A Cop's Life: Rookie To Retiree In 20 Years
The typical NYPD career takes a well-trod course. You go to school, you get assigned to a random post somewhere in the five boroughs, you do a few years there, then you make detective or take a civil service test and become a sergeant.
Soon after that, you retire as early as 40 years old and spend the rest of your life on a boat in Florida, or working for a private security firm if you get bored. That’s about it.
Oh, wait—there’s also the endless litany of traumas, frustrations, fights, arrests, dead bodies, vomiting junkies, piles of paperwork, Kafkaesque bureaucratic snags, and tons of laughing your ass off.
Over the next five days, real live NYPD cops are going to walk you through the stages of a New York cop’s life from start to finish. Please pay attention and be nice. They’re just as scared of you as you are of them. (OK, not really. They aren’t scared of you at all.)
Illustration by Christy Karacas
Police academy is sort of like high school, EXCEPT there’s more guns.
NYPD recruits put up with petty indignities, like 50 lockers and ten showers for 75 people in the gym. You run around from class to class, get yelled at by instructors, cram for tests on stuff that you forget the minute you take them, and play pranks on other students. It doesn’t sound like it, but it’s pretty fun.
Academy lasts six to eight months, and then it’s Gun and Shield Day. They herd the graduating class to the basement, where a bored guy fishes a shield out of a shoe box, hands it to each new cop without looking up, and then calls the next name. After that it’s over to the academy range to receive and load your first NYPD gun. They could do with a little more pomp and circumstance, but whatever—everyone walks off that line thinking to himself, “Holy shit, I’m a cop!”
There are a few weeks of school left after that. The guys with “hooks” already know what precinct they’re going to, and everyone else sits and wonders. The NYPD is divided into eight patrol boroughs. Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn are divided into north and south, while the Bronx and Staten Island count as one each. Every patrol borough has its own quirks, and where you go first decides what kind of cop you’ll be.
Illustration by Christy Karacas
A COP'S LIFE: ACADEMY STORIES
Police Academy Was a Fucking Blast!
The academy was great. From day one, I was laughing my ass off.
Before I went in, I didn’t really know any cops so I had no idea what to expect. I was 25, so I was a little bit older. I’d been living in my car at one point, because I’d been married once before and got divorced. Times were tough. So I think I appreciated having a job and benefits and everything more than some others.
The general atmosphere was paramilitary. In the hallways, you do what everyone calls “playing the game.” You act super professional. When you get into a classroom and the doors are shut, things get a little more relaxed.
I went through there with a great group of cadets—a real cast of characters, from the most militant Marines to guys that didn’t really give a shit about anything. There was one kid who I never saw again after the academy. His father and grandfather were both cops, but he was kind of a sad sack. He ended up taking the brunt of a lot of jokes.
One time we were at the range doing this excercise where you have your gun at your side, draw fast, and use only one hand. It’s so if you get shot in the arm and can only use one hand, you know how. You get your elbow back, right up against your side. So this kid shoots his weapon and all of a sudden we hear him screaming, “Aaahhh!” We look over and this guy has shot a hole right through his tie. He looked down, saw a hole in it, and thought he’d shot himself. He fucking freaked out. We were all pissing ourselves. How the hell do you manage to blow a hole through your own tie at an indoor range with no wind? And if you do blow a hole through your tie, how the hell do you jump to the conclusion that you’ve shot yourself? Hilarious.
So this poor kid comes up to me one day at the academy and goes, “Hey, I gotta talk to you. You ever had a hemorrhoid?” And I actually had before, so I was like, “Yeah, and if you don’t take care of them properly it isn’t any fun.” I told him to do himself a favor, go to the store, and get some Preparation H. I also told him to be careful, because if it’s really bad, the Prep H will soften everything up and then it will pop and BOOM—hemorrhoid blood everywhere.
So a few days later, we go into gym and he’s taking his pants off to change, and he starts screaming again, just like at the range with the tie. I come running over like, “What’s the matter?” I look down and his underwear is just completely covered in blood. I started dying laughing. I had to take a step back and just consider the entire scene. I’m standing in this disgusting old locker room with mold everywhere. There’s guys walking around all over, there’s cocks everywhere. And I’m standing here, laughing at this guy with bloody underwear. I tell him to relax and that it’ll heal up.
A few days later, the guy comes up to me again and says it won’t stop bleeding. So I tell him to go to the goddamned doctor. He says, “Yeah, I better. My mother packs me extra pairs of underwear. I’m ruining like three pairs a day.” I’m already kind of laughing, but I’m like, “Well, what are you doing, just throwing out the dirty ones?” He goes, “No, I put them in my bag. I don’t want anyone here to find them in the trash.”
So then later we’re in class and I’m sitting behind him and I realize “Wait a minute. This kid has bloody underwear in his bag right now.” I had a brown paper bag that I had kept my lunch in. So I slide my foot over his bag and carefully pull it back to me. I open it up and start shuffling through his bag and there it is—a bloody pair of tighty-whities. I pick them up, put them in this empty lunch bag of mine, and tie it shut.
Next, I grab another guy’s backpack, slide it over, open it up, and stuff this little package of bloody underwear right in there. Luckily, I chose one of my buddies who still lived at home with his mother.
He calls me up that Sunday morning and the first thing he says is, “Are you fucking kidding me?!” I play it innocent: “What?” He tells me that his mother had come running in that morning holding a bloody pair of underwear, screaming, asking him if he needed to go to the hospital. Classic.
All About the Boroughs
In the academy, I got to know the different reputations of all the city’s patrol boroughs. It’s like this…
Manhattan South: is called PBMS, which stands for Patrol Borough Manhattan South. The running joke is that PBMS really means, “Please Babysit My Son.” It’s derided as a borough full of “hook” boys, placed there by uncle inspectors and daddy chiefs. It’s a nice post if you want to study for sergeant, but it’s boring as hell if you spent your time in the academy dreaming of car chases and foot pursuits.
Manhattan North: My home borough. It’s considered a good mix—busy enough to be interesting, but not so bad that you’re wallowing in despair.
There’s still plenty of ghetto here, but gentrification and good police work have made this borough a lot safer. We did such a good job that we can no longer afford to live in the neighborhoods we helped to clean up!
Bronx: The Bronx can make a valid argument for being the busiest, most dangerous borough. Brooklyn logs more homicides, but there are precincts in both boroughs that will make cops raise their eyebrows if you tell them you work there. I believe that the best police officers come from the busiest precincts.
Queens: Aside from a handful of tough precincts, Queens is typically derided as soft suburbs. Now, all of my dealings with Queens cops have been positive. I’m just telling you how they’re generally perceived. Ask a Manhattan cop what a “Queens Marine” is. You’re guaranteed to get a laugh. (Just don’t ask a Queens guy!)
Staten Island: Like Queens, the perception is that S.I. cops are soft. Personally, I don’t know one cop from Staten Island. I do know that of the last few cops killed in the line of duty, several were from out there.
Brooklyn South: The one thing I know about Brooklyn South is that it ain’t Brooklyn North.
Brooklyn North: These cops are universally admired. Brooklyn North guys tend to stick together and back each other up, and are not going to be rattled easily.
I mean, come on—these guys had to create a special gun court just for all their gun cases!
A rookie cop is easy to spot: Everything is shiny and new. His clothes are pressed and neat (and everything still fits). He’s fresh-faced and eager to please: “The sarge wants five tags [summonses] today? Well, by God, I will give him six—I’ll probably make detective this way!” A rookie takes the late jobs, skips meals, and never stays out sick.
For a rookie, everything is new. They are really feeling, for the first time, what it is like to be a cop: The stares when they enter a location and the overt hostility of many people they’ve sworn to protect. Even their own friends sometimes regard them with suspicion, which they couch as lame jokes: “If I (insert semi-illegal behavior here), are you gonna lock me up?”
If, like many cops, a rookie grew up in a middle-class area and gets assigned to a less-than-middle-class area, he’ll experience a side of life that was heretofore hidden from him. Shootings, stabbings, dead bodies, and drunken family disputes… apartments so filthy and vermin-infested, it’ll make you dry heave… crackheads, junkies, whores, the mentally ill, drug dealers, and hustlers of every stripe. Welcome to the NYPD, rookie.
Rookies learn to do things like buy their pants a little bigger and their shirts a little looser so their gun fits in the waistband without too much of a bump. They also learn about the tedious parts of the job, like standing on a foot post at 1 AM on a cold winter’s night, when the only sound you can hear is the click of the traffic lights changing. Rookies go to large details, like New Year’s Eve or parades, and spend 80 percent of their time standing around and the rest getting yelled at by a succession of passing supervisors who feel the need to look useful.
New cops always get the same clichéd mottos thrown at them by older cops: “Hey kid, a good cop is never cold or hungry.” “Hey kid, always have an answer, good or bad.” “Hey kid, we don’t give up other cops.”
Rookies also learn how to speak to people: When to bully, when to cajole, and when it’s time to fight. And rookies definitely get into fights—they are often shocked to discover that lots of folks have no fucking problem with hitting a cop.
Rookies also get to see the rest of the criminal justice system: Judges and assistant district attorneys who are under the assumption that getting punched, kicked, and spit at are just parts of a cop’s job, and top brass who don’t support street cops when they come under fire from the public.
Rookies basically spend 90 percent of their time on the job taking in massive doses of heavy, heavy shit. Not to be a total bummer but the bitterness and the burnout starts here…
Illustration by Christy Karacas
A COP'S LIFE: ROOKIE STORIES
Meeting the Public
Several years ago, when I was still a rookie, my partner and I were cruising down the street in a marked car on patrol. All of a sudden, there he was: A guy on the sidewalk, four in the afternoon, pants around his ankles, taking a dump! The turtle was out of the shell, if you know what I mean. He had his back to us, so I told my partner to pull up right behind him. I figured we’d hit the lights and sirens and literally scare the shit out of this guy! So I flick all the switches and… NOTHING. He doesn’t react at all! Now we needed to get out of the car and approach this lunatic. I didn’t want to have to touch him, because he was still in the middle of his business, without a care in the world. Finally, he stops and we walk up. I’m thinking to myself, “What is this genius—deaf?” Well, guess what?
So he is deaf and now I can finally see that he’s also not all there. Gesturing, I tell him to move along. He looks at me and barks out probably the only phrase he could speak: “Fuck you, police!”
Of course, in that deaf accent it comes out, “Fuun yuu, podice!” I look at my partner, he looks at me, and we’re both just blown away. Believe it or not, shitting crazy deaf guys never came up at the academy. The guy walked off and we never saw him again. But even now when I run into my old partner, I greet him with “Fuun yuu, podice!”
Strapping on Your Balls
I remember the first DOA I had to deal with. I was a brand-new rookie. The call that every cop comes to know came over the radio—“10-10 foul odor,” and an address.
I showed up a few minutes later, and although the door and windows of the apartment had been opened, I was struck with my first whiff of what I now call the “DOA smell.” It is a putrid sickly sweet reek that pervades every ounce of your being. Somehow it actually stays inside your nostrils for hours afterwards. You’ll be outside, taking a deep breath, and the smell will come flooding back.
This particular gentleman was an elderly black male who died in a circumstance I would come to find out was quite common: Alone and naked. He had been dead for a week or so, and time had taken its toll. A dead body releases lots of gas as it decays. If there’s no open wound, it can blow up like a balloon. This gentleman’s face was swollen to three times its normal size, as were his extremities. What really struck me though, was that his testicles had swollen to—and I am not exaggerating—the size of bowling balls.
The cop I was relieving, who had a few more years on than I did, just laughed at me when I turned my head away. “Come on, kid, show me you have a pair and get in there,” he said. In the NYPD your reputation is made early and follows you forever, and I didn’t want to be the pussy that got scared of a dead guy, so I sucked it up. Little did I know that in a few years I would stand over a dead man in a freezing park, carrying on a conversation with my partner and the sergeant as I twisted rings off the corpse’s hand with my coffee steaming about eight inches from his head.
That first time, in the apartment though, I did what I had to do. I finished the required paperwork and never heard any jokes about my reaction.
My first time on a really brutal crime scene was just a few months out of the academy. There had been an elderly woman who lived on the top floor of an apartment building. A younger woman who lived in the apartment downstairs apparently went crazy, climbed up the fire escape, and beat this old lady to death with a cane. It looked just like a movie crime scene. When I walked in, there were handprints on the door from her trying to get out. She had an older apartment. You know how the floors in older places in the city start to slope? Her place sloped towards the front, and she had bled out so much that there was this enormous puddle of blood at the front door.
There was a senior officer there. It was his scene. I was left to help guard it. If you get a DOA that lives alone, you have to find the apartment key, voucher it, and keep the place locked. Well, the only key that she had must have been in the door that she was reaching for. She had pulled it out, and it fell to the floor. It was in this inch-and-a-half deep puddle of blood. This old cop just looked at me and went, ‘All right, rookie, get me that key.’
Now that I’ve had a lot more experience with it, I know that, for the most part, homicide scenes are shootings. There’s a body laying there, a little bit of blood, and that’s the end of it. But this first one I saw was so elaborate.
My second one involved a gay couple. Apparently the guy who got killed had just started dating this new man, and hadn’t let him know his medical history. The new boyfriend, after they had been intimate already, was at the guy’s apartment. He opened up the fridge to get a drink and found all his medication. He was not happy about this.
The victim had been sitting in a chair and got smashed over the head with a vase. The killer then went behind him and sliced his neck from ear to ear with a knife—really opened him up. There was blood speckled all over the wall and the kitchen floor was just caked with it. Crimes of passion are definitely the most brutal ones.
The grossest stuff I ever saw was during those rookie years. The worst was when this older guy passed away in a flophouse and wasn’t found for a while. He had kind of rolled off his bed and landed on the heater. He was lying there cooking. His face was all bloated and black.
He lived in this little 12-by-12 room with his dog. Of course, the dog had been eating the guy—but it still didn’t bother me at that point. I was dealing with it fine.
The dog was just happy to be with people again. We took him in the police car back to the station house. He was running loose around the house, tail wagging all over the place. Our lieutenant goes to pet him, and the dog just shits all over the floor. It was this liquid shit, the foulest smelling shit ever. I mean, you can’t even imagine. So I walk over to it and I think about where we got this dog, and I’m like, “That’s his owner, all decomposed and digested.” I was like, “I got to get the fuck out of here.” It was like witnessing the cycle of life, seeing this guy getting shit out by his own dog.
At year five, a cop hits a massive milestone: top pay. All through the rookie years, every cop has told himself that life will get better once he reaches top pay. “I’ll be able to pay my bills once I reach top pay,” rookies repeat like a mantra. “Life will be all milk and honey once I reach top pay.”
At first, this seems true. The pay jump is fairly significant for year five, and for a few paychecks most guys feel like they’re doing great. Then reality sets in. They see that even at top pay they’re not making all that much money. For the first five years of the career they have put off a lot of stuff, and now it’s starting to show. They’re driving the same car they drove in the academy. A lot of cops want to start a family and buy a house by this point—you know, like grownups do. And guess what? It’s hard as fuck. Every cop eventually realizes that struggling for money is just part of being a cop.
If a cop is going to get promoted, that whole process begins in this stage of the career. Some guys sacrifice six months of their lives studying, and they get promoted to sergeant. Others have made good connections during their rookie time and get promoted to detective. After a promotion, everything is new again—it’s like rookie redux. But that soon wears off, and they realize: Same bullshit, different shield.
The cop learning curve, which is steep over the first few years of a career, slows down alarmingly at this point. A cop at this stage is the kind of cop he will be for the rest of his career. Even promotions won’t change that. A sergeant always gives preference to the cops who are most like he was at their age. If he was an active guy, he favors the gung-ho cops. After all, they do most of the work, and they should get something for it. If he was a zero, he’ll favor the young zeroes. After all, those guys are least likely to force him to make any type of decision. They probably won’t be involved in a shootout or anything that would end up in front of Internal Affairs.
The main thing about this stage, though, is that the excitement has worn off. A lot of cops start to feel like glorified civil servants at the whims of politicians. By this time, every cop has seen people’s lives and careers ruined for political gain. He’s seen fellow cops subjected to unjust discipline and miscarriages of justice.
Want me to sum up years five through ten with a good old cliché? No problem: You start out trying to change the world, but eventually the world just changes you.
Illustration by Christy Karacas
A COP'S LIFE: MID-CAREER STORIES
Armed to the Teeth
We were involved in a shootout in Brooklyn. It was between the Crips and the Bloods. We stepped up and ended up shooting two of them, then locking them up. Our guys were just standing on the corner doing regular patrol when the gunfire erupted.
I shot one guy myself. That was the third time I shot somebody on the job. The first time, I was a young cop in Brownsville. We were sitting on the corner eating Chinese food for dinner at about 8 PM. We heard shots coming from around the corner, so we drove up. There were two guys shooting guns up in the air. We pulled up on them and they turned around and shot at us, so we returned fire. I hit one and he took off, but we followed his blood trail and got him in the park where he was hiding. The other guy got away.
It sounds a little nerdy and buffy, but all your training really does take over. Shooting these guys didn’t bother me at all. I slept like a baby after each one.
The first time I ever threw a punch on the job was on a family dispute. It was pretty typical. A woman was trying to get rid of her husband because he was hitting her or something. We walked in and said he had to go, and he started chirping [talking shit] at us so we grabbed him. When we did, the woman threw a punch and hit my partner with a high-heel shoe. Then he jumped in and we were brawling with both of them.
Being a cop means seeing some terrible things. Sadly—or perhaps not so sadly—you become inured to it. A homicide victim who was a drug dealer? Fuck him. Guy dead from a motorcycle accident who was doing over 100 mph on a local road? Too bad, but, hey, don’t drive like an asshole. Some lady dead from an OD on a rooftop? Yeah, well she probably wasn’t going to cure cancer anyway. To some extent, it’s a defense mechanism; to some extent it’s just a hardening of your ability to feel empathy. You get used to seeing dead perps.
There’s still one thing though that will break the heart of any cop, no matter how experienced and tough he is, and that’s abused—or, even worse, dead—children. I’ve had to deal with this several times, and each haunted me for weeks afterward.
One in particular stands out, because I spent several hours with the family and saw their grief firsthand. We were relieving an earlier tour at a local hospital. All they told us was to take over for these guys, no other details, so I had no idea what we were in for. My partner and I got there and found the two guys. I started to give the customary greetings, make a joke, and ask what we’re there for. These two veteran guys—one of whom could charitably be described as “grizzled”—looked shaken up.
They’d gotten an ambulance run (what we call an aided case) and headed to an apartment. In 99 percent of these cases we are extraneous—we don’t provide medical care and, unless it’s a dire emergency and no ambulance is available, we don’t transport to the hospital. The job came over the radio as a “difficulty breathing,” which usually means an asthmatic who wants a ride to the hospital in an ambulance. Instead it was a six-year-old boy, and he was DOA.
My partner and I were told to wait for the medical examiner and the NYPD’s Crime Scene Unit. A dead child is far from routine, and so always needs to be investigated fully. I went in and found the parents, a nice married couple, African immigrants who came to America for a better life. Now their child is lying dead on an ER stretcher. The kid’s babysitter, a middle-age Hispanic woman who spoke limited English, was also there. She was beside herself. She’d been watching him and she blamed herself. She couldn’t be consoled.
These parents had lost a child, and the look of grief on their faces is something I will take to my grave. To make matters worse, it was being treated as a crime scene, so we couldn’t let them disturb the body. I think it might have made things easier if the parents had taken some of their anger out on us, but they were as polite and accommodating as they could be. They both spoke softly of their son. He was in all respects an average American boy. He idolized Shaq, loved hip-hop, played sports, and enjoyed school. The parents told me how they had fled their native country in Africa and hoped to make a better life for their son, their only child. They dreamed of buying a house and getting him out of the ghetto. The fact that this was never going to happen was just heartbreaking. I tried to provide what comfort I could. I let them reminisce and told them how sorry I was. At one point, the mother looked at me, and the pain in her eyes was staggering. She said, “He was just such a good boy and I loved him so much.” Both my partner and I are parents, and I have to admit, this shook me up. I imagined myself looking down on my dead child, listening to some cop spout inane clichés about how sorry he was. Eventually, the ME and detectives came, the investigation was conducted, and we were allowed to leave. I found out later that the kid had an undiagnosed heart defect; there was no way to know and nothing that could’ve been done.
That night we decided that a drink might be a good idea, so we headed out to the local watering hole. We were drinking in silence and an older detective, a 20-year guy who we were friendly with, came over. I guess he could tell right away something was wrong. “We had a bad one today,” my partner told him, and filled him in. He listened sympathetically, then he asked us, “Did you comfort them as best you could? Did you try to make things easier for them?” We told him we did, but it didn’t make us feel any better. “Well, you did your job,” he said, “and nobody can ask more than that.” He bought us a round and left us alone with our thoughts. He was right, of course. We had done all we could. But I could still hear that mother: “He was such a good boy and I loved him so much.”
When I got home I sat in my daughter’s room and I cried. I’m not the least bit ashamed to admit it.
Bitter much? At this point, it’s all old hat. A veteran cop has seen the dead bodies, the mangled victims, and the filthy apartments a thousand times. He just wants to do his job and go home—and he knows the job like second nature now, too. He can set up the crime scene, get the witnesses together, bring the guy in off the ledge, and talk any perp into cuffs. In fact, at this point a cop knows the job better than many supervisors, some of whom were in elementary school when he was in the academy. The smart bosses use this knowledge and confer with their veteran officers. Vets have seniority, and their vacation picks and days off are usually honored. They might get the occasional asshole boss, but by year ten they know that the old saying, “This too shall pass,” applies to the NYPD more than any other job on earth.
Most veteran cops have a second gig somewhere. Maybe they do some carpentry, or a little mason work, or they install sprinkler systems. Whatever it is, they are likely to be more concerned with that on a day-to-day basis than with their NYPD career.
By year ten, most cops know where they’re going to be for the rest of their time on the force. With this knowledge comes freedom: If you aren’t trying to go anywhere, the bosses can’t hold anything over you. If you put your head down and do your job, you will steer clear of the brass—and that’s all a vet really wants.
One of the few things that can get still get a rise out of a vet is to start talking about the policymakers that control his life. Holy shit do they get mad. You should hear them talk about NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly. They call him Popeye and spend hours putting together jpegs of him in a sailor suit with a can of spinach. It sounds pretty comical, but deep down they’re really hurt by bosses like him. He’s forgotten what it’s like to be a cop in uniform, and the old guys hate that.
“The PD brass,” one vet told us, “is made up of yes men and political appointees. They could give a shit about the rest of us and it shows.”
Illustration by Christy Karacas
A COP'S LIFE: VETERAN'S STORIES
Been There, Done That
My dad is a retired cop and so is his brother. All my brothers and cousins are cops. Even my wife is a cop! I was NYPD before I ever put a shield and a uniform on—before I ever carried a gun. It was all around me. The only people my parents ever hung out with were cops. That ended up happening to me, too. I only hang out with cops. I couldn’t hang out with doctors or auto mechanics. I hang out with people who understand me and who I understand.
At this point, I wouldn’t encourage my son to be a New York City police officer. I would encourage him to go to Nassau or Suffolk County. They pay a lot better for doing the same job. The NYPD is very underpaid for the job it does. And that’s not all.
The NYPD makes the public believe things that aren’t true. Back in the early 90s, there was a place called the Happy Lands Disco up in Harlem. One night there was a male Hispanic there who was upset with his girlfriend. He went into Happy Lands, which was an illegal social club where she was hanging out, and he torched the place. Something like 90 people died. One event, 90 homicides. The following year, Mayor Dinkins got on the air and said, “This year, homicides are down 32 percent.” Well of course homicides are down. The year before we’d had a huge mass murder! That’s how the NYPD practices subterfuge. They play with numbers. It’s PR spin.
I worked in an anti-crime unit on the Lower East Side. That’s plainclothes officers who respond to violent street crimes in progress. Sometimes we rode in a taxicab, sometimes in an unmarked car. We dressed like derelicts. The captain said, “Listen. We need to make robbery collars.” A robbery, by definition, is a larceny with force or the threat of force. So we would, by the stroke of a pen, change a larceny to a robbery. Let’s say someone got pickpocketed. We would say, “Were you scared, sir? Did he push you? Did he pull you?” We’d lean it towards a robbery. Then, boom! The amount of robbery collars goes up.
We have a saying in the NYPD: “When you become a sergeant, you lose one testicle. When you become a lieutenant, you lose the other one. When you make captain, you grow a vagina.” This really happens. Rock ’em, sock ’em cops lose their guts as they rise in the ranks. Sergeant, lieutenant, and captain are all civil service ranks. After that you have deputy inspector, full inspector, deputy chief, assistant chief, and full chief. Those are all discretionary political ranks. But a captain makes inspector on the backs of his cops. That’s just a matter of fact. The police department continually screws the cop. The real cops are the lowest rung on the ladder. Personally, I never wanted to be a sergeant or a lieutenant. I wanted to be a detective. I wanted to arrest people for crimes. I didn’t want to be a guard for the tennis open. I wanted to be a cop. I made hundreds of arrests, and I was involved in thousands. Working in Narcotics in Manhattan, I was taking 12 to 18 felony arrests a month.
My dad was a cop when things were different. It’s his opinion that the job ran better then. Everybody took care of everybody. To me, taking a cup of coffee isn’t corruption. On my first post, I worked all by myself doing the basic cop-on-the-beat thing. I was the sheriff of my town, and I did whatever I had to do. One of the things I was afraid of was being out there and needing help, so I made sure that the right civilians took care of me, and I did good by them. I can’t give a guy a summons for standing in front of his house with an open beer. He doesn’t live on Long Island. It’s not like this guy has a backyard, so I don’t think he deserves a summons and I’m not going to use my authority to break his balls. He’s out there with friends playing dominoes.
It’s very difficult to park your truck in Manhattan. If you’re a cop and you know this storeowner down the block—let’s call him Tony—gets his deliveries on a certain day, you don’t give him a summons for the truck that day. Then maybe he helps you out with something that he sells in return. In business, it would be called bartering. You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. You go to see Tony, and he’d do right by you and give you a decent break.
I came on in 1984, when cops were still cops. People feared you, and fear equals compliance. That’s the way it goes. Today, cops pull out their guns on someone and they get laughed at. They know you can’t shoot them. But I never even had to pull my gun out. I carried a non-police-issue blackjack. If I took that jack out, they knew that I was going to open up their head for them.
We need to be a little more thick-skinned in general. I think that the ACLU has ruined this country. We’re allowing thirty or forty attorneys to dictate policy for the majority. That shouldn’t be the case. Here’s my line on being a racist: I hate everybody equally. I don’t go by their race; I go by the crime they’ve committed.
When it comes to the NYPD, it’s my opinion that the thieves and whores from 30 years ago are the ones making policy today. Ray Kelly was a cop 35 years ago. He was on the street doing what he had to do. And now, he’s holier than thou. A cop can’t take a cup of coffee for nothing because that’s corrupt, but captains, chiefs, and inspectors can go to restaurants with community leaders or whatever and get dinner on the arm. That’s called “community relations” instead of corruption. That’s just laughable to me.
DET. LOUIS A. BALESTRIERI
Birthing Babies and Busting Perps
Once I delivered a kid right in the hallway of a Bronx apartment building. That felt good, and it paid off. A few months later, the newborn’s grandfather, who was also the building’s super, tipped me off about a possible drug den in an apartment in the building. My partner and I went up to the door and got a whiff of gas. We knocked and knocked, and got no answer. We went up to the roof to look down into the apartment windows. As we did that, we saw some folks coming out the windows and down the fire escape. So we climbed over and ran down the fire escape. We look into the apartment and see a guy laid out on a bed. We think this guy’s dead, so we go in. Turns out he passed out from the drug fumes. The fucking place is a heroin and cocaine mill for a major player in Brooklyn. We made what was then the largest drug arrest and seizure by NYPD cops in uniform in history, taking in over $9 million in product and over $200,000 in cash. Had we been working for a small department somewhere else in America, we would have surely gotten a promotion. In the NYPD, it was just: “Get back to patrol!”
DAMON RUTA (this issue’s cover star)
This is it. The end of the road. The retiree buys a nice car, takes the family on a little vacation, then starts to focus on his second gig. Within a year all the memories of the bad things start to fade away: The petty annoyances, the pressures from both inside and outside the department, the harsh discipline, the holidays and family events spent chasing the radio instead of with loved ones. Suddenly, retirees remember only the camaraderie and the crazy things they saw and did with their partners and buddies.
A cop’s pension is 50 percent of his final average salary. The department takes your last three years on the job, averages those years’ pay and halves it. If you take the full 50-percent option, it goes on for the rest of your life. Your pension ends when you end.
There’s another pension option. It’s called the “death gamble.” If you die within five or six years of retiring, a big lump sum goes to your next of kin. That’s a good option for cops who've been behind a desk living on cheeseburgers and chocolate shakes for the last ten years of their career.
But cops don’t start collecting pension the day they retire. First they have the golden time known as “terminal leave.” For the first six months after retirement, you collect full salary. You get a grace period on the books, which would be well spent setting up a new source of full-time income.
Any retired cop still has friends on the force, so retirees are often stopping by the station house to shoot the shit, coming to cop parties, and hanging out in cop bars. But five years after retirement, a cop will find that all his old buddies are starting to retire, too. One day he’ll stop by the precinct to say hello and be like, “Who the hell are all these strangers in my house?”
A career as a cop is a weird thing. It’s a lot like childbirth—every second spent in it is a nightmare, but the second it’s over, you look back and see it as the greatest thing that ever happened to you. Ask any ex-cop how he likes retirement. He’ll say, “You know what? I kind of miss the job.”
Illustration by Christy Karacas
A COP'S LIFE: RETIREES' STORIES
I can sum up being retired pretty easily: It sucks. I hate it. I’d have worked for the cops for 50 years if I could have. It’s horrible to feel antiquated when you’re 40 years old, and to have to stop doing something you love while you’re still good at it.
I didn’t even have a career—I had a job. In a career, people are looking out for you a little bit, and you have some mobility and options. A job is just something where you show up, work, get paid, and try to stay out of trouble.
I think police work is a noble profession that’s been totally whored and corrupted by the scumbags who run the company. There is so much careerism, ambition, and dishonesty there. It’s very tough to work for them.
Some people describe the NYPD as being like the Mafia. They don't mean that in terms of organized crime. They mean it in terms of affiliations and families being all-important. It’s really a strange outfit. In terms of civil service positions, you can rise to the rank of captain. Above that, you’re going to need to be affiliated. You’re going to need someone pulling for you. Merit has very little to do with it.
I got as far as I got, the rank of captain, in twelve and a half years. The next seven and a half years were just—that was it. That was as far as I could progress on my own. Above that it’s who you know—and I didn't know anybody.
I felt at home doing the job. On the street, it was great. In a meeting, I was like a retard. It was horrible.
Towards the end of my career, Bernard Kerik, the police commissioner before Ray Kelly, personally brought me up to work for him. I got promoted to what they call “the money.” I was getting lieutenant’s pay. Some people call it detective sergeant or sergeant special assignment. It’s a courtesy promotion, technically from the mayor, but the police commissioner decides who gets it.
I was a big collar guy. I was locking people up all the time. Even when I worked inside for the police commissioner, I had a job where I was running around outside all the time. I hated being chained to a desk.
After Kerik left and I had to go back out into the field, I ended up heading up the Manhattan Robbery Squad. I was a terrible administrator, but I think I was a good boss for the guys. I just loved being out there in the field hunting the perps.
So I retired as the CO of the Robbery Squad. I had been up for two different transfers from there. One was to Counter-Terrorism, and that got squashed by Commissioner Kelly. The other was to run a district attorney’s detective squad. Kelly squashed that too, and he did it because I worked for Bernie Kerik.
I felt like, “Well, I'm only a sergeant and this guy is making sure he knows what I’m up to.” I knew he was going to be around for eight years as the police commissioner, and I know he’s going to be the mayor of New York for eight years. (I'll put up $100 to your $10 right now on that.) There’s no way I can wait him out for 16 years! He saw me as a Kerik guy.
It’s a shame too, because I’m not a Kerik guy. He and I were foot cops together and that’s why he pulled me into his unit. We were friends too, but I’m a cop first. I bleed blue. Anyway, shame on him that he did that to me, but what are you gonna do? I saw the writing on the wall.
The public should be extremely happy with the way Kelly is running the NYPD, because he's squeezing blood from a stone. He doesn’t have the resources, but crime is still down. That said, I also don’t think that he and the mayor are treating the men properly. I think they could do a better job of shoring up morale. These cops work their asses off, but they’re treated with the same respect that the guys who mop the floors at the municipal building get.
It was a little weird being retired at first. I was driving to my job one day, and I came up on Tenth Avenue. I look in my rearview and I see a radio car moving along pretty fast behind me with the lights on, but no siren. They were trying to be stealthy, so they cut their lights right at the corner, and roll onto this block.
I’m in my little 2004 Honda Civic, and I roll onto the block right behind them! Then I realize: “What the fuck am I doing?” I was ready to roll. It took a little time for that to subside.
One thing I did was stop carrying a badge. Most cops, after they retire, carry a thing called a dupe shield. It’s slightly smaller than a normal shield. If you ever need to produce your weapon in plainclothes, it’s something you can hold up so the first uniformed cop on the scene doesn’t shoot you. Even though I do carry a weapon, and I do work every day in the city in the security field, I no longer carry a badge. It’s my personal reminder to myself that I am no longer on the job. I’m not going to whip out a badge anymore and say, “Hey, tough guy—I’m a cop.” I’ll still say “tough guy,” but I might get punched in the nose now.
When you’re a cop, you’re doing God's work. I’m in the corporate security field now, and it’s noble work, and I enjoy it. But it isn’t God’s work. I deal with the cops a lot because of the nature of my job. Like if somebody steals a laptop or something from one of our clients, the police get called and I am the liaison with them. So I still see the guys. I can still go up in the squad room and have a cup of coffee, only now when I hear all the stories, I’m an outsider. It’s not as good as when I was in, that’s for sure.
The only thing that’s better now is that I have more money, so, when we’re at the bar, I can pick up a few rounds and save the poor working slobs a couple dollars.