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Published September 16 2001

Tom Pantera column: TV shows rarely like real life

Cops and reporters have many things in common, including one major job irritant:

TV shows and movies.

Whenever I get a phone call and the person opens with "are you an investigative reporter?" I know I'm in for a half-hour conversation that will waste my time. Those folks usually have seen too many bad shows about reporters.

In those shows, the reporters all sit around waiting to get a tip for some investigative story. It doesn't show the reporter going through files in the clerk of court's office or chained to a desk writing briefs (tasks which can take up an amazing amount of time).

I'm sure it's the same for cops.

Personally, I love cop shows. I've never missed an episode of "NYPD Blue," one of the three best cop TV shows ever. The others are "Hill Street Blues," without which "NYPD Blue" never would've been possible; and "Barney Miller," which not only was a great sitcom but a realistic view of what goes on in most police stations.

As for movies, I love "Dirty Harry" and "The French Connection," but not without guilt.

Since part of my job is to hang around cops and cop stations, I have a keen appreciation for the difference between show biz and life. That difference was much on my mind in June when three Fargo police officers shot James Wolf.

It turned out I knew two of the three officers involved in the shooting. For personal reasons, I'll refer to the officers as A, B and C. I know A and B.

Their personal lives couldn't be more different. Officer A is a family man; for him, the sun rises and sets on his kids. Officer B is single and active in politics. Both are gentle, thoroughly decent people, the kind of guys you love to run into because you know your day will be brighter afterward.

When I heard they'd been involved in the shooting, I immediately thought of two things: A's kids and B's passionate interest in civic affairs.

It also occurred to me that neither is Clint Eastwood. These guys aren't a couple of trigger-happy Dirty Harrys.

They are, instead, a couple of cops who were caught in the worst situation their profession offers. Most cops never draw their pistols during their entire careers. They had to not just draw it, but use it in the most terrible way possible.

All three will deal with that for the rest of their lives. I'm told one in particular is recovering rather slowly. I think his very recovery process is an indication that he's no Harry Callahan.

But in most TV shows and movies, the cops shoot, the target dies and the officers are next shown having coffee in the squad room. There may be one token look of relief, but the bullets vastly outnumber the second thoughts.

My heart aches for these guys in a very real way. Even though they needn't doubt that what they did was necessary, I know A and B well enough to know they'll always wonder if it could've happened another way. Nothing anyone can say will ever remove those doubts -- even though by their actions, they probably saved lives other than their own. (That all goes for C, too, by the way.)

So yeah, just like in the movies, there is smoke and lead and blood at the business end of the gun. But we should remember that there's a person at the other end. And in the real world, it's more likely that he or she will try for a long time to understand what happened, rather than just crack wise and move on.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Tom Pantera at (701) 241-5541 or via e-mail at tpantera@forumcomm.com