The author of a new book profiling courageous New York City police officers talks to The Crime Report about reasons why so many Americans hate cops and why, these days, we don't need as many police on the street.
Long before Cynthia Brown created American Police Beat, the nation's top law enforcement magazine, she was just another “Massachusetts liberal” whose only encounter with cops was seeing them on the other side of the barricades at civil rights and anti-Vietnam war marches.
“I came of age in the 1960s,” says Brown. “I'd never set foot in a police station in my life. And I never knew anyone in law enforcement.”
All that changed in 1976, when Brown answered an ad for what she thought was a secretarial job at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. The museum, however, was looking for someone to act as a liaison between the community and police in one of the city's high crime precincts, as part of a just-launched community policing program. She took the job and never looked back.
In 1993, Brown took out a second mortgage on her house to launch American Police Beat, which, according to Brown now prints 60,000 issues and read by more than 200,000 people each month. Her book, “Brave Hearts: Extraordinary Stories of Pride, Pain and Courage,” was a logical result of the close relationship and knowledge gained over two decades of involvement with law enforcement—and it led to an abiding respect for the work police do. Her stories of NYPD officers who have shown heroism in extreme circumstances, ranging from the 9/11 terror attack on the World Trade Center to a wild-west-style shootout on New York streets have not only received high praise, including from NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly (who wrote the introduction)—but invitations from police academies around the country to use the book in their training.
The Crime Report: When you first started, did you have prejudices about police?
Cynthia Brown: No, I did not, despite the fact that I was very involved in the civil rights movement and protesting the Vietnam war. I went to a lot of demonstrations where there was a heavy police presence, and I almost felt sorry for them. You see 50 cops and then you see 50,000 people. And so many of them looked so young?they actually looked scared. So I was never somebody who didn't like the police. I just didn't know much about them. [But once I took the job in the Boston precinct] I saw first-hand what these people do for us every day. [If my friends] had to put up with one one-hundredth of what these officers did they'd have a total meltdown.
TCR: What about your other liberal friends, did they question your work at the police department?
CB: Are you kidding? Yes. My husband was a professor at Harvard, and we lived in Cambridge, which is an ultra-liberal town. We'd go to cocktail parties and people would ask me what I did. One woman actually asked me, “What's somebody like you working with people like that for?” People really hate the police. The reason I wrote the book was to introduce people to [the officers] I've met all over the country. They do such a bad job of telling their story. They don't talk, they're defensive, they are just are terrible at advocating for themselves. I kind of felt I had an obligation to do it.
TCR: How do you think most people see police officers?
CB: That's a really complicated question. If you're a victim of a crime, you're upset because [the police] weren't there—otherwise you wouldn't be a victim. So they're not “really ever there when you really need them.” And people don't like having the law enforced against them, whether it's for speeding or for being double parked. Cops are routinely dealing with statements like, “Don't you have a terrorist attack to stop?” Or, “Isn't there a bank robber over there?” And “I pay your salary.” In our culture we don't like people telling us what to do.
TCR: People don't like cops, but we sure are interested in them.
CB: We are. I once asked a cop in Boston, Why are there so many police shows? Why are people so fascinated with the police? He responded that what they're interested in is what we have access to, and that's criminal behavior, violence, and mayhem. We deal with that, so we're their entrée.
TCR: How do you hope your book changes some of the perceptions about police?
CB: I hope that after reading these stories, people will start seeing police as human beings, for one thing. Human beings who go out and risk their lives and their mental and physical health for people they don't know, and who they'll never see again. And who feel it's a privilege to do it.
I wanted to show the incredible psychological impact on them when they have to injure or kill someone in the line of duty. In the book I wrote about Rich Miller, who killed a guy who'd already shot four cops that day and was threatening to shoot more. When he got home and tried to go to sleep, he kept seeing the guy looking at him. He had to go to his priest and ask the priest to pray for the guy's soul. That was the only way he could get him out of his head.
I wanted people to understand the big price they pay to protect us, to see what dealing with the worst elements in our society can do to a person—because that's really what they do. When you hear something horrible going on next door, you call 911, you don't go deal with it yourself. Dealing with these terrible people, violent people, people who hurt their children, officers pay a huge price psychologically. They get damaged. And I feel that's the greatest service they do for us. They deal with all that so we don't have to.
TCR: Many of the officers profiled in the book have failed marriages. Does this psychological damage contribute to problems at home?
CB: Definitely. They build defenses around them—they develop kind of sick senses of humor. Tony Diaz told me that his wife would want to go out on the weekends, and he'd usually say, “Oh honey I have to work.” But he told me the truth of the matter was that he didn't always have to work, but being at work was so much more fun and interesting than being at home. And that's one of the secrets of police work. But spouses feel like they can't compete with the job, the camaraderie is so intense.
TCR: Here in New York, we've just learned that by 2012, there will be fewer cops on the force than any time since 1992. How do you think that will affect the officers?
CB: Well, this is not a politically correct thing to say, but the truth of the matter is they don't need so many bodies anymore. Technology has enabled a lot of industries to really reduce their manpower. Policing is the same way. CompStat, for example, has made policing much more effective. Now, commanders are accountable for crime in their areas, so they have to be much more proactive. And the bottom line is when you've had a 50 percent drop in crime, your workload is decreased.
Julia Dahl is Deputy Managing Editor, News & Content of The Crime Report.