True Tales from the Life of a New York City Cop
By Steve Osborne
253 pages, $25
By Lee Coppola
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Twenty years on the police force provided Steve Osborne with a wealth of stories to tell. In “The Job,” tell them he does, sometimes in mesmerizing fashion but always with salty language and police lingo (“perp” appears often). And, as he tells readers, contrary to what you might see on TV, this is the way it really happens.
There’s the mother who demands to go inside her daughter’s apartment. Osborne had been called there to investigate a putrid smell. Inside he found the daughter’s rotting body, maggots and flies feasting on her eyeballs and other parts of her body.
In the hallway, the mother was screaming to get inside, to see her daughter one last time. “There was no way in hell I was going to let her in there,” Osborne writes. “The last image of her only daughter wasn’t going to be what was lying in that room.” So, at 25 and a rookie on the beat, he tried to convince the mother it was best for her not to go inside, that her daughter’s body had decomposed and it was best to remember her as she was, not as she is.
Somehow it worked. “Cops call it ‘the job,’ but police work is more than that,” Osborne writes. “It’s more than just going toe to toe with some bad guy and hauling him off to jail. It’s being there in people’s lives during times of crisis, and knowing what to say and what to do.”
Not that going toe-to-toe with bad guys isn’t the theme of most of Osborne’s stories. He did plenty of that, too.
There was the time he was alone in a patrol car shortly before 5 a.m. when a disheveled man, his clothes dirty from rolling on the ground, his tie askew from being choked, told him he had just been robbed by two men. Osborne took after them, and one pulled a gun when he stopped them for questioning. There was a struggle for the gun, the “perp” was in Osborne’s bear hug, but nobody was winning.
In about a half a second, a simple stop and frisk turns into a life-and-death struggle,” Osborne writes. “Most people go to the gym because they want buns of steel, or rock-hard ribs. A cop goes to the gym because one day, when he least expects it, he might be fighting for his life.”
Osborne won that fight, squeezing the much taller suspect so tightly he loosened his grip on the gun.
Osborne writes with passion about his work. He loved being outside on the streets more than being inside the precinct houses and eventually led him to lead an undercover squad tasked with cutting down on New York City’s ballooning crime rate. He followed his father into the force, won awards, was promoted to sergeant, then took the lieutenant’s exam as his father lay dying in a hospital bed.
Despite the danger, despite the mayhem and pathos he saw, Osborne kept a sense of humor as he remembered his time on the job. Take, for instance, staking out mid-town ATMs for a serial thief. Victims had given the police sketch artist a solid description and Osborne and his partner spotted the face in the rendering and gave chase, pursuing him into a parking garage where he cowered behind a car.
“That’s him,” said the parking-lot attendant as he compared the police sketch to the man in handcuffs. But it wasn’t him, only a strong resemblance. Turns out he ran because he had been dating the mistress of a gangster, and he thought his pursuers were out to finish him.
For a job that usually deals with the dregs of society, an unlikely strain creeps into Osborne’s tales – compassion. Osborne balanced toughness with empathy as he sought to ferret out wrongdoing while on duty.
He mourned the dead and sympathized for their living loved ones as he sorted body parts in a makeshift 9/11 morgue. Once, while driving a pathetic, wire-thin drug suspect to central booking, he stopped for hot dogs from a curbside vendor. As he ate, he noticed his “collar” hungrily eyeing him from the back seat. So he bought him two dogs, scolded him for ruining his life and urged him to give up drug dealing and go back to school.
A few years later, while off duty in a park, the man came up to him and thanked him. He told him he had returned to school and was now leading a law-abiding life …and then he offered to buy him a hot dog.
It’s stories such as this that make “The Job” such an enjoyable read. It’s real life, and it’s told by a gifted storyteller who also happened to be a gifted cop.
Lee Coppola is a former print and television journalist, a former federal prosecutor and the former dean of St. Bonaventure University’s journalism school.