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Life On The Streets?

Police Sociologist and Criminal Justice Professor Writes About His Experience as a Baltimore Cop

Jennifer Daniel

By John Barry | Posted 7/23/2008

Cop in the Hood, by Peter Moskos, is probably going to raise eyebrows even before anyone cracks the page. A then-28-year-old Harvard University-educated, New York-based assistant professor joined the Baltimore Police Department force for 20 months in 2000-2001. Then he headed back to New York. Now, as The Wire ends, he writes a book about his 14 months in the Eastern District--almost a decade ago. Is there any reason anyone from Baltimore would want to read this?

Moskos, speaking over the phone from his office at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, acknowledges that, initially, Baltimore had nothing to do with his plans. In 1999, as a research project, he had been planning to spend a year as an embedded observer of a big-city police force. Baltimore was the one city that took him up on his project, with one caveat: He would have to join the police force if he really wanted to study it close up. Thus began six months of training and 14 months as an officer on the night shift in the Eastern District. Those months on active duty form the body of Cop in the Hood, in which, as the press release puts it, "former Baltimore police officer turned professor, Peter Moskos, shares the inner-workings of police patrol in a high-crime ghetto."

Calling Moskos a "former police officer turned professor" is a bit of a stretch. As a graduate student at Harvard, he knew virtually nothing about Baltimore as a city--except, of course, for the crime rate. And he had underestimated that.

"I knew on paper that there were a lot of killings," he says. "But I didn't realize how many people were being shot."

The statistic that he cites in his book speaks for itself: In the Eastern District, 10 percent of the male population is murdered before the age of 35. "I keep wondering myself if it's that high," he says. "But even that doesn't take into account the people who are hurt in the game. The mortality rate is astounding."

As a critic of the justice system, Moskos decided to engage this dysfunction from a very local level, from the perspective of an officer on the street. As an officer, he became a cog in the machine, patrolling Broadway, from Orleans Street to North Avenue, on the night beat. He was in a position where arrest numbers are the only measurement of success, and where career officers have every incentive to haul kids off the street, send them to Central Booking, and then get overtime while sitting outside Baltimore Circuit Court. The routine, as he describes it, is deadening, even in the notorious Eastern District.

"Roll call is 11:30 [p.m.]," he says. "You start--well, if there's not a backup of calls, you hopefully start by picking up a coffee at Dunkin' Donuts. But then you start by picking up the calls. In large part, you spend a lot of time clearing corners, telling drug dealers to get off the corner. You tell them to go away and they leave. Then they come back, and the process sort of repeats. Clearing corners, I guess, is what makes a cop a cop. In the Eastern District, you learn that quickly."

So Cop really isn't about Baltimore, or about Moskos. It's a critique of a reactive approach to justice, which, in the early '00s, was rampant in Baltimore. "Under Norris"-- Edward Norris, the police commissioner while Moskos was on the force--"There was the idea that we could just arrest our way out of the problem," Moskos says. "It was all about stats and not about actual strategy."

For Moskos, strategy is one thing the U.S. justice system needs more of. The indiscriminately aggressive approaches to policing, he says, can hurt more than help. For instance, he looks at the Stop Fuckin' Snitchin' DVDs as symptomatic of a highly unfocused war on drugs. "Stop Snitchin' was a response to one of those things that Norris did," Moskos says. "Every time he made an arrest, he would bring a person to the station, and they would be interrogated by a detective. So there was a huge increase in trying to get people to snitch. Because that's how they could reduce sentences."

He understands why policing is a job that, within a few years, can become a burden for anyone hoping to do anything for the neighborhood. "Day in and day out, it was pretty much policemen doing their job," Moskos says. "In a somewhat crappy organization." And, even after 14 months, it wore him out quickly. "You tell the same [drug dealers] on the same corners to leave, and they come back, and after a few years you've got to move on."

And officers who hope to develop stable relationships with the community, he says, are hampered by the nature of the job. Residents "like to trust officers, people whose names they know," he says. "But it's hard. Part of the problem is that, as a police officer, you can't stray too far from your car. You always have to be on call."

Sticking to the facts is what a statistician does, and Moskos has no interest in trying to juice things up with descriptions or dramatizations. His brief turn as an officer didn't result in any major standoffs. He never fired his gun. Basically, like most cops, he cleared people off the corner, waited for them to return, and cleared them off again. What is genuine, and rings through, is his bewilderment at the drab logic of the system, as he got to view it close-up: arrest, arrest, arrest, usually without hope of conviction, until the prison system is jammed to the point of dysfunction.

"You've got to have some arrests," he says. "But they should be discretionary. But in the police world, arrests are good, period. And that's part of the problem. If you tell me to arrest three people a night, and I do, that's not going to accomplish anything. You'll just get three people every night and have them spend the night in Central Booking."

As a New York resident, Moskos has been a close student of that city's approach to crime and, for the most part, he thinks that Baltimore has something to learn from it. It can all be reduced to one word: strategy. Moskos says former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani knew what he wanted to do, and then went out and did it. That included busting squeegee men and shuttling homeless people out of the city. Does cleaning up Columbus Circle mean things actually got better? Moskos doesn't get into that can of worms.

The point is, "they had a strategy behind it," Moskos says. "They addressed specific things in New York. They started with subways, turnstile jumping, and they got a lot of criminals that way. And that's different from just cracking down mindlessly." New York also made a concerted effort to drive the drug trade off the streets and into houses. "In New York, they pushed a lot of drug dealing inside--and off the corner."

He thinks Baltimore should focus on a simple goal as well: getting dealers off the corners. His own experience as a cop, he says, indicates that Baltimore's high murder rate may be a direct result of a fractured drug market that has been driven out onto the streets, where violence becomes more random. Drug houses, he says, may be the answer. "If you can sell drugs in your house and your neighbors don't complain--if you can do it and no one knows about it--I don't really have a problem about it," Moskos says. In his experience, with their aggressive and high-profile house searches, police were encouraging the outdoor market. That made it economically viable for Baltimoreans to take the trade out into the street.

"The reason people deal drugs on the street is in large part because the risks are lower," Moskos says. "When you have a drug squad in your house, you know, they're going to leave your house a mess. It's a real hassle. The worst thing that happens on a street corner is you get locked up."

He also has a problem with the Baltimore police force's car-based culture. "I would like to have more officers on foot . . . not just a smile and wave brigade. Part of the problem now is that foot patrol is punishment."

He even has a few suggestions for increasing the number of on-foot officers. "Offer the cops the gas money that they don't burn," he says. "If you offer 20 bucks for every shift they don't drive, you're going to have a lot more cops on foot. On more grand level, they should promote officers to foot patrol. Look, if the public wants foot patrol, why not give it to them?"

And Moskos would suggest a little more money for the court system, which he says is "woefully underfunded" and overloaded with prisoners who are given three or four postponements before being brought to trial. "You've got correctional officers unions who want more prisons and longer sentences," he says. "Prisons provide jobs. Police speak for themselves and other people talk for them, [but] no one really speaks up for the courts, because, primarily they serve criminals and no one cares."

This all becomes, literally, academic, especially when you remember that Moskos is talking about Baltimore nine years ago. His approach has the virtues and the flaws of a doctoral thesis, because it is one. Baltimore in the early '00s under Ed Norris was his controlled lab for the war on drugs. Like any thesis, the closure is artificial. Baltimore, for Moskos, is the Eastern District. And despite his experience on the street, none of it seemed to involve close contact with citizens.

So why dust it off and get it published in 2008? It's fair to say that Moskos, or at least his publisher, felt that now was the time. If you're looking for a detached, inside angle on life in the Baltimore police force, that's still to come. Moskos isn't a police officer. He isn't from Baltimore. And he doesn't have plans to return. But there's also a reason to read Cop in the Hood. For Moskos, Baltimore is part of something bigger: an ineffective war on drugs that has made the problem worse. If you want to see that perspective from the angle of the streets without the high-flown prose, this thin, scrupulously researched book will do the trick.

Editor's Note: Moskos was an officer in the Eastern District from 2000 to 2001, not 1999 as previously stated in the article. That means that it has been seven years since he was an officer, not nine, as reported in the story. In addition, he was 28 years old when he was hired, not 24. City Paper regrets the errors.

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