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Yes! Another journalist's newsletter.
Welcome to Sticky. This is my newsletter. I’m the editor and, for now, I am its sole contributor.
The last time I worked full time as a journalist was 2011. I was 40. I spent the next decade doing some freelancing but mainly working as a legal marketer, which has been a pretty nice gig. However, I’ve missed being immersed in storytelling and reporting.
And so, I’m back. Launching this newsletter is me actively recommitting my focus to creating and sharing powerful narratives.
When I began thinking about launching a digital publication, I researched what independent journalists were producing on subscription platforms like Substack, Medium, and Revue. I found several excellent newsletters dominating the niche I am drawn to. These creators attracted large audiences that not only follow them but financially support them.
While inspiring, seeing so many also disappointed me a bit because I clearly would not be among the first, second, or even third wave of a journalism newsletter movement. Imposter syndrome sifted into my thoughts. Even when you confront it, imposter syndrome doesn’t obediently recede. It slow walks toward the exit, pushing me to quit before I start. “Come on. You’re not one of them. Why even try?”
To fix my mindset, I listened for another voice, the room-shaking boom of my former editor, the late Heidi Hall. Whenever she found me hesitating at my keyboard or struggling over how to tell a story, she would urge me to:
“Shut. 👏 That. 👏 Shit. 👏 Down. 👏 And. 👏 Get. 👏 To. 👏 Work. 👏”
(Note: Those claps are not for a cute effect. Heidi was a profound clapper.)
I served under Heidi at two newspapers, soaking up her unfiltered advice. The journalism awards and reader thank-you cards I’ve collected are largely the result of Heidi’s coaching.
So, with Sticky, I’m following my favorite editor’s advice and getting to work.
Here’s what I know: Nobody can write the same stories or have the same conversations that I can. The best way to differentiate myself is to write from personal experience and in my specific voice. That’s when I get it right.
I don’t have a set agenda with Sticky. What I intend is to be as authentic, transparent, and raw as I possibly can here.
If you’re looking for a disclaimer, I guess this is it: I’m figuring this newsletter out as I go. This is both my workshop and my playground. It’s where I can be serious and silly, certain and unsure. I intend to be bold and purposeful, but I’ll always permit myself to change my mind as soon as I hit publish.
I covered the crime beat at four different newspapers, from a rural weekly to a major metropolitan daily. It’s only fitting with Sticky that I share stories of trauma, abuse of power, and even murder. This will include works written by me and links to riveting reads crafted by others.
However, I’m not a one-note storyteller. Some editions might include progress reports on upcoming articles, my analysis of a recent news development, diary-like essays, a clip from my archive, or recommendations for books and articles (like those below). And you might come across a fiction story I’m working on, as well.
You’ll occasionally get my personal take on things. Consider them editorials. They might include my thoughts on politics, relationships, or justice.
Each month, two newsletters will be free to every subscriber. I’m reserving exclusive content, podcasts, and other special perks for paid subscribers.
If you buy a subscription, you’re helping me earn a living and financially supporting my reporting, which is not cheap to produce (i.e., travel, equipment, research, documents, my time, etc.).
Finally, I’m pretty much always hunting for the next great story to share, and I encourage you to not be shy about sending me your pitches.
My deepest thanks to you!
Cat and Mouse - Writer Phil Hoad pounds the pavement with pet detectives in South London on the trail of a possible serial killer of cats.
How a Journalist Chases a Monster, Part 1 - Journalist Lauren Wolfe pulls the curtain back on six years of covering atrocities in the Congo.
Deadliest Place in America: They shrugged off the pandemic, then their family and friends started dying - An amazing feature by reporter Trevor Hughes, who was later interviewed by Neiman Storyboard, sharing how as a national correspondent he earned trust from the residents of a tiny Kansas town.
Backstory: At The Tampa Tribune, my primary beat was covering the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Department. This equated to countless hours spent observing deputies in ride alongs, at crime scenes, making courthouse and jailhouse visits, covering fatal crashes and disasters, etc. In 2007, the agency launched a training boot camp to test and screen cadets. I spent two weeks reporting on a class of aspiring deputies. In my feature story, I focused the narrative through the oldest cadet in the group and the question of would he make it?
Recruits in Training Either Make Cut or Ring Out
The first step to becoming a Hillsborough County sheriff's deputy now is a two-week, military-style orientation. Why the change? To shock recruits and determine quickly whether they can stand the rigors of law enforcement - before the county invests a year of time and money in them.
Published: Thursday, December 6, 2007
Section: NATION/WORLD; Page: 1
By MIKE WELLS
The Tampa Tribune
LITHIA - Six uniformed deputies in drill instructor hats march down the mile-long driveway.
As they get closer, the 26 strangers line up for inspection.
Kevin Cummings, a wiry 48-year-old father of three with one more to put through college, quit his job of two dozen years to do this. If he fails, he's unemployed.
He's among the latest recruits hired by the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office and in the second class to embark on a new two-week training program at the Walter C. Heinrich Practical Training Center that administrators say will change the heart and face of the agency.
During the two-week camp, instructors will push their physical and emotional limits.
Some will make the cut. Others will ring out.
Cummings resigned his longtime job at an international delivery company after watching his 24-year-old son, Kyle, mature under the training to become a deputy a year ago.
He wants to learn from the same instructors and earn the same badge.
"If I make it to that point," Cummings says later, "then that would probably be the pinnacle of my life."
He realizes the odds are stacked against him. "Some of these guys are 25 out there, and I'm almost twice their age," he says. "That's something I had to consider."
There's a lot at stake, he says.
If he fails?
"I'm left jobless," he says. "Not even that, I'm left careerless. This is not just a job."
At 7 p.m., the gate is locked. No one can leave without telling a trainer they're quitting and ringing the nautical brass bell at the center of their camp in front of their classmates.
A drill instructor leads the recruits in a motto they will recite every time they break formation.
"One heart! One blood! One soul, sir!" the recruits shout.
The creed will become deafening in coming days as the class begins to speak with one voice, Deputy Stuart O'Shannon says. Louder even than the yelling of drill instructors.
There's a reason drill instructors yell so much, O'Shannon says. It's meant to be startling.
Deputies must focus on a task at hand when someone is bellowing in their faces. If recruits can't handle a drill instructor's scolding, how can they be expected to handle a gunman's threats or a crowd's screams?
The instructors order the recruits to grab their gear and march to the camp. It has grown dark, and the rest of the night moves quickly.
Instructors inspect the recruits' gear - some have never worn their boots. They assign beds in barrackslike portable buildings, issue the recruits yellow T-shirts and black cargo pants for uniforms, and address them during final formation.
At 10 p.m. it's lights out, and everyone is ordered to bed.
"Ninety-five percent of them do not sleep a wink on the first night," O'Shannon says. "Some of them are thinking, 'What the hell did I just get myself into?'"
Cummings and the other recruits fast become familiar with "Boyd's Beach."
It's a sandy workout space north of the barracks named for a recruit from the previous orientation group who spent more time there than anyone in his class to make up for tardiness and slip-ups, O'Shannon says.
The sand stings after 20 or 30 push-ups on bare fists, and it never completely shakes out of a recruits' T-shirt after a set of sit-ups.
Most mornings, the recruits also run 1.5 miles and sprint 300 meters two hours before breakfast. They raise the flag and fall into formation for a drill.
A few days in the schedule include climbing through obstacle courses and making water rescues in a cold pool - fully clothed.
Before the two weeks are up, the recruits will fire 275 bullets on the shooting range and repeatedly disassemble their firearms and clean them.
There are the rigors of training, but recruits also enjoy hearty meals prepared by Lupton's Catering and spend breaks in a scenic countryside setting.
The orientation is meant to bond these recruits into a cohesive team. They eat, learn and work together. Those who complete orientation will attend academy together.
The program is grounded in military protocol, but sheriff's officials bristle at the phrase "boot camp" when asked about the two-week orientation.
It was designed, they say, to foster integrity, commitment and professionalism in leaders - not to breed mindless drones.
Every year, thousands apply to become a deputy, but few can meet the requirements. The interview process whittles them down to a select group of applicants. This year, nearly 150 new deputies were trained out of that pool.
Until July, sheriff's recruits spent nearly six months in a law enforcement academy at Hillsborough Community College and then reported to the training center for 10 more weeks.
The sheriff's office paid for academy tuition. If a cadet leaves, the county loses money.
This year, the agency decided to bring in recruits for two weeks of orientation before the academy in hopes of eliminating weaker applicants, training division commander Jim Previtera says.
"From a fiscal standpoint, if we allow these guys to get into the system without a standard being set for them and they fail out, then the taxpayers are out the tens of thousands of dollars we invested in their training, equipment and time," the major says.
The sheriff's office also wants to lessen citizen complaints and avoid costly scandals brought by deputies who break the law or violate the rights of others.
None of Florida's 66 other sheriffs operate a residential, preacademy orientation, Previtera says. Hillsborough spends about $1,500 per recruit for the two-week orientation on top of other training costs, he says.
"If they wash out in the academy, then that's about a $4,000 loss to us," he says. "If they wash out during field training, then we're talking in the $30,000 to $40,000 range.
"In the long run, I think we could balance out [on costs] or end up saving money because we won't go all the way down the road before we find out if somebody doesn't make it."
As of last month, the sheriff's office had 652 budgeted patrol positions and 531 deputies on road duty. Technically speaking, most of the 121 vacancies are filled, officials say. Scores of deputies are on light desk duty because of injury or illness, on leave to serve in the military, or newly hired and still in training.
Twenty-seven patrol slots haven't been filled.
Some are concerned about the agency spending so much time and money on a two-week orientation with so many vacancies to fill.
"Good people are going to go someplace else for a job rather than go to this boot camp," says Deputy Mike Rouleau, president of Hillsborough's law enforcement union chapter in the West Central Florida Police Benevolent Association.
"I don't think it's a good idea to have this experimental boot camp when you're down a hundred deputies," he says. "I don't see the need.
"I was in the Army - they prepare you for war. These guys aren't going to Iraq," Rouleau says. "They can get what they need from a class, not from having a flash grenade thrown at them."
Sheriff David Gee has heard such comments and says he isn't budging. Last week, he swore in 16 patrol deputies and 16 detention deputies at a graduation ceremony. This year, the agency hired 60 patrol deputies and 88 detention deputies.
"When things get rough in turbulent times, that's when the standards go up," the sheriff says. "The easy way out would be to lessen the standards and add more deputies … but that would be the wrong thing to do."
Gut Check Time
It's not long into the week before Cummings hears the bell.
Two classmates - both former military men and several years younger than him - quit the program.
Recruit Rudolfo Lopez leaves Monday evening. The next morning, recruit Thomas Patschorke drops out.
"Some of the ones with a military background have an attitude of, 'Well, I've already done this, and I've been through boot camp before,'" O'Shannon says. "To them, doing this was supposed to be a second career, and they expected it to be laid back. It's not."
When standing in formation or marching, recruits are given a command by a drill instructor and then a carry-out order.
With the class in formation, training instructor Shawn Dugan shouts a command to turn right, but someone prematurely turns his head before Dugan gives the carry-out order.
"It's always you, Cummings, isn't it?" the trainer says in a disgusted tone. "How many friggin' times is it going to take?"
On Thursday, Cummings and recruit Leila Stober each spend a little time in front of the bell, asking themselves why they signed up for this.
Both recruits are having trouble with multitasking and haven't stepped up as leaders in their class, the instructors say.
Deputies O'Shannon and Dawn Reisinger are there, too, loudly reminding them that it's easy to quit:
Just ring that bell.
Cummings is overwhelmed by what's being thrown at him in training, the instructors say.
The grimace on his sweating face shows he's pushing his body's limits, and his voice is a bit raw as he talks about the physical and emotional drain he's enduring.
"They test every part of you," he says. "Every ounce of you."
The bell remains silent, and Cummings and Stober march to the firing range with the other recruits.
Cummings has strained his shoulder. It could be a fluid buildup, he says. Another recruit is having pain in his knee, and yet another has pulled a tendon in his calf.
The recruits learn that a deputy's work can be hazardous.
Recruit Alexandria Mittong leaves the program Friday after one of her arms suffers a painful soft tissue injury, possibly from marching with her heavy gear bag.
She has performed well up to this point and can reapply for a future orientation session, instructors say.
Before dismissing the recruits for the weekend, instructors show them a video of an actual traffic stop in which an officer is shot directly in the face by a driver.
The point of the graphic footage is hard to miss.
"This is a dangerous world we're living in," O'Shannon says, "and we're living on the front line of it."
The next Monday, all 23 remaining recruits return to the training center, but the video has had an effect.
Recruit Timothy Crocker asks to leave. The military veteran was performing well, so his exit surprised instructors, O'Shannon says.
His decision came after a lot of personal reflection about what was important to him and his family, O'Shannon says, adding that an officer's personal safety always affects loved ones deeply.
O'Shannon knows this from his 11 years of experience, he says.
Several years ago, someone maliciously put glass in the deputy's food at a restaurant, and he underwent surgery to repair the damage to his throat and organs.
In recounting the ordeal to the class, O'Shannon, a tough Irish cop by self-definition, tears up at the thought of never seeing his children again.
During the next three days, the bell rings repeatedly.
Stober leaves when instructors tell her not to stay for the wrong reasons.
"She had the desire, but she didn't have the skills … and no commanding presence," O'Shannon says. "She would have probably gotten hurt out on the street."
Recruit Douglas Pistorius rings the bell on the second Wednesday.
"He came to me and said, 'Deputy O'Shannon, I'm going to have to leave. This is not for me,'" the instructor says. "His heart was only 75 percent into it."
Reflecting on why he left his job of 24 years, Cummings says he spent his entire adult life working in the service industry and now wants another chance to serve the public.
He thought this was the way to do it.
After eight days of challenges, Cummings has watched six classmates ring that bell.
The instructors tell him he hasn't "stepped up," and he's not sure what to do.
O'Shannon sees the recruit is having a hard time with the training and pulls him aside.
Tears well up in Cummings' eyes, O'Shannon says. They talk, and then the bell rings once more.
Deciding to leave was agonizing, Cummings says a week later. He was the seventh and final recruit to ring out, leaving 17 men and two women to complete the orientation.
"The first day after I did it, I was emotionally devastated," he says. "I'm still working through my disappointment. I continually go through that decision."
Laid up at home, he's nursing a shoulder injury that temporarily is keeping him from applying for another job, he says. Money isn't an immediate concern because his wife, Lori, has a career.
Cummings thinks he let his family down, especially his son the deputy. They've talked, though, and Kyle said he wasn't disappointed in him, the father says.
"For whatever reason, HCSO didn't think I had the right tools and motivation, and I think that's what disappointed him greatly," Cummings says of his son.
O'Shannon says the 48-year-old did well in the fitness challenges.
"Physically, we could not break him," the trainer says. "He was just one of those individuals who had all the desire in the world, but we just didn't see the ability."
Cummings says he fully supports the training curriculum.
"By far, it's a tough program," he says. "I have no doubt the people who come out of it will be more than qualified."
The experience changed him, he says.
"This made me look at who I am, what attributes I have and what kind of person I am," Cummings says. "Do I think I would have made a good sheriff's deputy? I think so."
He hasn't decided whether he'll apply for a job with another law enforcement agency.
"Yeah, I have regrets, but I don't regret the decision to try," he says. "I do not regret that."