I went to a reading last month to celebrate the release of Prison Noir, a collection of stories written exclusively by men and women, currently or formerly, incarcerated in the American prison system. Esteemed and never-incarcerated author Joyce Carol Oates edited the collection and spoke with great empathy that evening about the lives of human beings behind bars, stripped of one of life’s defining qualities: Freedom.
Prison Noir is a continuation of a prolific “Noir” series launched by Akashic Books in 2004 with the release of Brooklyn Noir. I attended the Prison Noir event with Tim McLoughlin, the author and editor who conceived Brooklyn Noir and, essentially, the voluminous series which has followed.
Beyond his work as an author and editor, Tim spent 30 years working in the criminal justice system, mostly in the courts. He knows a lot of cops, including many in his own family. At dinner after the Prison Noir event, Tim mentioned how tempted he was, during Ms. Oates’ heartfelt ode to the imprisoned, to raise his hand and inquire about the victims of the crimes which cost those men and women their freedom; he was also curious about the law enforcement officers involved in the apprehension of said incarcerated. It seemed that their stories might be worth hearing, too.
Tim and I agreed that one thing lacking from nearly every narrative about crime, true or fictional, is an honest portrayal of the difficulties of being a police officer. There’s lots of heroism or corruption but rarely the job’s most defining quality: Fear.
I was reminded of my oldest friend, Mike O’Shea. The son of a New York City police captain, Mike wanted to be a cop all of his life. Hampered by severe dyslexia, he toughed it out through college and earned a degree from John Jay College of Criminal Justice. After failing to gain entry into the NYC Police Academy, Mike heard that the LAPD was eager for recruits, so he packed up his life – including his wife and the first of their three kids – and moved to California. After the academy, Mike served in some of Los Angeles’ most dangerous divisions. Big and strong and fast, Mike found himself engaged – physically, verbally and emotionally – on a daily basis with members of the city’s most notorious gangs and the environs in which they existed.
Mike didn’t talk much about his experiences as a cop, though, once, flipping through channels, safely on my couch, I paused on an episode of Cops and saw my oldest friend in a black police uniform tearing across a parking lot to tackle and apprehend a fleeing suspect. I called Mike and told him what I saw. He thought it was funny, but not that funny.
As said, Mike didn’t talk much about his experiences as a cop, though, once, traveling together to celebrate our 40th birthdays, he opened up about his former life in Los Angeles. He’d left the LAPD years before and was back on the East Coast working for the DEA, but the memories of “work” in the gang-infested neighborhoods of South Central and Ramparts still haunted him: Busted down doors. Car chases. Chases on foot. Helicopters overhead. Fist fights. Gun fights. Screaming. Bodies on the ground. Blood on his uniform and blood on the streets. It was war; one that took place over regular shifts before going home to his family and then to bed before starting all over the next day again. Such police work requires a duplicity and suppression of profound emotions, which can not be healthy for anyone involved.
Mike’s life ended in 2013 after a battle with Leukemia; and I’m certain he would be deeply saddened by the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, respectively, as a result of conflict with police officers. I can safely assume that he would have considered the use of force in both cases as excessive, though I can also assume he would be in the unique position of empathizing, to varying degrees, with the officers involved. The most disheartening thing about police work, Mike confided to me, was the disdain officers faced from not only the young men and women they encountered directly but also the communities at large. They were viewed as occupying forces, an enemy to be dealt with by any means necessary. Mike went to work every day constantly aware that many whom he encountered on the streets had absolutely no respect for him and would kill him in a second if they had the chance. And this very real fear – that all officers in Mike’s position faced – had to be suppressed, though it often manifested in ways unfathomable to the unfamiliar.
I’m not naive and neither was Mike. Police brutality is real and wrong. The criminal justice system is flawed and disproportionately unfair to minorities. There are reasons certain communities view the police in the manner that they do. The onus for fixing this major problem lies primarily with the police since it is inherent in their work to protect and serve, to be the arbiters of justice.
But what we as the American public should consider – along with our profound empathy for those marginalized or victimized by the American criminal justice system – are the profound pressures applied to law enforcement officers in high-crime areas and how said pressures often inform the distance between the officers and the communities they are obliged to protect, along with much of the conflict that too often ensues as a result. The trauma is different but not exclusive. And it is very real. There is, as they say, two sides to every story.
Maybe Akashic Books could publish some cop stories, too. I know the perfect editor. And a former officer to whom the collection could be dedicated.
Published on The Huffington Post: Cop Story (too)