"All cops have great stories; I just took the time to write some of them down," says Steve Osborne, who was a member of the New York City Police Department from 1983 to 2003, when he retired as a lieutenant and head of the Manhattan Gang Squad. By chance, the retired officer-turned-memoirist filled in one night on "The Moth" storytelling program on public radio, and his tales of being a cop during some of the toughest years on the streets of New York became a popular feature of the show. Osborne now has a collection of those stories published in "The Job: True Tales from the Life of a New York City Cop" (Doubleday, $25.95). We spoke with Osborne by phone from his home in Rockland County.
Did you find a big difference between live storytelling and writing the book? On The Moth, the listener gets the sense that there's a physical component to your performance that, quite naturally, can't translate onto the page.
Yeah, people laugh a lot, but I think it's my [New Jersey] accent. I didn't know I had an accent till I got up on stage and started doing this stuff.
There are some hair-raising stories included in the book, such as the time you held two killer junkies at bay in the middle of Houston Street. Was it just a natural impulse to write them down?
I don't know why I was doing it. When you're a cop and you're in that life, you have no life; your job is your life. And once I retired, my life went from the fast lane to the slow lane. I can't explain it, there is just this little voice in my head: "Pick up a pen."
It's hard to imagine having better material to work with.
Yeah, but I had no training as a writer. I went to college just enough to get my credits to become a sergeant and a lieutenant. All of a sudden I have a book. Which goes to show you that education is overrated.
You mention in your introduction that you had a little help from your friends, among them screenwriter Liz Tuccillo ("He's Just Not that Into You," "Smash"). What was the connection there?
When you work in Manhattan you meet people. She was a friend of a friend and she would call me for technical advice from time to time when she was working on a script. I've known her at least 20 years. Mostly, it was like, my family and friends read the stories and said, "Oh, this is great," but, y'know, they're trying to make you feel good. Which is why I went to Liz and she read them. She said, "Keep writing."
You haven't been a cop for 12 years now. How much do you think it's changed?
If you were to ask me back in the '80s whether we could reduce murders by 85 percent I would have thought you were nuts. It was impossible. It couldn't be done. Homicides went from 2,200 to like 300 a year. That's an incredible accomplishment. I can't believe how much it's changed. I can't believe how much the city has changed.
The public's perception of the police force isn't what it could be, though.
It's a bad time we're in. I can't remember it being this bad for this long. Years ago, something happened, and it was bad, but then it passed. Now all of a sudden everything is national news. You didn't have CNN feeling it was necessary to talk 24 hours a day. These days, they latch on to something they don't give up.
What's your take on the state of policing right now?
If you look at the NYPD's statistics, they do an annual discharge report analyzing all the shootings, all the police-public interactions, and if you look at the numbers, the NYPD estimates it does about 20 million interactions a year. Last year, we had two questionable deaths and I think that's what aggravates me: Cops make mistakes all the time; I made mistakes. But you have to put it in perspective. And the news makes it look like an epidemic, that cops are just out killing people. Which could not be further from the truth.
How do you feel about body cams?
How about we put body cams on all the politicians in New York City and Albany? That would cut down on a little bit of corruption.