basically image files—which means I can’t search for a word, phrase or section of the Penal Code. I have to read the entire document. Then I have to translate a combination of letters, communication codes, various legal codes, plain English and jargon into a log entry. I used to keep a copy of the California Penal Code handy, but nowadays the Internet serves me just as well. I constantly confuse the code numbers for vandalism and burglary—594 and 459—so I have to look them up each time I see them.

Police dispatchers often have multiple screens open on their computers. Sometimes a line from one call goes into the record for another. The police are excellent at flagging those entries, but I get cautious if a line doesn’t logically connect with the rest of the item.

I usually leave out useless descriptions, such as the time a caller reported a white man in a swimsuit of unspecified color and design looking at girls of an unspecified age while he was on our beach.

I keep a fearful eye out for violent crimes, but it’s the lighter entries that are harder to find. I look for stories that make me smile or at least make me say, “What were they thinking?” Bees sometimes make good entries. Ducks always make good entries. It’s almost a rule: always run items about bees, sharks or ducks.  The other rules are: always get a police officer’s rank right and never misspell an arrestee’s name.

Charles M. Kelly is the assistant editor of the Sun News.