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Cops: Riding Shotgun with Texas Sheriffs
When asked why I’m interested in law enforcement, I’m compelled to reply, “We all should be.” The fact that we know so incredibly little about our ‘boys in blue’ all though we see them on our street corners and of course in more dramatized versions on television and in Hollywood, I’ve always been interested in the symbolic aspect of the modern day police officer; the man with the badge, gun and authority to dramatically change a persons life forever. Societies apparent answer to all life’s little and not so little problems. However bleak and insignificant a situation may seem, officers are constantly dealing with lost children, family quarrels, various assemblies of homeless and confronting each day, the violence and corruption humanity inflicts on each other everyday.
During the six months I spent with a multitude of Deputy sheriffs in El Paso county, south west Texas in 1997, I had the rare opportunity to follow and record the everyday activities of these men and women. I managed to capture a few strong moments of the out-of-the-ordinary happenstance’s of these law enforcement officers, people not unlike you and I who share varying difficult tasks ranging from the mundane routine of pages of paperwork to absolute, life threatening danger, ugliness, insanity which ultimately leads to an inevitable breakdown of values and morals. This is an account, albeit brief, of a police officers job description.
These ‘Wild West’ ancestors keep somewhat true to their past. The majority of the men and women I interacted with were primarily Hispanic. Because of their ancestry they were able to bring forth a much appreciated warmth and understanding that I and, I’m sure, the rest of the townspeople, who were also Hispanic, enjoyed and accepted openly. I was first impressed with the equipment used by the officers, with a ‘larger-than-life’ resemblance to the grandiose American lust for “bigger is better” with such names as Chevrolet, Harley-Davidson, Ray Ban, Smith & Wesson. However, as the weeks wore on I watched these officers who exuded obvious professionalism accomplish their missions ranging from routine I.D. checks to reports, endless hours spent on surveillance duty which sometimes ended up being hundreds of kilometers down dirt roads to the sudden adrenaline rush during a dangerous bust.
Murphy’s Law never became so evident until this project. A law explaining the fact that things have a tendency to happen when you least expect it or as one of the deputies so eloquently described it. “It’s when the shit hits the fan!”. After hours of uninterrupted patrolling with a K-9 unit on a grave yard shift, we pulled up to the local truck stop on the I-10 highway. Apart from the lonely truck driver stirring his coffee endlessly, only one table at the back of the restaurant was occupied. All deputy sheriffs and one stray highway patrol officer. You can only imagine what might go on in their minds as you sit at a table like this one. Conversations running from family life to pay cuts, shoptalk to the guy that got away. You would catch the odd lost gaze out the window into a universe unknown to most. A place where many do not return. It’s only after receiving your meal ordered off a menu mainly composed of picture that the dispatch calls out “to all available officers code 10-50” — a hit and run victim. As quickly as we had arrived, we leave our untouched food behind, bolting for the door. With sirens blazing, an agitated dog shifts from side to side, tension mounts. To the untrained eye, the scene looks like total havoc, lights flashing in every direction, flares are scattered across a four lane intersection, a small white object catches my attention, it’s a shoe roughly ten meters from where the victim is lying. Paramedics surround the body trying to keep its pulse. The feeling of helplessness overwhelms me as a medical helicopter lands directly behind us, and two doctors try to revive him, it is too late. After a grueling hour of unsuccessful tries, the body is covered with a white sheet. Time of the deceased – 4:30 am. To my knowledge, no one was arrested for this senseless brutal act. It was only then that we returned to the uneventful truck stop. Just another day in the life of the deputy sheriff.
Certain photographs betray a mood of pending violence when an ordinary family quarrel may well end up in a blood bath. In this respect, the bullet proof vest worn under the shirt of all these cop’s is highly revealing, (which in some cases I wore myself). Besides, the repression of drug trafficking constitutes the major part of the work done by this border police force. Roads linking Mexico to the U.S., such as the I-10, are sensitive arteries of a flourishing contraband. Even though another deputy in a deep sigh, admitted to me catching only ten percent of the actual traffic, a task force made up of U.S. Customs, D.E.A., Texas and New Mexico police have seized over 30 kilos of heroin, 2 tons of cocaine and 75 tons of marijuana. Even though these quantities sound enormous, actually landing on a large bust was a different story, only luck and perseverance enabled me to land on what was to be one of US’s largest single drug bust in US’s history. As a nervous Mexican driver arrives at the U.S. border and a routine check is made on his car, officers reveal neatly packed away in the trunk, 23.3 pounds of black tar heroin, estimated at 24 million dollars. This package is later revealed to the local press in Hollywoodesque fashion. I watch in amazement and think of the outcome of this Mexican peasant paid 1000 dollars to transport this load into the land of the free.
Texas, the second largest state in the U.S. also boasts the highest rate of incarceration (700 for 100 000). In an ultramodern county jail of El Paso, Texas, I witnessed different aspects of “the inside world”. Body searches, finger printing and delousing before the anonymous inmate dons the regulation blue overalls inscribed E.P.C.D.F. (El Paso County Detention Facility). On the top floor is the outdoor gym, from which you can admire the end of the Rocky Mountains and the beginning of the Sierra Madre into Mexico. Caged like lions, 40 federal prisoners await transport to a large prison. I am placed alone with one guard in this cage. Surprisingly enough, like a ghost, I hover through the crowd unnoticed, my heart beating for what felt like an eternity. Prisoners can only be exposed to the natural light of the gymnasium a sparsely granted privilege of only three hours a week. An afternoon spent with the elite S.R.T. (Sheriff Reaction Team) proved to provide more excitement. This team made up of tough looking officers is specially trained to counter an unlikely riot in the prison. I was presented a billboard full of makeshift weapons made by previous inmates, everything from hand sharpened spikes, to knives made out of tooth brush handles with razor blades attached to their ends. All used for assassination purpose by gang members thriving to in the “inside world”.
We will find in the police officers, goodness, honesty, corruption and brutality. In many cases we are the police, and like it or not we are responsible of their actions as much as our own. The more we know about them, the more we observe and tie ourselves to them, and the more this society will feel secure.
This testimony shares a few privileged moments into the life of these Texas and New Mexico cops, as well as revealing the true backdrop of American culture.
A freelance photojournalist Jérôme Brunet was born in southern France and raised in Ontario, Canada. After obtaining his O.S.S.D. majoring in visual arts, he started his post secondary education in Paris, France, at the E.F.E.T. School of Photography, graduating in 1997. Jérôme Brunet has been published internationally in The New York Times, Financial Times, Forbes, American Photo, Rolling Stone, and Billboard. His client list includes Nikon, The Discovery Channel, Fender Musical Instruments and Gibson Guitars. Jérôme Brunet is currently working and residing in the Bay Area of San Francisco and is represented internationally by Zuma Press.
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Many thanks… david alan harvey