On the beat with the NYPD
It is difficult to imagine a more thorough immersion into the world of everyday copdom—with all its sudden excitements and excruciating procedural minutiae—than readers will find in Blue Blood. Of course, this isn't just any cop who's writing the script and painting the scenery. Edward Conlon is a Harvard-educated police detective who first drew attention to his Job (he always capitalizes that word) with his "Cop's Diary" in The New Yorker, which he wrote under the pseudonym Marcus Laffey. And it isn't just any police department he works for—it's the New York Police Department, where a local clash can mushroom into world news overnight. Remember Abner Louima and the toilet plunger or the 41 bullets expended on Amadou Diallo?
Conlon, who was born in the Bronx, had cops in the family (including a larcenous great-grandfather and a flashy uncle) and an FBI agent for a father. He joined the NYPD in 1995 and soon found immense satisfaction in walking his tough beat, where humanity came in every emotional shade and degree of cunning. He developed an almost scientific detachment in gauging the effects his presence made on these people's lives. But for every stimulation of the street, every small victory, there was the corollary boredom of filing reports and dealing with self-serving superiors.
Neither power-hungry nor bleeding-heart, Conlon lets his observations lead him where they will. Looking around the poor neighborhood he patrols, he notes, "You saw what happened when people got used to not paying for things: though the hospital was a block away, people called for ambulances constantly when they had 99-degree temperatures or mild diarrhea; or worse, they claimed to have chest pains or difficulty breathing because they needed prescription refills, and didn't want to walk to the pharmacy or wait in line."
Conlon presents an array of colorful characters—resourceful cops, wily informants and elusive drug dealers—not so much for the color itself as to illustrate the tapestry of personalities a cop has to deal with. "[T]he NYPD," he notes, "offered entry into a drama as rich as Shakespeare. And I didn't want to hear the story as much as I wanted to tell it, and I didn't want to tell the story as much as I wanted to join it." When it comes time for his partners to give him a nickname, they settle on "Poe," which Conlon finds satisfying since Poe once lived in the Bronx and "wrote the first mystery story ever."
From the vantage points of time and his insider status, Conlon retells the stories of NYPD alums Eddie "Popeye" Egan and Sonny Grosso of The French Connection fame and Frank Serpico, whose last name would become synonymous with police probity. Conlon has no patience for those who use cops for their own political advantage, whether it's Louis Farrakhan and Al Sharpton seeking gains by crying racism or former mayors John Lindsay and David Dinkins undermining cops to show their "evenhandedness." And while he laments what the cops did to Louima and Diallo, Conlon is contemptuous of the media's rush to judgment and the politicians' cynical exploitation of the incidents.
These 500-plus pages sometimes run heavy with abbreviation, jargon and elliptical references; and Conlon is far more open with his head than his heart. Still, he admits us into a fascinating and frightening world that is never far from our own doorstep.
Edward Morris lives and works in Nashville.