Book Review: Cop in the Hood

In the summer of 1993, I was an intern in the Austin (TX) Police Department, a.k.a. APD. I went there with 3 other UNC undergrads as part of this program. We spent about eight weeks seeing different parts of the APD, from the truly boring (the airport police) to the promising-but-usually-boring (ridealongs in patrol cars) to the highly-entertaining-if-occasionally-dangerous (role-playing exercises with police cadets in training).[1] The routines of police work—the tedium, the paperwork—were quickly evident. I saw an officer draw his gun only once. I participated in only one car chase, and it lasted maybe 3 city blocks. We went into a “crackhouse” to find it completely empty except for stale urine and old mattresses. More common was the 4 hours I spent on a hot day watching two officers sort out a multiple-car accident on I-35, taking reports from all of those involved.

Peter Moskos was a Ph.D. student in sociology at Harvard who trained and then worked as a police officer in Baltimore. This was fieldwork for the dissertation that became Cop in the Hood. All of his time as an officer—14 months, after 6 in the academy—was spent in the Eastern District, a predominantly poor, almost entirely black neighborhood that sees a great deal of crime, particularly related to drugs. Moskos is now a professor of law, political science, and criminal justice administration at CUNY-John Jay.

What Moskos saw and experienced could be read as a serious indictment of police work.

The academy training was often pointless:

Baltimore police trainees learned more about surviving in a dysfunctional organization—low standards, leaky roofs, shortages of paper and forms, arbitrary punishment—than about policing the community.

He surveyed his class of cadets before and after the academy: the proportion who saw the police organization as a hindrance double during this time.

Police work itself was also frustrating. Moskos has a fascinating discussion of the transition from true police patrols—whereby officers on duty were on their feet and on the streets more or less continuously—to a system where officers often sit idle while their cars are idling, waiting for dispatch to send them to a 911 call.

Meanwhile, there is little that police can do to affect crime in the Eastern District. It is difficult for officers on patrol to mitigate or solve violent crimes. Most of what they do, as one officer puts it, is “herd junkies.” Officers can arrest as many people involved with the drug trade as they want to arrest. If they don’t witness a drug transaction, there is always loitering and a variety of other minor offenses. At times, Moskos and other officers come under pressure to bump up their arrest statistics, which leads to meaningless arrests and almost no prosecutions. The CompStat approach, seemingly so successful under William Bratton in New York City and Los Angeles, devolves in Baltimore into a quota system that Moskos’ sergeant calls “bullshit.” That so many junkies are arrested and never prosecuted leads to a de facto decriminalization of drugs. The political controversy surrounding de jure decriminalization is sort of beside the point.

Moskos wants to take this de facto decriminalization further. In the concluding chapter, he steps away from his fieldwork into a short history of Prohibition and other efforts to criminalize drugs. He unabashedly supports legalization and, like most who share this view, argues for its potentially beneficial effects on drug-related violence, expenditures on incarceration, etc.

However, Moskos’ view is not shared by most police—and the reason why tells us a lot about public attitudes toward drugs and drug policy. The officers that Moskos talks to also acknowledge the futility of the “war on drugs.” But they do not want to soften the laws. It would “send the wrong message.” Drugs are “evil” and, said one officer, “I like to think that I’m helping good people fight evil.”

I first learned about Moskos via Henry’s post on Crooked Timber, which sought to use Moskos’ experiences to explain the actions of the Cambridge police in the Henry Louis Gates arrest. Moskos then wrote several posts on this subject (e.g,. here, here). He writes:

Every police/public confrontation ends up in one of three ways: the suspect must 1) defer to police authority, 2) leave the scene, or 3) get locked up. Right or wrong, there really is no other choice. Not that I can think of.
…As a cop, I didn’t want to be loved. I didn’t mind being feared. I did want to be respected. But all that really mattered to me was to be obeyed.

The book and blog are recommended for their insights into law enforcement and, in a nerdier vein, how participant observation can inform social science.

fn1. “Occasionally dangerous” in this sense: In our first role-playing exercise, a fellow intern, Anna, and I were to play a bickering couple in a car. The cadets were trained to separate the parties in such a dispute, so this cadet asked me to step out of the car. Anna’s role was to get out of the car and start advancing on me. As she did so, the cadet, as per training, warned her to step back several times. Eventually, Anna was to pull a knife and run at me—at which point the cadet should have pulled his gun (loaded with blanks) and (most likely) “shot” her, perhaps with a verbal warning if there were time. But Anna got too close to him too quickly, so instead of pulling his gun, he just grabbed her and threw her onto the back of the car. She spent the next 10 minute nursing a bloody nose. Several days later, I spent a couple hours being chased through downtown Austin as part of an night-time car-theft exercise located at an old gas station. I had been instructed to run from the cadets whenever they took their eyes of me. I was faster than some cadets, but not the one who barreled after me screaming “MOTHERFUCKER, I’M GONNA KILL YOU!” I had the good sense to drop to the ground before he could tackle me.

2 Responses to Book Review: Cop in the Hood

  1. Josh R. August 6, 2009 at 3:06 pm #

    This sounds like a really interesting study. For those interested, essentially every insight involved was also explored in the context of Baltimore by the HBO series “The Wire” – from the over-reliance on stats, to the impediments placed in front of “real” police work by the department, to the role of drugs. It’s actually interesting to see how the two very closely mirror each other (although it shouldn’t be that surprising considering a former Baltimore Sun writer and Baltimore homicide detective).

  2. nickg August 6, 2009 at 3:13 pm #

    “but not the one who barreled after me screaming “MOTHERFUCKER, I’M GONNA KILL YOU!” I had the good sense to drop to the ground before he could tackle me. “

    ahh, cops.