Praised, Admired, Feared and Mistrusted, Cops Are Seen Not in True Colors, but Only in Blue

UPDATED 10/27/1986 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 10/27/1986 at 01:00 AM EST

Cops. We depend on them, we need them, we often resent and occasionally fear them—but few of us know them. "We don't look at them as individuals. We don't look at their faces," says writer Mark Baker. "I wanted to find out just who these people are." So he did. Using the same technique he had for Nam, his collection of interviews with Vietnam veterans, Baker, 35, lugged his tape recorder from coast to coast, talking with some 100 policemen, urban, suburban and rural. The result, Cops—Their Lives in Their Own Words (Pocket Books, $4.50), is a revealing portrait of the men and women who act as the blue glue that holds together our sometimes frayed social fabric. Baker spoke about what he learned with Senior Writer James S. Kunen.

How does the public's perception of cops differ from the reality?

I think the public has a dual image of police officers. On the one hand there's the TV idea that police are like Kojak or Don Johnson, and that they lead an exciting, car-chase-filled existence. The other image is that they're just a bunch of lunkheads who are always getting in our way and giving us tickets, and there's never one there when you need him. The truth is that there are good cops, bad cops and a lot of average guys in the middle, just as in any other profession.

What do police think of the public?

The general feeling among police officers is that the public is not to be trusted—that people are very finicky about supporting the police. People will say that they think police officers do a hard job, and they respect them. But if you're giving somebody a ticket, then suddenly you become the bad guy, and they think you're doing a lousy job and you're stupid.

What do cops think of cop shows?

They don't watch them much. They don't see much reality there. They know that there's not a lot of gunplay in their jobs. But they watched the same TV shows we did when they were young, so they often come to the job thinking that "real police work" is the kind of stuff they saw on TV. It's only after they have been on the job awhile that they find out they aren't going to be Kojak—that it's going to be more like being a social worker who every once in a while could get himself killed.

Do cops feel they are above the law?

One of the things they do enjoy is the fact that being a police officer allows them to get away with many of the small infractions that the rest of us would get a ticket for. If a police officer is sitting at a red light and nobody is coming in either direction he'll go through it, because he knows that even if another cop does stop him, he can flash his badge and that in most cases the guy won't give him a ticket. One of the dangers of the job is that this feeling of impunity in small things can carry over to larger things.

Is there a code of silence that keeps one cop from turning others in for corruption?

In a good department they do turn them in. But they also have the same feeling we all do about being a squealer. Plus they have the media and the public who are, in their opinion at least, likely to jump on them. It seems to them it's a no-win situation. They lose if they turn a guy in because they are likely to be besmirched by association with him anyway.

Do you believe the badge and the gun attract bullies to the police force?

More than are attracted to, say, the insurance business certainly. There are people who see a policeman's authority as a way of being able to throw their weight around. But there are others who can go through their entire careers and never hassle anybody, who are always polite. A cop has to be pretty much of a saint to do that, because it's a frustrating job.

Is burnout a big problem?

An officer who trained other police officers told me they go through very predictable stages. There's the very early, gung-ho, idealistic stage, where they're really trying to do as much as they can and make as many collars as they can. That may last five or six years. Then they go through a period where they become very cynical about how little good they're doing and how the system works. That's where burnout occurs. After that, I was told, you've got two kinds of officers. There are those who know they aren't going to solve all the world's problems, but they try to do what they can. And there are those who say, "I'm going to do as little as I possibly can because it's just not worth it."

How prevalent is each type?

I can't tell you how many cops are good cops and bad cops. One officer said that in any department anywhere, 5 percent of the police officers are saints and 5 percent are basically criminals in uniform. He said the 90 percent in between will go whichever way the peer pressure is strongest.

Cops are often accused of racism. Does the charge have merit?

I would say that police are racist to about the same extent as the general public. The more professional of them try not to be that way on the job. And some of them are less racist than most of the public because they deal with so many different kinds of people that it has to occur to them sooner or later that you can't judge people by their color.

How well do black and white cops get along with one another?

Not always very well, particularly where there's an emphasis on promoting minorities and on quotas in hiring. But cops tend not to talk about this to outsiders. Whether you talk to a black police officer or a white one, they'll say, "We're all blue, not black or white or Hispanic." They'll say that right after they've been in the locker room trying to punch each other out along racial lines, because there is that overriding need to protect themselves against the rest of the world.

What about male and female officers?

Most male officers will tell you they don't believe females can do the job. The exceptions are male police officers who have worked with a woman. One male officer told me, "Since I've been working with her, I don't get as much trouble." He didn't tend to come on in such a heavy-duty macho way when he went onto the scene of a crime. He and his female partner tended to talk more and not shove in before they knew what was going on. Smart female officers know that they're not going to be manhandling, so to speak, some 290-lb. crazed guy. So most of them do a lot of negotiating. It's a different way of policing, but I think it's just as effective.

What do cops fear most?

They don't really fear getting killed that much. As one officer said, "You can't think every day before you go to work, 'I might get shot today,' or you just won't go." The thing the average police officer fears most is messing up—not only making a fool of himself but also bringing down the hierarchy on his head.

Do many cops want their own kids to be cops?

Very few of them do, but many officers' children do follow in their parents' footsteps. Part of the reason is that policemen don't tell their families very much about what they do and see. As one officer put it, "I don't want to track the dirt into my own house." That may be part of the reason they have a high rate of alcoholism, ulcers, heart attacks, lung cancer—they smoke a lot—and high rates of suicide and divorce. It's hard, on a day-to-day basis, to see the really ugly things that human beings can do to each other and keep it all inside without having it eat away at you.

What is this terrible stuff that they're unwilling to talk about?

One of their major functions is to deal with all the human offal that the rest of us don't want to see—the derelicts and drunks and suicides, and the old people that nobody cares about who have died in their apartments. We know this kind of thing exists, but we don't realize the real horror of it because we don't have to deal with it. Cops see a lot of that. And they see a lot of anger and sadness and victims. They see rape victims. They see people who have had everything they own taken by burglars. They see children who have been abused by their parents for years. The reality of that is pretty horrifying.

What gives them the most satisfaction?

The times when they get to do something good for individuals—little things where they can see that they have helped somebody. Most officers are especially gratified when somebody says thanks, which doesn't happen very often.

Are cops really very different from you and me?

In many cases they begin to live in a closed society, and so in a way they do become different. They are more suspicious than the average person—that's part of the job. In a few cases that suspicion can turn into paranoia. Cops are perhaps more cynical than the rest of us about human nature, because they do see so much of the bad side of life.

What can civilians do to ease suspicion between police and the rest of us?

We have to realize that the police represent us. Even though we think of them as separate and they think of themselves as separate, they are not. People who complain that their police force is brutal or ineffectual have a responsibility to become more involved with that department. Too often a community gets exactly the sort of police protection it deserves.

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