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5 essential books for and about cops

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Calls for defunding the police, rising rates of violent crime and the complicated history of policing have sparked heated debates about what the future of law enforcement should look like. As disputes rage in politicians’ offices and on the streets of major cities, police officers continue to don their badges and serve their communities. These five books are essential reading for modern police officers and anyone interested in better understanding cop culture and the myriad challenges inherent in the profession.

Law Dogs: The Great Cops of American History follows some of the most notorious cops in law enforcement history. Photo by Mac Caltrider/Coffee or Die Magazine.

‘Law Dogs: Great Cops in American History’ by Dan Marcou

Law enforcement has a rich history in the United States. From the sheriffs of boom towns that helped shape the West to European immigrants seeking secure employment, police officers have played a key role in shaping American society. Understanding the history of law enforcement gives modern officers an important connection to their crime-fighting roots.

law dogs tells the stories of 30 legendary cops who each left a lasting impact on the profession. Divided into nine sections with topics ranging from notable Prohibition-era officers to pioneers who embraced community policing, the book ensures that no period of American law enforcement is overlooked. The entertaining read includes characters like gunslingers Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday and men like Bass Reeves, the former slave who became the real-life inspiration for the Lone Ranger.

Homicides of David Simon
Homicide: a year on the deadly streets provided the inspiration for HBO Thread. Photo by Mac Caltrider/Coffee or Die Magazine.

“Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets” by David Simon

Homicide is the result of David Simon’s year embedded in the Baltimore Police Department’s Homicide Unit. His insight into the ugly world of homicide brought the romanticized image of detectives falling apart and replaced it with the unvarnished truth about hunting down murderers. The book spawned two successful television series: Homicide: life on the streets and Thread.

Simon’s work took the mythologized detectives Dupin and Holmes and replaced them with real detectives McLarney and Landsman. His comprehensive portrayal of detectives — and all of their flaws — makes it easy to empathize with the people doing the tough and trying work. For all patrol officers considering making the leap to detective, Homicide is a must read. Simon’s finely tuned prose humanizes the police, for better and for worse.

emotional survival
Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement: A Guide for Officers and Their Families is one of the most useful books for new police officers. Photo by Mac Caltrider/Coffee or Die Magazine.

‘Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement: A Guide for Officers and Their Families’ by Kevin Gilmartin

No book is more important to police well-being than Kevin Gilmartin’s Emotional survival for law enforcement. The unpredictable nature of policing sends officers on a daily “roller coaster of hypervigilance.” Officers need to master the ability to make good decisions in car chases and shootings the same way they need to be able to help people going through mental health crises. Society demands that police officers be able to speak to people from the ledge and then respond to emergencies that require them to risk their lives. The psychological toll can be immense.

Gilmartin breaks down what happens to a person’s body when they go from comforting a child one moment to fighting for their life the next, and provides easy-to-apply methods for coping. Emotional survival for law enforcement also explains why some seemingly odd behavior outside of work hours is actually normal. Understanding these biological responses to high-stress work is essential for officers and their families. Gilmartin’s book is essential to guard against cynicism and burnout. In a profession with high suicide and divorce rates, emotional survival provides the best available defense against both.

cop books
Born out of the Marine Corps Combat Hunter program, Left of Bang: How the Marine Corps Combat Hunter Program Can Save Your Life gives police the skills to prevent violent confrontations before they happen. Photo by Mac Caltrider/Coffee or Die Magazine.

‘Left of Bang: How the Marine Corps Combat Hunter Program Can Save Your Life’ by Patrick Van Horne

Borrowing from the Marines’ Combat Hunter program, Left of Bang teaches readers how to recognize threats before they materialize. Listening to the subconscious warnings described by Van Horne can keep agents alive. A police officer with 20 years on the street is an expert at reading the atmosphere of his community and picking up “stories” from suspects and citizens, but a rookie cop must learn these microscopic signs of malevolence by trial. and errors.

Between 2011 and 2021, an average of 52 officers were shot on the job each year. Gone are the days when the friendly officer paced and twirled his whistle. Active shooters and ambushes are becoming more common, and recognizing these types of threats before they occur is an essential part of modern policing. Left of Bang provides agents with a baseline to notice and mitigate these critical incidents before it’s too late.

altar boys
The altar boys is a wild ride that captures the gallows humor that runs deep in first responders. Photo by Mac Caltrider/Coffee or Die Magazine.

“The Altar Boys” by Joseph Wambaugh

Batch beers are an unofficial police tradition in many departments. The altar boys in Joseph Wambaugh’s novel are a group of Los Angeles cops who enjoy a few after-shift drinks on a dangerous upper level. The characters are deeply flawed and probably don’t have to wear badges and guns, but that’s what makes this book so entertaining. The 10 officers Wambaugh follows vary as widely as the calls they respond to. From the Vietnam veteran whose panic attacks get him in trouble to “Spermwhale” who thinks throwing unwanted newborn babies in the trash is nothing more than littering, The altar boys is disturbing or hilarious depending on the darkness of the reader’s humor.

It’s a book written for the cops, with no one else’s opinion taken into consideration. Full of gallows humor and jokes for those at work, The altar boys is the perfect read for anyone looking to bust a cold and let off steam with the rest of the shift.


This article first appeared in the Winter 2022 edition of coffee or diethe printed magazine.

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