Lessons fill old police headquarters

In times like these, it helps to recall that there have always been times like these.

-- Paul Harvey

They're talking about tearing down the old Augusta Police Headquarters building on Ninth Street, and I have no problem with that.

A new hotel would certainly be better than a boarded-up brick building that's been vacant for years.

But that old building has not always been boarded up and it certainly wasn't vacant. Not in its prime when it was Cop Central, where crime-fighters who seemed part Dick Tracy and part Dragnet protected and served Augusta.

Or so it seemed.

I learned a lot in that old building more than three decades ago because this newspaper sent me down there several times a night to collect news.

I did this the old-school way by watching and listening and asking respectful questions, which is what you do when you deal with people who carry both guns and tempers.

I tried to make clear to those many, many APD policemen that they knew their jobs better than I did, but I would appreciate any help they might offer.

After a while, some -- certainly not all, but some -- would explain how crime and punishment played out and how justice sometimes was served, both practically and in theory.

That's when the old building on Ninth Street became more like a school.

I learned that cops could be resourceful, clever, humorous and brave beyond measure, but were often not exactly boy scouts.

They seemed to have more than their share of problems with money and women and spelling. These were problems I shared, and was sympathetic.

I learned they had guns and could shoot them with accuracy, but unlike the popular TV shows, they would admit that you could go an entire career without ever pulling out your pistol, except maybe on the qualifying range.

Up on the second floor of that remarkably drab building on Ninth Street, I learned that most homicide detectives believe you can get away with murder if you simply keep your mouth shut. But that no one ever does.

I know because they let me sit in on an occasional murder interrogation, which I'm sure they never let reporters do anymore.

I learned how desk sergeants handled desperate, angry, painful, pleading phone calls and how they judged the proper response with the resources at their disposal.

I try to handle newspaper calls the same way, even down to writing down the conversations on notepads and collecting them in my bottom drawer.

I found out that most crimes were solved when someone talks and not with someone combing the scene with a large magnifying glass. And in four years I only saw someone dust for fingerprints once, and that was at a bank robbery because the FBI agents were watching.

I learned never to bring sensitive young reporters -- particularly female college interns -- down to meet the boys, because they always loved to break out color photos of gruesome crime scenes.

I learned they coped with work in different ways. One old police chief kept an open Bible on his desk in his upstairs office. Another had blue plastic bottles of Mylanta antacid lining his shelf.

I'm sure all that is long gone now, and I doubt they'll find anything very interesting if and when they tear down the building.

I also doubt they'll find that confiscated liquor they used to keep in the basement each year until the annual policeman's fish fry and picnic, when such evidence seemed to find another purpose.

If, however, they do find a bottle or two, they could raise a toast to old memories.

In the end, that's all that's ever left anyway.

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