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A Police Blotter So Good, It's Criminal

March 31, 2002
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A Police Blotter So Good, It's Criminal

by Michelle Locke, Associated Press

ARCATA, Calif. (AP) - Sixteen years ago, Kevin L. Hoover chanced across a newspaper item about someone stuffing cheese into the ears and nose of a statue of William McKinley in the Arcata town square.

Hoover was intrigued on two counts: that a small town with a square and a statue actually existed outside of TV, and that someone would feel moved to cheddar it.

With three days to kill, he came up for a visit and "just totally fell in love" with Arcata, an old logging town of about 16,000 set in coastal redwoods of Northern California.

He quit his job near San Francisco, where he had been working in "let's just say retail," and took a job at the Arcata Union newspaper. There, he worked as a production assistant until the day a harried editor made a fateful decision. She asked Hoover to do the police log for the day.

Hoover looked at a police account of a car full of drunks (toasted) which crashed (coasted) and a poem suggested itself. Shrugging off the straitjacket of conventional journalism, he wrote it.

"I started kind of chiseling away at the seriousness of it. I mean, how can you not? This town is so wacky," says Hoover of Arcata, a nuclear-free zone that for a while had the distinction of a Green Party majority on its city council.

Sixteen years later, Hoover is Arcata's master of rhymes and misdemeanors, the writer of a newspaper police blotter so good it's criminal.

Like other crime reporters, Hoover gets his raw material from the daily bulletins filed by police in stern, telegraphic prose. The difference is what he does with it.

A report of a stolen bike becomes wistful: "That nice green 21-speed on Austin Way is just a memory now."

An out-of-towner's drunken-driving arrest gets the folksy treatment: "Possession of marijuana, possession of alcohol, possession of a driving-impairing liquor buzz. These are things that make an Arcata Police officer grow a big ol' frown. Being from Visalia is somewhat excusable."

A case of shoplifted steak becomes a sizzling slice of life: "Equipped with opposing thumb and forefinger, an ingrained hunter-gatherer species tradition and a crazy dream, a man entered a 24-hour supermarket and, say police, stuffed some animal parts under his jacket and fled the store."

Some police business isn't remotely amusing, of course, and Hoover knows it. "If there's a family problem or ... any kind of real violence obviously that's not very funny."

On the other hand, the fellows who decided to trick-or-treat sans costumes - any costumes - last Halloween were simply begging to be limericked:

"A half-dozen near-naked dudes

Were out trick-or-treating all nude.

A cop found the lads

Somewhat scantily clad

And sent them away freshly clued."

In 1995, the Union went under. So Hoover, working with not much more than his desktop computer, started the Eye, which today is up to 3.5 employees.

It police log is a devious delight, not only for Arcatans but also for the many out-of-towners who follow it by Internet.

"Every once in a while there's that jewel in there. You go, `Wow! This is great!"' says local businessman Bruce Hamilton.

Names are withheld to protect the presumed innocent, but occasionally the Eye gets an angry letter from someone who has recognized his or her most embarrassing moment. Hoover figures some people don't like seeing their pratfalls in print, with or without laughs, so, "I might as well bring out the humor."

Longtime Arcata policeman Bob Murphy calls Hoover's column "cool."

Murphy, the hero of a recent item, "Stoned souls harvested by the Grim Ranger," doesn't mind a bit if people are laughing as they're learning about the doings of the ranger program, a relatively new police park clean-up initiative.

"It's neat to see it publicized," says Murphy.

The log has its own lexicon.

The county jail in nearby Eureka is painted pink, meaning miscreants go to the Pink House or simply get Pinked. Skipping out on a restaurant bill is a scarf-n-scram; doing something similar at the gas station is a fill-n-flee.

Arcata isn't exactly a crime capital. There were no murders and only one attempted homicide last year. But there was plenty of log fodder.

"I try to let the items tell themselves," says Hoover. "My favorite ones are just the anecdotes where there was some little interaction between people, people with all their mixed up ideas about the way things should work."

Thumbing through a stack of recent reports in the tidy lobby of Arcata's police station, he pauses at an item about a woman reporting that magnetic forces from space are controlling her mind - "Do I make this stuff up or what?" - and then skims on.

At some point before his 7 a.m. Monday deadline, Hoover sits down at his computer with a mission to inform and entertain.

Sometimes, he gently scolds:

"In retrospect, it would have better for the bicyclist to have actually, you know, stopped at the Eighth and G streets stop sign."

Sometimes only a haiku will do.

"I try never to repeat myself," he says. "I'll sit there ... for 20 minutes saying, 'No, I can't say that. No, that's too easy.' It forces you into more and more abstruse types of expression, but then you still have to exercise that discipline of reporting it clearly enough so people can understand it."

Most readers catch on, he hopes.

"I am," says Hoover, "celebrating the ridiculous."

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