Thursday, March 29, 2007

When the pen really is mightier

Note: A print version of this story, or very near in content, can be seen in the March 2007 edition of LareDOS in Laredo, Texas and online, in pdf, at


That pen and computer a law officer writes an arrest report with can carry more punch than the gun.
Modern crime scene investigators are armed with pens and many with laptops, too. An officer can begin writing reports on the scene, or start with notes and edit them into soon thereafter into a comprehensive report fit for the district attorney’s office and potential scrutinizing juries.
A scene ending with a policeman shooting down a criminal might seem to end a case, but the law officer that effectively, and consistently, writes a report that all clearly understand has a better chance of nailing down that case and immediately related crimes for good. The clarity, careful explanation of details and effectiveness of the report cover plenty of ground, which law enforcement bosses put a high premium on nowadays.
In the western movies how fast a lawman could draw his gun was the difference between life and death. How well a lawman can write nowadays his report means the difference between a good cop and bad cop.
“To me, it’s way, way toward the top,” Sheriff’s Major Doyle Holdridge said, adding that all the effort thrown into a case mean nothing if no one understands the report. “If we’re not satisfied we’ll send them back up to do the report two or maybe three times. At some point the jury can review that document.”
Laredo Police Academy Director Larry Garner rates clear writing “around a six, maybe a seven.”
He isn’t satisfied with the four English courses required of those pursuing a bachelor’s in criminal justice.
“They need to write more,” he said. “Most cops would rather be out doing detective work, or practicing shooting or something, but they could be fixing to lose a dozen cases. It costs us when they write at a ninth grade level.”
Garner and his staff train officers to write in 32 and 24-hour courses for cadets and in-service work for those already in the field, but his experience says better writing makes for stronger police work.
Journalism and creative writing wouldn’t hurt.
“In law enforcement we are set in our ways,” he said. “We should suggest taking a creative writing course.”
Without clear writing, Garner says officers’ reports make them look like something other than a top professional and they lose cases, setting criminals free – sometimes to be arrested again later.
“They get off scott free, and it’s too late then,” Garner said.
Laredo Police Department spokesman Juan Rivera says LPD officers get more intense training once graduated from the 9-month academy with 6 weeks of in-service crime scene, driving and policy manual study, including additional report writing training with their field training officer.
Rivera notes that LPD officers use different forms for different crimes, accidents and cases.
“Almost every crime has a report and it’s a detailed report – unlike TV cops that just shoot everybody and have no paperwork,” Rivera said. “It’s done in an 8-hour shift, but sometimes they have to finish later.”
“It has to be step-by-step. In the details,” Webb County Sheriff’s Cpt. Benjamin Botello said. “Detail No. 25 could be the weapon, or other evidence. They have to be able to see everything for detail No. 26, or detail No. 27.”
“We have to show how everything how it went from point A to point B. It’s detailed and important that we make it like a book that you can follow completely and know what happened,” Holdridge said. “We want it so you can see that it is very self-explanatory.”
Holdridge said reports have several important purposes, starting with informing the district attorney about the case, but also the report serves as material for an arresting officer called to the witness stand and it is an instrument in potentially taking the suspect’s life away. The suspect could lose many years behind bars, or literally lose their life in a murder case in states like Texas, which uses capital punishment.
Sheriff Rick Flores notes that cases sometimes don’t go to court for several months, or at times even a year later, dulling the memory of the sharpest minds, so those details written the day of a crime are very important.
Flores credits Department of Public Safety veteran Holdridge for upgrading his department’s report writing, but Holdridge credits his experience with that state agency.
“It has to be user-friendly and easy to understand,” Holdridge said.
Flores notes that all his department’s offices are computerized and can go to specifics of a report with physical descriptions, civil rights readings, jail bond reports, and other matters indexed in a folder.
George Altgelt, an attorney and former prosecutor, said lawyers look for the mental processes arresting officers show when assessing whether, or not, there was sufficient probable cause to stop someone in the first place.
“He has to look at all the pieces of the puzzle as he can gather and once they are altogether can he answer the question if there was more probability than not if this crime occurred,” Altgelt said. “He has to paint a picture for the prosecutor and he decides if it has the strength to indict on the strength of the police report.”
Altgelt says police report strengths depend on the facts and officer’s ability to articulate those facts in writing. Altgelt said the reports have to be in chronological order.
“The conclusion should end in an arrest, and he can’t arrest without probable cause,” Altgelt said.
Altgelt points out to the tricky elements in some cases, which require thorough, detailed thinking and observation. Assume nothing.
For example security at a large store might have video taped a suspected DVD thief moving the items in his, or her, clothing to another department. The suspect is detained by the store and police are called.
Altgelt notes that an officer has to see the video first and see that steps match up to an arrest.
Simply moving the items might not be a crime, but it obviously might have been a step in an eventual theft. Officers have to operate within the legal framework.
Altgelt points another hypothetical case in which a beige suburban is seen speeding down Clark Blvd. and suspected in a vandalism case, or disturbance. An officer can “engage” the suburban and ask questions of the driver and riders, seeking inconsistencies and taking note of any items which could have been involved in the crime.
An empty case of eggs could be found in the car, but does it have any relation to the vandalism case, or disturbance?
Conflicting stories from the driver and riders could make them look suspicious, but officers have to be very specific when it’s decided to make an arrest.
“Show your work. There is no credit for just giving an answer,” Altgelt said. “The officer has to show his, or her, work. It’s more a professional thing than anything else.
“The right steps show professionalism in context. The police officer took an oath to uphold the constitution, and that includes any amendments.”
Altgelt notes that an officer has to listen carefully for the word lawyer because once one is requested it’s like a giant iron curtain dropping between he and the suspect. That has to be in the report, too.
“That can be more important than anything else,” Altgelt said.
Altgelt believes that buzzwords are important in a report and that professionalism and credibility usually equals conviction.
Altgelt says there no excuse for sloppy work in a report.
“If you don’t even bother to run a spell check, what does it say?” he asked. “Mostly everybody here in Laredo does it by the book. Everybody is under good watch under a lieutenant or watch commander and they help.
“There are one, or two that take shortcuts, and just assume that if they arrest someone then they are guilty. Some are more like the KGB or Gestapo and we know who they are by reading their arrest reports – and their cases don’t get prosecuted.”
Altgelt’s experience shows him that police reports have a tough battle for credibility because professionals, like him, judges and juries are always picking them apart.
“Some that come in are good, but they never get better,” he said.
Altgelt prosecuted drug and environmental cases for Webb County before opening his own office with partner Forrest Cook.
Flores says the state requires law officers to have at least 60 college hours, but his department would like it if they had more.
“An education, that’s your ammunition. Your pen – that’s the most important weapon,” Holdridge said.

Corporations -- an opinion

Note: Following is very similar, but slightly different from an op/ed piece in the March edition of LareDOS in Laredo, Texas. That can be seen online, in pdf, at and in print in Laredo.


A local corporate executive recently told me not all corporations are bad.
I won’t hold him to it, but surely, there must be one, or two out there who haven’t completely tossed out their soul and lost sight of their original purposes and drive to make money. There’s nothing wrong with making money. Nothing at all, but too many corporations – being the loose-fitting strings of structure, people, facilities and mission statements that they are – lose sight of what enabled them to get where they are today as growth, ambition and faraway leadership steer their course.
Case-by-case examples prove leadership can be faraway and still in the same building as they try to solve problems and direct the local operation as the bosses at corporate would do it.
Not many people, whether they work for a corporation, or not, really like them, but many people are trapped, having to work for one because they seem to have more money than the sometimes more realistic, practical, clear-minded local operation.
“I don’t like it. I wish I could go somewhere else, but what are you gonna do? I got to feed the kids,” said a corporate soldier to me not long ago.
Unfortunately, not all locally-owned places are run by level-headed bosses with competition and imagined competition twisting their vision. Sometimes, when on the dark side, local owners might see their holdings and personnel as toys to be hurled around the room when frustration sets in. Keeping those wages down at the local level and still getting good, competitive results isn’t easy, either.
But before anyone starts to read too much into, or between the lines here, I am combining information from some 38 years in the workforce when I first latched on with a corporate ice cream shop in Houston.
Since then, I’ve been paid – I want to say nickel and dimed, but that’s not fair to all – by various bosses in Brenham, La Grange, San Marcos, Austin, Belton, Temple, San Antonio, Alice, Corpus Christi, Waco, Hempstead, Bryan, Copperas Cove, Wharton, Lufkin, Edinburg, Laredo, Florence, S. Carolina and overseas in London. And I might have forgotten some of those former workplaces, too, so please don’t necessarily read yourself into this, but all of my experiences combine to say that we all lose when our corporations and businesses get off track and stay that way. Someone in the driver’s seat needs to keep an eye out for sleepy eyes at the controls.
When we hear, “I’m not going home until the other bosses leave” and “I’m afraid to take my vacation time because the bosses might fire me” – trouble and foggy-headed, fatigued thinking usually aren’t too far ahead. Don’t take my word for it – please research that one on your own.
When we have reached that point – and way too many corporations have here and elsewhere -– we are taking the human element out of the corporation’s local office and that isn’t healthy. Do you want examples of people feeling dwarfed and pushed to extremes and bad health by high stress, or would you rather do that on your own? Have you seen anyone take a job and noticed as their weight blasts through the ceiling, or his or her health leaps out the window?
If you work for a corporation, you might have a boss who’s trying to kill you without trying to kill you. They’re just following orders to heighten production – it doesn’t matter how, with whom or if anyone falls by the wayside.
Do your bosses care if anyone dies?
It struck me as entirely too sad a few years ago when a very dedicated editor at a big city newspaper died and his memorial service was held in his office. It read too much like an ironic and fitting note for someone who might have bit, bought and swallowed their corporate dedication a little too far.
When people tell friends to get a life they aren’t just talking to hear the sound of their own voice.
People have to work and sometimes very hard. It isn’t easy to find any job that doesn’t go through some tough periods now and then, but a telltale sign of what I would call corporatitis is when that tough boss, or the one driven nuts by other bosses already beaten to death by poorly-prioritized efforts, really doesn’t show any sincere regrets when one of their employees dies. Are we that disposable now?
I still don’t know how efficient a dead employee can be.
Probably the simplest and most profound lesson learned in my high school years in the Houston suburbs was that there’s a big difference between tough and stupid. Someone needs to – please – start telling some corporate supervisors to wake up. The life they save could be their own.
You can be entertained, and educated in some ways, by this corporate thing, too -- if not already.
One of the best corporate-based dramatic movies in recent years was 1999’s The Insider, starring Al Pacino, Russell Crowe and Christopher Plummer. The Insider cut two ways, peering into corporate woes in the tobacco industry and at CBS where 60 Minutes had corporate-induced problems in simply airing whistleblower Jeff Wigand’s interview.
Both the book and movie, The Corporation, drew strong reviews when released only a few years ago, but 1975’s Rollerball, starring James Caan, continues to be mentioned whenever corporate extremes are the topic.
Caan plays a futuristic gladiator, playing this deadly game in a corporate-controlled world.
Online, Antipreneur: The Mark That Changed Capitalism has emerged, adding another corporate-aware voice to the struggle for realistic thinking and controls in the corporate world.
“While giant corporations run roughshod over our lives, we whine and complain, protest and boycott,” the Web site forum said.
Well-written complaints, protests and boycotts are a place to start, but some of those targeted corporate executives would only thinking of the free advertising they’re getting and nothing about the protest aims.
Good, or bad, it looks like we will have to deal with corporations for some time to come, but they and us will all work and perform better once they make a sincere, profound effort to clearly see the people in front of and around them. All of the people – not just the presidents on those dollar bills and legal tender.

Grupo Fantasma Fantastic

Note: The following is a near twin to a story that appeared in the February edition of LareDOS in Laredo, Texas. It can be seen online, too, at


Grupo Fantasma is very much alive and flying high with an effective manager in Mike Crowley and the attention of the Prince.
“Laredo,” A corrido they sing on occasions is printed in Hecho en Tejas – An Anthology of Texas Mexican Literature -- alongside the works of other well-known Texas musicians Selena, Little Joe Hernandez, Freddy Fender, Sunny Ozuna, Roberto Pulido, Conjunto Atzlan, Laura Canales, Tish Hinojosa, Lydia Mendoza and Chingo Bling, but Fantasma’s current streak could propel them well past the rest in the book.
“They are a great band,” Crowley said by phone from his home in Austin. “Nobody ever accused the music business of being fair, but hopefully we will get these guys where they should be.”
Fantasma guitarist Adrian Quesada credits Crowley, a longtime veteran of the U.S. music scene, with taking the Laredo-influenced Latin funk, cumbia and Hip Hop mix band to new heights in recent months.
Fantasma played with Prince in Florida prior to the Super Bowl, played for CBS execs before the big game, picked up several gigs in Las Vegas at Prince’s 3121 Club and for a Golden Globes after party in Los Angeles.
Austin-based Fantasma is so busy it only plays about once a month in the capital city.
Fantasma’s visibility in Hecho is in a two-page spread with the corrido “Laredo,” which the 11-member group usually plays when it occasionally returns to Laredo.
Quesada, guitarist and cuatro player Beto Martinez, bass man Greg Gonzalez, drummer Johnny Lopez III are all from Laredo. The band’s traveling concessions salesman Gilbert Mendoza is also from Laredo.
Ironically, “Laredo” is one of their few numbers that they didn’t write. Quesada said it’s an old corrido and they were published in newly printed Hecho because the book’s editor, Dagoberto Gilb, knows them.
Gilb is the author of several books, teaches at Texas State in San Marcos and lives in Austin.
Quesada notes that Crowley helped author musical success for the Cars and Jimmie Dale Gilmore a number of years after working on some of Elvis Presley’s tours in the 1950s, which included several rural dance hall appearances.
Quesada also credits Crowley with connecting them to Prince and possibilities of recording with the well-known Rock star.
“We were playing in Las Vegas every Thursday night and backing up Prince,” Quesada said. “Thank God we flew to Vegas.
“We are still busy without him and we’ve been talking about working on an album with him.”
One of Fantasma’s rare recent Austin gigs was a charity event for Las Manitas restaurant, which is being moved out of its site in a property takeover.
Fantasma was interviewed on Austin’s ME Television on Feb. 9 and said they expect touring to return them to Canada, where they played last year, too. Fantasma’s other recent gigs have been in Georgia, Mississippi and New York, frequently leaving group members to drive either of their two 15-seat vans. And those who volunteer to drive generally decide what music plays on the radio, which can be as varied as the music Fantasma plays on stage.
Fantasma fans seldom ever hear them on radio because they don’t cater to that media.
“We don’t write to get on radio,” Quesada said. “We do what we do. We’re into the band being ourselves. If something gets picked up it’s OK, if not that’s OK, too.”
Crowley says getting a band’s music heard on radio is not nearly as important as it was with so many other ways for fans to download music now. Getting on radio is good, but not the key to success it once was and Crowley says Fantasma is already gaining the notoriety radio-successful bands have had in evidence through recent events.
Crowley would know. His resume includes work with famed musicians such as John Denver, Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys, the Pointer Sisters and Joe Ely. He also worked for Concerts West in Seattle, Wash. and in California until moving to Austin with his wife in the 1980s.
Crowley says Fantasma puts itself in position to be successful because the 11 parts all fit together so very well -- and practice, practice, practice.
“They are a great live band and they practice every Tuesday,” Crowley said. “It’s something like a very exceptional football team. They practice and practice. They practice every Tuesday night.
“You see it when they are playing. There are not any surprises. They all know what each other is doing.”
Crowley likes listening to Fantasma for that fine, natural, professional touch and its fusion of styles.
“It all comes together in their own way,” he said.
Crowley says Fantasma will be back in the recording studio soon and new songs like “Revoltar,” which was played for the 200 or so braving temperatures in the low 50s at the Jalapeno Festival is expected to be on the next CD. “Revoltar” carried a sound and time like one that could go to radio stations, but that media is only one consideration nowadays.
Crowley isn’t sure where all of the group’s successes could take them, but doesn’t see any barriers – other than the group’s size – getting in their way. Airfare for 11 is considerably more than it is for the typical band roughly half that size.
Crowley would like to take the band to the Montreux music festival held each year in July on the shores of Lake Geneva, Switzerland, but taking the 11 usually means 13 or 14 go and summer airfares and hotels are at their highest. Switzerland isn’t cheap, either.
Montreux was a milestone in Texas guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan’s career -- booed off the stage one year before returning to thunderous approval the next.
“I’d love to go to Montreux, but we need someone who’ll pay for it,” Crowley said, whose confidence in Fantasmas isn’t based on his own viewpoint.
Crowley recalls another musician at the Montreal festival in Canada saying “that band dominates”
And it’s true,” Crowley said. “It’s going to happen.”