If you enjoyed the first season of the Wire, you will enjoy Peter Moskos‘s Cop in the Hood. The book is the tale of a sociologist going native by going through the Baltimore police academy, becoming a cop and working for over a year. This mix of ethnography and participant observation makes the book highly readable and enjoyable. My freshmen students will be reading it next term.
The book roughly follows Moskos chronological journey, from the academy to the street and the last part of the book is dedicated to a pretty thorough analysis (and indictment) of the War on Drugs.
This book is especially relevant because of one the challenges of teaching freshmen is to show them why they should be interested in sociology and sociological topics, that there is some knowledge to be produced here and that sociology has the tools to produce it.
Why did Moskos choose participant-observation? (All notations are Kindle locations)
“As a sociology graduate student, I took to heart the argument that prolonged participant-observation research is the best and perhaps only means of gathering valid data on job-related police behavior. Because data on policing are iffy at best and cops, like everyone, love to tell a tall tale, the best way to see what happens on the street is to be there as it happens. As an institution, police have been labeled insular, resentful of outsiders, and in general hostile to research, experimentation, and analysis. Official police statistics are notoriously susceptible to manipulation. And as most police activity has no official record at all, the nuances of police work are difficult if not impossible to quantify. Professor and police researcher Maurice Punch wrote, “The researcher’s task becomes, then, how to outwit the institutional obstacle-course to gain entry and . . . penetrate the mine-field of social defenses to reach the inner reality of police work.”” (114)
The first interesting observation from Moskos’s work is his analysis of the police academy as relatively useless for the job:
“So what’s the point of the academy? Primarily, it’s to protect the department from the legal liability that could result from negligent training. To the trainees this appears more important than educating police officers.
And second, despite the lax approach toward academics, instructors were very concerned with officer safety, the aspect of the job they emphasized most: “The most important part of your job is that you go home. Everything else is secondary.” This philosophy is reinforced at all levels of the police organization. Formal and informal rules concerning officer safety are propagated simultaneously.
By the end of the academy, less than half the class saw a relation between what police learn in the academy and what police need to know on the street. A strong antimedia attitude, little changed from sociologist William Westley’s observations in the 1950s, grew steadily in the police academy. At the end of training, just 10 percent of trainees believed that the media treat police fairly.
After six months in the academy, trainees learn to:
- Respect the chain of command and their place on the bottom of that chain.
- Sprinkle “sir” and “ma’am” into casual conversation.
- Follow orders.
- March in formation.
- Stay out of trouble.
- Stay awake.
- Be on time.
- Shine shoes.” (359 – 390)
But Moskos’s conclusion is that the training actually demoralizes trainees even before they start working on the streets. Physical training is not boot camp and provides a poor preparation (after all, most officers will spend their days in their patrol car), and academic training does not really impart knowledge and does not encourage thinking.
Once training is over, the bulk of the book follows Moskos on the beat, on the Eastern side of Baltimore (that’s Proposition Joe’s territory, for you Wire fans following at home) and the constant contradictory demands placed on officers (between following a very strict military-style chain of command and having to make quick decisions). In that sense, the book is also a good study of the necessity of developing informal rules in in highly formal, bureaucratic environments. Working around the rules is the only way to keep the work manageable and within the limits of efficiency and sanity. But for Moskos, the gap between formal and informal norms is especially wide in policing. One could see here the application of Merton’s strain theory: the officers largely agree with the goals of the job they have to do (even though they are aware of the futility of the War on Drugs), but they constantly have to innovate while on patrol because the rules do not work on the streets (of course, some officers do lapse into ritualism especially in a context where protecting one’s pension is THE concern all officers have and that guides their behavior on the street).
These informal rules are constantly at work whether it comes to stopping, frisking, searching, arresting, writing reports. In all of these aspects of the job, covering one’s butt and protecting one’s life and pension are paramount concerns. This means that officers actually have quite a bit of leeway and flexibility when it comes to their job. These informal norms are described in details in Moskos’s book and there is no underestimating their importance.
Once on the streets, police officers mix a culture of poverty approach to “these people” (the communities they are expected to police, where gangs and drugs culture produce poverty with quite a bit of eliminationist rhetoric that reveals an in-group / out-group mentality between police officers and civilians:
“A black officer proposed similar ends through different means. “If it were up to me,” he said, “I’d build big walls and just flood the place, biblical-like. Flood the place and start afresh. I think that’s all you can do.” When I asked this officer how his belief that the entire area should be flooded differed from the attitudes of white police, he responded, “Naw, I’m not like that because I’d let the good people build an ark and float out. Old people, working people, line ’em up, two by two. White cops will be standing on the walls with big poles pushing people back in.” The painful universal truth of this officer’s beliefs came back to me in stark relief during the flooding and destruction of New Orleans, Louisiana. Police in some neighboring communities prevented displaced black residents from leaving the disaster area, turning them away with blockades and guns.” (609)
That in-group / out-group outlook also involves dehumanization and stigmatization:
“In the ghetto, police and the public have a general mutual desire to avoid interaction. The sociologist Ervin Goffman wrote, “One avoids a person of high status out of deference to him and avoids a person of lower status . . . out of a self-protective concern.” Goffman was concerned with the stigma of race, but in the ghetto, stigma revolves around the “pollution” associated with drugs. Police use words like “filthy,” “rank,” “smelly,” or “nasty” to describe literal filth, which abounds in the Eastern District. The word “dirty” is used to describe the figurative filth of a drug addict. It is, in the drug-related sense, the opposite of being clean.” (633)
The “dope fiend” becomes the loathed representative figure of all this. But the dehumanization applies equally to them and the dealers. In that sense, there is no sympathy for the people who have to live in these communities and have nothing to do with the drug trade. They are put in the same bag. And whatever idea of public service trainees might start with tends to disappear after a year on the streets.
And quite a bit of what goes on in the streets between police and population has a lot to do with forcing respect and maintaining control of the interaction:
“Although it is legally questionable, police officers almost always have something they can use to lock up somebody, “just because.” New York City police use “disorderly conduct.” In Baltimore it is loitering. In high-drug areas, minor arrests are very common, but rarely prosecuted. Loitering arrests usually do not articulate the legally required “obstruction of passage.” But the point of loitering arrests is not to convict people of the misdemeanor. By any definition, loitering is abated by arrest. These lockups are used by police to assert authority or get criminals off the street.” (838)
And, of course, the drug dealers also know the rules and become skillful at working around them, avoiding arrest, challenging the police authority and have structured their trade accordingly. It would indeed be a mistake to look at this illegal and informal economy as anything but a trade structured around specific rules that take into account having to deal with the police and the different statuses of the actors involved in the trade reflect that:
- lookouts have the simplest job: alert everyone else of police approach,
- steerers promote the product,
- moneymen obviously hold the money for the transactions,
- slingers distribute the drugs after money has been exchanged
- and gunmen protect the trade.
The transaction is therefore completely decomposed into steps where money and drugs are never handled by the same person while the main dealers watch things from afar, protecting themselves from legal liabilities. For most of these positions, the pay is not much better than fast-food joints, but that is pretty much all there is in these urban areas.
Of course, just like everything in the US, there is a racial component to this. The drug trade is not a “black thing” (like mac and cheese as Pat Robertson would say) and it has its dependency theory taste:
“The archetypal white addict is employed, comes with a friend, drives a beat-up car from a nearby blue-collar neighborhood or suburb such as Highlandtown or Dundalk, and may have a local black drug addict in the backseat of the car. A black police officer who grew up in the Eastern District explained the local’s presence, “White people won’t buy drugs alone because they’re afraid to get out of the car and approach a drug dealer. They’ll have some black junkie with them.” The local resident serves as a sort of freelance guide, providing insurance against getting “burned” or robbed. The local addict is paid informally, most often taking a cut of the drugs purchased.” (1116)
The complete mistrust between the police and the community is also a trademark of impoverished urban environments. And indeed, what would residents gain by interacting with law enforcement and the court system? At the same time, police work is arrest-based (the more the better) which officers all understand to be futile.
For Moskos, part of the problem with policing was the advent of policing-by-patrol-car:
“The advent of patrol cars, telephones, two-way radios, “scientific” police management, social migration, and social science theories on the “causes” of crime converged in the late 1950s. Before then, police had generally followed a “watchman” approach: each patrol officer was given the responsibility to police a geographic area.5In the decades after World War II, motorized car patrol replaced foot patrol as the standard method of policing. Improved technology allowed citizens to call police and have their complaints dispatched to police through two-way radios in squad cars. Car patrol was promoted over foot patrol as a cost-saving move justified by increased “efficiency.”6 Those who viewed police as provocative and hostile to the public applauded reduced police presence and discretion. Controlled by the central dispatch, police could respond to the desires of the community rather than enforce their own “arbitrary” concepts of “acceptable” behavior. Police officers, for their part, enjoyed the comforts of the automobile and the prestige associated with new technology. Citizens, rather than being encouraged to maintain community standards, were urged to stay behind locked doors and call 911. Car patrol eliminated the neighborhood police officer. Police were pulled off neighborhood beats to fill cars. But motorized patrol—the cornerstone of urban policing—has no effect on crime rates, victimization, or public satisfaction.” (1371)
This has encouraged a detachment of officers from the communities they police. Quick response time becomes the goal and officers spend time in their car waiting to be “activated” on 911 calls. The only interaction between officers and residents is limited to such 911 call responses, which can all potentially lead to confrontations. But that is still the way policing is done and the way it is taught at the academies, guided by the three “R”s:
- Random patrol: give the illusion of omnipresence by changing patrol patterns
- Rapid response: act quickly, catch the criminals (doesn’t work)
- Reactive investigation: solve crimes rather than prevent them
But the institutional context very poorly accounts for the interaction rituals that guide the interaction between officers and residents:
“Police officers usually know whether a group of suspects is actively, occasionally, or never involved with selling drugs. Some residents, often elderly, believe that all youths, particularly those who present themselves as “thug” or “ghetto,” are involved with drug dealing. If police respond to a call for a group of people known not to be criminals, police will approach politely. If the group seems honestly surprised to see the police, they may be given some presumption of innocence. An officer could ask if everything is all right or if the group knows any reason why the police would have been called. If the suspects are unknown to a police officer, the group’s response to police attention is used as the primary clue. Even with a presumption of guilt, a group that walks away without being prompted will generally be allowed to disperse. If a group of suspects challenges police authority through language or demeanor, the officer is compelled to act. This interaction is so ritualized that it resembles a dance.
If temporary dispersal of a group is the goal, the mere arrival of a patrol car should be all that is needed. Every additional step, from stopping the car to exiting the car to questioning people on the street, known as a “field interview,” is a form of escalation on the part of the police officer. Aware of the symbolism and ritual of such actions, police establish a pattern in which a desired outcome is achieved quickly, easily, and with a minimum of direct confrontation. Rarely is there any long-term impact. When a police officer slows his or her car down in front of the individuals, the suspects know the officer is there for them and not just passing through on the way to other business. If a group of suspects does not disperse when an officer “rolls up,” the officer will stop the car and stare at the group. A group may ignore the officer’s look or engage the officer in a stare-off, known in police parlance as “eye fucking.” This officer’s stare serves the dual purpose of scanning for contraband and weapons and simultaneously declaring dominance over turf. An officer will initiate, often aggressively, conversation from the car and ask where the suspects live and if they have any identification. Without proof of residence, the suspects will be told to leave and threatened with arrest. If the group remains or reconvenes, they are subject to a loitering arrest. Police officers always assert their right to control public space. Every drug call to which police respond—indeed all police dealings with social or criminal misbehavior—will result in the suspect’s arrest, departure, or deference.” (1494 – 1507)
And a great deal of these interactions are also guided by the need, on both sides, to not lose face, be seen as weak or easily punked. These interactional factors may often determine whether an officer gets out of his car or not, sometimes triggering contempt from the residents. So, officers tend to like car patrols as opposed to foot patrols which are tiring, leave one vulnerable to the elements, and potentially preventing crime. Rapid response is easier and more popular with officers. People commit crimes, you get there fast, you arrest them.
Overall, Moskos advocates for greater police discretion and more focus on quality of life issues as opposed to rapid response while acknowledging that this is not without problems. I don’t think there ever were a golden age of policing where communities and law enforcement worked harmoniously together for the greater good and the end of broken windows (a discredited theory not questioned by Moskos), especially when minorities were involved.
But the bottom line, for Moskos, that the current War on Drugs is a massive failure and a waste of resources (and Moskos does go into some details of the history of drug policies and enforcement in the US, a useful reminder of the racialization of public policy) and should be replaced by a variety of policies (not all drugs are the same) with three goes in mind:
- preservation of life (current policies increase the dangerous nature of drugs)
- reduce incarceration
- save money (through reduced incarceration, depenalization and taxation).
“We changed our country’s culture toward cigarette smoking. It took effort and did cost money. But most of the money came from legally taxed revenue and the cigarette companies. High taxation discourages new users from starting. Public service messages tell the truth (mostly) about the harms of tobacco. Not only is this a great victory for public health, it is perhaps our country’s only success against any pop u lar addictive drug. Drug policies could follow a similar approach: tax drug sales; treat drug abuse as a medical and social problem; set realistic goals of reduced drug use; and allow localities control over their own drug policies.
Simply decriminalizing possession is not enough. Legalization must not allow armed drug-dealing thugs to operate with impunity.” (2686 – 91)
Now, none of this deals with urban ghettoization and the lack of economic opportunities in inner cities but that it is not really the goal of criminal policy. This also means that the incentives for officers to do counter-productive work need to be changed and we all know that bureaucracies are not easy to transform. In such cases, resistance is not futile.
So, even though I don’t fully agree with all of Moskos’s recommendations and ideas (I am much more suspect of police discretion than he is), I recommend the book as it does provide extensive food for thought.