By Jeff Hodges
In the summer of 1978 I heard about a news outfit called Broadcast News Service that needed video crews to shoot from midnight to noon on weekends, working out of a car with a police radio scanner. I was a cameraman shooting punk rock, modern dance, and performance art in downtown Manhattan, but this sounded like fun; and when they said I would have to videotape dead bodies, I told them I was a country boy and road kill didn’t bother me.
I got teamed up with a guy named Joe. We sat in the car and waited for calls to come in on the scanner. Waiting was a big part of the job.
But when a call came in we took off fast. We ran red lights, we drove 100 mph on the expressways. Sometimes we got to the crime scene before the cops did. We carried a bright light—a “sun gun”—that could blind everybody. More than once we were threatened with arrest for interfering with an arrest.
A former girlfriend named Wendy started riding with us. She knew how to work the cops and EMTs to find out which precincts and hospitals were playing host to perps and victims so we could get follow-up footage, which meant more money for everybody.
We became known as the Mod Squad—after the TV show: two guys and a girl showing up at all hours in the worst parts of town. We got the name when we were on a job in Staten Island. A call came in about a murder in Brooklyn and we ran to our car, followed by a gang of teenagers. When we got to the car they surrounded us. Wendy spun around and snarled “Back off!” Surprised, they backed off. Someone yelled “Mod Squad!” and the name stuck. Soon enough, we’d show up on a job and kids would chant, “Mod Squad!! Mod Squad!”
Once we were at a swimming pool in Harlem. A teenager was at the bottom of the pool in a colorful pair of swim trunks. We all stared down at him—cops, EMTs, firemen—and Wendy turned to a young detective next to her and said, “Make sure you get those trunks when he comes up.” and everyone started laughing and hooting until it turned into something else and we were all wiping tears out of our eyes.
There was stuff you didn’t write home about. Jumpers who looked OK until someone turned them over. The featureless face of a floater who’d been in the river for weeks. We shot a car wreck in the Bronx—a mom and two kids rear-ended and gone up in flames, and the drunk without a scratch who hit them. I went to get my shot and a fireman said, “Don’t go inside the car.” When I zoomed in I found out why he said it—the three white orbs in the blackened wreckage were the skulls of the occupants. This threw me for a minute, and then Wendy grabbed me and said, “C’mon—they’re booking the bastard at Fort Apache,” and we took off.
It ended for me in late August. One Sunday morning, after driving 110 mph in the rain to shoot a body coming out of the trunk of a Cadillac, it dawned on me: this is a stupid way to die.
I tendered my resignation. Joe took a job with CNN and Wendy went back to college. The Mod Squad was done.
Joe went on to win accolades and Emmys until he got into a contretemps that resulted in some legal problems. On the day he was sentenced to a short prison term I was sent downtown by Entertainment Tonight to cover the story and was part of the scrum that followed him into the street. He walked with his head held high and a thousand-yard stare. I sidled up to him and said, “Joe, I’m sorry for all this, it really stinks,” but he wouldn’t turn his head. I don’t know if he knew it was me, or just another newshound looking for more fodder to feed the folks at the news desk—or both.