Only a Cop
By Harry T. O'Reilly
I was at a cocktail party recently in Manhattan and my host, in efforts to get conversation going between people with mutual interests, introduced me to a shiny, well-groomed young man who had recently earned his master's degree in criminal justice. When he learned that I was a retired cop who was now teaching at John Jay College, he remarked that his father was a cop. When I asked where his father worked, he replied, "Oh, you wouldn't know him. He never did anything important. He's only a cop in the 32nd Precinct." My host saw the look on my face and before I could put my drink down so both hands could be free to choke him, he whisked the kid off to a neutral corner to protect him, rushed back, and begged me to forget about it. I couldn't, so I'm writing this column in the hope this message will reach that young man and so many people like him who are so quick to minimize the role of the working policeman in our society.
I've never worked in the 32nd Precinct, and I don't personally know any cops who do; but I've visited there a few times, much against my will, when I was "flown" in to supervise a detail of men who were supplementing the precinct's manpower during various crises over the years, and I know what it is like to work there. I don't know that kid's old man, but I do know policemen, and I know that whether your beat is in New York City's Harlem district or in 3 suburb of Los Angeles, the nature of the job doesn't vary that much. The volume of activity may be greater or less, and the surroundings may appear to be different, but the dangers and the problems and the stresses and the heartaches are very much the same.
Listen closely, son, I'm going to tell you about your father. Your reference to him as "only a cop" upset the hell out of me, because "only a cop" implies a sense of failure or lack of achievement because he's not a sergeant or lieutenant or higher. How many brothers and sisters do you have? Did grandpa die and leave you a ton of money? If not, are you aware of the financial realities of raising and educating a family? Do you have any idea of how difficult the competition is to be promoted in an occupation where there are limited vacancies and opportunities for advancement? Are you aware that if you have to work a second, and sometimes and third job to make ends meet, that maybe you are too weary to study or to attend promotion-tutorial classes? Are you aware that for many men, being "only a cop" can be so fulfilling that there may be no desire to be promoted?
Have you ever noticed those green, white and blue bars over your father's shield? Have you ever asked what they represent? I can assure you, he didn't get them in a Cracker Jacks box. Each one of them represents a superior achievement in a job where bravery, courage, danger and brilliant police work are considered routine.
While the chiefs and bosses were sitting in headquarters sending down orders to "use restraint" and while the sociologists were trying to explain (if not to justify) why people were rioting and looting, he was more concerned with staying alive as boards, bricks and rifle fire came down from the rooftops. Despite his own fears, he was very careful as he fired his revolver towards the rooftop not to hit one of the innocent, curious, decent people who struck their heads out of the windows of the apartments where they had barricaded themselves in fear.
He never told you about the time when half a cinder block thrown by a "social protester" crashed through the roof of the radio car, narrowly missing his head as he and his partner drove along a side street on patrol.
He never told you about the rats, the pissy hallways, the fights or the dead babies. You never knew that when you were a kid he wrestled with you on the living room floor while the Popeye cartoons blared out of the television set that a few hours earlier he was wrestling around on a filthy sidewall; with someone who was intent on taking his pistol from him and blowing his head off.
You wonder why he didn't show too much emotion when you cut your hand playing ball and had to get stitches. Perhaps he has become jaded to pain and suffering. Perhaps he felt that your hurt was small in comparison to the accident which he handled the night before where he saw brains splattered across a windshield and a severed arm and smelled fiery death. Perhaps you should be proud and grateful that after that he still had enough feeling left to kiss the boo-boo and hug you and pat your head, brief though the moment of tenderness may have been.
When you complained of him "never being home," he was usually out moonlighting to make the extra money required to pay off the house that he couldn't afford, but bought anyway, in order to get you away from the old neighborhood when he saw the violence and crime increasing. When you complained that he "wasn't there when you needed him," it wasn't his choice-he was out earning the money to pay your tuition while you whined to your friends about how he didn't care about you or understand you.
When he came home from work after a hard day and seemed a little abrupt to you, you sulked and felt abused and unwanted. You didn’t know that yet another case had been thrown out of court due to some legal technicality after he risked his ass making the arrest; or that he had been hauled down to the civilian complaint review board again on some unwarranted charge because his accuser knew that lodging charges against the officer can be helpful to the defense in a criminal prosecution; or that an overzealous boss who never worked in a combat zone before was on his back over some petty rules infraction.
Maybe your pop is at fault for not sharing his job-related problems with his family. Maybe we all are. Maybe in our efforts to protect our loved ones from our frustrations and pain, we fail to communicate to tell them the very facts which would help them to understand our anger.
Perhaps you would have understood if your father was a “hollerer,” one of those cops whose wife always complains that he “takes the job home with him,” the guy who yells and rants and gets it off his chest and then goes back the next day to do the job again. Maybe your pop needed that kind of ventilation to void himself of the frustration he felt, and the humiliation and painful criticism of his work at the hands of the self-styled “community leaders,” who by their visible and vocal presence purport to represent a community whose decent, hard-working people do not share their views of the police, but who are more concerned with day-to-day existence and survival in a poverty area than they are in politics or community affairs.
When he came home late for dinner with a few drinks on his breath, maybe he had to stop off so that he could open his heart about some painful aspect of the job to brother officers who could understand what he was saying, rather than to inflict pain on those of you who he chose to protect. Perhaps he underestimated the strength of you and your mother, who might have willingly shared the pain and commiserated with him; or perhaps it would have been too much for you to handle. Who knows.
Your father has listened to the station-house rhetoric for years. He knows the old timers who claim to have given up, but who still fight you to get up the stairs first on a gun run; he knows the young buffalos who bitch beyond reasonable bitching but still do the job; and he knows the angries, the men who never seem to feel good about themselves because of the seemingly endless struggle against an unrealistic bureaucracy that demands so much of them and offers so little in the way of reward or compensation. After all they are “only” cops.
Your father has sat in the back room of the precinct and listened to the negative remarks and ethnic slurs of his colleagues which, to an outside observer might indicate a deep-rooted hatred for the people of the community. But he tolerates the remarks, not because he’s afraid to take a stance, but because he knows that cop’s true feelings, and that the same cop who is doing the bad mouthing would not hesitate for one instant to crawl into a burning tenement and risk his life to save a child of the same ethnic minority which he was defaming a few hours before.
He has shared the joy of birth - in fact, there are kids walking around the neighborhood bearing his first name, just as you do - because he delivered their mothers of babies in a taxicab or in an overcrowded sweltering tenement apartment. He has smiled with his people, and he has grieved over the deaths, the shameful waste of precious life, which is part of the life style of his community.
He has stood in the rain with tears streaming down his face as they buried yet another of his brothers who was killed in the line of duty. You never heard about it, but he lost a piece of himself each time it happened, and it happened far too many times.
Your “only a cop” description tells me that perhaps you think your old man isn’t too smart; yet he had the wisdom to insulate you from the hardships and hurts of his life and to try and raise you in an atmosphere of normalcy that was denied him for at least eight hours a day for the greater part of his adult life.
Now son I’ll get off your case. I can understand your feelings, and so can your old man, believe it or not. I am not looking to lay any guilt trip on you. Maybe your father didn’t talk to you enough. Maybe you weren’t listening. As the song says, “There ain’t no good guys and there ain’t no bad guys.” But I’d like you to take a step back and take a good look at your old man again. You’re looking at a man who has seen more of the evil and negative side of life than anyone else you have ever known, and yet he is still able to be sweet and gentle when the time is right to be soft. He is a strong man, with a strength born of surviving a steady diet of painful episodes, any one of which might shatter a lesser man. He has been through the fire that can destroy or purify, and he has emerged as tempered steel. Try talking to him sometime about the theory you have learned on the way to your master’s degree. You missed something somewhere along the line in your education if you can say that as a working cop your father "never did anything important.” Maybe if you can communicate with your pop and combine your formal learning with his street wisdom and knowledge of the real world, you can get something to get that will give you the impetus to effect the changes necessary to create a viable criminal justice system at some point in the future. The one we have now isn't working too well, I’m afraid. It’s you and the people like you who will have to be the catalyst for change.
Just remember as you proceed in your career that your pop is, as all cops are, part of the thin blue line that each day preserves our civilization as a misguided society systematically places frustrating stumbling blocks in his way while protecting the rights of the criminal element and virtually ignoring the rights of their victims. It’s an awesome job, and yet he can still come home at the end of a tour and kiss mom on the cheek, ask you how things went in school, go on with his life, and go back into the pits again tomorrow. I guess being “only a cop” is a pretty worthwhile thing to be.
Harry T. O’Reilly, known to his friends as “Harry-O,” is the director of investigative services training and educating project, Aurora, Illinois. He commutes frequently from New York City, where he is an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Law and Police Science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Since his retirement in 1977, he has been affiliated with the Criminal Justice Center of John Jay College and serves as the director of investigative services.
A 20 year veteran of the New York City Police Department, Mr. O’Reilly served as a Detective Supervisor in robbery, burglary, homicide and sex crime units. He was decorated 23 times for outstanding police work and had published numerous articles, texts, movies and television scripts dealing with police related subjects. He also lectures to police audiences throughout the country.
This article originally appeared in the “Police Badge” magazine, of which Mr. O’Reilly was an Associate Editor.
**A Special Thanks to Wayne T in Ohio for providing this article to us!**