Black detective's tough tale of life, love and crime
Richard Carter | 10/12/2012, 4:17 p.m.
After all, crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavor..."--Louis Calhern, "The Asphalt Jungle" (1950)
"It was an extremely hot, late July afternoon in the early '60s when Tony and Russ left headquarters in search of missing work-release prisoners convicted and sentenced with this privilege as a condition of probation on felony charges. Many, including those serving sentences on misdemeanors, did not return to jail as required. On this night, Tony and Russ were assigned to search for missing felony inmates."
Thus begins Joseph L. Butts' cautionary tale with the tingling title "And Then We Die" (AuthorHouse, 2011). Based on actual events in Milwaukee, it's a riveting look at the deputy sheriffs with whom Butts occasionally worked as they deal with life-altering stress on the job and at home.
I knew Butts as part of a small group of gutsy, determined Black officers of the law at a time when the city--and its power structure--was largely white. These days, despite a Black population of 222,000 among 600,000 inhabitants, race relations remain strained.
During my teenage years, several friends became police officers after high school--a few following their return from military service. Along with Butts, they were preceded by several hard-charging, respected Black cops renowned on the streets.
One was my uncle--the late Calvin C. Moody--the city's first Black detective. He and Felmers O. Chaney were inner-city police legends. Moody later became the first Black member of the County Board of Supervisors and Chaney headed the local NAACP.
Fast-forward to the present and Butts' paperback short story--a searing portrayal of jealousy, sexual indiscretion and marital infidelity leading to violence and, ultimately, the death of a young sheriff's deputy, despite the best efforts of his partner and his sister.
Butts clearly put his heart and soul into this, his second published work. His first--"Crime & Other Critical Social Ills...As Seen From Behind the Badge" (1995)--is a full-length paperback. It details his experiences with jail and court duty, motorcycle and squad patrol and as a detective investigating violent crimes.
Butts spent 30 years with the sheriff's department--20 of them in plain clothes and undercover. I was surprised to learn of his writing talent, demonstrated by the empathetic, compassionate and graphic prose that paints a disturbing picture of tragic events. Most impressive to me is how he captured the mood of street cops under pressure.
Butts relies on his experience controlling scenes and situations involving mental illness, homicide investigations and arrests, attempted homicides and armed robbery. As a result, his characters come alive in gritty detail: Tony and Russ, two young, white deputy sheriffs; Russ' unfaithful wife, Gina; and Russ' beautiful sister Alexis.
The story begins at a downtown restaurant as Tony and Russ rescue a white waitress being menaced by her "very muscular," 280-pound Black boyfriend, who is accusing her of going to bed with his best friend. Later, in search of a missing Black work release prisoner at an inner-city address, they encounter "an extremely obese Black female wearing a red bandana."
The woman tells them the man doesn't live there. They believe her and proceed to Russ' home to pick up his handcuffs he had forgotten. What happens next causes each of their lives to unravel--compellingly related by Butts.
Hearing strange sounds in his house, Russ fears a burglary and draws his .38-caliber service revolver. Once inside, they trace the noises to a bedroom where Russ' wife, Gina, is in bed with an unfamiliar white man as their baby sleeps in another bedroom.
In the midst of the confusion--and Russ' rage--they realize this is the very same kind of behavior they heard about minutes earlier as the white waitress was accused by the Black man they restrained. Both are dumfounded by the coincidence.
Turning on the light, Russ accuses the white man of raping his wife and points the gun at him as Tony attempts to intervene. They struggle, Russ fires two shots into the ceiling and Gina's lover jumps out of bed and runs from the house naked. Russ' misery is compounded as Gina tells him she was not being raped, and that she loves the man.
Although heartbroken and angry, Russ is in love with Gina and still wants her. But the trauma sends him into a downward spiral and, although consoled by Tony and Alexis, he never recovers. Russ begins to drink heavily, his career suffers and his life ends tragically.
Meanwhile, while attempting to be Russ' best friend, Tony's own life is affected in unexpected ways. After some false starts, he and Alexis finally get together.
Butts' intimate knowledge of the ins and outs of the street cop routine enables him to clearly communicate the personal mindset of lawmen partners as events--some beyond their control--cause their world to crumble. And while making sure not to pass judgment on the actions of his real-life characters, readers know where the author stands.
After retiring, Butts counseled battered and homeless women and their children for a social service agency and headed an alarm installation and monitoring firm. He was also a security consultant for the Milwaukee public school system and city's Housing Authority.
With his experience as a Black officer, Butts will be well-served to write more about his years in law enforcement. Except for stereotyped movies, this is an area about which precious little is known. Who better to shed some light than someone who lived the life?