The bar talk of cops, like that of medical students and war correspondents, tends to be gruesome, outrageous and, in a brutal sort of way, funny. No doubt it gets slightly funnier when there is a civilian around whose leg can be pulled. Interviewer Mark Baker, however, clearly knows how to nod and outwait the baloney as he plays the journalist's strongest card, which is his knowledge that people have a powerful urge to explain themselves.
In this useful work of reportage, Baker, who recorded the recollections of Viet Nam veterans in his 1982 oral history, Nam, gathers the gripes, boasts, rationalizations and cathartic horror stories of more than 100 police officers of both sexes. This is cassette journalism, immediacy spun from miles of tape, and because Baker does not identify the speakers or their communities, it is a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. But the words ring true, even if it is fairly selective truth.
The stories Baker has recorded bring to mind a phrase used in bitter irony by draftees in Viet Nam, who hoped to survive their tours and return to what they called "the world." The officers quoted here may return to the world after duty hours, but they sure don't work there. "My job was photographing dead people, and taking their fingerprints," one of Baker's cops says. "Holding dead hands, breaking off the fingers when they're too stiff to manage."
Here the civilian may suspect a bit of teasing, but the rest of the quote is a heartfelt statement that the court system is porous, and the bad guys outnumber the good guys: "You start to believe that's mostly the whole world. That it's all a sewer . . . By the time you even get some of the maggots and get them in court, because of some little infraction of justice, they walk free. More walk free than are convicted. It's a tide coming at you all the time . . . There's too many of them out there and not enough of you." Some of the stories are cheerful enough for Hill Street Blues. "There's a guy in motorcycles, big monster of a guy," somebody says. "Any time he gets hassled, if the guy starts calling him names or whatever it is, he takes the guy's license, puts it in his mouth and starts chewing . . . The guy would go to court and scream at the judge, 'This cop stopped me, took my driver's license and ate it!' No one would believe that."
The stories go on, few about solving murders in manor houses and many about fatal traffic accidents, violent drunks and old people who died ten days ago in furnished rooms. There are quite a few about nearly getting killed and about drinking too much. Some tell about sleaziness, and a surprising number about honor. Most of them, Baker says, begin something like this: "I know it sounds corny as hell, but I really thought I could help people."
One of the saddest, for some reason, is the one Baker uses to begin his book. An angry wife grumbles about "my husband, the cop. Always has to be the big man." When neighbors ask him to fix tickets, she says, he tells them, "No problem." She goes on: "The big, important policeman. Do you know how he fixes tickets? He goes downtown and he pays them, that's how he fixes tickets." This is a tough, grubby book, and a good job of listening. --By John Skow