It starts devastatingly: A police officer asking its audience, “When you got up today, did you say in some clear and offhand way that you wouldn’t be coming home?” What follows is two minutes of raw but resonant verse that not only honors fallen comrades, but the role and risk associated with the badge. “These are our protectors, our angels, our salvation in a world gone mad. Without them, chaos reigns, and the dark swallows the light in a gulping gluttony.”
That isn’t the typical parlance of cops, but Harry Fagel, a longtime author and performer of poetic works, is renowned for being atypical. And despite nearly turning down the request by his department’s public information office to write something in tribute to the five officers killed in Dallas this month, the lieutenant may now be most renowned for “A Brief Note for Dallas” thanks to his performance of it, captured on video and then shared by Metro. Its Facebook reach alone includes a quarter of a million views and more than 5,500 shares.
With “A Brief Note” and “Stand,” the latter a poem he wrote and read for Law Enforcement Day the week previous, Fagel has written about not only the human side of police work, but alluded to ongoing, national tension between officers and the community, all while walking the tightrope between being a professional and an artist. We recently spoke to him about all this, the positive and widespread reception of his poem and the surprising maturity of Las Vegas.
Did you start “A Brief Note” right after news broke about Dallas? The department’s PIO officer emailed me Monday afternoon. They have a two-man video production unit, and he asked me, “Do you think you can write something that we could record? I need it by Wednesday.” But he said [the poem had to be] under a minute, and I said, “Hmmm, I’ll try, but I’m not making any promises. I’ll think about it.”
Soon as he said that, it got me thinking about it in terms of poetry. So I jotted down very brief notes—literally. I have them here in my phone right now. There’s some rhyming words about “what you would say,” which is how the poem begins. But that was it. And then I [thought], I’m not doing it, I just don’t have time. I guess stuff percolates in my head [because] I went to bed, got up the next morning, wore my uniform because we were on alert with what’s going on, met with my boss about something, went into my office—and just wrote it. And then I sent [the PIO officer] a text and said, “Hey, you still want that poem?” (Laughs.) He’s like, yeah. So I went right over to the video production office and that’s how it happened.
Typically for me, when I get commissioned to do work—which is frequently, over the many years I’ve been writing poetry—there are different processes that happen. Once someone asks me for [a poem], it automatically starts getting into my head, and I can’t help it. But I wasn’t thinking about it before it. In this case I was fortunate to write something that obviously resonated with some people.
LVMPD posted “A Brief Note” and it went viral pretty quickly. Other cities’ newscasts were posting it on their Facebook feeds. Were you expecting it to spread as fast as it did? Absolutely not. I cannot believe it. Being the artist and self-aware, I’ve done great stuff that no one saw, or maybe 10 people saw it. This was a response to a terrible tragedy in a way that maybe other police officers could say, someone is speaking my mind. I can’t right now, but here’s this guy, this crazy cop that writes poetry, and he has a sense of things and he’s putting it out there. Maybe the regular Joe can see it and say, hey, this is the police officer’s perspective, this is how they feel about these type of things, it’s painful but [they] march on. To me, that’s a great thing, but I didn’t expect it to go viral to do what it’s doing. It’s crazy.
Do you dare read the comments to see what people have to say about these poems, knowing it can be more anti-cop sentiment? Do you warn your family away from it? I don’t hide anything from my family. I’m in a profession where really terrible things can happen, so I want them to have the armor, and they get the armor by being exposed to things.
At the same time, I read through the comments because I was blown away by the kindness that people poured out. I did see some wacky comments, for lack of better term. If I didn’t, I’d be surprised ... I’ve written poetry about [how] hate and nastiness spews from people in their anonymity. What I was more surprised at was the low frequency of that. It blew me away and made me feel very humble that people had so many kind things to say, and there were so few from people deciding to drive their agenda or personal dislikes of police.
These poems, while personal, are very specific, though “Stand” makes references to what you see as a “fraction of a fraction of a fraction” of the truth being posted on social media with regards to law enforcement in America. As a poet, or even as an officer with this unique platform, have you been itching to express your thoughts on this for a while? I have. Oh yes, indeed. I have written about it in other poetry that I have not published or put out for publication; [it’s] more cathartic poetry. When I put my stuff on the Internet, my theme is hope—hope for humankind. I don’t mind putting dark things in the world, but if they’re just me being pissed off about something, that’s for me. But sometimes I’ll share my anger. And [regarding] stuff that’s going on, I wrote a poem that was on KNPR two months ago called “Posting You” and it’s about the Internet. Basically, it’s about how someone has this platform for bad things, and it travels so quickly to so many people that there’s this negative thing that just enters the world. We have to be really careful with information. People fill in their own narrative constantly on things; they’ve decided before anything. We need to be cognizant that we don’t have all the facts.
You’re a very public, friendly guy. Do you get frequently asked about your feelings regarding police force, Black Lives Matter and related sensitive issues? I can tell you right now that after all the years I’ve been on the job, and all the people I’ve been around, and the peers and mentors I’ve had, you would think by now I’d have a great grasp on the concept of racism or bias toward a certain group of people. And you know what? That’s not the case.
In the poem, I throw something out there about rounding out bias because we go into this world, we grow up and as we have our experiences, we gain our prejudice from our surroundings. The way we become better people is we whittle away those biases by effort. These biases exist for everyone, including the police.
My thing—and I try to stress this—is we work for the community. So I would say, we’re here for you. All I ask in return is you do your civilian obligations. That means you have to behave a certain way. If you’re using force on other people, if you’re destroying other people’s property, someone’s going to intervene. The reaction of the police 99.9 percent of the time is based on someone else’s behavior, not police behavior.
Are there exceptions? Of course. And we need to continue to grow and become better people and servants. Police business is a real noble service. But it’s almost an impossible task in a lot of ways, when [you’re told], “I want you to do this, I want you to have all the answers, I want you to communicate on every level, I want you to recognize and never be wrong about what a real threat is every time, and I want you to take care of society and the most violent individuals and never hurt them.”
Whether in your poetry or conversation, do you have a very fine line to walk given that you are an active officer and may need to watch what you say, so not to offend your superiors and fellow officers, or the public and the people you serve? Of course it’s a concern. I have no choice in the matter. I can’t piss on [Metro], nor would I. But I’m cognizant about that. Am I pushing something in the wrong direction here? Does that affect me as an artist? Yes. Do I censor myself? Of course. We all should. You don’t have to, and I’ll support your right to not censor anything you do, but I believe art has impact. However, if you’ve read a lot of my poetry, there’s a lot where I absolutely don’t care. It doesn’t have to do with my job, I’m not standing in front [of a crowd] as a police officer. So when I do a Harry Fagel Presents [show], I don’t censor myself at all.
When you’re parsing out of caution, and you write about things that might overlap with police, violence and/or race, does that mean you shirk from making a reference to say, the protesters you might disagree with or, on the flip side, the cop who made a bad decision? Or do you find sensitive ways to address things like that? I’m not going to avoid those topics. I won’t censor anything out of my artistic heart. But I can mold it. Because you know what? If you want your message to be heard and resonate in their hearts, you have to be sensitive to both sides. It’s easy to stand on the platitude on force and reckoning. It’s much more difficult to row your boat in those heavy waves, stay afloat and make sense of it for the big picture ... If I can find that—which I’m always looking for, especially when I’m commissioned to look into these tragedies or write a tribute—I want to make sure I’m pulling an experience out of it. It’s not necessary to figure out that, okay, I have to watch out, I don’t want to piss this guy off. Instead, I take it and go, what is really going on here? What’s the human thing going on here?
Being pissed off and self-righteous catches attention, [but] that is not the answer. Passions are important to us human beings. And if you can evoke passion, that’s great. I challenge you to evoke passion that’s not based on anger.
Do you feel conflicted when it comes to, say, patrolling a protest, especially when it’s critical of the police? Or are you inspired by any of it? I’m inspired in a sense that when people talk about the things that bother them, they’re willing to put it out there. When I talk about anger, I talk more about the Internet and the ugliness. When people protest, that’s a beautiful thing. That’s one of the things I love about being an American.
Which you mention in “A Brief Note.” It’s true. You think about all the parts of the world where you can’t stand up and say how you feel about anything for fear that your family will disappear. That’s no joke. We have to be cognizant of the fact that we’re lucky in that sense, and that we’re able to express ourselves. And I love that. I love this country and the ability to be who you are. I’m happy to see protesters, as long as they aren’t behaving in a way that causes harm [to] others. When someone starts to burn sh*t down, I’m not okay with that.
We’ve had a lot of protests in Las Vegas since last week, and they’ve been peaceful, and people have had their voices heard, they’ve been on the news, and they haven’t had to do anything crazy. They’re being heard. That’s where we need to be. I think this city has shown its maturity, and I hope we see that continue. Of all places in America, Sin City and all that, there’s such a diverse and intellectually interesting population [here]. It’s unlike anywhere else.
Do you see a common ground between the police and those frustrated with them in your poems? Yes. Listen to the line where I say [the police] need to continue to try and improve.
We must always strive to be the light
To become more, to serve better, to know our fellow humans.
I thought it was important to examine the entire issue, which gives it more strength because if we stay one-sided, we’re right back to where the problems lie. It says that in there because I recognize that people are frustrated. All we can do is continue to make the effort to be better. It’s almost a plea to say, hey, we’re not perfect, but we’re working on it.
When you [choose] this career, you’re gonna get physical. You’re dealing with violence. And as unpretty as that is, and as much as people don’t like it, it’s reality. The less you get physical, the more you can use your communication skills to deal with problems, the happier everyone is. That’s the desire. How do we become better at that? We only resort to force when absolutely necessary. I always say: You wanna try to know what it’s like to be a police officer? You take a guy like me—240 pounds, 6 feet tall—and move me from where I am to another location when I don’t want to go without hurting me. Now, put a knife in my hand, or broken bottle, or put me on some kind of substance where I’m not feeling any pain, or give me some mental illness—add any one of those factors. What do you do? [It’s an] impossible question.
A role of the poet is to challenge or even alter the way the audience looks at things. Do you feel you’re doing that with these two poems? Yes. I certainly hope so. My experience as a poet is that people understand what I’m saying. It’s written—and performed—in a way that they formulate the imagery in their minds what I’m trying to get across. Is it simplistic? At times, yes, but sometimes I think it’s very complex. The whole point is to say, hey, take another look at it, from my viewpoint as an artist. There’s more to everything, and there’s less to everything. If I have achieved that, if people hear [“A Brief Note For Dallas”] and say, “Hey, I never thought about it that way before,” then that’s my success as an artist.
The Daily Show did a segment that praised Metro for being a national model for de-escalation, partly due to significantly reducing instances of violent force. I’m also thinking of how it reached out to the LGBT community and kept a close eye on it immediately after the Orlando attacks, and all the anecdotes I’ve read about how friendly and playful the police have been with people at EDC and parks where large crowds of Pokémon players have gathered after hours. Where the image of some American police forces have clearly suffered, the opposite seems to be happening with Metro. We’ve been working really, really hard at it. We always have to be cognizant of the fact we’re a target. There were events as recent as a week ago where police officers were targeted for murder. You can’t lose sight of that. But you constantly strive for that middle ground. Back in the day of the stoic, hardcore [police officer], that’s what the community wanted back then. They don’t want that anymore. You have to recognize as a police agency what the community wants. And as long as you can keep your people safe, what’s wrong with shifting your attitude? They don’t want us to act stoic. They want us to interact.
Metro also promotes your creative work. What other police force does that? I think [police departments are] getting better at it. … They’re trying to embrace that people that work for them have a myriad of talents. You can see more and more policemen are breaking out. But Metro has been very supportive. The PIO is putting this stuff out there, so it has [Sheriff Joe] Lombardo’s stamp of approval—for now, unless I make him mad. (Laughs.) But every sheriff [that I’ve worked under] has been supportive.
I won’t be a propaganda machine for anyone. Not gonna happen. And if I felt that’s what I’d become, I’d be done, because I’m an artist. I call bullsh*t when I see it. But when you say to me, “Harry, can you write a piece to honor someone who has been hurt or lost their life?”—how am I gonna say no to that? There wouldn’t be a reason to unless I couldn’t make it happen. But if suddenly I’m gonna become a salesman, then no, that doesn’t work for me. I still have to be able to write a poem like “F*ck You, Dr. Phil.” (Laughs.)