Friday, May 30, 2008

Chasing Cars

I don't normally think of myself as the kind of vulture/voyeur who watches police chases on TV. I didn't watch the infamous OJ white Bronco chase (I didn't even know it was on), but I will admit that if someone times his chase to fall within the evening news slot (and it's amazing how many people do), I can't help but watch. You see, I've been there.

Not as the chasee. But I've been in a vehicle in the pack following the chase and was on the scene when the chase ended.

Back in the days when I knew I wanted to be a writer but didn't think being a novelist was a practical career goal, I decided to be a journalist. And because I was also intrigued by the idea of television and film, I thought I wanted to be a television journalist. So in college I majored in broadcast news. One of the degree requirements was a news internship, and the final semester of my senior year, I interned at the Austin ABC affiliate station (KVUE 24 Action News! -- though I believe they have a different tagline now). To be totally honest, I wasn't a great journalist. I could write, and I could put together a great story. I even had the instinct for spotting a story (one tip I brought to the station based on something I'd seen on campus ended up getting my station's footage on CNN, as we were the only station anywhere to have it). But I wasn't very assertive, either in pursuing information (if someone said "no," I said, "Okay.") or in getting involved in the story. The job of an intern was to find a reporter or photographer going out on a story, beg to be allowed to go along, then carry equipment and generally tag along and do things to help the reporter and photographer. If there was time, you could beg the reporter or photographer to let you shoot your own "stand-up" (the part where the reporter appears on camera) so you could write your own version of that story including your stand-up to go on your resume tape. I wasn't good at begging to go along or begging to do a stand-up. My area of specialization was fashion consultation for the female reporters, who'd ask me along to fix their scarves (my fashion signature at the time was scarves tied in interesting ways) before they went on camera. Otherwise, I often worked the early morning shift at the station instead of going out on stories, writing the local news breaks that come at the top and bottom of the hour during Good Morning America. While the news break writing was more "real" work that actually ended up on the air than most interns got to do, tying scarves and writing news briefs wasn't the way to build a resume tape that would help me get a job.

So, I was approaching the end of my internship, and I hadn't yet put together a decent resume tape because I hadn't had the nerve to ask to shoot a stand-up. One Saturday, I decided to go to the station even though I wasn't scheduled to work. They usually had a skeleton crew on weekends, with photographers going out without reporters to get footage of a variety of community events. I figured if I got a patient photographer, I'd get to play reporter and could shoot something that could go on my resume tape. First, Keith the photographer and I went to cover one of those neighborhood fix-up events, where volunteers do repairs on needy senior citizens' homes. We met our contact at the edge of the neighborhood, then he rode with us in the news SUV to one of the building sites. He noticed that Keith had a bullet-proof vest hanging in the back of the truck, and Keith said his wife had given it to him for his birthday because she worried about him, and he carried it to make her happy, but he'd never had a reason to use it. We did the usual feel-good story stuff there, then we went on to some "learn about the environment" festival and shot lots of footage of kids looking cute while playing in the dirt (our official assignment there was "cute kids"). We were on our way to another festival when a call came over the two-way radio, asking where we were, and then telling us that there was a high-speed chase heading our way.

Keith asked if we should cover it, but they said no, go on to our next assignment because it was still pretty far out, and they'd send another unit to cover the chase (probably one with a real reporter instead of an intern). But soon after he got off the radio, Keith looked at me, said, "I have a feeling about this," and I said I did too, so he took the next exit, and then when we got under the freeway and were about to head in the direction the chase was coming from, suddenly it came right by us. There was the car being chased, and then sheriff's cars from three counties and police cars from multiple cities, plus the State Troopers. While all the other oncoming traffic was still sitting there in shock, Keith whipped out to join the chase, and then we were flying down city streets behind at least ten police cars, all with lights flashing and sirens blazing.

A few blocks later, the chase came to a stop when the fugitive got caught up in city traffic at an intersection where there were other cars stopped and he couldn't get around. He rear-ended someone and was stuck, but wouldn't get out of the car. We stopped with all the police cars and jumped out of the truck. Keith grabbed the camera out of the back, put it on his shoulder and ran, with me lugging the equipment bag coming behind him. A police officer stopped us, saying we couldn't get any closer because the guy had weapons in the car. Keith immediately perked up and said, "I have a bullet-proof vest!" The officer was a little surprised, but said he could get closer with that on, so I ran back to the truck to get it, and as soon as I got the vest to Keith, the police officer shoved me down onto the ground behind a squad car. As I lay on the ground, watching between the tires as the police pulled the guy out of his car and cuffed him, all I could think was, "I'm so glad my mom doesn't know where I am right now."

Once the situation was secured, I got to interview the head police officer at the scene -- and we were the only station there. Following our instincts had scored us a scoop. When we got back to the station, I got to write the story for the evening newscast as one where the anchor would read the story over footage of the event, with a sound bite from the policeman. That felt like a real coup for me, getting to cover spot news and be the reporter on the scene -- something interns almost never get the chance to do. It was my story and my reporting that went on the air, with some amazing footage Keith got because of his vest allowing him to get close to the action. And wouldn't you know it, I was so caught up in doing my job that I didn't even think of getting Keith to shoot me doing a stand-up on the scene so I could put a version of that story on my resume tape. I don't know if that's a sign that I would have been a good reporter because I was more focused on the story than on my own ego, or that I would have been a bad reporter because I wasn't assertive enough to insist on taking advantage of my moment of glory.

I thought of this last night when someone conveniently timed his police chase during the evening news. The Dallas station has a helicopter that was on the scene, and I couldn't resist watching as the newscast ran long, following the chase as the guy left his truck and went on foot into a house. The helicopter got live footage of all the TV news photographers rushing in to film the suspect being pulled out of the house and arrested, and none of them were wearing vests. I guess once they had him in cuffs there was no danger, but I was surprised how close they let the photographers get. (It turned out to be possibly the dumbest reason ever for a high-speed chase, right out of My Name is Earl -- something pre-karma Earl or Randy might have done. They'd tried to pull the guy over for speeding, but he took off in a panic, which made the police think there was some reason he didn't want to be caught -- like outstanding warrants or contraband in his vehicle. But he was just a habitual petty criminal and he was afraid he'd get locked up if he was stopped. Ironically, there were no outstanding warrants against him, and if he had stopped he'd have just gotten a speeding ticket, but after a high-speed chase during which he aimed his vehicle at police officers trying to stop him and damaged public property, he will get locked up.)

I never did get a job as a TV reporter, probably because my resume tape was so lame (I seem to have done too much real writing and reporting that went on the air to get around to doing some fake writing and reporting that didn't go on the air to have anything showing me on my tape). My heart wasn't really in it, since what I most wanted to do was be a novelist. I am doing that now, so I guess it worked out okay, but I will admit that when there's an exciting story like the one last night, I do get a little wistful. My current job has a very low chance of involving me in high-speed car chases, except in my head (where I have written a low-speed car chase involving magic and a gargoyle).

Now I guess I'd better get on with my current job, so I can have the evening free for my Sci Fi Friday!

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