One day this week, the Police Blotter came up short. There were too few crimes to fill the space in the newspaper, and Richard Irwin started calling the precincts in Baltimore County.
"I came up with a hot tub theft in Parkville," he told me. "In Towson, I came up with the theft of an AK-47 rifle."
And so the list grows, thanks in part to the seemingly endless supply of thieves, gunmen, miscreants and thugs who prey on the good citizens of Baltimore, their exploits recorded by the cops and reported in the papers, compiled and perused in print and online like baseball box scores.
The Police Blotter feature turned 30 this month, and Irwin still plugs away, dutifully making rounds of calls to jaded cops toiling away on the overnight shift, just as he did when he wrote his first holdup for the blotter in the now-defunct News American in 1979.
Not all crime is equal, but it is in the blotter, reported and written in a deadpan, old-school, just-the-facts-ma'am style that treats the silly and the mundane with as much reverence as the serious and odd - where one small item gives the news that someone broke into a house on Old Court Road and stole clothes, but throws you a treat in the very next sentence when you learn the intruder "poured ketchup, hand lotion and paint onto carpets, walls and floors."
It is a style that has served Irwin through a reporting career that began in 1955 and has spanned the terms of 10 mayors and 13 police commissioners and two of Baltimore's once-venerable evening papers.
The New York Times just this week wrote about "The Dying Art of the Crime Blotter," and it does seem antiquated in the days of the high-speed Internet that has rendered newsprint versions of stock tables obsolete. The blotter recalls the nostalgic era of fedora-wearing, whiskey-drinking reporters straight from The Front Page who went from police station to police station and called in to rewrite.
Crime patterns change, but crime remains, and the blotter has changed little in style or substance since its inception. Fewer purses are snatched now, but GPS devices are stolen by the dozens. Dick fondly remembers a man who, stopped by police, opened his jacket to have the pigeons he had stolen from a coop fly away to freedom. "People steal the darndest things," he noted.
He describes his column simply: "People want a daily account of crime and what is going on in their neighborhoods."
Paul Scardina spent the final seven years of his 32-year career on the midnight desk of the Southeastern District before he retired last year as a sergeant. Talking to Dick became part of his routine:
"God - every night," Scardina told me.
Even during times when cops were officially barred from chatting with reporters, Irwin was the exception. But that didn't mean the blotter escaped the angry glare from the top brass. Scardina said he once got booted back to the street when Irwin's blotter listed too many crimes from the Southeast - "I'd be told to give out one robbery when we had 20."
The blotter is popular because it tells a story, small tales woven to form a portrait of our neighborhoods and of our streets. Even if it's not comprehensive, it's reassuring to know that the missing trash cans and petty thefts, the break-ins and the burglaries, the crimes that most aggravate but often get crowded out by murder and mayhem, still matter. We laugh at the stolen hot tub and shake our heads at the stolen assault weapon.
It's neighborhood gossip in print, or fodder for gossip yet to come. You learn not only that the woman down the street got held up at gunpoint, but that she had $300 in her purse, or that the man shot on Charles Street hailed a cab instead of taking an ambulance to the hospital.
Perhaps most amazing is that the Police Blotter has survived the test of the computer age. Despite electronic feeds in which thousands of crimes can be downloaded from police 911 centers directly to detailed mapping programs, Irwin's feature remains popular, whether it is read at the coffee table, viewed on the computer screen or downloaded to an iPhone (which, by the way, is among the leading items listed in the blotter as stolen).
The computer gives us: "Incident number: 090055470; Report number: n/a; Date/Time: February 07th, 2009 03:10 pm; Description: Assault; Nearby address: 3300 Laurel Fort Meade Rd."
Irwin gives us: "Someone entered the rear yard of a house in the 5900 block of Johnson St. on Saturday morning and removed a tomato from a tomato plant. The tomato was valued at $3, police said."