The New Police State is a weekly exploration of policing in America. With the country in the midst of an epidemic of police killings and sometimes violent civil unrest in response to them, we’re talking to people about the role of law enforcement in our society. The starting point of this conversation is the hypothetical question: If you could create a new society overnight, what would that society’s police force look like?

Steve Osborne worked as a cop in New York City for 20 years. After he left the force he wrote his memoir, The Job. While it’s got some hair-raising tales within it, Osborne contends that a police officer’s job has gotten more difficult since he retired in the early 2000s. We asked Osborne for his take on working in law enforcement, making the world safer for both police and civilians, and what it takes for an officer to avoid discharging your weapon.

If you had an opportunity to create a new society overnight, what would the role of law enforcement be?

It all depends. In this theoretical society that you’re building, does everybody have everything that they need? If everybody has everything that they need, there’s a much smaller role for the police. If half the people have what they need and half the people don’t, the have-nots are always going to want to take what the haves have, and you’re going to need the police.

As someone who served in law enforcement, what has your perspective been on some of the officer-involved shootings and civil unrest that we’ve seen over the summer?

This is probably the most difficult time to be a cop out on patrol that I’ve ever seen. I went on the job back in the ’80s, and I was on the job in the ’90s and the early 2000s, and it was tough then for a different reason: there was a lot of crime. We were constantly busy, every night we were out there collaring up. Crime is way down, but the job of the police officer is more difficult than back then because there’s so much less respect for the police. You can say they deserve it or they don’t deserve it, but there’s much more tension in the air. When a cop responds to a [call]—a dispute, shots fired, whatever it is—when you get out of the car there’s much more tension in the air. That makes the job much more difficult.

What do you think needs to be done going forward to try and dissolve that tension?

There’s two sides to every story. When confronted with a difficult situation, I try to look at what I bring to the table. What did I do to cause this? And both sides, the police and the community, have to look at it that way. What did we bring to the table? There’s a lot of dysfunction, there’s a lot of tension. I’ll go to a homicide, and we’ll be standing over the dead guy in the middle of the street, and crime tape is all around, and you look around at the crowd that’s watching you and you know that there’s several people out in that crowd that know exactly what happened. Some of them may have even witnessed what happened, but they’re never gonna tell you. So how do you fight crime that way? How do you make things any better when the community that you’re serving not only doesn’t help, but they make things more difficult for you?

Do you see any solutions, theoretical or otherwise, to make the relationship between police officers and the communities they’re working in more amicable?

It’s just a difficult situation. I don’t know what kind of new program you could come up with. Everyone says community policing—get out there, shake hands more, talk to the community—but what happens with that, as a cop, once in awhile you’d go to a community meeting. But it wasn’t the gang bangers showing up to the community meetings, it was the regular people. It wasn’t the people that you were having a problem with, it wasn’t the junkies and the crackheads and the guys out doing stabbings and robberies. They didn’t show up to community meetings. Community policing, it’ll definitely help, but it only goes so far.

I was curious to get your take on community policing in particular.

Over the years as a cop and a supervisor, I was involved with thousands of arrests. Literally, thousands. And I always felt like, you don’t want a problem with the guy. You’re locking a guy up, I want this to go as smooth and easy as possible for the both of us. And as soon as a guy would start acting up, resisting, whatever, I would always tell them, “You act like a gentleman, and I will treat you like a gentleman.” And nine times out of ten that works. They calm down, you can talk sense to them, but once in awhile it does not work. All the pleases and all the thank yous in the world doesn’t work with some guys, and you’ve got to get physical with them. Just because a guy tells you he ain’t going to jail doesn’t mean you get in your car and drive away and go home. I always wanted the outcome to be a positive experience. When a cop goes out on patrol, you’re not looking for a bad night. You’re looking for a nice, easy night. But there are certain situations that it’s just unavoidable.

Community policing has definitely become a major idea in the national conversation, and I think one of the main reasons people support it is because everyone assumes there’s a disconnect or an unfamiliarity between police officers and the people who live and work in the areas they are patrolling. Has that been your experience?

The reality of it is that every time you get out of the car and approach somebody, you do not know what his or her intentions are. You do not know what’s in their heart. A police officer is always at a disadvantage. I see somebody suspicious, somebody that we’re going to arrest, and I walk up and approach him, he has the advantage. He acts, we react. He pulls a gun, we pull a gun. But he always has the advantage.

So what happens is when you get out, you have to be ready for anything. After a half a minute or a minute, and I talk to the guy and we get him in handcuffs or whatever the situation is, and I realize that he’s not a danger to me, then I can be Officer Friendly. But in that initial encounter, I’m polite but firm. You just have to be prepared. And it’s happened to me, where you walk up to talk to a guy, and he pulls a gun on you. You always have to be prepared for that. It was in my book, we went to lock a guy up, we really didn’t expect a problem. This was supposed to be a really easy ground ball collar, and next thing I know he’s answering the door with a bulletproof vest on and a gun in his hand. So you’re always prepared for the worst. And nowadays you can’t even sit in your car and have a cup of coffee and relax. You’re going to worry about getting ambushed.

I’m wondering how experiences play into that, though. If a bad experience in the certain location sticks with you, or if you can read people more acutely the longer you’re on the job?

It doesn’t matter what neighborhood you’re working in. That first encounter you have to be careful. And then when you realize that the person’s not a danger, then you can relax a little bit. But you have to be prepared for the worst.

Do you feel like there’s any concrete steps that can be taken to increase the safety of both parties during interactions with the police?

I would say the majority of that falls on the person being stopped. If you get a call—a man with a gun, whatever—and a person fits the description, you tell ‘em to put their hands on the wall. He may not even be the guy, he may just fit the description. But you pull up, “Turn around, put your hands on the wall.” He complies, you pat him down, you do a quick investigation you realize it wasn’t him, okay. “Sorry to bother you, we had a call.” You take that same person, and now [he says], “Why are you bothering me?” Now you’ve just escalated the situation. So a lot of it falls on the civilian.

It does seem like there are larger societal factors that play into the way a given interaction will go. Like you mentioned earlier with the haves and have-nots. An individual police officer may not be responsible for the socioeconomic circumstances of the person they are arresting, but that person may still see them as the manifestation of various problems. Would you agree with that?

Like I said, there are two sides to this. If I pull somebody over and they’re polite and respectful, we’re more than likely going to have a very positive, successful conclusion. If you suspect somebody of having a gun, you got a call [for] somebody having a gun, and right away, just because they don’t feel like turning around and putting their hands on the wall, that just escalates the situation. It’s not making it any better. I think what bothers me is a cop gets involved in a shooting, and whether it’s justified or unjustified, right away they throw race in the mix. They demonize the cop. How about just looking at it this way: that the cop was a decent individual, went to work every day, trying to do the best that he could, and in the heat of the moment, probably in the dark, when he had one or two seconds to make a decision when he felt like his life was in danger, he made a mistake. But nobody looks at it that way. All of the sudden all of the ills of society fall on that cop. He’s a racist, it’s a racist system. Maybe he’s just a decent guy, scared for his life, and in the heat of the moment he made a mistake.

I definitely think we all have our own sense of how these things play out, but very few people have the perspective of someone who’s actually worked as a cop.

Whenever I talk to cops, when we talk about stuff like this, almost all of them always say, “People just don’t understand.” You really can’t understand what this job is until you actually go out and do it. It really is true. You can read about it and you can study it, but unless you’re a cop out on patrol at three o’clock in the morning, responding to a call of a man with a gun or a robbery in progress, you just don’t understand what it’s like. It’s a simple thing to say, but it’s one of the most difficult jobs in the world. The hard part is, there’s no room for error. You’re not allowed to make a mistake. In most people’s job, they make a mistake, they’ve got to rewrite something,or rebuild it. A cop makes a mistake and somebody dies. Or he dies. It really is a stressful, difficult job. And nobody wants to hear that you made an honest mistake. That’s not an acceptable answer. It’s like when you go to the doctor. I go to the doctor, I expect that guy to be the smartest, wisest person in the world and know the answer right away. I don’t want to hear that he misdiagnosed me, he gave me the wrong medication. I don’t want to hear that. It’s kind of similar.

It is interesting that we have a high level of expectation in terms of job performance but the economic incentives aren’t the same. It’s similar to what we talk about with teachers.

You’ve got to look at the big picture. Give me a couple of examples of police misconduct, or unjustified shootings. You’d probably say Eric Garner or Akai Gurley, right?


The NYPD handles about 4.5 million radio runs a year. So in the past two years, for those two questionable deaths, they’ve handled 9 million radio runs; not to count all the other millions of police-civilian interactions, from car stops or whatever. That’s a lot of opportunity for something to go really, really wrong. And we got two questionable deaths. Police shootings in New York are at a historic low from when they first started recording them in the early 1970s. Civilian complaints are at an all-time low. So you could look at any unjustified shooting and say, “That’s terrible,” And it is. Nobody should die in police custody. But if you look at the big picture of how much the police are doing, I think they’re doing a pretty good job.

Leaving aside the headlines and just speaking on a theoretical level, what is your perspective on police interactions that end with a civilian getting killed?

Well, you do everything you can. I’ve been in that situation, where a guy’s pulling [a gun] on me, shoving it in my face. Where I’m out in the street, fighting two guys, fighting for my life. And I didn’t shoot anybody. I managed to resolve it with physical strength, that’s the way it worked out. But you don’t hear about that. A situation where I’m in the middle of the street fighting for my life, where a guy’s got a gun, and him and I are fighting for the gun, and he’s trying to shoot me, and his buddy’s got a knife, and his buddy’s trying to stab me in the back while I’m fighting the guy with the gun, and I manage, somehow, to rip the gun out of his hands, and I didn’t have to shoot either one of them. You didn’t hear about that, nobody heard about that. But if in that situation I’d have made a mistake and shot him, it’d be on CNN. Everybody would know my name. That’s the problem, too, with the media. An unjustified shooting happens and they play it over and over and over, and the public believes that it’s happening all the time. But if you put in the context of all the police-civilian interactions that happen every day across the country, it doesn’t happen a lot.