Burden of the Badge: Chronicling a Year on the Streets of Saginaw

Posted In: Culture, Community Profiles, Biography,   From Issue 656   By: Mark Leffler

13th March, 2008     0

Taking a life is a destiny-altering event for any police officer.  But for Saginaw Patrol Officer Michael East, it was a call where he didn't take a life but might have that made him decide to write a book about his experiences.

It was a February evening and he was responding to a call involving teens and guns.

As he guarded the back door of a home a kid emerged pointing a weapon at East. In a split second he saw the look on the youth's face and something made the veteran officer hold his fire. The weapon turned out to be a pellet gun the teen had armed himself with after being threatened.

Some of his brothers in blue later told East he should have fired. The weekend duty detective offered another view:

"No matter what anyone says, you are the one who had to decide whether or not to shoot this kid. Don't listen to anyone else."

 After explaining the youth had no criminal history, or even involvement with the police, he added, "I think you would have felt pretty bad if you had killed this kid. Don't beat yourself up over this. You did what you thought was the right thing to do."

East, who had a writing background as a journalism student at Ferris State University, resolved then and there to write a book that would detail the day-to-day job of an urban patrol officer.

Burden of the Badge (1st Books Library, 2003, 234 p.) is that book. Beginning with a Sunday afternoon roll call in January, East's journal concludes the following New Year's Eve, confiscating a rifle as a woman says, "It ain't illegal to shoot on New Year's Eve - It's a holiday, isn't it?"

An Inside Look

Readers who live outside major urban area such as Detroit or Chicago rarely get the opportunity to enjoy a book that describes life in their city.

One of the many pleasures of East's book centers around recognizing the neighborhoods, personalities, and in many cases, some of the crimes.

Five years after publication, East says that many readers have told him that they recognized people he wrote about. Indeed, when reading about a local panhandler outside of a party store, this reader thought, "I know that guy!"

Burden of the Badge is an honest and compassionate book that describes plainly the often frustrating and sometimes perilous job of protecting and serving in an urban setting beset with unemployment, poverty and neighborhoods in decline. East writes about a millage election vote that fails and the reaction of his fellow officers, many facing layoffs.

Looking back now East states that the Public Safety millage that passed since his book's release made a major positive change in keeping the peace in the financially strapped city.

"A nice thing is that the layoffs and cutbacks have stopped. We had our first new hires since 1999, I think. You have no idea the effect that has. You need new blood. You wouldn't think something like that is that important, but it is."

Dwindling budgets meant that most resources were dedicated to responding to calls. Now, East notes, there is more time and money to make proactive efforts at reducing crime.

East came to police work in an uncommon way. Raised in Port Huron, he attended Ferris State, receiving an Associates Degree in Journalism in 1985 and a Bachelor's Degree in Public Relations in 1987.

"I never developed an interest in writing until I went to college for general studies, decided I needed to become more focused, picked up the course directory and thought journalism would be pretty cool. " he recalls.

"I never wrote much prior to entering the field of journalism in college. While in college, I spent a year as a sports writer, a year as the Sports Editor, and a year as Assistant Editor-in-Chief of the Ferris Torch, a free, weekly college publication with a circulation of 12,000."
"I also interned with the Port Huron Times Herald, and wrote "professionally" for both the Big Rapids Pioneer. I was a sports "stringer" and made $10 a story, $15 if I traveled, and the Mt. Pleasant Morning Sun."

After a few years in newspaper work, East applied for the Saginaw Police Force and attended the Delta College Police Academy in the summer of 1994.

East kept his publishing aspirations private on the job, but did get the go-ahead from his Chief.

"Former Chief Pussehl gave me his blessing, but most of my co-workers never found out about Burden until it was in print. Basically, I took notes every day on the street to keep fresh in my mind the sights, sounds, smells and my personal feelings during my workdays. Then I would write every few days - never longer than a week - to keep the book up to date."
Part of his aim in writing The Burden of the Badge was to let young people considering a career in law enforcement know what the real day to day work of a city police officer is like. The book has sold over a thousand copies and is still available at Amazon.com, and Saginaw's Barnes and Noble and Waldenbooks, where he made appearances to promote the book's release.

East is pleased with the feedback he's gotten.
"The reaction to Burden of the Badge was, overall, very positive, although some people who read it - you can read their reviews on Amazon.com - commented that the book was depressing," he says today.

"Then again, it is a dark book. I had many parents and friends of police officers and prospective police officers tell me how much they enjoyed the book. Five years after publication, I still get an occasional letter or e-mail from a stranger telling me how much they like it."

Today East still works as a Patrol Officer in Saginaw, working the same streets and interacting with many of the same people he wrote about. He is hopeful for the city that he obviously cares about, but when asked about the troubled teens he has met, East is somber and uncertain.

"I know many of the kids that I've tried to talk to are dead." He hopes that some of the ones he talks to escape the mean streets and the easy money that comes with drugs, prostitution and crime, but he knows that most probably won't.

One of the book's many charms is the time East takes to describe some distinct Saginaw experiences. Here is one example:

"With no calls holding, I drive to the top of a five-story parking structure in the downtown area to check the premises. I often drive up here if I'm not busy and watch the sun set over the city's West side. Standing five stories above the downtown Saginaw streets, the city looks serene."

Noticing dozens of bottles left over from a concert, he tells an elderly man collecting bottles of the potential haul. The man is at first skeptical that East is setting him up to be arrested somehow, but East assures him he isn't and even drives the man to the store when he can't carry his load.

"I ain't never going to say nothing bad about no police" the man tells him.

Burden of the Badge is a book that walks a fine line describing the physical, financial, moral, and spiritual struggles that come with city life and the challenges of attempting to police that environment.

The book touches on racial tensions without dwelling on them. It seems after the first few hundred times; racial slurs mostly become background chatter.

Signs of Hope

Although his book is admittedly dark, East has seen many signs of hope for the city he loves in the past few years.

 "I've seen some good things in the city in the past few years - the development of the South Washington corridor, the Temple Theatre renovation, the Saginaw Spirit Hockey Club's arrival and the expansion of the Children's' Zoo, to name a few. My family and I actively support businesses in the city. However, the violence continues and we need to combat that."

" I would love to see the city develop a strategic plan for attracting middle-income housing to bring families back to the city. You can have all the entertainment you want in the city, but if everybody packs up and leaves town when the show's over, you really haven't accomplished much in my mind."

" I am encouraged by the voters' support of the County Event Center mileage, the Saginaw Public Schools mileage and, of course, the passage of the recent Public Safety Mileage. It shows the citizens of Saginaw haven't given up hope for a brighter future."

While East says that in his free time he doesn't read many books about police work, he recently developed a friendship with crime author Randy Sutton.

"One of my favorite books was A Cops Life by Randy Sutton of the Las Vegas Police. He really got to the heart and soul of one officer and I sent him an email and told him I enjoyed it and we've communicated over the past year. He has another one coming out, a compilation of short stories and he asked me for a submission, so I have a chapter in that book."

St. Martin's Press will publish the book, True Blue 2: To Protect and Serve, in May 2008.

East is also working on some movie scripts. "I began writing scripts after a friend of our family who is an actor - he has had roles in Independence Day, The Patriot, Godzilla and a few other movies - read my book and said I should try movie writing. We worked together on a script named after my book, which loosely followed my career and experiences. After seven re-writes he put it into the hands of a Hollywood producer, who promptly sent it back for an eighth re-write. That script is currently sitting on a shelf while I try to regain my energy for it."

"Meanwhile, I worked on two new scripts - a horror and an ethnic drama. Movie writing is a lot of fun because it's so visual and requires a lot less actual writing than a book. You use camera directions and brief scene headings to describe something that might take you 20 plus pages in book form. The average book like Burden can be 200-300 full pages, while a script usually runs about 120 pages, which are mostly headings and dialogue." 

"My latest complete script - the one I'm seeking representation for - is also entered into the Waterfront Film Festival Screenplay Competition in June of 2008. That competition is held in Saugatuck, MI, and they are looking for movies specific to Michigan that can be produced for under $5 million. My script has strong local flavor and definitely falls into that category. If nothing else, I can always say I tried."

So it's possible that one day you may turn on the TV, or be munching popcorn at the local Megaplex, and see a story set in your hometown. Stranger things happen everyday in Tinsel town.

This year's Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay went to the superbly named Diablo Cody, a former lap dancer who broke free of the easy money from stripping by publishing a memoir of her days in the flesh business.

Cody wrote this year's sleeper comedy hit Juno. Between a stripper and a city cop, it's hard to know who has the more interesting stories.

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