Of rookie cops and a veteran undercover officer

August 04, 1991|By Judith Wynn

"Why do these people who preach liberalism and pacifism require a wall around their houses?" a Chicago policeman once asked Studs Terkel. "They need these buffers," the officer answered himself. "That's what we are, buffers."

Caught in a cross fire of social controversy -- ethnic discord and the war on drugs in particular -- urban police must deal with a nearly uncontrollable environment in the service of an often hostile or indifferent public. Cops are crime fighters. But that's only a part of their job in complex, volatile cities.

Two new books by self-proclaimed police buff Harvey Rachlin ("The Kennedys") and Philadelphia magazine editor Mike Mallowe turn to that most complex place of all -- New York City -- for a look at today's police officers and their turbulent turf.

In "The Making of a Cop" (Pocket Books, 302 pages, $19.95), Mr. Rachlin takes us on a sober, mainly optimistic, step-by-step tour of the new recruit's first year on the job. Mr. Mallowe, by contrast, paints a lurid, down-and-dirty portrait of an old pro -- former vice squad, undercover police graft investigator Bill McCarthy, a real-life player in a corrupt, twisted world that most of us glimpse only in movies such as "Serpico" or "RoboCop."

"The Making of a Cop" shows how New York police academies now give crash courses in law and social science alongside traditional physical endurance and marksmanship drills. When may an officer stop a suspicious-looking person? Conduct a search? Draw a gun? Shoot? On the streets, cops must make split-second decisions if their actions are to hold up in court. A solid grounding in arrest laws is a must.

Since so much police work involves civil disputes -- car wrecks, family fights -- where criminal activity is absent, a calm attitude and good listening skills are vital. In one eye-opening episode, Mr. Rachlin watches rookies confront their own homophobia as they role-play assisting gay robbery victims. The lesson? If police treat gay people with contempt, gays will stop reporting crimes and become "perfect targets" for further violence. Other exercises prepare trainees to deal compassionately with racial minorities and the homeless. "Without a sense of humanity," Mr. Rachlin says, "a cop can become as heartless as some of the people he arrests."

The most harrowing lessons take place in the Tactics House, a large, dark, empty building where trainees chase "perpetrators" through a treacherous obstacle course that usually ends with the trainee's "death." If they ever get hit in a real-life shootout, the instructor says, "keep on firing, don't give up [or] I'll go to your funeral and spit on your grave. Because you were a loser."

Confronted with the reality of street crime, new cops sometimes consider their police sociology classes a waste of time. Mr. Rachlin, however, concludes that anything less would "risk turning the law enforcement system into a farce and the society it protects into a police state."

Undercover police agent Bill McCarthy, now at work on his doctoral thesis at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, emerged from the battle with his health and family intact. This is no small feat for someone who was obliged to pose as a crooked cop in New York's sleaziest dives and live among the vice he'd been sent to fight. In Mr. McCarthy's lexicon, dishonest cops are either "grass-eaters" (passive recipients of whatever cash falls their way) or "meat-eaters" (aggressive bribe-seekers who draw a lucrative second income from the underworld of gambling, drugs and prostitution).

In "Vice Cop: My 20-Year Battle With New York's Dark Side" (Morrow, 309 pages, $19.95), Mr. McCarthy tells of beginning his undercover work in 1970 when New York's Knapp Commission was purging police graft. Controversial "supercops" such as Frank Serpico and Eddie Egan (later immortalized as Popeye Doyle in "The French Connection") were exposing vast networks of police payoffs. Before Knapp, Mr. McCarthy says, police officers took only each other seriously, and the public didn't count. He aimed to change that: "I'd lock up a cop just as soon as the next guy."

Mr. McCarthy tells how he set himself a "paranoid" high standard of integrity, the better to catch dishonest colleagues without getting framed in return. Staying emotionally detached from his new corrupt "friends" was the biggest challenge. Though personally fond of one fatherly crooked official, Mr. McCarthy forced himself to see that the man was fully capable of betraying his own son "for the right coke connection." On the whole, McCarthy thoroughly enjoyed his work: "It was so much fun, like being the head puppeteer, pulling people's strings, watching their hands move, their legs jerk around."

The fun ended, in 1974, when mobsters kidnapped Mr. McCarthy's partner and tortured him while police listened, helpless, over a concealed body mike. "Vice Cop" presents a disturbing look at society in continual breakdown and repair. Mr. McCarthy's enthusiastic pride in being an honest New York cop provides the bright spots.

Ms. Wynn is a writer living in Somerville, Mass.

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