Your Permanent Record

Tony Nelson

Sonja Dauphin's office is a cozy place. It has wood paneling, a warm glow, and the sort of knickknacks you might find in the cubicle of the sweet middle-aged lady who works in accounting. A few Beanie Babies are on display, along with a cartoon caricature of a moose and a conspicuously positioned newspaper photo of the football star Brett Favre. The latter signifies both Dauphin's gridiron loyalties--Go, Pack!--and Wisconsin origins. She was born and raised in LaCrosse, and you can still hear it in her voice.

As you would rightfully expect of a woman nicknamed "Sunny," Dauphin is friendly and easygoing. Maybe this is the result of a happy home life. Possibly, it is a lingering effect from her early work as a grade school teacher. But whatever the explanation, chances are it has little to do with her current occupation.

As the supervisor of the Minneapolis Police Department's Criminal History Unit (which everyone calls the Cop Shop), Dauphin has spent nearly a quarter-century wading in the bureaucratic muck of Mill City crime. The Cop Shop is a window into the misery of the life of the city. Assisted by a 15-person civilian staff, Dauphin oversees the processing of booking sheets for every wife beater, drug dealer, jaywalker, loiterer, and any other soul unfortunate enough to run afoul of the MPD. The records date back to 1915, with an additional 40 to 80 new cases added every day.

Sunny says she hopes this year will be her last year on the job. A quarter of a century is a long time. Maybe she'll miss the unit's daily hustle. Maybe not. "When you first begin here, you want to read every single arrest report because you can't even believe these things are going on in the city," she says. "After several years, though, one report starts to run into another. You can't be a real puritan and deal with what we deal with down here."

Not long after Dauphin started working with the Criminal History Unit, she stumbled across the case of a man who had been arrested for stealing containers of Lysol. She felt sorry for the guy. She figured he wanted to do a good thing--clean his home--and was simply short some dough and so resorted to theft. The Cop Shop veterans all had a good laugh at Sunny's expense. Nobody steals Lysol for cleaning purposes.

Most days, the Cop Shop is hectic. Detectives rush in, demanding the files they needed yesterday. Lawyers call and insist that so-and-so's record must be expunged. Reporters root around, digging for dirt. And then there are the others--the ex-cons, the accident victims, the aggrieved, the confused, and the imbalanced--who come to the Cop Shop with their woes. The most persistent visitors become legends. Everyone remembers the woman who stopped by daily, reporting one imagined crime after another. Then there was the prolific habitual offender who argued so strenuously that his convictions were all injustices and that the time had come to erase his rap sheet. Dauphin's response to such complaints? A finely honed mix of bureaucratic intransigence and small-town friendliness. Usually, she says, that's enough to get the complainer out the door.

You can still hear the mechanical clank of typewriters in the Cop Shop. Eventually, Dauphin says, all criminal histories will be entered in a computerized database and the endless shelf loads of manila folders--with their color-coded pink, peach, and lime-green tabs--will be fed into a shredder. When, precisely, the Cop Shop will enter the digital age remains a mystery.

Getting some air away from her office, Dauphin passes the Nerve Center, the room where the booking sheets are archived. The counter is covered with pie plates, apparently left over from an employee dessert party. "They bring in pie when I'm sick. See how they are? The little renegades," Dauphin grumbles.

The little renegades include Sandra Kellogg. A 17-year veteran of the Cop Shop, Kellogg spends much of her time processing DWIs--that is, when she's not engaged in a thespian pursuit. During the final week of training at the Police Academy, cadets go through role-playing scenarios involving domestic abuse calls, homicides, bank robberies, and the like. For 15 years, Kellogg has portrayed Zelda, a suicidal, knife-brandishing woman. "What's the right name for someone in a crisis again?" she asks in the middle of her explanation of the 15-foot rule, the distance officers should keep from an individual in such a crisis. "Vulnerable adult," a co-worker shoots back.

Mostly, Kellogg's job is clerical. Though mostly routine, the work occasionally causes her distress. You catch a glimpse of the mug shot of a career prostitute, haggard and ruined. You glance at the narrative of a child abuse case. You see the same faces again and again. It takes a toll. "I still get shocked sometimes working here," she says. "For others it's different. It's just a job."

On this day, Kellogg has been digging through some old records, looking for information on a body that turned up within Minneapolis city limits in 1935. The inquiry came from the niece of the deceased, who only recently learned that her uncle had been murdered.

"Found him!" Kellog finally declares, extracting the document in question from a loose stack of yellowed papers. She pops out of her seat to deliver this one-line report to Dauphin. Later in the day, Dauphin will call the niece to tell her about her uncle, and to pass on the information from his permanent record.

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