The Making of a Cop, Harvey Rachlin

Pocket, 1991, 302 pages, C$5.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-74740-1

For most North American citizen, all contacts with policemen are limited to the occasional speeding ticket (if that), for which cops are seen as annoyances at best.

That’s too easily forgetting that cops are there for things that are in fact quite a bit more dangerous than simple traffic regulation. And nowhere is this truer than in New York City.

“In 1988 there were 1,915 murders and manslaughters (10 percent of the U.S. total, and more than Great Britain and West Germany combined), 45,824 felonious assaults, 3,412 forcible rapes, 86,578 robberies, 128,626 burglaries, 110,717 grand larcenies, 119,659 grand larceny car thefts, and 43,434 other felonies involving drugs, forgery, arson, prostitution, gambling, and kidnapping” [P.2] If New York isn’t the most dangerous city in the world, it must be close.

[July 2001: After a particularly pleasant trip to New York City and some knowledge of recent statistics, I am pleased to report that this isn’t true any more.  Mayor Guiliani’s reforms of the nineties have truly had an effect.  In fact, New York doesn’t even rank in the top-100 per-capita most dangerous American cities list!]

Against this tide of crime, acting as public defenders, exists the New York Police Department. 28,000 policemen, making the NYPD larger than most national armed forces in the world. But these policemen come from somewhere. They must be trained. Ordinary civilians from all areas must be re-modeled and re-educated so that they can wear a blue uniform, a badge and a gun.

The Making of a Cop is a meticulously detailed documentary on this training process. Author/journalist Harvey Rachlin was granted unprecedented access to the NYPD training academy during one such training session which turned out 650 candidates into pure true NYPD blue. Through the eyes of four very different students, we follow the whole process, from the first to the last day.

There is the expected fascinating chapter on the gun range, but that’s only a small part of the training to become a police officer. They must also follow classes in Law, Police Science, Social Science, Physical Training, Driver training, Car-Stop workshops… and all of these subjects, from the most academic to the most physical, are essential to a policeman’s training.

But The Making of a Cop is not only a dry affair of academia. The world of a police officer is made of difficult decisions that -for the most part- are completely alien to civilians. What is a crime? While that decision is clear when a crime has been committed, it is far more murky when a police officer is witness to potentially suspect behavior. The book details such an occasion, which starts by a policeman watching a bum trying out car doors, and ends with a life-and-death struggle.

But these finer points of conduct are nothing compared to the training aspirants are required to go through in preparation to busts. While civilians may be put off by the behavior of police officers in day-to-day operations, it’s worth remembering that if we don’t reasonably expect police officers to shoot us in their work, policemen must allow for a degree of definite danger in their line of duty. The Making of a Cop is adept at pointing out the delicate balance between self-protection and service to the public.

Technically, this book is nearly perfect, giving a compulsively readable account of almost all facets of training from beginning to end, with plenty of tasty anecdotes and first-person testimonials to hook us into the narrative. Rachlin wisely stays in the background, only directly integrating himself in the narrative in the introduction and the conclusion, letting the policemen speak for themselves during training.

But most significantly, The Making of a Cop is a splendid testimony to the often-ungrateful, often-dangerous job of policemen. It’s nearly impossible to read this book without coming away from it with a renewed respect for police forces, with the types of dangers and decisions that is their daily workload.

Remember that the next time you get a speeding ticket.

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