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COPS: Their Lives in Their Own Words by Mark Baker (Simon & Schuster: $16.95; 303 pp.)

November 10, 1985|Lewis J. Ellenhorn | Ellenhorn is a consulting psychologist to police departments and professor of psychology at Pitzer College. and

"Cops: Their Lives in Their Own Words" is a book of transcribed tape-recorded interviews with approximately 100 police officers. The format is very similar to "Nam," Baker's previous book about the Vietnam War. Except for a general statement regarding the heterogeneous nature of the sample, there are no detailed descriptions of the interviewees in terms of age, years on the force, rank, race, marital status or educational background.

Baker thus clearly and unapologetically disclaims any attempt at "a very scientific approach." He seems to feel no need to check facts or to establish any method in selecting the interviewees. Selection was handled informally, and self-selection was allowed to limit the diversity and range of the sample. While Baker's goal is to draw a fully dimensioned picture of the "day-to-day existence of police officers--the human beings, men and women, good, bad and mediocre," he states that he had "limited contact with truly bad officers." We do hear about "bad" cops from partners, peers and others, however, and selection is not the major shortcoming of this book.

"Cops" is organized into blocks of career experiences, from entry to "Curtains." Thematic chapters deal with the hardening nature of the work, the implications of deadly force, the relationships of cops to each other, the potential for brutality, the abuse of power and sadism, and the development of cynicism. Unlike Studs Terkel's "Working," this book pulls quotations out of its interviews and realigns them around its sub-themes. As a result, we do not meet any one cop and come away instead with a montage of many. "Their own words," as promised in the subtitle, are their own aggressively edited words, as it turns out, and we must trust the author's judgment in choosing his themes and examples.

Is it possible to represent in the linear mode of written language or in the time constraints of the visual media the "on" or "off" quality of some police work? Most often, we are presented the "on" but have little opportunity to glimpse the "off," those hours spent without any clear time markers, work that may feel meaningless, devoid of challenge. For many, the routine that does not provide any traction or satisfaction to one's day becomes the background against which crises or emergent situations contrast with such indelible vividness. It is cop work and not "police" work that is thrilling and has the beginning, middle, and end of a story.

Copping is active, exciting, unpredictable, violent and borderline-illicit. Policing is less active, a matter of maintaining order rather than seizing--"copping"--the disorderly. Policing is traffic control, embassy security, working within the legal system and its ordered requirements, paper work, walking patrol, and the like. Policing dominates in terms of time, but it is copping that is memorable, attractive and stimulating. Would we read a book titled "Police"?

In consulting with police departments, I have found police officers to be ambitious, alert to the requirements for advancement, disappointed when they fail to make the sergeants list, and elated when they are promoted. I have seen them become warm and emotional when speaking about their families, and cry when describing the birth of a child, the marriage of a daughter. They express more need for affection than need for control and admit to their own inability at expressing affection. All of this may be obvious and unexciting but if it isn't stated, then cops remain "the flat cardboard character of most fiction" whom Baker wishes to--but never quite manages to--escape. Without the background, you can't see the foreground. Until you have met the police, you can't understand the cops.

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