For the past several months, illustrator Jason Crosby has been reminding me that his 500th illustration for the Free Times crime blotter was fast approaching. So it seemed like a good time to reflect on the paper’s long-running weekly crime roundup.
Free Times has been running an informational-yet-humorous crime blotter for at least 15 years. Over the years it’s been written by various staff writers and freelancers — Allison Peeler, Heidi Thomas, Gina Vasselli, David Axe — and illustrated by Travis Falligant, Belton White and Matt Mignanelli, among others. But for the past nine-plus years, Columbia writer Preach Jacobs and Upstate artist Jason Crosby have handled blotter duties for the paper.
In that time, crime reporting in America has changed — becoming, in many ways, more like the Free Times blotter. The zaniest crimes go viral, spawning headlines across the country; and even mundane local drug busts and car chases merit clickbait-y headlines on the websites of local TV stations and the daily paper. More recently, the rise of Live PD means local crimes are beamed live into people’s living rooms as entertainment.
I spoke with Jacobs and Crosby about how they compile Free Times’ blotter, how they feel about it, how it’s changed over the years, and what it says about Columbia. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. — Eva Moore
Eva Moore: Preach, how do you find the crimes you’re going to put in the blotter, and how do you decide what to put in there?
Preach Jacobs: For the majority of it, I go to the police station and there’s a big fat book of incident reports, and I have to flip through them every week.
I tend to stay away from things that are violent crimes, stuff that could be seen in bad taste. I look for funny. Anytime there’s a police report that has quotes in it, it’s usually something funny. Anytime somebody’s saying something to officers that’s really silly or really something dumb, I go towards that.
Columbia doesn’t have a shortage of people doing stuff that’s illegal, so I have a pool to draw from. I try to go for stuff that’s kind of lighthearted, stuff where people didn’t get hurt.
So how do you decide what to draw, then, Jason, of the things that Preach gives you?
Jason Crosby: Honestly, it’s pretty easy. I think his writing meshes with my drawing well. My drawings are lighthearted anyway — like, I think I would have trouble if you said, “Draw this murder.” I try to vary it as best I can. Did I draw somebody holding up a store two weeks ago?
You always have a lot of motion in your drawings. Are there certain crimes that kind of lend themselves to being drawn, like, physically?
JC: Anything I can exaggerate. I take someone running and I’ll do rubber legs. If he’s on a scooter, I’ll make it look like he’s going 100 mph instead of 10. That’s how I feel comfortable drawing anyway: I’ll take whatever little movement and make it way too much.
Are there crimes that come up over and over again, and what are they?
PJ: Yeah, there are. There’s always going to be car break-ins. But the thing that I’ve seen time and time again? Public urination. People like to pee outside. If I wanted to do a blotter every week for somebody getting arrested for peeing, we could kill it every week. A Weekly Leaker. Drip of the Week?
JC: I would have to really exaggerate that. The few times I’ve drawn that, I’ve stuck with the behind; I dare not turn around the other way.
Is there anything you can learn about Columbia from these crimes? Like, I don’t know if we have more public urination than any other city, but do you think there are things you learn uniquely about Columbia from doing the blotter?
PJ: You can tell this is kind of a college town, because there are a lot of college town-type of crimes. There’s nothing too crazy. Rarely do I read through the incident reports and feel like I’m unsafe. A lot of the crimes match the city, in a way. It’s nothing where I feel it should be a cover story, like when Miami was the murder capital of the world in the ’80s.
JC: I’ve been to Columbia a handful of times in my life and half of them have been for football games. I’ve never read anything where I’d think “Oh, I’m definitely not going to visit Columbia.” I went to school at [the University of Georgia], so I’m plenty used to a downtown scene and parties and drinking.
PJ: I’ve got a random question for you, Jason. Is there one illustration that you’ve done, or a story, that sticks out to you the most?
JC: I always like anytime an animal is involved, like the person on the scooter recently with the cat, and then there’s been multiple dog thefts. Someone’ll reach in the backyard and snatch a puppy. I always enjoy those, that I can mix up the imagery a bit and draw a cute puppy with a dumb-looking criminal.
Me not knowing Columbia, I make the people as generic as possible. I don’t know the good, the bad, the black, the white. I can get to the football stadium. I’ll vary the looks, hairstyles, things like that to mix it up, but when I read the blotter, I never once think, “Well, this was definitely a white dude.”
Didn’t you get in the middle of some crime recently, Preach? Something happened at the IHOP and you were there?
PJ: Yes. We were sitting and eating with some people and some guy was in there. The waitress was asking him to leave because he was very disruptive the whole time. So when the guy gets up, he’s kind of murmuring under his breath. He came by me and my buddies — he’s this old white guy — and he’s like “n#!ger n#!ger n#!ger n#!ger.”
It’s funny, because growing up in the South, you always play in your head, like, “What would happen if someone says something to me one day, how will I respond? Will I fight him? Will I beat him up?” And my first inclination was just to laugh hysterically. We were there, they called the cops, and I was like, “I’ll have to put this in the blotter.”
So did you see the incident report later?
PJ: Yes. Apparently he was an older guy, he was homeless, he tried to run away and they caught him, and I think he was charged with public intoxication.
So yeah, that’s a Columbia crime: Somebody said something stupid.
Does it seem like a lot of the crime ends up being homeless folks, or lower income people? I sometimes worry about that, that we’re just making fun of people who have more run-ins with the police just because of how their life is. Though we’ve also talked recently about including more white-collar crimes, too.
PJ: I try to cover the blotter in a way where I’m pretty sensitive about that. If I’m reading an incident report — and I’m sensitive especially because I have a sister with special needs — I’m more sensitive about not covering stuff that seems like someone might have a chemical issue or it might be a mental issue, or something where it’s lower income stuff.
If it’s a frat boy stealing beers from a gas station, I’ll write about that, but if it’s someone homeless and hungry taking something, I’m more inclined to fall back on that. You’ve got to have a little level of empathy.
I see a lot of domestic violence stuff. I think that might be a Columbia thing as well — tons of domestic violence. And I try not to cover that, because I don’t ever want anybody to think that I’m making violence against women lighthearted.
JC: The only time I think I’ve ever drawn somebody getting punched is when it’s a woman beating up on a guy.
PJ: Exactly what I was going to say. Now that, I’ll support any day of the week. A woman catches her husband cheating and she kung fu kicks him out of the house? Yeah, let’s write about that.
But any violence against women and children, I don’t touch any of that.
Do you have any idea how the cops around here feel about the blotter?
PJ: They laugh when I come in there, like, “You get something good?” And they’ve said, “You should hear the stories we don’t put in the book.” And it’s like, “Well, tell me.” But I think there’s reasons they can’t put everything in there.
I’m glad they don’t stare at me all weird anymore. The [police station] on Taylor Street is 24 hours and sometimes I’d go in late. And I know it’s weird to have me coming in with sweatpants and an old T-shirt and a notebook —people who don’t know who I am are thinking I’m, like, somebody turning myself in.
How have you seen the blotter change over time?
JC: I know my time has gotten a lot shorter. Both my kids have been born. It used to be I’d get the writing and think, OK, I have a few hours to read, draw, brainstorm, and now I get it to you as fast as I can — draw, scan, color, email. Most of the time I try to get it to you within an hour. I don’t have much more than that I can juggle in between a 4-year-old and a 1-year-old.
I enjoy the freedom that I guess one hour will allow me. It’s refreshing in that sense. I don’t know if I would have lasted for 10 years if it would have been over-art-directed.
PJ: Over the years I’ve had people recognize themselves in a story. To be clear, we never put names, we never put addresses, never put race. I would think that if someone reads about themselves they’d be angry, but I’ve had people approach me, like, “Yeah, you wrote that stuff about me! That was me!” Like OK, why are you happy about that?
It’s kind of funny, wanting to be an artist, and socially and politically active, but if I were to die tomorrow I think “The Blotter Guy” would probably be on my tombstone before anything.
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