Riding shotgun with Terry Toller on the stupid human tricks beat
by Angela Schurhoff
July 6, 2000 Sacramento News and Review
It's late on a Friday night, and Terry Toller is in his '86 Ford Bronco with the KC lights on top and the smiling skeleton strapped to the grille.
Armed with a video camera and a deep understanding of the law, Toller cruises the streets late at night and into the wee hours of the morning, looking for news in neighborhoods where many are afraid to walk the streets. He imbibes a case of Diet Coke and sucks down four packs of cigarettes a day. "Nicotine, caffeine and adrenaline, that's what I run on," he says.
The truck is rigged-up with seven police and fire scanners. They give off a constant cacophony of blips, shrieks and static. Toller says he has a "sanity switch" for times when "everyone is yelling at once." Dispatchers speak in code. It sounds like gibberish to the untrained ear, but Toller understands it like a second language: 503 is the cod for a stolen vehicle; 925 is the Sheriff's Department's code for shots fired; 5150 is a mental-health call. Cool.
Room is tight in the truck. Besides the camera, cigarettes and sodas, Toller carries a gas mask, a rappelling rope, two cans of Mace, gumdrops, a trauma kit, a coffee maker, canned food, a .45-caliber Colt automatic, a bulletproof vest, a button that reads "It's American to Be Pissed Off" and several press passes.
Although he says the passes are helpful for getting past police and emergency crews at a scene, Toller is adamant that ther is nothing in the law requiring a journalist to carry one; most of his are homemade. He claims to have used passes "issued" by the Daily Planet from Perry White and the Ghetto Press from Huey Newton.
We're ready to roll.
The first call of the evening to catch Toller's attention comes in. Short of breath, an officer reports his whereabouts to the dispatcher. He is involved in a foot pursuit three blocks from our location on Del Paso Boulevard. We are on the scene within a minute, but by then the suspect has been apprehended. Five cop cars swarm the alley, blocking our way.
"Aw, got him already, damn it. Nuts," Toller mutters under his breath. He looks over to me. "Adrenaline gets to you. It's habit-forming. It suits me just fine," he says, grinning.
Over his 28-year career, Toller has captured fires, shootings, police chases, rescues, drug busts and car accidents with his camera. He's sold footage to every news station in Sacramento, as well as to CNN, Real TV, Real Stories of the Highway Patrol and That's Incredible. You name it; he's recorded it. He's seen it all, done it all; there are no more surprises.
So why does he still do it? Because he loves it. It's not just the rush of adrenaline when he's flying down the freeway to catch up to a scene or watching a building explode and burn five feet in front of his lens that intrigues him, but the camaraderie with officers and the challenges he faces each night on his quest for news.
Not only has Toller recorded the news, he's also been the news - arrested eight times fro interfering with a police officer. But Toller insists he was only doing his job. He refuses to kowtow to officers wh challenge his right to be at a crime scene or a fire or wherever there is news. Yellow tape be damned - if there's a story, he's going to get it.
In May 1998, two officers restrained Toller at the site of an arson fire after he crossed police lines at the intersection of Stockton Boulevard and 17th Avenue. The officers confiscated his videotape and cited him for interfering with officers in the line of duty. Toller sustained injuries from the scuffle and later, after he collapsed at home, was taken to an emergency room.
Toller sued the city over his injuries and for the violation of his civil rights. The city awarded him an undisclosed amount in a settlement agreement, and one of the officers involved in the incident was fired.
All of the charges filed against Toller have been dropped or dismissed in court. Some say he's been lucky, but he'll tell you he's been right. After all, the law is on his side: Journalists have a right to access.
To this day there are politicians and members of the police department, namely Sacramento Police Chief Arturo Venegas, says Toller, who hold grudge. In fact, SPD Public Information Officer Steven Campos refused to the SN&R access to police officers who could have provided insight on Toller.
"While I appreciate and respect the job you are doing," says Campos, "based on the fact there is litigation involving Mr. Toller ... and that it involved the Police Department, we'll have to decline in providing the names [and numbers of officers] you requested."
When Toller heard of the refusal, he vowed to file a petition for a writ of mandate claiming violation of Article 1, Section 7b of the California Constitution. "The more these people try to hide behind authority, the more they break the law," he insists.
Although it may sound as though Toller is a menace to police, he was given a commendation from Venegas in April 1998 for coming to the aid of a female officer who had been attacked by a drunken driver (Toller says he laid the guy out in the parking lot). But it has been said that Venegas gave him the award through clenched teeth.
Toller was also a thorn in the side of the late Mayor Joe Serna, Jr. In 1996 he released a videotape, which he called "Garbage Gate," to the SN&R two weeks before the mayoral elections. The tape shows Serna declaiming that the public didn't need to know that the city raised garbage rates to pay for police raises. The tape caused a flurry of controversy that ended only when Serna issued a public apology.
We are stationed at Toller's usual post in a deserted parking lot across the street from the Shell station on Del Paso Boulevard. A police car drives by every few minutes. A light-blue sedan pulls up to Toller. The driver is has friend and fellow free-lancer, Tom Parker. Both have their scanners turned up full blast as they nod their hellos.
"A lot of drunks out tonight," says Parker.
"I was just saying out stupid people are," Toller responds. They nod in agreement. "In all the years I've been doing this, someone finds a new way to be stupid. I'll always have a job because some idiot is going to do something really stupid and find himself in the news," he explains.
In a later interview, Parker calls Toller a "constitutional genius. He can recite amendment after amendment, penal code after penal code. He knows what he can and can't do," says Parker. "Sometimes he'll push [an issue] but only because he's pushed. He doesn't voluntarily make waves."
Despite a few run-ins with rookie cops and the ensuing lawsuits, most officers who have gotten to know Toller over the years sing his praises. "I consider him a friend," says Mark Tyndale, a former North Sacramento patrol officer. "Anyone who knows him knows that he's a friend to law enforcement. Some officers misunderstand what he's doing. The first time an officer meets him, he's crossing [police] tape and reciting the law. But anyone who challenges him is getting involved with a pit bull. No one interferes with his rights as a journalist."
There is a mutual respect between Toller and the officers he encounters nightly. Toller routinely offers his tapes as evidence against the accused, which has bolstered convictions fro the police and sheriff's departments. In return, officers often give him news tips. "Cops trust me," says Toller. "I've given them reason to for 27 years."
"That says a lot about him," says Tyndale, "especially since he's a journalist. Officers don't always trust journalists, so it's remarkable actually."
"What he does is commendable," said Parker. "He fights for those in the media who won't fight for themselves; that's what it boils down to. He knows what his rights are, and he's self-appointed himself the guardian to honesty and truth and the American way. He's willing to go to jail for [his beliefs]."
That willingness stems from Toller's stint in the Navy in 1965. "I... took an oath to protect and defend the Constitution from enemies both foreign and domestic. I'm still protecting that obligation," he says.
A call comes in alerting us to a house fire on Cedar Way in South Sacramento. This is what Toller was waiting for. By midnight we are cruising down the freeway at top speed. As we near the location, we see an enourmous cloud of smoke looming over an otherwise quiet neighborhood. The sky is orage from the flames.
Toller pulls up a block from the burning house. He doesn't wait for me. "I hope you don't mind, but I'm going to jog," he says before disappearing into the smoke with his camera. I catch up to him at the yellow barrier tape, which he quickly hops over. None of the dozens of emergency crew workers say a word.
The house is engulfed in flames. Neighbors in their bathrobes congregate in awe on their lawns. Some have hoses in hand, dousing their rooftops, boats, lawn - whatever could become kindling. Toller walks right up beside firefighters battling the blaze and start filming. He's in his element, and his addiction has been fed. Another night in the life of the Video Avenger is coming to a close.