By Ed Jacques, LEJ Editor
When putting together his first book in 2003, Michael East targeted the minds of potential readers. This time around he’s going after their hearts.
East, a sergeant and 15-year veteran of the Saginaw Police Department, published Burden of the Badge – A Year in the Life of a Street Cop (Authorhouse) in 2003. His follow-up book, Beyond Hope? One Cop’s Fight for Survival in a Dying City (Infinity Publishing), is scheduled for release in May of 2009. While both projects are law enforcement themed, the author’s motives for each are as distinct as the books themselves.
“When I wrote Burden, my thought was that new cops – myself included – really have no idea what they’re getting into when they leave the police academy and hit the streets,” said East, who graduated from the Northeastern Police Academy at Delta College in 1994. “Burden was basically a diary of a year in my life on the streets. Beyond Hope? is a totally different animal. It digs deep into the raw emotions of law enforcement and exposes the human side of being a cop. “Ironically, when I tried to market Burden to police academies and colleges, one of the things I heard was the book was too depressing and it might deter potential officers from pursuing their careers,” East continued. “I immediately thought ‘My God – are you kidding me? Don’t we want police recruits to enter this career with their eyes wide open?’ Mike Wiltse, who runs the Northeastern academy, allowed me to present Burden and do some readings shortly after that book came out. One guy in the academy – he was older and going through a mid-life career change – went to Mike after I left and quit the academy. He said he realized right then that police work wasn’t for him. I think we did that guy a favor by helping him realize he was on the wrong career path.”
The motivation for writing Beyond Hope? was much more simple, explained East, who cultivated his writing career while attending Ferris State University, where he graduated in 1987 with degrees in journalism and public relations. “Law enforcement, especially in an urban environment, is often so surreal. The death, the violence, the hatred, and even the small moral victories – these are all the ingredients for one hell of an emotional stew,” East said. “There is no greater subject to write about than the raw emotions you feel working the streets of a violent city like a Saginaw, or a Flint or a Detroit. There’s just nothing to compare it to and I had to get those feelings out.”
Beyond Hope? is a compilation of 25 stories from the author’s career. Some, like the horrendous murder of Karen King, a Michigan State University student from Saginaw who was killed while home on Christmas break, are specific to East’s adopted hometown. Others, like the gut-wrenching murder of three Inkster police officers at the Bungalow Motel in 1987, are more easily recognized by Michigan law enforcement officers. The stories themselves are packed with raw feelings and personal insight.
“I was on an emotional roller coaster writing this book. Being able to re-tell the Bungalow Motel story through the eyes of a co-worker who was actually there – it was just unreal,” East said. “(Inkster police officers) Dan Dubiel, Clay Hoover, and Ira Parker – these guys gave their lives for this profession and their community and I felt I owed it to them to tell their story.”
Making a decision on the book’s cover art also provided East with an emotional experience. The cover of Beyond Hope? features a photo of a simple white cross in the snow with wilted flowers at the base. The cross bears the name and dates of birth and death of Karen King. “The murder of Karen King was, I think, the single most horrific homicide Saginaw has ever seen. For a city that has 20 or 25 homicides a year, that’s a big statement. It happened on a night when I was working. It also happened in my patrol district. I’ve always felt I failed Karen and her family that night because I didn’t prevent her murder,” East said. “Of course, all cops have been there. We know we can’t prevent every crime. We can’t stop every murder. But still, you feel that sense of responsibility for not stopping what happened.”
“When I went looking for cover art and saw the memorial marker where Karen’s body was found after her murder, I knew right then it symbolized what the book was about,” East continued. “Beyond Hope? – nothing put an exclamation point on the title of this book like that one simple photo.” Taking the cover photo was one thing. Finding the means to use that same photo was a whole different story.
“I have never met Karen King’s parents, but I knew I couldn’t use that cover art without their permission. I didn’t want to hurt Karen’s family like that. I tried for weeks to call and ask permission, but how do you make that call?” East said. “Finally, I got up the nerve and called Karen’s mom. It was an awkward conversation at first because she didn’t know me from Adam. She cried when I asked her. I got pretty emotional as well – I cried a few times while writing this book – but eventually, she talked it over with her husband and gave me her blessing. I consider the book’s cover to be a tribute to Karen, her bravery, and her sacrifice more than anything else.”
Unlike its predecessor, Beyond Hope? is being marketed beyond the realm of just a law enforcement audience. “One thing I found when I did some book signings for Burden of the Badge was most of my buyers were not cops – they were the families and friends of cops. They were the people starving for some real insight into the job,” East said. “That is my target audience this time around. But to reach them I had to change my format and make Beyond Hope? much more personal. I wanted to kick open that door and expose to the public the heart, mind, and soul of being a cop. God willing, I’ve done that.”
Opening that door for his readers also meant exposing some of the author’s personal background through a character named Mick that East references often throughout Beyond Hope?. “I grew up in a pretty abusive household – poverty, alcoholism, domestic assaults. It was pretty ugly. When I began writing Beyond Hope? I realized that, as a cop, I am the product of my upbringing; I am the product of my experiences. All cops are,” East explained. “If I’m going to tell people that there’s a heart behind the badge of every cop, and I’m going to show them this heart, then I damn well better let them in on how that heart was formed. It is, I believe, one of the secrets to good non-fiction writing – complete honesty and openness. Readers appreciate that.
“The funny thing is, after all these years of seeing abused children, alcohol-fueled domestic assaults, and countless gruesome murders, I think my rough upbringing really helps me deal with it,” East continued. “Sometimes, and I said this in the book, I think God prepared me for life as a cop by exposing me at an early age to the things I would be dealing with.” “Most cops search out ways to let loose those job-related, pent-up emotions. Writing is my way to cope. I hope through this book I have given a voice to officers who don’t like to write but want the public to know their frustrations,” East concluded.
“I also hope Beyond Hope? helps readers better understand the world in which police officers live – the frustrations, the fears, the adrenaline, and the anxieties. That would be pretty damn cool.” Beyond Hope? is scheduled for release in early May 2009 and can be purchased through Infinity Publishing, as well as on-line via booksellers such as Barnes and Noble and Amazon.com.