October 07, 1985 12:00 PM

by Mark Baker

Baker’s last book, Nam, offered firsthand accounts of life in Vietnam by American veterans. For this volume he interviewed more than 100 police officers from across the country because he wanted to know “who these people are, why they become cops and how they do their jobs.” His methods would not meet any scientifically rigorous test. Statistics are seldom cited; contradictions are unresolved. But the organization of the book-from an opening chapter of first-day experiences to a final cop’s-eye view of death-provides compelling oral history. It’s not often that we hear the individual officer’s perspective on the frustrations of enforcing law and maintaining order. These are the words of a 38-year-old detective: “Whatever sacred cows you may have been feeding all those years are usually slaughtered after a very little while. That’s probably the greatest single tragedy that every cop faces. You find out that nothing is on the level. You find out that people die for nothing.” That police work resembles what happens on Columbo or even Hill Street Blues is a canard that this book exposes quickly too. As one officer says, “After the smoke clears, the TV cop is rewarded, not second-guessed, investigated and sued.” Lawyers, the court system and the media all get roundly blasted by Baker’s subjects. Cops is never just bitter; its anecdotes are fearsome, tender and occasionally cynical, but most often they are colored by a black humor that suggests the true cost and benefits of being a cop. The book also shows why so many officers persist in trying to do what often seems an impossible job. Says one cop: “It’s people who keep you in this game. Long after you’re completely disaffected with society as a whole, you always think of those few good people. They’re really the only thing that makes this life worth it.” (Simon and Schuster, $16.95)

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