Mystery Writers of America Annual

COPS AND WRITING: HOW I STARTED. WHY I CAN’T STOP

by E. W. Count

“Hey, how you been, man?” This and that. Blah, blah. “Okay, so you want the hundred and twenty-five grams, right?” Well, I wanna talk about that. I’ve gotta first see what you got before I put that much money on the table. “No problem.” So he says, “You’re a cop, right?”

What?

He says, “You’re a cop.”

Four years before this confrontation in Washington Heights, New York’s drug crossroads — back when George Rivera was a rookie undercover on the Lower East Side — dealers had tossed him, found his .38. Miraculously, they only roughed him up and threw him out. Rivera decided he would never go undercover with a gun. Nothing that says police. He always went alone, no partner. Until:

This time they want someone else to go with me. A female. Now, I was always under the impression that a junky’s never gonna take his girl. It’s not a place where you take your girl for a date But if I’m gonna go with somebody, I told them I’m gonna go with Emma. ‘Cause I know what Emma’s made of. . .she could handle herself.

I stumbled on the story in the most roundabout way. But then I had stumbled into crime writing itself: I was mugged, scruffy-looking plainclothes cops scooped up the bad guys. . .I was hooked. Eventually, for my column in a neighborhood weekly, I interviewed a guy who’d just nailed a rapist. The detective had come to Sex Crimes via Manhattan North Narcotics and I’d recently heard a Manhattan North undercover testify in court. Emma Principe. Maybe he knew her?

The guy’s voice dropped to an awed whisper. Emma had been a hero in a shootout. She and her partner won the Combat Cross, the department’s second-highest medal.

By the time I heard this from the Sex Crimes detective, the story was three years old. Washington Heights was already synonomous with drug violence — but only to cops. The headlines were still to come. Anyway, the weekly I was writing for definitely didn’t circulate in that part of town. More than a year would go by before I had a reason to ask anyone to relive that terrifying moment in the drug spot.

I started working on Cop Talk: True Detective Stories from the NYPD. The more interviews I did for the book, the more Emma and her partner haunted me. As much as I wanted to hear what happened, that’s how scared I was to ask. I’d spent a good part of my first career writing fashion magazine copy, after all. Not exactly the daily police reporter background where you leam to get the story or else. Finally, my book pushed me.

Emma says, “Well, I take my gun.” Yeah, well, you’re a female. Then I said oh, let me take a gun. It’s the first time I’m goin’ someplace with somebody else, I’ll just hide the gun. I had a real heavy leather jacket. You wouldn’t find a gun in it if you tried.

You gotta picture this place. The door’s down here, and it’s a real long narrow hallway. . . .

Only now that the pages are bound, the story set in type, has it really sunk in. This happened. Outnumbered two to one by the drug dealers, separated from each other by that long hallway, George and Emma each faced a dealer’s automatic pistol at close range. Two bad guys, at least, were wounded — one fatally. Two fled, but police caught only one. A body found later in a nearby park may have accounted for the other.

Detective work isn’t all shootouts — even in New York in 1994 — but Narcotics detectives like George and Emma are out there taking “managed” risks, day after day. I’m not the same person I was before I knew of their ordeal and their courage.

I’m not the same person who got drawn into this detective stuff by a kind of romantic curiosity. When hemlines have been the main event for much of your working life, exposure to the reality of a detective’s job has to whip up your own adrenaline. Life and death. It took me a while to get past the stereotypes.

Fascinated by procedure, I listened to a lot of cases before I understood that procedure is far from the whole story. That computers come into play a lot more than guns, and that if you’re a good detective, your psyche gets as much of a workout as your brain.

I’m not the same person I was before I heard Billy Cutter, who looks like an ex-linebacker, tell why one homeless guy confessed to killing another homeless guy down in Tompkins Square Park:

I think the key thing with him was, when he sat down in here, he started to cry. So I started to cry, and he told the story. You know, whatever works. I didn’t feel sorry for him at all. He stabbed the guy with a screwdriver.

I’m sure there have probably been times when people wanted to tell me things and I just didn’t hit on the right cue. You have to be sensitive to the other person. . .even though the other person may be a murderer.

E. W Count interviewed nearly a hundred NYPD detectives for Cop Talk.