A book by any other name . . .

Allusion Books logoThe U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has approved the registered mark of my publishing company, Allusion Books. Right now I’m only publishing books that I write, such as Peak Season, Riding with the Blues and a new crime series, Mr. Mayhem, due at the end of November.

The examining attorney for the USPTO did have to amend the identification of goods and services in my application to state that no claim is made to the exclusive right to use the word “books” apart from the mark as shown.  All you folks at the Big 5 publishing houses–Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House and Simon and Schuster–you can breathe now.

Changing the view of black and blue

A police officer shoots an unarmed civilian. A criminal assassinates a deputy. People march, riot, while others call for peace. Across a widening divide, battle lines form. Black Lives Matter. Blue Lives Matter. In the middle, a sheriff suggests that all lives matter.

America is coming apart. America is coming together. The people we hire to protect us attack and are themselves attacked. Support erodes. Doubts replace trust. In an increasingly hostile environment, what can law enforcement do to help society regain its balance?

It can show the public how policing works, the dangers, the challenges, the limitations officers face. Two agencies in Sarasota County do that, the Sarasota Sheriff’s Office through its Citizens Law Enforcement Academy and the Sarasota Police Department through its Citizens’ Academy. I’ve attended both, riding with officers, conducting mock investigations, standing in the use-of-force simulator with a gun,  a TASER and the feeling that life has spun out of control.

It’s an issue all of America faces, one that prompted me to write a book about the experience. The book is called Riding with the Blues, Behind the Badge with the Sarasota Police Department. It’s an attempt to find out what law enforcement does when the cameras aren’t rolling. Here’s the first chapter:

Chapter 1: Simulated Fear
My partner and I sweep into the office building, weapons held in firing position, stomachs bouncing like trampolines. There’s an active shooter in the building. People move in and out of the frame, a jumble of corridors and desks, the wounded lying on the floor, workers, police officers, some calling for help. We have no time.

Riding with the BluesA tall man with shoulders rounding a white polo shirt crosses between several desks and turns into an office. He raises his arm and fires. We edge closer. As the man backs out of the office he spots us and, half-turned, starts to raise his pistol. My partner and I yell “Police! Drop the weapon!” but he doesn’t and we fire, hitting him several times. As he goes down, silence crowds the air, and as we inch forward, a dark figure climbs from behind a desk.

Is he a shooter, a victim, a hostage? Is he armed? We’ve been briefed about the law, how shooting unarmed civilians can land us in jail, how hesitating may get us killed. As the man rises, we have a nanosecond to make a decision.

We freeze. He’s too far away to see his eyes but he’s got something in his hand, and we’re in the open, nothing between us but raw space. Crawling around the side of the desk, crouching in the corridor, the man raises a handgun and starts shooting. We return fire until he collapses. I have no idea if we’re hit, just that he’s not moving.

The officer behind the computer freezes the frame. On a screen larger than the biggest home theater, crosshairs dot the shooter’s chest, marking the places where we’ve landed rounds. As the adrenalin cools, we come back to a different reality.

In the dim light, everything looks gray, the walls, the carpet, even the screen. We’re standing in a classroom on the third floor of the Sarasota Police Department (SPD) in Sarasota, Florida, experiencing the use-of-force simulator as dozens of rookie officers have over the years. Only we’re not recruits. We are civilians enrolled in the SPD’s Citizens’ Academy, a twelve-week program designed to reveal the realities of police work and the people who live in the often closed world behind the badge.

The simulator is a humbling experience. It pinpoints our lack of training and resolve. It highlights the violence of our culture, and the risks that officers and civilians face in any encounter. This is the dark half of policing, the part we see in movies and on TV, always from the spectator side of the camera, the focus on how the situation looks, not how it feels. As we turn in our weapons and return to class, I recall the shooting of civilians by police in Ferguson, Baltimore, South Carolina. I think back to the first session of the Citizens’ Academy and the chief’s talk about community policing, the part about cooperation and understanding, about winning the hearts and minds of the citizens, and I wonder how the two halves fit.

Stonewalled . . . and a glimmer of hope

When I pitched a review of Peak Season to Bill Kline, he respectfully declined. Lehigh Valley Business, the journal in Bethlehem (Pennsylvania) he edits, doesn’t deal in fiction. But if I could find an except from the novel with a commercial theme, he’d run it.

And he did. (Always a stickler for readability, the subheads are his.) You can view the excerpt as a PDF and, in three weeks, the original online.

Bill and I go back. I worked with him when he served as copy chief of the Pocono Record in Stroudsburg, Pa. He created the paper’s first Sunday edition and made it a showcase. His content and design pushed the conservative newspaper into the modern world. During the early 2000, we both worked in the Valley. He served as a sports and Sunday editor at Allentown’s Morning Call  while I worked in public relations for an agency in Bethlehem.

LVB and I also go back. I wrote numerous articles for the publication when it was known as the Eastern Pennsylvania Business Journal. It’s now a diverse and colorful journal, online and off, led by an editor who isn’t afraid to stretch.

 

Peak Season excerpt LVB 8-17-15

Summing up summaries

Writing the book was easy. Writing the synopsis was a bear.

You’d think that, after investing the better part of a year in my characters, I could crank out a summary as easily as ordering at McDonald’s. Not so for Peak Season, the first in a series of crime novels featuring the former cop turned pacifist Candace McCoy, known to her friends as CW.

Peak Season 3D cover 375x548Even after writing headlines at a daily newspaper for 14 years, I couldn’t distill the essence of the book. Should I focus the synopsis on the plot? On the characters? What if the plot arcs like a roller coaster, and the characters reject their labels? Fanciful but not helpful. Agents want to read a clear, concise summary of the book. They won’t appreciate digression.

I went at it draft after draft, pulling a few characters and themes from the wreckage. Eventually the copy wound up on the back cover of the novel. Here’s the synopsis. I’d be interested in hearing what you think. You can reach me through the comments section or the email link on the bottom of the website’s homepage.

Peak Season synopsis
Life at the beach can be murder.

Forced to shoot a fellow police officer, CW McCoy surrenders her gun and her badge to take refuge in the wealthy tourist mecca of Spanish Point, Florida. There she pedals luxury real estate, cares for her ailing grandfather Pap and tries to escape her past.

But even in paradise during peak tourist season, violence finds her like a divining rod.

Declared dead by the courts, Bobby Lee Darby bursts into CW’s office to demand the family friend clear his name in a scheme to bilk millions from investors. When CW refuses, the fugitive financier kidnaps Pap to ensure her cooperation, triggering a chain of burglary, assault and murder that convinces local police that the former cop has gone rogue.

Racing to find Darby, CW must confront her violent past, risky affairs and love-hate relationship with Southwest Florida before those personal demons turn her new-found paradise into hell on earth.

With ‘Five Stories,’ less is more

In “Dudley’s Sacrifice,” Eric Sheridan Wyatt tackles the absurdities of corporate life like Jane Goodall attacking fleas in a short piece by T.C. Boyle. One of five short stories in Wyatt’s first collection of published fiction, Five Stories, “Dudley’s Sacrifice” opens with a regional manager contemplating layoffs at a company whose owner has scraped the marrow from the bone.

Five Stories coverOne by one the narrator weeds a list of potential layoffs until the owner takes the decision out of his hands. Wyatt follows cost-cutting and downsizing to its logically absurd conclusion with an irony that characterizes much of his work here.

More rewards follow, from the snarky narrative voice of “Cop-Cop Cop,” a loopy love story set on a planet that has outlawed coffee, to the tender, wistful “Solomon’s Ditch,” a standout about a tobacco farmer, a runaway girl and a dog.

Wyatt excels at capturing character, setting and mood in a small space, using language that enhances without distraction, as in the final story, where a child discovers a dead robin with eyes that are “dimpled like tiny raisins.”

In Five Stories, Wyatt writes with a quick wit and a wry voice. It’s one that deserves a wider audience . . . and a bigger collection.

Hook, line and action scene

David Hagberg doesn’t mess around. During a workshop in Venice, Florida, he said genre writers have to hook readers early, and the best way to do that is with action. He should know. He’s written a dozen thrillers for TOR.

After the session, I said I couldn’t decide how to begin Peak Season, a crime novel set in the fictional Florida beach town of Spanish Point. Should I start with the inciting incident, the one that drags the protagonist, CW McCoy, into the action? Or should I start with the scene that caused her to lose her gun, her badge and her self-confidence, the incident that propelled her to take refuge in this resort town by the sea?

In that big, bellow of his Hagberg said, “Start with the action!” I think people from Tampa to Naples heard him. I certainly did.

Was he right? Take a look at the first few pages of the novel and tell me what you think. (You can reach me through the email link at the bottom of this website’s homepage.)

1.

I spotted the gun as soon as I walked through the door. Nicholas Church aimed a Glock 22 at his wife and daughter, arms straight and locked, his finger touching the trigger. His wife’s hands held nothing but air. The daughter gripped the back of her mother’s dress. Church’s eyes looked hard, the wife’s anguished, the little girl’s wide with terror.

“Bitch!” he roared and the soGun range silhouetteund echoed throughout the dead kitchen.

My face burned. After leaning out to call for backup, I stepped fully into the room and identified myself. He knew me. We’d worked together for two years. I held my hands away from my holster where he could see them. Non-threatening. No show of force. Talk him down.

Church filled the kitchen. He stood over six-feet-six and weighed more than 250 pounds, black hair slicked back, khaki slacks still creased despite the hour, white shirtsleeves rolled to the forearms to reveal a blue Marine Corps tattoo nestled among a thatch of hair. Under the fluorescent lights his silver badge glowed. Two years ago he’d received a citation for rescuing a woman trapped in a car. A year later the department had placed him on leave for beating a suspect during a drug bust. The wounded hero.

At five-foot-five, Anita Church shrank before her husband. She looked mid-twenties with a sharp nose and wisps of blond hair that floated around dangling earrings. She wore a sundress of pale yellow and blue, belted at her slender waist, and ballet shoes. Her wedding and engagement rings sparkled, as if to mock Church’s badge. When I moved closer, she glanced at me as if to say, you’re a woman, you can save me, and reached behind to clutch her daughter.

The girl was maybe seven, dressed in jeans and a sparkling pink T-shirt that depicted one of the Disney princesses. She wore pink slippers with rabbit ears. Junie, I thought. Nick called her June Bug.

For the third time that night I reminded myself that I didn’t belong there. Patrol responded to domestics, not detectives. My luck I was passing the neighborhood when the call came in. I inched forward, using Church’s name, reminding him that I was a cop and understood his anger, telling him to lower the weapon, showing him that we could talk. I gestured in slow circles, sliding to the right, watching his face, his fingers.

No one else in the room. Copper-bottom pots hanging from the ceiling. Two openings arching into shadow, one on the left that led to the laundry, one to the right that opened onto a formal dining room. In the silence I could hear him breathe, shallow, nasal. Somewhere in the house a clock chimed.

Where the hell is backup?

Church stood to my left, aiming across a table set with flowers and fruit, feet braced, both hands gripping the gun. With the slightest movement of his head he glanced right and ordered me to leave.

Tension clawed my neck. “Nick.” I kept my voice steady, my hands where he could see them. “You don’t want to do this. Put the weapon down. We can talk, whatever it is, we can talk.”

Behind me I sensed movement. A young male officer drew his weapon and crouched into firing position, his boots chirping on the tile. A radio squawked. Anita Church clutched at Junie and started to wail.

I shoved my hand into the holster and raised my weapon while edging to the right. In a voice deep from the gut I yelled, “Drop the gun!”

He kept the pistol trained on his wife. “Stay out of this!”

I tightened my grip, arms and stomach clenched, breath and blood pounding in my ears. “Drop the gun! Now!”

I watched his face, watched the eyes refocus on his wife, the jaw muscles tightening with the finger of his right hand, his stance shifting as the gun settled on the target. My vision narrowed and at the end of the tunnel Nicholas Church took in a deep breath as his index finger moved backward in slow motion.

Bam! Bam! The shots exploded in the tight space. The first round hit his chest and turned him. The second knocked him into the refrigerator. He slumped, his gun rattling on the tile. Anita screamed. Clinging to her mother’s dress, Junie gasped for air.

Ears ringing, the tang of gunpowder biting my nose, I holstered the weapon and put two fingers against Church’s neck and rose to call for an ambulance and the coroner. Walking across the kitchen to Anita and Junie, I guided them to chairs in the dining room. The crying crushed their faces. They’d soon slide from grief to shock. My arms shook and my stomach threatened to crawl out of my mouth.

You can buy Peak Season on Amazon, Smashwords, Barnes & Noble, iBooks and Kobo.

Brave new (digital) world

Everything old is new again . . . thanks to a little help from my friends.

My new website launched today. In the words of Crosby, Stills and Nash, it was a long time coming.

Checking the Internet Archive, affectionately known as the Wayback Machine, my first website went live in 2002, back in the day of dialup service. It was designed by Tom Thornton, a true artist and a gentleman if ever there was one.

The next iteration, the version we just replaced, went online in 2009 with an update a few years ago by a blessing of a designer, Robyn Dombrowski of Creative Heads in Sarasota, Florida. For her fortitude, she gets the patience-in-the-face-of-ignorance award.

After six years, we discovered the custom features of the site didn’t play well with WordPress anymore. The site didn’t look like the home of an author, either, since we’d designed it to sell marketing communications services to corporate clients.

The new site emphasizes my shift in focus from nonfiction to fiction, specifically to a series of crime novels I’m developing around two characters, former detective CW McCoy and a defrocked journalist known as Brinker. The website incorporates new ways to share stories about them and the publishing industry through social media links and an e-newsletter called Behind the Book. And wonder of wonders, the new contraption is responsive, which means the site should adapt to any browser or device that taps into it.

It was a long time coming but we’ve finally caught up with the digital age. Here’s to good friends and guidance . . . and another decade on the Web.

Jeff Widmer

Celebrating openness with the SPD

We gather on the second floor of the Sarasota Police Department to celebrate our graduation. There’s a cake, a couple of proud parents and about 20 members of the SPD Citizens Academy. We’re a collection of real estate agents and financial advisers, retirees and writers. We have come to peek into the guarded world of law enforcement and over the past 12 week’s we’ve learned about the hazards of policing on both sides of the badge.

Members of the SPD command staff are here, acting Deputy Chief Pat Robinson and the captain of patrol operations, Kevin Stiff, as are those who organized the academy, Training Officer Jeff Dunn and the volunteers who lugged coolers of soda and water and boxes of pastries and name cards every week.

They have certificates, photos and a parting message for us: we’ve helped them as much as they’ve helped us.

“We are grateful for people who want to live through our eyes,” Capt. Robinson says. “Officers are put under an immense amount of stress. The more folks we can educate on why we do things, the better our interaction with the citizens.”

Jeff Dunn says officers also benefit from the class by getting feedback from some of those citizens.

Robinson echoes that, adding that police can become jaded because they deal with a small but difficult portion of the population. “Sometimes you lose perspective.” (You can download an application for the next citizens’ academy here.)

For our part, we’ve learned about legal rights and wrongs, equipment and procedures, prostitution and traffic stops, court cases and crowd control. We’ve heard from the victim advocate, the public information officer, the state attorney, the coordinator of volunteers. We’ve watched K-9 dogs attack and officers defend themselves. We’ve investigated a crime scene, toughed it out in the use-of-force simulator and fired weapons at the gun range.

In between, we’ve listened to officers describe their background and their passion for the job.

In 12 weeks we’ve learned things aren’t simple. Most officers play by the rules. Some don’t. During traffic stops, most people are polite. Some shoot cops. When we watch video of situations where police use force, the solution looks simple. Hindsight will do that. But we weren’t in that battle, with bullets and adrenalin flying, with limited time and information and options. People make decisions that aren’t rational. The second-guessing, the labels good and bad . . . those come later.

After riding with officers, sharing a meal and listening to their stories, many of us are convinced the most important part of the course isn’t about guns or self-defense or crime scenes or SWAT. The most interesting aspect of police work are the officers themselves.

Getting them to open up might be the biggest cause for celebration.

Jeff Widmer is the author of The Spirit of Swiftwater and other works.

 

SPD Facebook banner photo Web

Riding with the blues

Officer Bryant Singley walks into the glass and metal headquarters of the Sarasota Police Department with a shell casing in a surgical glove and heads upstairs to the evidence room. Someone found the brass in a yard and called the police. It’s a minor matter, no crime has been reported, but Singley takes his time to get the paperwork right.

He fills out a property report, puts the casing in a plastic bag, seals it, fills out an evidence sticker, notes the case number on a paper log and puts the bag in one of the black lockers. “In case they need it in another case.”

Singley is a veteran of the U.S. Army and the Austin Police Department. He’s worked for the SPD for the past 11 years. Today he’s doing light duty, hauling a writer around in the passenger seat of his cruiser on what law enforcement calls a ride-along. He gets to fight crime; I get to watch.

He’s not even out of the building when he gets a call on his radio. I can’t make out the assignment, just his summation to me. “We’ll clear the call and then it’s crossing-guard duty.”

The car is black inside with a molded gray plastic backseat with seatbelts and a plastic partition and, in front, a computer mounted on a tray within easy reach of the driver. I squeeze in next to it and we roll.

Sign of the times
The first stop is the 1800 block of Loma Linda Street near Sarasota Bay. Two property owners are having an argument over a stolen NO TRESPASSING sign. We park on the narrow street with a pest-control vendor on one side and dump trucks rumbling down to the cul-de-sac to excavate for a new home.

“Stay by the car until I introduce you,” Singley says and walks to the door of a brick and beam house with a metal roof.

We meet a woman in running gear with a bright cap pulled over her eyes who says the neighbor in back of her lot keeps taking her sign. She’s early fifties with a low, calm voice and a slight curl to her upper lip. She’s holding a new sign with a stapler tucked under her arm.

The officer introduces me to the woman—we’ll call her Becky. We stand in the sun in the neighbor’s driveway and look at the lot, a stretch of that light gray sand that covers most of Florida. A wooden fence stands in back. A tall man with a water bottle and a gray T-shirt depicting a sailfish wanders into the conversation. Maybe the husband. The neighbor, a middle-aged woman with broad blond hair and a smile to match, joins the group.

Singley looks at the fence that separates Becky’s lot from her neighbor’s house and asks for the story. Becky says she knows the neighbor took the sign she’d tacked on the fence, but she can’t prove it. Singley says, “You two have had some troubles before.”

Becky think about this revelation. “Yeah,” she finally says and accuses the woman in back of tossing her lawn clippings over the fence and wandering into other people’s yards. “She’s crazy.”

Sidewalk diplomacy
Singley dismisses the comment. He asks for details and says he’ll be back. We get in the patrol car, drive around the corner to Bahia Vista Street and stop at a wooden house we later learn is 100 years old. A wooden fence surrounds the house, garage and shed. We stand on the gravel landscaping and try the gate. It’s locked. The officer and I walk up two concrete strips to the garage and he shouts “Hello?” but no one answers.

We find the woman we’ll call Linda around the other side of the house, near the shed. She’s mid-sixties, short and thin with dark hair and eyes that bounce between us.

Officer Singley says, “You know why I’m here,” and asks if she took the sign. She shakes her head vigorously and says she didn’t even know there was a sign and begins to delineate her property lines. She wants to show us the fence so we walk to the back of the house and she points to a tree on her land. Someone has sawed off the limbs that would have hung over the fence. Linda accuses her neighbor of doing that, when she wasn’t home.

Singley tells her how it’s going to be: she’ll agree to keep to her side of the fence and Becky will do the same. “Just ignore each other,” he says and we return to the empty lot, where Singley says the same thing to Becky, who looks up and down the street and shakes her head and frowns.

We sink back into the car and bathe in the air conditioning and head to our next assignment—lunch at Nancy’s BBQ, where we sit outside and eat pulled pork sandwiches and talk about the Temptations, Bobby Womack and early Michael Jackson, “Before he fixed his nose,” Singley says. How about Etta James? “That’s my mama’s generation.”

I ask him about recent incidents involving police and the use of force. He declines to comment, saying “I wasn’t there.” His philosophy about policing is simple. “I don’t comment on what I don’t know,” then adds, “I just want to go home at the end of the day.” Go home alive, he means.

Hitting the road
At Southside Elementary School, it’s hot and getting hotter, with temperatures and humidity in the upper 80s. It’s the kind of day where if you stand outside, you find a patch of shade. In the middle of the crosswalk, there is no shade.

This morning Officer Singley got word that the crossing guard at Southside couldn’t work so his lieutenant assigned the duty to him. I can’t tell if this is scut work or part of the chief’s community policing policy. Probably neither.

We arrive before 2:45 p.m. for a one-hour shift. Officer Singley parks on the grassy shoulder and hits the roof lights to slow traffic. Then he gets out, dons a yellow vest and whistle and waits at the corner of South Osprey and Webber by the signal box for pedestrians. On the rough concrete sidewalk someone has spray painted in perfectly straight letters the words, “Wait here.”

We wait.

When the kids show up, Singley’s ready. He watches everything—cars going too fast through the school zone, cars parked on the sidewalk, a guy driving with a phone to his ear, a man on a ladder half a block away. He yells at a young female driver to buckle her seatbelt. He’s got eyes in back of his head. He’s also got a cheerful banter going with the people leaving school, and not just the mothers and grandmothers with their younger kids and strollers and umbrellas. He asks the kids what grade they’re in and why they’re carrying a basketball and whether they or their younger sister has more freckles. And then he punches the button on the pole and blows his whistle and walks to the middle of the intersection and wishes them all a good day.

“It’s hot,” he says on his way back and looks for more pedestrians and punches the button and does it all over again.

Remains of the day
At 3:50 p.m. the sidewalk empties and we pile into the squad car and head for headquarters. As we drive on Osprey, something about the black VW Jetta in front of us catches his eye. In the 1600 block of Main Street, Singley calls in the tag number and pulls the car over.

“Wait here,” he says.

Approaching the driver’s side of the car slowly, he places a palm on the rear window to mark the car and leans forward to talk to the driver. When he gets back in the cruiser he says, “She says she doesn’t know why I pulled her over,” and punches the license number and tag into the computer. Up comes a photo of the driver’s father and a yellow block of type that says the tag has expired. Singley compares the woman’s information on the screen with her license and through a series of drop-down menus completes the ticket. He clicks a button labeled “issue citation” and a printer between the seats spits out two copies of what looks like a grocery-store receipt. He gives one copy to the driver.

Then it’s back to the glass and metal headquarters and we’re done. I thank him for the ride. We shake hands. It’s still hot and he’s got another hour-and-a-half to go before his 12-hour shift is up but he smiles anyway.

An uneventful day, but at least we both get to go home.

Next: graduation from the SPD Citizens Academy.

Jeff Widmer is the author of The Spirit of Swiftwater and other works.

 

Officer Bryant Singley ticketing VW Jetta 72dpi

With drug trade, big wheel keeps on turnin’

The driver with the dreadlocks to his shoulders backs into the parking space at Marina Jack’s and powers down the window. He’s looking to buy 200 oxycodone pills from an undercover agent posing as a dealer.  The agent, a man with graying hair and a shirt slung over his shoulder, leans in to talk.

As members of the Sarasota (Florida) Police Department’s narcotics unit film the exchange from a nearby car, they see too many red flags. The driver backed in. He’s on the phone. He’s flashing a wad of cash with a twenty on top and ones underneath. The deal’s worth $1,600, so the buyer intends to steal the drugs. He wants to count the pills and tells the undercover agent to get in the car. The officer refuses.

Before anyone can react, the passenger reaches across the driver and points a handgun at the agent’s head. The driver bolts. Officers stop him before he can leave the lot.

“We did get him,” the sergeant in charge of the unit tells members of the SPD Citizen’s Academy. “We had controlled phone calls of their intent to do the deal. That’s an attempted armed robbery, and it trumps the drug charge. It was a loaded .45 handgun.”

Moving target
Detectives were seeing an uptick in the abuse of prescription medication like Percocet and OxyContin until local law enforcement, led by the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office, began a crackdown in 2009. Since then, the target has shifted.

“As far as upper-level crime, what we mostly see is cocaine,” a detective in the SPD unit says. “We’re starting to see a lot more heroin because oxycodone has become more expensive. People are lacing heroin with fentanyl [a synthetic opioid analgesic that is 80 times more potent than morphine] to increase potency. They’re dying with the needle in their arm.”

But the big drug today is spice.

The Associated Press is reporting a huge nationwide spike in hospitalizations caused by synthetic marijuana. The number of cases rocketed from 359 in January to more than 1,500 in April, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers. Synthetic marijuana usually is non-marijuana plant material sprayed with cannabinoids and marketed under brand names like Spice, K2 and Scooby Snax.

After two people died at New College of Florida in early May, the Sarasota Police Department said its initial investigation showed that “both deaths appeared to be drug related.”

“This stuff is really bad,” the sergeant says. “Users don’t know what they’re smoking. People put potpourri in cement mixers and spray it with chemicals they get from China. It’s sprayed with a Level 1 narcotic like XLR-11 [an ingredient in synthetic cannabis]. That’s why these people are going crazy when they smoke it. These chemicals, they’re a lethal cocktail.”

Working the street
The SPD narcotics unit consists of five officers and a technician in charge of the recording equipment. The unit does undercover drug buys, executes searches and conducts long-term investigations to nab importers and dealers.

Detectives get their cases from a variety of sources—neighbor complaints, patrol division reports, Crime Stoppers of Sarasota and other hotline programs. They follow prostitutes to drug houses. They do surveillance to verify information. They drive unmarked cars through dealer turf and set up street buys with cameras covering every inch of the car’s interior.

One of the most effective tools is the confidential informant. “A lot of times we’ll arrest somebody who says he’s tired of this life,” the sergeant says. “Once we determine that they’re fairly mentally capable, we’ll pay that person to do a controlled drug buy for us.” He pauses and in those few seconds you can watch the wheels turn as he mulls the unanswered questions from the audience, about the Faustian bargain, about ethics rather than souls, so he adds, “We say we’re making a deal with the devil,” and leaves it at that.

Bigger fish
Detectives can take only so much product out of circulation with street-level deals. So they work with federal authorities in the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to arrest leaders and escalate charges.

In 2014 the unit wrapped up a two-year investigation called SRQ Cartel II that resulted in the arrest of 10 people alleged to be mid-level suppliers. Police confiscated 12 kilograms of cocaine, five cars, seven guns and $115,000. A prior sweep resulted in the arrest of a Sarasota man allegedly tied to a Mexican drug cartel.

“Our goal is to climb the ladder,” the sergeant says.

Publicly, both he and the detective—I’m not naming or photographing them to protect their ability to conduct undercover work—they call their job “stressful, dangerous and fun.” Privately, while proud of their work to remove the cause of other crimes such as burglary and assault, they have times of doubt.

Such as the day when an informant who promised to go straight climbed into their car for another deal. “The detective pulled his hat down over his face,” the sergeant says. “The informant didn’t even recognize him.”

He shakes his head at the memory. “You put them away and more take their place. Sometimes you feel like a gerbil on a wheel.”

Next: on patrol with the SPD.

Jeff Widmer is the author of The Spirit of Swiftwater and other works.