Their world is a small town of 37,000, whose work has been the subject of books, movies and TV series. But in real life, the cases of the New York Police Department are never neatly wrapped up in a prime-time hour. Beginning this week, "NYPD 24/7," a seven-part documentary that airs in the regular time slot of "NYPD Blue" -- Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on ABC -- offers a behind-the-storylines view of the individuals, and the institution, popularly known as "New York's Finest."

"It's larger than

the armies of small nations, and it's a very complicated organization," said executive producer Terry Wrong, 47, whose production team spent 16 months shadowing three po-lice units.

The police cases unfold in real time, with detectives describing what has happened and discussing how to proceed in solving the crimes. Their anger, humor, exhaustion and elation all surface in asides to the camera or interactions with each other.

Wrong, who has done two similar broadcasts for ABC, has wanted to profile the NYPD for years but was unable to get the access he wanted. "We had the wrong mayor. I was turned down by Rudy [Giuliani]," he said.

When Wrong finally got approval for the project, it took him three months "just to get the detective squads just to say hello to us in the morning. They are deeply suspicious of the media, and have been burned so many times by local media," he said. "It's only when you live those brutal shifts with them and look at the horrendous crime scenes with them that you finally make some progress."

One of the cops' biggest fears, he said, was that they would be shunned by their colleagues.

"If you're stepping out and embracing the media, it's not like sleeping with the enemy, but almost," Wrong said.

And those who did participate were teased.

"The cops would call them Hollywood. 'Oh, hey, where's Hollywood? He's in the bathroom, putting makeup on.' You have to be brave and confident to want to do this," Wrong said.

Wrong's team chronicled the work of the homicide, special victims and crime scene units. "I met several hundred detectives and 5,000 cops to cast the series," he said. "And I did pick places where we would see action," he said.

The program's seven one-hour episodes each span a maximum of two cases. The first centers on the assault of a young woman who was attacked and left for dead in the lobby of her former boyfriend's apartment building.

Steve Di Schiavi, a detective from the Manhattan South squad, leads his team through the hunt for clues, from interviews with the ex-boyfriend to the trail of the woman's missing cell phone, which helps lead detectives to the attacker.

Another episode centers on the mysterious death of a man at the bottom of a

Fulton Street manhole, boiled black by the 300-degree water. Detectives zero in on the victim's friend, who claims both men were drunk and fell into the manhole.

In another case, an honors student from Hunter College was brutally raped and murdered, her body dumped in a desolate spot.

The detectives' emotions are on the surface as they are openly horrified by the gruesome case and the discovery of a torture chamber.

"Mike Hinrichs, the most decorated cop in the department -- how many homicides has he worked in Brooklyn South? And here he is saying it's the worst case of his life," Wrong said.

Making matters worse are tensions between the cops and the community they police.

Hinrichs is "numb because he's so moved by it, but does the community see that?" Wrong said. "You have the detectives not from the community, and the community accusing them of not investigating her as a missing-person case two weeks earlier. You have the cops defending themselves as following procedure, but you can see how they'll never convince the community of that."

Wrong said he wanted to examine the police department as a society because he sensed the police themselves are alienated.

"New York has become a city of disparity," he said. "You've got unbelievable wealth in Manhattan and unbelievable poverty in some of these precincts in Brooklyn. And here are the cops who are perceived alternately as lowly civil servants or an occupying army, so how connected are they to the people they are policing?"

Wrong said he was surprised by several things, including how busy the cops are, the pressures of being judged on high-profile cases, and the financial pressures.

"It surprised me to learn that some of the top homicide detectives work second and third jobs, opening shopping bags in stores," he said. "There is a huge difference in working here and in working in [suburban] Suffolk County, where it is much slower."

Wrong also was shocked by "how old-fashioned the attitudes and values are," he said. "I would say it is not a picnic to be a woman. There is a value system and for many women, that means they have to work doubly hard to prove themselves."

Actor Dennis Franz, best known as Andy Sipowicz on "NYPD Blue," appears on camera to introduce and close each episode. His voice also is heard in the sparse narration.

"I wrote him a letter in which I basically said, for better or worse, you are, in the minds of most of those watching TV, the epitome of a NYPD detective," said Wrong. "Sipowicz has had so many things happen to him. The guy's been on the air 11 seasons and I had a feeling that his voice would feel more organic with the material than a lot of correspondents would."

Although Franz "was really busy, I think the reason he did this was because he

doesn't just play a cop, sometimes he thinks he IS a cop," Wrong said.

"He has a constant flow of cops visiting him. They come on vacation to [Los Angeles]. and they visit him. And he sees them all, every one of them. "

No similar project has ever been done in Manhattan, Wrong said.

"I do worry the audience will think, 'Oh, I've seen that.' Or 'That detective is good, but I like Jerry Orbach [of NBC's "Law & Order"] better.' But the good thing was that Dennis Franz could come in and say, 'I play a cop, but it's not real, and tonight is the real stuff.' I thought that could help."

Terry Wrong will be live online at washingtonpost.com on Monday at 11 a.m.

24/7 Plus Two

Terry Wrong and his team have previously tracked the key players of two other institutions for ABC News documentaries:

2000: "Hopkins 24/7" aired August-September and focused on doctors, patients, the emergency room and the psychiatric unit at Baltimore's Johns Hopkins Hospital.

2002: "Boston 24/7" aired June-July. Narrated by correspondent Sylvia Chase, the episodes spotlighted the city's diversity with close-ups of the mayor, a homicide detective, a night newspaper reporter, a district attorney and a high-school principal.