By Sean K. Driscoll, Student, Harvard Law School
The posters were everywhere. In subway cars, on top of
taxis, and even on a giant billboard in Times Square: “Join
the NYPD: A Front Row Seat to the Greatest Show on Earth.”
Although the advertisements weren’t the reason I joined the
NYPD in 2006, looking back now on my time as a New York
City Police Officer, I must admit that the slogan captures the
job well—except that this “show” is not on television or in
movie theaters, but simply is life unedited.
At times, it was a drama. There were the urgent 911 calls,
driving with flashing lights and blaring sirens, and searches
for a fleeing robber or burglar. I will never forget seeing a
murder victim for the first time, and can still feel the yellow
“POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS” tape unrolling from my hands
as I taped off a crime scene. Walking through squalid drug
houses, chasing car thieves, reasoning with a suicidal woman,
and wrestling a knife-toting man into handcuffs were all in
the script too. The smell of gunpowder in the air, the sight
of shell casings or drug vials on the ground, and the sound
of a fight or screeching tires around the corner—this was our
set, something that no one in central casting could capture.
Sometimes, it was a comedy. There was the radio call for a
“vicious cat” and a frantic owner who asked us to extricate a
kitten from her sofa. Or the van-full of men arrested during
a prostitution sting who roundly agreed that jail was not
nearly as scary a prospect as the wrath of their bachelorette
partiers who refused to believe that I was a real cop, and not
part of their evening’s entertainment.
But often, it was a tragedy. I saw the scourge of domestic
violence, took away neglected children from parents who
could not care less, bristled at the revolving door of the
criminal justice system, and wondered what could be done
about the vicious circle of drugs and crime in urban America.
As my Police Academy instructor warned us, “Nobody calls
the police when they’re having a good day.” As a cop, you
enter people’s lives at their saddest and most vulnerable
moments. It is a window into the smaller tragedies that
don’t make the headlines, to a side of life that most jobs
don’t show you. Those tragedies sometimes come home,
however, to remind you just how real it is, like attending the
funeral of a fellow Police Officer. I can still replay it in my
mind like the opening scene of a movie: thousands of blue
uniforms, neatly in rows, eyes forward and hands snapped to
attention, as the bagpipers played the heart wrenching notes
of “Going Home.”
It is the actors, however, who make the show. I met a
rich cast of characters in my time in the NYPD: victims,
criminals, lawyers, witnesses, people in the neighborhood,
and of course, cops. You can read about their stories in the
newspaper or watch them on the evening news, but I met them
and learned how very real their stories are: crime victims who
finally feel safe because the police have arrived, the scared
teenager arrested for the first time, or the jaded convicted
felon who has spent nearly half of his thirty-something years
incarcerated. That’s what you’ll never get from television:
real people with real stories—not just their typecast role.
And foremost among them were my colleagues. They too
are often seen as one-dimensional: just cops. But to me,
of course, they are Eddie, Maria, Deryk, and dozens more.
They came from Brooklyn and Queens, as well as China and
the Dominican Republic. They were soldiers and Marines,
teachers and accountants, husbands and wives. They were
my colleagues and I was honored to work with them.
Being a cop is a tough job. Not only because of what you
see around you, but also for what you go through personally.
Together we persevered through long hours, midnight shifts,
low pay, missing holidays with our families, dealing with a
sometimes-hostile public. Since I left the NYPD to start law
school this year, I often stop in disbelief that my “job” is to
sit and read in oak-paneled libraries with fireplaces—a far
cry from being spit on and called a pig simply because of
the uniform I wore. But the NYPD, of course, continues on.
Shift after shift, officer after officer, ready to answer people’s
calls for help—the glue that helps hold society together.
If not the greatest show on earth, the NYPD is certainly the
most raw and unedited: happy, sad, funny, tragic, uplifting,
and depressing—everything is there somewhere. Life as
an NYPD cop had all the elements of the most gripping
television programming, but with the reality that no movie
could ever capture. I remember wearing that blue uniform
with pride. I remember the cold nights on lonely street
corners, eerily lit with an unearthly orange glow of the street
lamps. I remember the many good days too—finding a
missing child, working in Times Square on New Year’s Eve,
or eating a makeshift Christmas dinner during our shift. But
above all, the people are what I’ll never forget.