After 20 Years On The Job, NYC Police Officer Tells His Intense Stories

After 20 Years On The Job, NYC Police Officer Tells His Intense Stories

6:46am Apr 22, 2015
The Job cover detail
  • The Job cover detail

  • When Steve Osborne retired from being a New York City police officer in 2003, he was a lieutenant — commanding officer of the Manhattan Gang Squad. After he retired, he started writing and did performances for the Moth, which brings together people tell

    When Steve Osborne retired from being a New York City police officer in 2003, he was a lieutenant — commanding officer of the Manhattan Gang Squad. After he retired, he started writing and did performances for the Moth, which brings together people tell

    Michael Everett / Courtesy of Doubleday

In his 20 years as a New York City police officer, Steve Osborne made thousands of arrests. He says that when he was in uniform, it wasn't unusual to handle 20 jobs a night. And in plainclothes, in the anti-crime unit, his teams would make several felony collars a week, mostly robberies, assaults and gun arrests.

Osborne nearly got run over by a train while chasing a suspect through a subway tunnel. He dealt with decaying corpses discovered in apartments. While making one arrest, when he was a rookie, a crowd gathered around him and starting throwing bottles and rocks at him. But he loved the adrenaline-inducing work — and how in certain situations he had to make a split-second decision.

"You really got about one second to make a life-and-death decision," Osborne tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "Your heart is pounding; your adrenaline is shooting out of your ears. Half the time you're doing it in the dark — it's nighttime or you're in some darkened hallway or abandoned building — and you got one second to get it right. Luckily, over the years, I got it right."

Osborne tells his stories in a new book, The Job: True Tales from the Life of a New York City Cop.

One thing that surprises people, he says, is that he never fired his gun on the job.

"Nobody wants to fire a shot; nobody wants to take a life," Osborne says. "All I want to do is go out, do my job, do it well, and go home in one piece. When I lock a guy up and I tell him, 'Turn around, put your hands behind your back,' and he does it, I'm happy. I would much rather buy a guy a hot dog on the way to jail ... which I've done, rather than roll around in the street and fight with him."

When Osborne retired in 2003, he was a lieutenant — a commanding officer of the Manhattan Gang Squad. He remembers the precise moment that he knew he was burned out and he had to retire. He was doing paperwork, he says, and a detective came into the office and said he had a lead on a gang member who was wanted for murder.

"We had been looking for this guy for several months and couldn't find him," Osborne says. "He was a Mexican gang member. He had no roots in the community, nothing, so he kind of just packed up and we couldn't find him. My detective says to me he 'had info from a confidential informant that we may find this guy up in Yonkers.' ... Normally that's something that would really get my juices flowing. ... When he said it to me, I felt nothing. I felt just kind of numb inside and that wasn't me. At that moment, I realized that I was just burnt out and I really didn't want to do the job anymore. And that's when I decided to put my papers in and leave."


Interview Highlights

On whether he ever fired his gun on the job

That's, like, one of the most common questions. And when I tell people "no" they seem disappointed. It's like you watch TV and you think cops are firing their guns every night, but that's not true. And over the course of 20 years, I was involved in thousands and thousands of arrests. On top of that — I couldn't possibly count — tens of thousands of civilian interactions. No, I never had to fire my gun once, believe it or not.

I had plenty of opportunities. There's at least a half a dozen guys that are still walking around out there that I would've been completely justified using deadly physical force, but at the last possible second I found another way to resolve it. But make no mistake about it: If I had to do it, I would do it. I was fully prepared to do it. Luckily for them and luckily for me, always at the last second, I found a way to resolve the situation without having to resort to deadly physical force. That's what you have to remember: ... You have different tools. You got a nightstick; you got Mace; you got a Taser; you got a gun. Your gun is your last resort, after everything else fails.

On a dangerous rookie mistake he made

When you're a rookie, you do dumb things. You don't like to see guys get away. The guy came running out of the store with the manager chasing him yelling, "Call the police!" so it looked like he had robbed the store. I started chasing him on foot. We went down into the subway station and when he reached the end of the platform, I thought I had him. But he jumped onto the tracks and ran down into the tunnel. And, dummy me, I followed right behind him. Next thing I know, there was a train coming. ...

He found some place to hide out. And the next thing I know, I'm standing there all by myself. And before I knew it you could feel this little slight breeze coming. And that was followed by the floor and the walls shaking. And the next thing you know, it's like a hurricane force wind and I turn around and there's the F train heading right for me. There's not too many places to hide, you could either lay down in that trough between the rails, but that's disgusting, it's filled with garbage and stagnant water and rats, or you can try to jump into one of the cut outs, which isn't so easy. I found a little spot between two girders up on a platform and I managed to jump up there. Literally, the train missed me by inches.

On responding to a call about a foul odor a year and a half into the job

As soon as I walked into the building, I mean, down in the lobby you could smell it and I knew exactly what it was. I had smelled it before. Once you smell a dead body like that, you never forget it for the rest of your life. When I went upstairs, the mother, she comes right at me and she says, "Officer, I want to see my daughter." I knew the daughter was dead. I hadn't even been in the apartment yet, but I knew she was dead. I convinced her mother just to let me go in and take a look first. Went I went in there, what I saw was horrible. I mean, she had been dead several days in August and the heat — the body had decayed very badly. I was a kid at the time. I was only like 25 years old, and right then I knew I didn't care, I was not going to let that mother see her child in that condition. I didn't care if I rolled around on the floor with her and handcuffed her, I was not going to let her in that apartment.

When I went back out into the hallway, you know, Mom was like twice my age, she was my mother's age. And I really wasn't experienced in this; I was only a cop for like a year and a half and I really didn't have the life experience to fall back on. But, somehow in police work, you're in people's lives during times of crises and you have to rise to the occasion — you have to know what to say and what to do. And somehow I convinced Mom that it was best to remember her daughter the way she was and not the way she is. Luckily she listened to me.

On how he stopped a knife fight when he was convinced one guy was going to murder another

I was in a crowded park and a lady comes walking by and says, "You better get over there," pointing to the other side of the park. She goes, "They're fighting." So I drove around to the other side of the park and there they were. I saw the two guys fighting.

As I approached, you could see one guy was in this total complete rage, like the veins were popping out of his neck and spit was flying out of his mouth, and he was pointing at the other guy, like accusing him of something. As I got closer, I put the lights on, on the car, and that didn't seem to get his attention. I tapped the siren. That didn't seem to get his attention either. He was just in this total all-consuming rage. At that moment he pulls out a 10-inch steak knife out of his back pocket and he goes to stab the guy. He's going to murder this guy right in front of me, right in front of a police car. ...

I had literally one second to make a decision. ... I would've been completely justified shooting him, but there was no time ... to jump out of the car and get a shot off, so I hit the gas. I tapped them with the car and he went flying. The knife went flying; he went flying. And just in the nick of time I kept him from stabbing the other guy — and saved his life.

On the crowd's reaction to the knife incident

I jumped out of the car. I got my perp; I'm handcuffing him. [And] just as I'm feeling a little proud of myself that I prevented a murder, a crowd had gathered. All of the sudden the crowd starts chanting, "F the police," and somebody else starts yelling, "Yeah, they ran the brother over, he wasn't doing nothing!" Now, nobody actually saw what happened, but because they saw him flying off the hood of the car, everybody just assumed that I was wrong. Next thing I know bricks and bottles start flying, bottles are crashing through the windshield of the car, and a little riot started. I think what hurt more than anything is I saved this guy's life. He was about to die and the crowd, their first instinct was that the cop was wrong and the second instinct was to start throwing bricks and bottles at me. But that's a cop's life, you know?

On going to scenes knowing people aren't happy to see you

You have a job to do, so you do your job. ... Everybody loves a fireman, you know, they're coming to your house to save you. But when the cop comes, somebody is usually leaving in handcuffs. I think over 20 years it kind of burns you out a little bit. You don't feel appreciated. You do a difficult and dangerous job and you just feel like a lot of people don't appreciate what you do.

On working in plainclothes

I always liked working in plainclothes. What we did was, especially in Manhattan, we would drive around [in] a yellow taxicab, which was actually a police car, it was identical to all the other 13, 14,000 taxicabs that are out there, you couldn't tell the difference just by looking at it. We would use that to go out and follow guys. ... Our job was to go out, blend in the crowds, and look for the bad guys before they did their crime.

On his opinion of the cell video footage of police officer Michael Slager shooting and killing Walter Scott in South Carolina (Slager has been charged with murder)

If you're expecting me to defend that guy down in South Carolina, forget about it, it's not going to happen. I saw the video just like everybody else did and I can't possibly explain what was going on in his head. We don't shoot fleeing felons. I've been in that situation thousands of times, and I never had to resort to deadly physical force.

Copyright 2015 Fresh Air. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/programs/fresh-air/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. In his 20 years as a New York City cop, Steve Osborne made thousands of arrests. He says that when he was in uniform, it wasn't unusual to handle 20 jobs a night. And in plainclothes in the anti-crime unit, his teams would make several felony collars a week, mostly robberies, assaults and gun arrests. He nearly got run over by a train while chasing a suspect through a subway tunnel. He dealt with decaying corpses discovered in apartments. While making one arrest when he was a rookie, a crowd gathered around him and started throwing bottles and rocks at him. But he loved the work. His father was a New York City cop, too.

When Osborne retired in 2003, he was a lieutenant, a commanding officer of the Manhattan Gang Squad. After retiring, he started writing down some of his experiences. That let to him telling stories for The Moth, which brings together people telling true stories on-stage and broadcasts some of those stories of The Moth Radio Hour. Osborne's appearances for The Moth led to his new memoir, "The Job: True Tales From The Life Of A New York City Cop."

Steve Osborne, welcome to FRESH AIR. So this book is being published at a time when a lot of Americans are very worried about police who shoot to kill without sufficient cause, especially if the suspect is a black man. And so with all this fear and suspicion now surrounding police after the succession of killings, is this affecting how people see you as a former cop?

STEVE OSBORNE: Yeah, absolutely. You know, people watch the news, and, you know, it is. It's a bad time for police across the country right now. That's why I hope, like - when you read my book, I think you get a better idea the day-to-day life of what a cop goes through out on patrol. And I hope it sheds a little bit of light compared to, like, what people see on the news constantly.

GROSS: I'm going to ask you to do a reading from your book about a time that you pulled your gun and maybe came close to shooting and fortunately didn't. And I think this gives some insight in what goes on - what went on in your mind when faced with a potentially really dangerous situation. And just set up a little bit what happened before the part that you're going to read.

OSBORNE: I was a new sergeant to the precinct, and a job came over the air of a man with a gun in a car with a female. I spotted the car leaving the scene. I followed him and pulled him over. What I did not know at the time was that the guy in the car was a cop. The cop in the car was dating a girl from the neighborhood. And the bad guys in the neighborhood where she lived didn't like the fact that a white cop was dating a Hispanic girl from the neighborhood. So whenever he would show up to pick her up, would call 911 and call in a man with a gun.

I did not know that at the time. All I knew was a job was coming in over the air of a man with a gun. So when I pulled him over, and he stepped out of the car, I saw his gun. And I didn't know who he was, and at that moment, I thought I was going to shoot somebody.

GROSS: OK, now, would you read that part? And this is from Steve Osborne's new memoir about his life as a cop called "The Job: True Tales From The Life Of A New York City Cop."

OSBORNE: This is it. This is a cop's life. Every minute of every day, this is what you wait for. This is what you think about, and this is what you prepare for - the man with the gun. I looked at the gun, then at the dopey grin on his face. And I thought, this guy is going to try and shoot me, and he's pretty F-ing happy about it.

All that thinking took about one second. Then I dropped the radio, grabbed my gun, yanked the door handle and shoved it open with my shoulder all in one move. I jumped out of the car, pointed my gun right in his face and started yelling. Put them up. Put them up, or I'll blow your head off.

Again, much to my surprise, he threw his hands right up and did exactly what I told him. When I threw him on the truck of the car, he was trying to say something, but I couldn't really hear him. I was wound up, and I could hear was my heart pounding in my ears. I had him spread eagle on the car with my gun screwed in the back of his head while I reached into his waistband and grabbed the gun.

While dealing with him, I had to keep one eye on the female in the car. I didn't want her getting out and jumping on my back or try something else crazy because she wanted to help her man. Out on the street, a woman can be just as nasty and vicious as any guy can be, and a lot of times, they're worse.

Then I heard him say it again, but this time he yelled it. I'm on the job. That caught my attention. He was trying to tell me he was a cop. I'm on the job is the universal NYPD jargon for I'm a cop. If he had said, I'm a police officer, I would have known he was full of it. But in a situation like this, this was the correct and the only response.

GROSS: OK, so happy ending in that one. He told you - you were a cop. You finally were able to hear that, and all was - all was resolved. But I think that puts you in - that really puts you in the mindset of how frightening it is for a cop when you see somebody who has a gun or who you think has a gun. Did that happen to you a lot?

OSBORNE: Yeah. I mean, over the years - I mean as a cop and especially as a supervisor, I can't even count - I was involved in thousands and thousands of arrests of some really bad, dangerous individuals. And just because you see the gun doesn't mean you panic and start shooting. You take control of the situation, and in that situation, I didn't panic. You know, I kept my control, and it had a happy ending.

GROSS: Did you ever come close to panicking and making a mistake?

OSBORNE: I wouldn't say panicking, but this probably - I could tell you out of all of those arrests that I made, there's at least a half a dozen guys that I came very, very close to shooting. I mean, at the point when the trigger, and at the last possible second, they drop the gun. Or I had one or two instances where the guy pulled the gun on me, and he was pointing at me. And the only thing I could do was wrestle it out of his hands, and that's what I did. I wrestled the gun off of him, and it had a successful conclusion. You know, he got arrested, and nobody got killed - me or him.

GROSS: So you wrestled the gun out of his hand rather than shoot him?

OSBORNE: The thing with police work is when these things happen, you've got about a second. You've really got about one second to make a - to make a life and death decision. Your heart's pounding. Your adrenaline's shooting out of your ears. Half the times, you're doing it in the dark. It's nighttime, or you're in some darkened hallway or abandoned building, and you've got one second to get it right. And luckily, over the years, I got it right.

GROSS: Did you ever have to fire your gun while you were on the job?

OSBORNE: (Laughter). That's, like, one of the most common questions. And when I tell people no, they seem disappointed. It's like, you know, you watch TV, and you think cops are firing their guns every night, but that's not true. And over the course of 20 years, I was involved in thousands and thousands of arrests, and on top of that - you know, I couldn't even possibly count - tens of thousands of, like, you know, civilian interactions. And no, I never had to fire my gun once, believe it or not.

GROSS: What does that say?

OSBORNE: What does that say? I had plenty of opportunities. I could tell you there's at least a half a dozen guys that are still walking around out there that I would've been completely justified using deadly physical force, but at the last possible second, I found another way to resolve it. But make no mistake about it. If I have to do it, I would do it. I was fully prepared to do it. But luckily for them and luckily for me, always at the last second, I found a way to resolve the situation without having to resort to deadly physical force.

And that's what you have to remember. Like, you have different tools. You've got a night stick. You got mace. You've got a Taser. You've got a gun. Your gun is your last resort. After everything else fails, that's the last resort. Nobody wants to do that. Nobody wants to fire a shot. Nobody wants to take a life.

When I go out on patrol at night, I mean, the last thing you want to do is take a life. All I want to do is go out, do my job, do it well and go home in one piece. And I'm happy if - when I lock a guy up, you know, and I tell him, turn around, put your hands behind your back, and he does it, I'm happy. I would much rather by a guy a hot dog on the way to jail...

GROSS: ...Which you've done.

OSBORNE: ...Which I've done - yeah, which I've done, rather than roll around in the street and fight with him. That's not what I want to do. I want my night to go nice and smooth.

GROSS: So having never fired your gun once in the 20 years that you were a cop in New York City, including being a cop in the anti-crime unit, what's your reaction to seeing the string of police shootings that were captured on cell phone videos and that the rest of us have watched?

OSBORNE: You know, Terry, if you're expecting me to defend that guy down in South Carolina, forget about it. It's not going to happen. You know, I saw the video just like everybody else did, and I can't possibly explain what was going on in his head. We don't shoot fleeing felons. I've been in that situation thousands of times, and I never had to resort to deadly physical force. So I can't even explain to you what was going on in his head.

GROSS: So how come a lot of cops haven't spoken out about that? Or maybe they have, and I just didn't know.

OSBORNE: They do. I mean, if you're a cop, you don't get on the news and speak out. I mean, you're not allowed to. But I mean, I've spoken to guys - buddies of mine - about it, especially about the thing in South Carolina, and it's funny. Like, they're angry. I was talking to one of my buddies just the other day, and, like, he's angry. He goes, it just makes our job much more difficult.

GROSS: That's what I would think - that it just makes it harder for everybody.

OSBORNE: It does, but, you know, you're a rank-and-file cop. You're not going to be calling up a reporter and making a statement. You're not allowed to. They don't want you to. You're not getting about nightly news to make a statement. But amongst ourselves, yeah, of course guys, you know, talk amongst themselves.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Steve Osborne. He's a retired New York City cop who has a new memoir called "The Job: True Tales From The Life Of A New York City Cop." And you might've heard him on The Moth, the storytelling broadcast and podcast. He also now is a consultant for TV and movies. Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and my guest is Steve Osborne. He's a retired New York City cop who has written a new memoir called "The Job: True Tales From The Life Of A New York City Cop."

You tell a story at the beginning of your memoir about when you were new, when you were a rookie, and you stopped a fight - two guys, one 10-inch steak knife (laughter). One guy looked like he was on the verge of stabbing the other; that would not have been good for the other guy. I mean, this is a huge knife. And tell us how you resolved that.

OSBORNE: I was in a crowded park, and a lady comes walking by and says, you better get over there, pointing to the other side of the park. She goes, they're fighting. So I drove around the other side of the park, and there they were. I saw the two guys fighting. And as I approached, you could see one guy was in, like, this total complete rage. Like, the veins were popping out of his neck and spit was flying out of his mouth. And he was pointing at the other guy like accusing him of something.

And as I got closer - you know, I put the lights on on the car, and that didn't seem to get his attention. I tapped the siren. That didn't seem to get his attention either. He was just in this total all-consuming rage. And at that moment, he pulls out a 10-inch steak knife out of his back pocket, and he goes to stab the guy. He's going to murder this guy right in front of me, right in front of a police car. And it was another incident where I literally had one second to make a decision, and I would have completely justified jumping out and shooting this guy. He's about to murder a guy right in front of me, so I would've been completely justified shooting him. But there was no time. There was no time to jump out of the car and get a shot off. So I hit the gas. And I tapped him with the car, and he went flying. The knife went flying. He went flying. And just in the nick of time, I kept him from stabbing the other guy and saved his life.

GROSS: Meanwhile, a crowd had gathered. Tell us how the crowd reacted.

OSBORNE: I jumped out of the car. You know, I got my perp. I'm handcuffing him. And just as I'm feeling a little proud of myself that I prevented a murder, a crowded had gathered. And all of a sudden, the crowd starts chanting, you know, F the police. And somebody else starts yelling, yeah, they ran the brother over. He wasn't doing nothing. Now, nobody actually saw what happened. But because they saw him flying off the hood of the car, everybody just assumed that I was wrong. Next thing I know, bricks and bottles start flying. Bottles are crashing through the windshield of the car. And a little riot started. And I think what hurt more than anything was I saved this guy's life. He was about to die. And the crowd, their first instinct was - is that the cop was wrong. And their second instinct was to start throwing bricks and bottles at me. But that's a cop's life, you know?

GROSS: You, I'm sure, worked in neighborhoods where people were especially suspicious of police and didn't see you as someone coming to save them, but saw you rather as somebody who was coming to take away, as you put it, somebody they really cared about. Let me see if I can find this quote. Here, this is nice. You write (reading) when the fire department comes to your house, they're coming to save you. But when the police come, that usually means somebody's leaving in handcuffs, somebody they care about. Usually a husband, boyfriend, son or baby's daddy is going to jail. So most of the time, people aren't too happy to see you.

So how did that affect you when you had to approach a house? Like, how did you approach a house where the people inside were not going to be happy to see you?

OSBORNE: It doesn't - you have a job to do, so you do your job. You know, you're not - you're not there - I shouldn't say that you're not there to make friends. You know, I would much rather - whatever the job is, you know, after you're done, if we're all shaking hands and everybody's happy, you know, that was a successful conclusion. But it's true, everybody loves a fireman. You know, they're coming to your house to save you. But when the cop comes, you know, somebody's usually leaving in handcuffs. And I think over 20 years, you know, it kind of burns you out a little bit. You don't feel appreciated. You do a difficult and dangerous job, and you just feel like a lot of people just don't appreciate what you do.

GROSS: In a situation like that, you don't necessarily know what's awaiting you on the other side of the door. So what was one of the most frightening things that did happen after that door was open?

OSBORNE: I've had it where the door opened, and the guy's standing there with a bulletproof vest on and a gun in his hand. And he's trying to point the gun at me. And next thing I know, me and him are rolling around on the floor, fighting for the gun. You just never know what's going to happen when that door opens.

GROSS: So what was the guy doing with a bulletproof vest and a gun?

OSBORNE: We were going to lock up this guy. He was a stockbroker. And I made the mistake - and I admit it, I made, you know, you make mistakes. I made the mistake of thinking that this was a ground-ball collar. We were going to go over to this guy's house, lock up some nerdy, little stockbroker and take him off to jail. And when we knocked on his door, he answered the door with a 380 automatic pistol in his hand wearing a bulletproof vest. And I learned a valuable lesson; there's no such thing as a ground-ball collar. You just never know what to expect, and you better be prepared for whatever might happen.

GROSS: Did you wear your vest more frequently after that?

OSBORNE: Yes, I did.

GROSS: (Laughter).

OSBORNE: I hate to admit it - you make mistakes. You're young, you make mistakes. Early on, I didn't always wear it every day, you know, but you learn a lesson. You know, you knock on a door, the guy answers it with a gun, shoves it in your face. And you realize you better be wearing your vest every day.

GROSS: During the 20 years that you were a New York City cop, you saw a lot of the damage done by the crack epidemic. You chased one crack addict into the New York City subway into one of the tunnels. And he had just robbed something. And you didn't know what he'd robbed or what the back story was, but you were determined to get him. And you were nearly hit by a train in the process. Would you just describe that moment in the tunnel when the train was coming at you?

OSBORNE: (Laughter) Let's say it was a learning experience.

GROSS: (Laughter).

OSBORNE: I'll never do that again (laughter). I don't care if he robbed a Brink's armored car. He runs down the tunnel, I'll let him go next time. No, I was a rookie. And when you're a rookie, you do dumb things, and you don't like to see guys get away. And the guy came running out of the store with the manager chasing him, you know, yelling, call the police, so it looked like he robbed the store. And I started chasing him on foot. We went down into the subway station. And when he reached the end of the platform, I thought I had him. But he jumped onto the tracks and ran down into the tunnel. And dummy me, I followed right behind him. And next thing I know, there was a train coming.

GROSS: How did you protect yourself from the train?

OSBORNE: As soon as we ran down in the tunnel, my perp disappeared. There's guys that live down there, and they know the tunnel system, the transit system, just as well as the transit guys. And he found someplace to hide out. And the next thing I know, I'm standing there all by myself. And before I knew it, you could just feel this little, slight breeze coming, and that was followed by the ground, the floor and the wall shaking. And next thing you know, it's like a hurricane-force wind. And I turn around, and there's the F train heading right for me. And there's not too many places to hide. You can either lay down in that trough between the rails, but that's disgusting. You know, it's filled with garbage and stagnant water and rats. Or you can try and jump into one of the cut-outs, which isn't so easy. But I found a little spot between two girders up on a platform, and I managed to jump up on there. And, literally, the train missed me by inches.

GROSS: So were you facing the train...

OSBORNE: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Or were you facing the opposite direction?

OSBORNE: No, I was facing the train. And I could see - I could see the people's faces staring out the window as the train was going by. And I don't know if they saw me standing there screaming, but - no, I could see the people's faces swooshing past me.

GROSS: So it turned out that this crack addict, who you had pursued and then nearly got run down by the train, he'd stolen five packs of AA batteries. So what were your reflections on that, nearly having lost your life for a crime so small?

OSBORNE: I was a young cop. I was a rookie. And I realized then that, you know, in police work, you got to have balls. You got to be able to go toe to toe with the bad guys and do whatever you have to do. But you also have to have brains. And you have to know when to say,I'll get them next time. And after that, I learned a valuable lesson.

GROSS: My guest is Steve Osborne. His new memoir, "The Job," is about his 20 years as a New York City cop. After we take a short break, he'll tell us about how he dealt with a young woman's body that was already decaying by the time it was discovered and how he dealt with the dead girl's mother, who insisted on seeing the body. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Steve Osborne. His new memoir, "The Job," is about his 20 years as a New York City cop. He started off in uniform, then worked undercover in the anticrime unit. By the time he retired in 2003, he was a lieutenant, a commanding officer of the Manhattan Gang Squad.

You write that the worst kind of call to get when you're a cop is the report of a foul odor because that usually means there's a dead body. And as you point out, when you think about how much a dead mouse smells, imagine what a corpse that has been just sitting there for days smells like. You tell a story about one of those corpses in your book, and it was a young woman who died. The mother wanted to get in to see the body, and you tried to prevent her from doing that 'cause you'd seen what the body looked like. And just give us a sense of why it was so important to keep the mother out.

OSBORNE: Yeah. We had responded to a job of a foul odor. And as soon as I walked into the building - I mean, down in the lobby, you could smell it. And I knew exactly what it was. You know, I had smelled it before. Once you smell a dead body like that, you never forget it for the rest of your life. And when I went upstairs, the mother, she comes right at me, and she says, officer, I want to see my daughter. And I knew the daughter was dead. I hadn't even been in the apartment yet, but I knew she was dead. And I convinced the mother to - just to let me go in and take a look first. And when I went in there, what I saw was - it was horrible. I mean, she had been dead several days in August. And the heat - the body had decayed very badly. And I was a kid at the time. I was only, like, 25 years old. And right then, I knew - I didn't care. I was not going to let that mother see her child in that condition. I didn't care if I had to roll around on the floor with her and handcuff her. I was not going to let her in that apartment.

You know, mom was, like, twice my age. She was my mother's age. And I really wasn't experienced in this. I didn't - I was only a cop for, like, a year-and-a-half, and I really didn't have the life experience to fall back on. But somehow - in police work, you're in people's lives during times of crisis, and you have to rise to the occasion. You have to know what to say and what to do. And somehow, I convinced mom that it was best to remember her daughter the way she was and not the way she is. And luckily, she listened to me.

GROSS: OK, so she never saw her daughter's decaying, bloated body, but you did. How do you get that out of your mind?

OSBORNE: I still remember it many years later. You don't - you know, there's - some stories, especially back - you know, when I was a cop during the '80s and the '90s and when things were crazy, you know, we would go out on patrol, and it wasn't unusual to handle, you know, 15, 20 jobs a night. And then when I was working plainclothes, you know, we'd make, you know, two, three, four, five felony arrests a week. And a lot of it, you forget, but some stories, they stay with you over the years. You can't forget them, even if you want to.

GROSS: During the 20 years you were on the job, you worked in uniform and in plainclothes. What are some of the advantages and maybe disadvantages of not being in uniform?

OSBORNE: I always liked working in plainclothes. What we did was, especially in Manhattan, we would drive around a yellow taxicab, which was actually a police car. It was identical to all the other 13, 14,000 taxicabs that are out there. You couldn't tell the difference just by looking at it. And we would use that to go out and, you know, follow guys. If you're walking down the street, you know, you could look over your shoulder until your head falls off trying to figure out which cab was ours. You're not going to.

So our job was to go out, blend into crowds and look for the bad guys before they did their crime. Like, we would be riding down the street, and after a while - I kind of equate it to being like a doctor. You know, you make a diagnosis. You see this guy on the corner. Something doesn't feel right. And I would tell my guys, all right, let's stay with him. Let's give him a few minutes. And sure enough, you follow him, and you see - and you realize that he's following people, and he's looking around. And then all of a sudden, he does a robbery, and you're right there to jump him as soon as he does it.

GROSS: So you'd - like, one of you would be driving, and the other would be in the back seat like a passenger?

OSBORNE: Yeah (laughter). I was usually driving, and I would have one or two guys with me. They'd be in the back seat as passengers. And then if we spotted a guy we liked, you know, one of them would get out, take him on foot and then, you know, rotate it. The other guy in the back - he would get out and take the guy on foot. Sometimes we'd follow a guy for hours before he did a robbery or, you know, tried to steal a car or break into a car.

GROSS: How would you decide who to follow?

OSBORNE: That's a good question. And like I said, it's kind of like being a doctor. You make a diagnosis. You see this guy - and I laugh. Sometimes you could see the light bulb on over his head, you know? He's got a bright idea. But the biggest thing is, when you're walking down the street - when a normal person walks down the street, you're kind of, like, in your own world. You're looking in front of you. You're looking where you're going. Maybe you're talking on your phone or whatever. But a bad guy - he's watching everybody else. He's looking for his victim. And you could always pick that up. When you see that guy, and he's looking around and he's watching everybody, where they're going, he's looking for his victim. And that's usually the clue where I knew we had something.

GROSS: Were you usually right?

OSBORNE: Yeah, I was pretty successful at it.

GROSS: It seems like that's the kind of opportunity where profiling can come in.

OSBORNE: Profiling - if I'm working up in Harlem and I see a white guy with Jersey or Connecticut plates circling the block, right away, he caught my attention. That's profiling. I know he doesn't live there, and it's a drug-prone location. Now we're going to pay attention to him. I mean, you could classify that as profiling, but the reason that I spotted him first was because the Connecticut plates or the out-of-state plates. And he's a white guy riding around the block there, and I know he doesn't belong. I mean, you could call that profiling. I think it's just good police work.

GROSS: So that's an interesting example, but I think a lot of African-Americans feel - and I don't mean to criticize you personally for this, but I think a lot of African-Americans, especially young men, feel if they're the only or one of the few African-Americans in a white neighborhood, that they're immediately going to be considered suspicious.

OSBORNE: No. I mean, not really. It's usually a combination of circumstances. And believe me when I tell you, race has very little to do with making arrests. I don't care who you are. I've locked up very rich white guys. I've locked up homeless guys. I've locked up Asian guys. I locked up women. Whoever commits the crime, that's who gets arrested. I could care less what color you are or where you're from. Whoever commits the crime, that's who gets locked up.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Steve Osborne. He's a former New York City cop who retired in 2003 after 20 years on the force and after rising to the position of lieutenant. He's written a memoir called "The Job: True Tales From The Life Of A New York City Cop." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Steve Osborne. He's a retired New York City cop who retired in 2003 after serving 20 years and rising to the rank of lieutenant. He's written a memoir called "The Job: True Tales From The Life Of A New York City Cop."

So how did you decide it was time to retire?

OSBORNE: Everybody knows when it's time to go. And I knew it was time to retire, and I know the exact moment. I remember the exact second when I realized that I needed to retire. Twenty years of police work will - it does - it burns you out. There's a reason why we get to retire early. The things you see, the things you do - it does take a daily toll on you, and it wears you down. You know, it wears down your soul.

And I remember one day, I was sitting in my office doing some paperwork, and I was exhausted. You know, I always worked around the clock, and I was always working nights. And for 20 years, I was sleep deprived. And one of my detectives came into my office, and he's like, hey, boss, remember that guy we were looking for? And he was - we had been looking for this gang member. He had stabbed a guy to death right in front of his pregnant wife - I mean, a horrible crime. Imagine a pregnant woman on the street, you know, standing over her husband bleeding to death. And we had been looking for this guy for several months and couldn't find him. He was a Mexican gang member. He had no roots in the community - nothing. So he kind of just packed up, and we couldn't find him. And my detective says to me, you know, he had info from a confidential informant that we may find this guy up in Yonkers, hanging out on the corner early in the morning, looking for work as a day laborer.

And normally, that's something that would really get my juices flowing, you know? That's something that would really - it's a great collar. And when he said it to me, I felt nothing. I felt just kind of numb inside, like - and that wasn't me. And at that moment, I realized that I was just burnt out. And I really didn't want to do the job anymore. And that's when I decided to put my papers in and leave.

GROSS: Your father was a cop, and when you were young, you hung out at the bar, when you were underage (laughter), with your father and his friend. And you...

OSBORNE: (Laughter) Different time.

GROSS: Yeah. And you loved hanging out with cops. Did you know things about your father's work that your mother didn't because you were hanging out with the cops in the bar and she wasn't?

OSBORNE: Oh, yeah, of course. I mean, he wouldn't tell my mother, just like I don't tell my wife. I mean, my wife doesn't - all the time I was on the job, I wouldn't tell her what happened to me or how some guy pulled a gun on me and tried to shoot me. I wouldn't - I would never, in a million years, tell her. When I was working, when I was out on the street late at night, and you know, she'd call me up - how's it going? And I would always tell her, hey, I'm having a nice, quiet night. Don't worry about it. I'm in - I'd lie to her. I'd say, you know, I'm in the office doing paperwork. Go back to sleep. Everything's OK. You know, meanwhile, you know, I'm out on the street, you know, with two guns on my - strapped to my hip, and I'm waiting for some guy wanted on a homicide to show up. You can't tell your family what you really do. You have to protect them.

GROSS: Why not? Why can't you?

OSBORNE: You got to protect them. I don't want - my mother, you know, my mother just shook her head. You know, she was very happy for me when I went onto the police department, but I remember her shaking her head. She's going - she goes, you know, I worried for the past 25 years, and I'm going to have to do it again. And I felt bad for my mom, you know, because I was putting her through that all over again. But she understood that this was what I wanted to do.

GROSS: When your father was dying, you were about to take your lieutenant's test. And it's a test, apparently, that's just given once every seven years. So if you fail, you're out of luck for seven years. You'd already felt that you weren't studying enough. And your father told you something just, you know, very shortly before he died. Can you tell us what he told you?

OSBORNE: Yeah. I was in my office up in the Bronx. I was working. And my sister had called me up. Her and my mother had taken him to the hospital for the last time. He was going into hospice. It was it. It was over. It was done with. There was nothing more anybody could do. And she says to me, if you want to talk to him, you'd better hurry. So I jumped in the car, and I raced to the hospital.

And when I got there - my father was a tough guy, you know? He was just one of those old school - just a tough kind of guy. And when I walked into the hospital room, you know, he was sitting there in his hospital gown. He was half unconscious. They were shooting him up with a lot of morphine. And I knew this was the last chance I was ever going to have to speak to him on this earth. And I knelt down next to him and, you know, I grabbed his arm and I shook it. And I kind of, like, woke him up. And I'm like, hey, Dad, it's me, it's me. You know, how you doing? You OK? And I didn't know what I was going to say. I didn't know what he was going to say. You know, throughout life - you know, neither one of us are the mushy type. You know, we're not the, you know, the hugging and kissing type. We were never like that, so I didn't think it was going to go that way now. And all of a sudden, you know, he opened up his eyes, and he realized it was me. And he smiled. And that's when he reached out and he grabbed me. And he grabbed me by my jacket, and he told me - he goes, you listen to me, and you listen good.

You know, in his morphine haze - he was out of it - he still remembered that my lieutenant's test was coming up in a couple of days. And he was really afraid that I wasn't going to pass it because of him. This was Thursday, and my test was on Saturday. And he says to me - and he's struggling to breathe. He's having a hard time. I mean, this is the last bit of energy that he had, and he was using it for this. And he grabs me, and he pulls me in closer again. And he goes, I want you to promise me something. He goes, and I'll promise you something. He goes, you promise me, he goes, you hit this thing on Saturday, he goes, and I promise you I won't die until Sunday. And I couldn't believe what I was hearing. He - just so that he wouldn't mess me up for my test, he was promising me he was going to hold off and he wouldn't die until Sunday. But that's the kind of guy he was.

GROSS: So you decided to lie to him. And you knew he was in a haze and couldn't really keep track of the days, so you told him that it was Sunday and that you passed even though it wasn't even Saturday yet. You lied to your father for all the right reasons, to give him permission to let go. Did you feel OK about lying to him in telling him that it was Sunday and that you'd passed?

OSBORNE: Yeah. He - right after we had that conversation, he went into, like, a coma, and he was out of it. And it was difficult because he was struggling to breathe. He was fighting for every breath, and it was painful to watch. And I knew that he was suffering. And this went on for, like, more than a day. And as this was going on, I kept thinking - I says, I can't believe this. You know, he's going to keep suffering like this until Sunday just because of me and my test. And that's when I came up with this idea that maybe I should just tell him that it's Sunday, that I took the test and I hit it and that it was OK to go.

When I first thought about it, it felt wrong. Like, how do you lie to a guy on his deathbed like that? But then I asked my mom, and I said, you know, what do you think? And much to my surprise, she said, do it. So that's what I did. You know, I asked everybody to leave the room, and I sat down next to him. And you know, I took his hand, and I told him that it was Sunday and that I hit the test and I think I did really good and that it was OK for him to let go, that I was fine, you know - I didn't - he didn't have to hang on for me anymore, that I wanted him to go and do whatever it is he had to do, that I'm OK now.

GROSS: And he did let go, and you did pass the test.

OSBORNE: Yeah, a couple hours later, he did let go. And I did take the test, and I did pass it (laughter).

GROSS: While you were a cop, you tried to protect your wife from the work that you did and not tell her about the most dangerous things you were exposed to. When you retired, how did that affect your marriage? I don't mean to get too personal.

OSBORNE: (Laughter).

GROSS: But suddenly, you weren't living a double life and having to protect your wife from knowing what you did, you know, eight to 12 hours a day.

OSBORNE: Yeah. It was funny. Like, I remember right after I retired, I was only home for, like, a week, and I started rearranging the furniture. Like, I was bored.

GROSS: (Laughter).

OSBORNE: I don't know. I'm like, the sofa would look better over here. And she looks at me. She goes, put the sofa back. She goes, you haven't been home in 10 years. She goes, don't just start rearranging the furniture (laughter). But it's true. Like, for my first 10 years of marriage, like, I was never home. And I enjoyed the life. I loved the life. You know, I loved being out all night, you know? But sometimes, you know, I regret dragging her into it with me. And there's a reason why a lot of cops get divorced. It is very, very difficult on your family life. You're not there. You're not there on the weekends for barbecues in the summer time. You know, more often than not, I was working on Christmas and Thanksgiving. And it really takes a toll on your family life.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you for sharing some of your life with us. Thank you so much.

OSBORNE: Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Steve Osborne is the author of the new memoir "The Job: True Tales From The Life Of A New York City Cop." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. Coming up, crime fiction - Maureen Corrigan reviews a new collection of four Ross Macdonald novels from the 1950s. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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