I'll admit: I was afraid to interview Joel DeSpain.
When I asked to interview the public information officer, writer of the immensely popular Madison police blotter, I might as well have been asking to interview Jon Bon Jovi. What if I asked dumb questions? What if I sounded immature? Worst of all: What if he wasn't how I expected him to be?
I discovered the blotter in December 2008. I was working at a dead-end temp job with far too little to do, whiling away the time on gchat with a friend in New York. One snowy afternoon we spent hours combing through the archives, sending each other links, laughing until we cried and trying not to get fired.
DeSpain took the job in 2007, replacing former Dane County Supervisor Michael Hanson and serving as the first civilian to hold the position. Fresh off a 25-year career in journalism, DeSpain brought a fresh perspective to the Madison Police Department, infusing humor and narrative flair to the typically dry reports.
Over the past three or four years, the blotter has become an underground cult sensation, a frequent topic at happy hours across the city. "Did you read the police blotter last week?" many a conversation in my circle begins.
DeSpain hit prime time in December of last year, when Huffington Post and the popular blog Boing Boing picked up his tale of two thieves and a poorly timed butt dial. That same month, Isthmus contributor Emily Mills created the Facebook group Madison Police Blotter Appreciation Station, described as "a completely earnest, non-ironic fan club for the Madison Police Department's crime report blotter, with special focus on the work of Joel DeSpain." Mills says by the group's second day she'd received nearly 60 requests to join. The group now has over 80 members with fans as far as San Francisco and Washington, D.C.
"The bane of the profane is made plain mainly by DeSpain," wrote one fan on the group's wall.
Anna Marquardt, a Wisconsin native who now lives in New York, has designed a series of items emblazoned with the phrase "Insane for DeSpain." I bought a canvas tote.
When I caught up with DeSpain on a busy Wednesday morning, he wasn't aware of the Facebook group or the happy hour banter. I didn't mention the tote.
"I didn't realize until recently how many people like what I do," he said. The job is "sort of just therapeutic for me."
When DeSpain isn't writing about snakes at a book club, a possible documented occurrence of the Rapture, or vandals in chicken suits, he's managing the Madison Police Department's intern and ride-along programs, giving public talks and putting on the department's awards banquet. Despite his full plate, DeSpain says he leaves the office most days by 4 p.m., going home to coach his kids' soccer and basketball teams.
"I don't know if I could do this job for another city," says DeSpain. He says Madison's low homicide rate means police spend less time chasing bad guys and more time helping the community. He cites the story of an officer who scrounged up a wheelchair for a homeless veteran who couldn't walk, whom she'd found sleeping at the City-County building.
One of DeSpain's most beloved reports is the story of officers sent to check on a 103-year-old woman who wasn't answering her niece's phone calls. The officers made the woman soup and tucked her into bed.
"As journalism has changed, nobody's really coming down to dig out stories anymore," DeSpain says. He digs out the stories himself, combing the daily 911 call logs to find issues relevant to public safety. He particularly looks for what the police refer to as pattern cases, a series of related crimes such as muggings or fraud cases.
As for the lighter stuff, DeSpain says officers have noticed his penchant for the absurd and have started passing along reports they think he might like to write about. "People know when I have something good because they'll hear me laughing out loud in my office."
This isn't the first time the art of the police blotter has been celebrated. In the 1980s Madison's own "police poet" Mary Anne Thurber made headlines when she appeared on David Letterman to talk about her press releases written in verse. More recently, twitterer @neofeneon remixes NYPD blotter entries into sometimes funny, often mournful poems of 140 characters or less.
At least three people I know have suggested compiling DeSpain's reports into a book and donating proceeds to a local charity. DeSpain says he's been approached by nonprofits with the idea in the past. I asked him if he's considered writing a book himself. He says he hasn't thought much about it.
I asked several fans what they like most about DeSpain. They all mentioned his humor, his flair for the dramatic and his sense of the absurd. I love these things too, but what I think I love most is the way he takes a mundane task and turns it into an art form and a thing of joy.
"I always tell my kids, whatever job you take, you're going to spend a lot of time there," DeSpain says. "You should try to make it fun."