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Jérôme Brunet

Cops: Riding Shotgun with Texas Sheriffs

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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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Jérôme Brunet


Editor’s Note:

Please only one comment per person under this essay.. Further discussions should take place under Dialogue..

Many thanks… david alan harvey

24 thoughts on “jerome brunet – cops”

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  2. Even the lengthy text that accompanied them doesn’t really redeem these photos. Just more photos of cops and violence without anything that makes them stand out. Another stiff, another cop. Perhaps I’ve just become too saturated with photos of the mundane violence of everyday life, but while technically o.k. (which is not unusual these days), I don’t find anything interesting in the photos.

  3. Frank Michael Hack

    Fantastic images.The devil is in the details, very well thought out composition, and an eye for profound subtly. Black and white, good and bad, cops and drug dealers, boredom and adrenaline, life and death, it’s all there. What happens when you mix black and white, you get #808080 gray.

    Thank you for sharing on Burn.

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  5. Anyone remember that tv show “COPS”???
    and that catchy tune; “…bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do, watcha gonna do when they come for you…”
    “COPS” & “Jerry Springer” used to be so popular back in the day…

  6. I’m sorry but Panos has put his finger on why these photos do not work for me. Too much like a TV show. This subject, like so many, has been photographed way too often. We see images like this in tabloids and on TV if we choose to go there. It’s really a tough subject to approach in an original way.


  7. JEROME,

    First congratulations for being published here…

    I have looked at your essay 2 to 3 times now as I did not know what to think of it at first…. your pictures are certainly very well composed but somehow, I felt there was something missing for me and could not quite articulate what it was… You certainly are showing us some of the tricky situations that officers have to deal with, the violence, the drug and you have had great access so there are no doubt some interesting pictures…. but as Pat has said, we have seen such scenes many times before so what is it that you want to share with us that would go beyond what we already know or have seen before, be on TV or whatever…. when I have read your statement, I thought you were going to share with us who these men are , how they manage/ struggle to deal with this violence…. you say that we know very little about “our boys” but I was left somewhat disappointed that you did not share anything deeper about these men apart from the “cliche” of the action shots…. Personally, I would have loved to see the face of these men at the bar/ restaurant having just gone through a tough situation, the fatigue, the stress, maybe some compassion who knows… I would have loved to know more about who these “boys” are and I am afraid I did not now anything new about them by the end of the essay…. May be a missed opportunity in my view if your intent was for us to better understand these men…. but maybe this was not what you had in mind…..would love to have your pov….


  8. as well as revealing the true backdrop of American culture.

    Wow, no less!?!?

    Gotta be with Patricia, Jim and Panos on that. These are just work-a-day local News coverage of something we are all aware of, as panos explains. Your claim that we know so little about our cops is basic photo-essay underlining blah-blah. Not that in the end you end up showing us what we wouldn’t know, in any of your shots, despite your long explanation. Nothing wrong with the photography, but a bloody face doesn’t make a strong image by itself. Here the Capa warning, too far etc… rings again (if your intention was beyond mere collecting of a police-on-the-beat outing)

    I think with such great access as you seem to have, much more could be achieved, creative juices and all that. The second shot is a case in point. Absolutely great imagery waiting to be unearthed with many levels of undesrtanding, or rather seeing, and I instantly thought what Nachtwey could have done with this, like some kind of baptism with cops “playing” the role of St John-the-baptists. I almost think you saw that too, and frankly, you were, as david says often… Almost there.

    My criticism is in no way one of your talents, more that it seems to me you may be caught up too much in daily coverages, professionally, to free all these creative juices.



    NO SOUL!


    Even the treatment seems conservative. Certainly competent, but competent aint what it used to be.
    You see to have some access here. Take some risks. make we want to look the pictures, not just flip through them.


  10. Dear Burnians,

    I’d like to start by personally thanking David & Anton for giving me this amazing opportunity to present this project, I am truly honored and humbled to have been given this spotlight here on Burn.

    I started this six month project back in 1997 with the goal of presenting an in-depth look at international law enforcement throughout the world, but due to time and financing issues I’ve had to put it on hold.

    Although this project has opened doors, won awards and recognitions (Black & White Spider awards, AI-AP) it remains mostly unseen from professional publications.

    I’m hoping to start 2010 with the next chapter of the project – Oakland: Street Wars

    Thank’s again for all your comments, pros & cons, and for those who wish to view the entire piece please visit: http://jeromebrunet.com/cop_index.html

    Sincere regards,


  11. OK. As I have made a habit of commenting, I will comment now.

    Before I read a word, I looked at your entire series. Then I went away, bought myself a cup of coffee, drove around in the sub-zero air, shot a few pocket camera frames of Wasilla out the car window, including some cops making a bust of some kind.

    My reaction upon looking at the photos was that you have some strong singular images of crimes scenes and such. You do. You have some strong images. Number 5 is my favorite. To me, it speaks more strongly of the dangers that a cop might walk into than any of the others.

    After reading your text, I have to agree with many of the above. While you did a good job of showing us the crime scenes, none of the photos explores the inner-man inside the police officers doing this work – and that is your stated goal.

    You have good access. These officers have let you into their lives. Go back and tell us who they are.

    It’s clear that you also want to write. Don’t be afraid to ask someone to help you edit it a big.

  12. Here are the facts:

    1. Visually, your composition is excellent.
    2. You could use some text editing, but by no means is this a detractor from the piece.
    3. Since, as stated in your intro, this essay was crafted in 1997, it in fact, is a current piece and any derogatory reference to Jerky Springer or Cops is weak at best.
    4. “Getting to know” these cops i.e. hanging out with them in a bar after a bust, in my opinion was not the intent and to say these images do not capture their essence is simply not true. You were riding shotgun, you’re not a cop…you see what you see, you send it to us. You did your job most competently.

    Bravo, Monsieur Brunet, I look forward to your next installment. Encore

  13. Jerome

    Congratulations on this essay. I have also looked at your link, and wish they were all included here.

    I am a fan of straight up well crafted story telling, which is what we have here.

    I can also appreciate some of the comments here about lack of “soul” etcetera, and love Johns’ comment, “make me want to look at the pictures”. There is a feeling of being along for the ride, which of course you were. I’d love it to be a little more up close and personal, both photographically and emotionally speaking. It is emotionally very flat. Expressions are uniformly deadpan, even the fight scene for the most part. Perhaps this was deliberate.

    In the end it’s your show, and it’s hard to fault personal choices. I too look forward to seeing more. I’d also love to hear how you feel about the success of the project, and what you might do differently.


  14. I’m with Patricia, Eric, etc on this. After reading your compelling essay I expected the same with the photos. I have a feeling you might have them in your files, but for whatever reason they didn’t make them to this essay.

    For example, a wide shot of an empty truck stop with cops huddled at a table in one corner would tell us in an image what you did in the text, more so than the picture included here.

    The “heated discussion” was a moment I’m sure you vividly recall, but other than the caption it is in no way recounted in the image.

    So maybe go back to the proofs and find those less “COPS” moments and the more off kilter, maybe even mundane moments. They may actually be the more humanistic ones.



  15. i was hoping for something a bit more dramatic! i like no. 5 as a stand-alone image, but overall it just wasn’t gritty enough foe me.
    a good ‘day in the life of’ piece.

  16. Being an NYC firefighter and working close with cops, I thought this essay was a very good start. Number 5, brilliant! I did think it received too many negative reviews, mainly in regard to what our own preconceived story about them is. Having a father and brother in the NYPD, I understand all to well the lack of emotion in their faces. These are men with a sixth sense of when they are ” being seen” by the public. They put on a mask that COMMAND PRESENCE. Even Nachtwey wouldn’t get much more. At a funeral, you might get a close friends tear, but in general these men are taught from day one at the academy, to stand tall, head held high and feet shoulder width apart. They deal with the public and must be acknowledged. The only great work I have seen of these boys in blue, is Jill Freedman’s “STREET COPS” and of course her “FIREHOUSE”. One could only wish to be this good. And enough with the show Cops. Can anyone say, why we even call them “cops”?

  17. Kristoffcapa:

    Dear Sir, thank you, this is by far the highest compliment I could possibly garner about my project, I’m truly humbled!

    Concerning other documentaries of the boys in blue, my main inspiration for this project, of which I kept a copy of his book in my camera bag throughout, was Magnum photographer Leonard Freed’s “Police Work”:


    Sincere regards,


    (As seen on…Burn.)

  18. They put on a mask that COMMAND PRESENCE

    Indeed, but also why “we know so incredibly little about our boys”, no?…

    A veil we then expected Jerome, (a fine photographer, let it be said again) lift a bit, from his own experience.

  19. Jerome, Herve,

    Thanks for the link to Freed’s work, truly outstanding!
    The thing is, it’s a different time. Back in the late 70’s, they relied on their personalities more, perhaps they knew their communities more or were just more involved. The big issue from top brass was wearing your hat / headgear. Today, these cops have heavy vests, more gear and more dangers in their job description. I feel they clone themselves more uniformly. They put up that wall to deal with these modern problems and issues. I do see them cut loose a bit, but that’s because I’m in uniform too. As a photographer, I guess it helps with who you team up with, that connection. Maybe the only way to have their story told, would be for a cop to shoot it?
    Now the funny thing is, when I see a cop, I see someone who didn’t pass the FDNY test. Better job, no gun!

  20. Hi Jerome.

    I can’t really add much to what others have pointed out other than to say, well done in sticking with a project you feel personally is needed to be shown, and hanging in there. Must of taken a lot of time and effort to come up with these images. Sometimes I think we forget how much effort is needed to capture some circumstances in to an image that conveys that moment.

    Stay safe and hang in there.


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