Jill Freedman’s “Street Cops” Shows Seedy NYC in the ’70s and ’80s

Photo of Street Cops by Jill Freedman

Photojournalist Jill Freedman’s pioneering photo book, Street Cops, which shows what it was like to police New York City during the rough-and-tumble 1970s and 80s is finally back in print thanks to a new reissue from Setanta Books. Freedman, who passed away two years ago at the age of 79, tagged along with the NYPD during this volatile period in the city’s history, capturing murders, arrests, and the everyday life of being a cop on the beat.

“For over two years, Jill Freedman joined two precincts of the NYPD as they responded to the violence and the unpredictability of the city, putting herself directly on the frontline like an invisible witness,” according to a description of the book on Setanta’s website.

Photo of Street Cops by Jill Freedman
“Loose Change,” (1979) by Jill Freedman from “Street Cops” published by Sentanta Books.

“Freedman was initially skeptical of the police. But after spending entire days touring the streets and entire nights drinking with the men and women of the NYPD, she started to see the heroism and compassion of the good cops. The ones nobody talked about, who were out there to help their city, seeing the best and the worst of humanity. The ones people loved and respected.”

When I was editor at another photo publication, we interviewed Freedman about her experiences being a woman documenting the mostly male fraternity of the NYPD with her camera. She said the idea to photograph the police came to her after doing a photo story about NYC firemen.

Photo of Street Cops by Jill Freedman
“Gun Play,” (1979) by Jill Freedman from “Street Cops” published by Sentanta Books.

“After that story, I received inquiries about doing a story on cops, which I at first dismissed,” she explained. “However, it did spark an idea, to show the good side of New York City cops, in contrast to the picture that was often painted. And I did my research. At the back of my mind was the one fundamental question that would dictate how I’d pursue this photo story: What does it mean to be a cop in New York City? And that was my motivation.”

The reissue of “Street Cops,” was recently the subject of a compelling photo essay featuring Freedman’s black-and-white images from the book on the Washington Post’s website. If you want to learn more about the stories behind the photos in the book and many of Freedman’s other legendary street photos, check out the 2016 video below where she discusses her work at the School of Visual Arts. And, if you haven’t seen it already, the landmark documentary, Everybody Street, which features Freedman and many other street photographers is still available to watch for free on YouTube here.

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