I used to say a prayer every time I heard ambulance or fire truck sirens nearby. This lifelong habit changed in May when I started to intern as a police beat reporter for the Peoria Journal Star.
Reporter Phil Luciano sat at the desk next to mine. In the second week of my internship, he handed me a copy of the book The Corpse Had A Familiar Face, by Edna Buchanan.
He said something like, Ive never read it, but I know its good.
At first, I was shocked by how blithely my coworkers talked about death. Theyd look into the distance and say, almost dreamily, Ah, I remember my first homicide case.
I did not want to be like that.
Throughout her book, Buchanan talks about her experiences working as a police reporter in Miami during the 80s. The victims she wrote about. Why she felt compelled to write about them. She was concerned that, if she didnt report on their deaths, nobody would. In the hot, swirling, corrupted mess that was Miami crime in the 80s, who would tell their stories?
I fought this notion for the first month of my internship. I fought it hard.
It was reading the police reports every day and reporting from crime scenes that did me in. Aggravated assaults, domestic batteries, armed robberies, child endangerment, shootings I saw so much of it every single day.
Eventually, it stopped scaring me. I lost my motivation to ask a higher power to stop the madness.
I wrote up police and coroner reports after shootings. I covered peace rallies protesting senseless violence here in Peoria. I read the Facebook comments on my stories, speculating which kind of people I was writing up in my police reports every day. But I still felt numb to the violence and pain; if I didnt tell these stories, someone else surely would.
One shooting I covered was so close to the newsroom that I saw the victim being rolled into an ambulance by stretcher when I got there. Walking into my apartment that night I heard the loud sound of someone slamming their car door shut, and it sounded so similar to a stifled gunshot that I lost my footing on the sidewalk.
I realized then that not everyone has to accept the worlds cruelties to carry on with their jobs. I even stopped reading the police beat stories when I went back to school in August. Im lucky. I dont have to report on that stuff anymore. I dont have to see it. I never had to live it.
One of the last cases I reported on was that of a missing little boy from Pekin. I sat in a field on Route 29 for four hours the night his remains were found. It was a personal case for me I had written so many stories on this kid. I prayed to God in my car that night for a negative result on the remains. Last week, forensic testing came back positive.
Thats the world, even if the things I saw and reported on were by no means like what Edna Buchanan covered in the 80s.
My summer internship was a wake-up call for me that tragic things happen, and we have to carry on after. But those sirens pass by and I hear them now. I roll down my window and I hear them.