LARGO — The first thing people notice is the accent. But before they can place it, Alan Beards is already shaking their hand.
"My name's Alan," he says, smiling. "How are you?"
The visitor with the gray stubble doesn't say much. He doesn't have to. Beards does enough talking for both of them.
"Married? Got kids?" Beards asks. "Have you got grandchildren?" The visitor answers yes.
Beards has three: "Grandchildren are just a joy, aren't they?"
The visitor smiles. He hardly seems to notice that Beards hasn't let go of his hand, that he's rolling each of the man's fingers over a glass scanner.
"So what are you in for?" Beards asks.
"Insurance fraud," is the response.
Beards just nods.
Then the visitor returns to the open holding area of the Pinellas County Jail. The fingerprint room is just one stop in the booking process.
Beards waves goodbye and says: "I never want to see you again."
• • •
There are 54,000 or so people booked into the Pinellas jail every year. That's 54,000 people having a really, really bad day.
Chances are they remember the pleasant bloke with the British accent who tried to make that day a little less bad.
"My philosophy is that these people have had it hard enough," says Beards, 60, whose job title is fingerprint technician. "It's not our job to make their lives any worse."
Actually, his job is to electronically scan the finger and palm prints of everyone who enters the jail. Then Beards and his fellow technicians in the automated fingerprint identification system division of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office compare them to prints stored in local, state and federal databases.
If they find a match to some unknown print found at a crime scene somewhere, that person can expect another bad day.
Beards solves crimes by matching tiny arches and whorls and ridge endings. But that's not the only reason why he likes his job.
"I'm a people person," he says.
It's just that most of the people he meets are in jail.
• • •
You can meet all kinds behind bars.
"You can be a transient or a drunk," Beards says. "You can also be a teacher."
Getting fingerprinted is just one of the many indignities suffered by the incarcerated. But no matter who they are, when Beards calls their name, they all get that legendary British civility.
"The way I talk to people is like if you could be in a bar having a drink with them," he says. "I try to befriend these people. But what I truly do is, I don't want to make a bad situation worse."
He's heard all the stories. There was the Coast Guardsman who didn't know his driver's license had expired. The father caught shoplifting food to feed his children. The businessman who found himself broke, divorced, homeless and then in jail.
He's seen his daughter's friends in jail — and his own.
They get the small talk and the cheeriness. He listens when they need to talk. He lectures when they need a kick in the pants.
Another day, another visitor in the jail. This time it's a young man arrested on a charge of domestic battery.
"You got kids?" Beards asks as he fingerprints the young man. Yes, the young man says.
"Well that's the best reason in the world for not coming here," Beards tells him.
• • •
Beards emigrated here from Great Britain in the 1980s. He and his wife, Diane, hail from Birmingham. They used to run an inn there. But then the doctor told Beards he needed to get his asthmatic wife away from those cold British winters. So they came to Florida.
Part of his philosophy, Beards says, is his Christian faith. Part of it is that he's a Beatles fan, a John Lennon fan.
Hours before Lennon was gunned down in 1980 by an unstable fan, the ex-Beatle autographed a copy of his Double Fantasy album for his killer. According to lore, the singer asked his assassin-to-be: Is there anything else I could do for you?
"That's my philosophy," Beards says. "Is there anything else I can do for you?"
Usually, it works: "I haven't heard a cross word in 18 months."
But not always. When the cheeriness doesn't work, Beards has ways of making inmates cooperate — albeit polite, British ways:
He sends them to the back of the fingerprint line.
"Whether they're drunk or having a hissy fit," Beards says, "I'm going to get their fingerprints. That's what the sheriff pays me for."
Jamal Thalji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8472.