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What is police work?
We all know the answer. We've seen the cop shows and the dramas on what we once called the "silver screen." Short of the comings and goings of Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, or Billy the Kid, is there any line of work we know—or think we know—more about than the cop's world?
The conceit of this effort is to prove this supposition bankrupt, and dangerously so.
Outwardly, the functions of America's urban police are straightforward—to combat street crime, respond to emergencies, and regulate traffic. We don't have a uniformed national police. Sophisticated depredations such as those of bankers, Mafiosi, international terrorists, and brokers are left to specialized federal and sometimes state agencies.
By street crime we mean muggings, break-ins, assaults, murder, car theft, rape, drug offenses, other thefts, and the myriad acts we encounter, usually on our streets, that have been officially proscribed. We are codified—which, as a practical matter, means that if you can find an act that, while hideously offensive, has not yet been formally legally forbidden, you can perform it with impunity. Good luck. We do have thousands and thousands of codes and the odds are good they will, like Procrustes' bed, find one to fit your circumstances.
I learned, early on, just how encompassing the law could be.
On a bleak November Sunday in 1955 my partner and I received a report of a DOA found on thedeserted beach in Coney Island. The case came to us because the dead lady's address was in our precinct, the Chelsea section of Manhattan.
There were no signs of violence on the well-dressed, meticulously made-up young woman—white and in her thirties.
Our investigation led to an apartment the deceased shared with two other young women, one of whom was named Eroica, after Beethoven's Third Symphony. We separated them and lied that we were investing the case as a homicide and hinted darkly at their implication; the two women hastily explained what happened.
They'd returned home Friday to discover their roommate dead, apparently of a drug overdose. Pursuing a busy social schedule, they went out Friday and Saturday, leaving the corpse to rest. On Sunday they enlisted a male friend to carry the body to a car and drove her to Brooklyn, where they dumped the now dressed and carefully cosmeticized friend on the beach.
The autopsy confirmed the cause of death so all we had was a simple DOA. The facts, though, were egregious and shocking.
We consulted an assistant district attorney who, sure enough, found in the Medical Examiner's Section of the Administrative Code the offense "it shall be unlawful to transport a dead human body without a permit." It was a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and/or a $500 fine. This was do doubt a vestigial trace of the days when grave robbers furnished medical schools with cadavers.
The three—two roommates and the glom they'd impressed into service—were charged. They hired a lawyer.
Every court appearance was much the same—a bored judge called the trivial issue up and his or her eyes would widen at the recitation of the facts. Not wanting to resolve such a serious case too frivolously, judge after judge continued the case. At last, one judge resolved it—finding the three guilty and sentencing them to six months in jail.
The Third Symphony became the first classical recording I'd buy.
The operative principle was that, if it looked seriously wrong, the chances were good that an arcane law could be found to match the transgression.
Service, as in the national formula of "To Protect and To Serve," basically encompasses the panoply of reasons for which we call 911. And I grew up, halfway at least, in a system that had never, until early 1967, even heard of an easily remembered three-digit number to use in emergencies. Now 911 needs only its invocation to produce total familiarity with its promise. Everyone knows what it is.
Controlling traffic flow is easier to understand, at least until such complexities as "driving while black" and its related racial profiling are thrown into the mix.
It develops then, or it will, that such edifying and chiseled pursuits as chasing muggers, responding to injuries, and regulating traffic, the police department's mandate ought to be reasonably simple to direct and carry out.
Why, then, the terrible controversies and public hand-wringings attending so many areas in our lives in which the police are concerned?
It is kind of remarkable how cops take a callow youth and transform him into a compliant member of the cult.
It starts with graduation from a police academy that basically serves as an apprenticeship for the development of the essential skills needed to function. Once acquired, the acolyte is turned over to a "hairbag" (in the NYPD, a wizened pro) to teach him the ropes.
Acculturation invariably starts with a slogan that rarely varies by a syllable, "Forget about the bullshit they taught you at the academy, kid; this is the real world." Next comes an introduction into a universe whose existence is not suspected—not even by the recruit. The values are transmitted and reinforced, in an endless series of proddings, hints, examples, and nods.
"Stand-up gays," who protect the brethren, keep quiet, and back you up, are proudly pointed out; and pariahs among the force come in all shapes, sizes, and levels of opprobrium, sharing only the visceral contempt of their associates.
It's okay to be a little weird. Deviance can be tolerated, if it doesn't threaten the group.
"Rats" are scorned, shunned, excluded, condemned, harassed, and, almost invariably, cast out. No back-up for them. They literally find cheese in their lockers. Unwanted items are delivered to their homes. The phone rings at all hours—followed by menacing silences, anonymous imprecations, or surprisingly inventive epithets. The police radio crackles with invective. The message is eloquent and pervasive.
Remarkably, the brass joins in.
It soon becomes clear that, just as threats to authority are put down with swift and sure punishments (e.g., uniform violations such as wearing some unallowed item or doffing a hat, or challenging a superior, or other forms of truculence), violations against group cohesion and protection, for whatever motive, are snuffed out quickly even when—actually, especially when—they carry the offensive odor of reform or attempts to uncover wrongdoing in the ranks.
The Mafia never enforced its code of blood-sworn omerta with the ferocity, efficacy, and enthusiasm the police bring to the Blue Code of Silence.
Stand-up guys and gals have balls. This includes silence or support. It does not include contradiction or exposure.
Cops are physically brave. Cowardice is an unthinkable option and an unmentionable word. It is as if it is so unacceptable as to be unacknowledged as a possibility. In thirty-six years in that world, I saw only one certifiable instance of cowardice—when a cop abandoned a partner in a close-encounter gun battle, and was fired.
Very often the "thumpers," the quick-fisted, violent cop leaders on the street, are the first through the door, the first to show up to give blood to a fallen mate, the loudest in asserting group interests, and the untitled vanguard setting the tone within the ranks. They sometimes achieve titles, too, but usually in union posts.
We are accustomed to equating courage with nobility but, in the police world, the bravest are often the most brutal. And, because of their willing immersion in the sometimes awful realities of policing, they are widely admired by others in the ranks. Ask any cop to define a "great cop" and, if he or she gives you an honest answer, it will be laced with adjectives that, to an uninitiated ear, might prove borderline cruel or even shockingly aggressive.
"Active cops," or the cops who make the most collars and get the most action on the street, often have records marked by troubling signposts of brutality, productive arrest and citation records, and medals for heroism. These cops communicate a mixed and even incomprehensible message to the civilian world. They can be either heroes or sadists—or both.
It has been said that policing offers a ringside seat on the greatest show on earth.
What is that show?
It is the human animal in dishabille—drunk, violent, battered or battering, sexually exposed (in such resplendent variety as to impoverish the imagination), and at his worst, lowest, meanest, most vulnerable, and revealing. Policing provides a fascinating look at the real animal beneath the patina of civilization we conceitedly assume to be our true nature. The cops are society's charnel house cleaners and are privy to our goriest secrets.
Cops come into secret knowledge by being admitted into our secret acts. Cops don't bother to speculate whether this or that person could possibly kill another; they see that, rubbed hard enough, anyone could—and often does—kill.
Cops learn that psychos are dangerous and frequently possessed of superhuman strength fueled by manic-driven adrenaline rushes and the power of even small, slight people under its influence can reach incredible levels. When they try explaining this they are usually met with uncomprehending stares. The cops think, Well, fine, you go and respond to the knife-wielding maniac in the corridor and I'll go home. But they can't.
Cops know that fans at a ballpark can turn into rioters, and parade watchers can transform into manhandlers of women.
So they learn to act, cover their asses, back each other up, and say nothing.
The underbelly of the human beast reveals not only insights that produce profound cynicism, but oftentimes even black humor. The enduring hallmark of every cop's character is, in fact, the very antithesis of the contemptible naïf—cynicism. There are many strange birds in the police world, but no naive turkeys. There have been learned studies of police cynicism, which is the one characteristic unfailingly transmitted by the experience of policing.
Cops, by learning just how very thin the veneer of civilization is over every human's psychic skin, know what that animal is capable of. Cops come in all shapes, sizes, and attitudes—in a wild profusion of varieties—but they share one quality: the sobering knowledge of human possibilities, and this cannot be observed without engendering a profound skepticism, caution, or suspicion. This soon, unfortunately, changes into cynicism.
Cynicism, in this hard world, frequently finds its expressions in black humor that may feature body parts, sexual functions, or other rough passages.
Young cops excitedly share their thrilling discoveries with those near to them and are silently appalled when they discover that "civilians" don't get it. Even loved one are outsiders. Their laughter comes, if at all, in the wrong places. The flow of questions reveals the gap between their worlds, and the judgments offered can be harsh and unexpected.
Quickly, a cop learns that only other cops understand. This bond brings them closer. Soon they are vacationing together, bowling, eating, and, sometimes, sleeping together. Shared excitement and danger tightens the connection.
There are few more unifying experiences than sharing a moment of risk in the early morning hours and depending on your buddies to cover your back. It is something understood also by men and women in combat.
Gradually and through repeated reinforcements or sanctions, the young cop is shaped into an acceptable member of a very insular fraternity. The pressures to conform are inexorable, the pleasures of membership exhilarating, and the pains of exclusion excruciating.
The entire process of acculturation takes a few years of responding to calls, encountering the dangerous or unpredictable spikes that dot the often boring landscape, and shared moments that form the basis for bedrock attachments.
Ask any cop who his best friend is and if the answer is anything but "my partner" you are looking at a troubled worker. Cops' wives recite the complaint that their husbands care more for their partners than they do for their spouses.
The advent of women in the ranks has changed the inner reality in some ways. They are now, after a quarter century of entering in numbers, often a civilizing presence in a harsh, formerly all-male environment. A few have also given literal expression to the love cops feel for their partners, in acceptable forms. There is a bit of "friggin' in the riggin'," in the words of the late Admiral Elmo Zumwalt.
Such a thing as "the police character" exists uniquely because of the power of the institution to shape and condition its members. This is the process of inuring the psyche to gore and repulsiveness, overcoming the inhibitions normally applied to the use of violence, and drawing on cynicism as a way of assessing the human animal's potential to wreak havoc.
A suspicious nature leads to the discovery of the evil behind innocent appearances. It is a useful tool. Cops evolve into veterans by developing the mechanisms essential to their effective functioning, even as these approaches strike dissonant chords with the larger community.
Although cops are shaped into cynics, it is indisputable that, in general, a certain identifiable segment is attracted to police work and this might be described as the more macho segment of the blue-collar population.
The masculine police world is aggressively libidinous. What this means is that contacts with women—at traffic stops, for example—have to be monitored and controlled. It also means a higher-than-normal level of sensitivity is essential to combat sexual harassment or exploitation within the ranks. Like the military, the world of cops is too often given to the excesses of sexual predators—at all levels and ranks.
In the end, the result—the formation of the hardened cop—occurs from the hundreds of blows struck and caresses bestowed by an organization endlessly reinforcing the messages that insure its survival and which protect the secrets essential to that viability.
Cops also learn that moral courage is not prized.
A thumper declaims, "The job (surprisingly this is the universal appellation the cops give their profession, as if no other form of employment could be contemplated) sucks; the chief is a psycho; we're going to hell in a handbasket and morale has never been lower than at this precise minute." These are among the usually accepted internal verities. It would be unthinkable for any other cop in the room to contradict such assertions, even if a contrary view is deeply felt and possible to demonstrate.
The moral courage to stand up and disagree or to point out wrongdoing or to remonstrate when someone is committing a brutal or corrupt act has been systematically exorcised from the body. Nothing is rarer than dissidents publicly disagreeing with their colleagues about the codes of conduct, as is clearly evident from the cover-ups and studied silences accompanying serious acts of wrongdoing. Whistle blowers, reformers, and other troublemakers are "snitches and rat finks" and all ranks are to close against these menaces.
Not one of the scores of LAPD cops witnessing or participating in the assault on Rodney King, a black male, in March 1991, interceded to stop the brutality or volunteered to come forward to testify against colleagues who were clearly involved in an egregious criminal act.
Frank Serpico peddled his case against corruption within the ranks of the NYPD, first to the very authorities charged with attacking such problems. He was a plainclothes cop assigned to enforce vice, gambling, and liquor violations in 1971 and—remarkably and uniquely—apalled to discover corruption in the ranks. He was shocked to discover the studied indifference of NYPD executives who had carefully nurtured reputations as the very nemeses of rogue cops.
Serpico then took his case of gambling payoffs and other crimes to the NYPD's superiors at City Hall but, unwilling to rile the cops with another long, hot summer in the offing, with its threat of more riots in Harlem, got sloughed off again.
It was not until he went to the New York Times' ace police reporter, David Burnham, and the story appeared on page one, that officialdom was reluctantly galvanized into real action.
The mayor appointed the Knapp Commission. He named Patrick V. Murphy the one and only reform police commissioner in the department's recent history; he, incidentally lasted only thirty months. Murphy was given the peg on which to hang a series of sweeping changes that, by his exit in May 1973, had the NYPD at unprecedented levels of cleanliness in terms of systemic brutality and corruption. Individual, ad hoc acts would continue to bedevil the agency, as they do all organizations, but the worst connections had been shattered. The department thereafter lived off these dramatic changes as it drifted back into such behaviors, as we will explore anon.
ROTTEN AND OTHER APPLES
So what is a citizen to make of all of this?
A scandal breaks and the chief trots out the favored litany, "The vast majority of our cops are honest, dedicated public servants. These guys [the accused] are just a few rotten apples in an otherwise healthy barrel." This hoary phrase has served police execs faithfully since Bobby Peel started the bobbies.
The truth, however, is otherwise.
The overwhelming majority of cops are dedicated, noble workers, but the unstated truth is that they are all complicit in the code of silence. This includes the determination to cover up for each other, at least for as long as the charges don't include organizational "betrayals," as we see, and which others might call "whistle blowing."
As the rookie is conditioned he has to be offered a menu of choices. He can stay reasonably clean and uninvolved and continue to function or he can partake of the goodies. The great majority choose noninvolvement in the raunchier pursuits but get along by going along with the demand for silence and, sometimes, backing up the accused cop. In the latter case the preferred strategy is blissful ignorance: "I wasn't there," or "I didn't see it," or some variation thereof. To the degree possible, associates are supported but in no case are they to be contradicted.
And therein lies the problem. The Code of Silence demands full and total participation. It is the price of admission and by accepting it, as all do—even those destined to rise in the ranks or who are already there—they become tainted. Even the cops who stay totally out of the seamier aspects, who wouldn't even accept a free cup of coffee, must be a part of the code of silence or risk the scorn—and worse—of all the members.
Thus policing becomes a sort of permanent, floating conspiracy of insiders against the larger public without. The clean and the unclean can be described as the "grass eaters" and the "meat eaters" (the more ferocious and aggressive members).
One curious artifact of this culture is that court records abound with sworn assurances from countless cops and chiefs that they'd never heard of a code of silence and that it doesn't exist. No judge in America, however, is free of the knowledge of this unspoken code and a host of other brazen police mendacities.
THE CODE AND TESTILYING
I received a call recently from a federal judge who interrupted a trial midway through its course when three cops testified, one after the other, that they'd never heard of the code and that it didn't exist.
A search warrant for drugs was being executed on an apartment when a black woman walked by on the sidewalk in front of the building. She was swept up and roughly rushed into the apartment, strip-searched, and after an hour reluctantly released. She, to everyone's surprise, sued. No one expected a "street person" to complain.
Now the cops, under oath, described the textbook perfection of the warrant's execution and justified the detention of the woman as reasonable and good police practice. When they added the palpable fiction that no such code of silence existed, the judge "just lost it." He stopped the proceedings and called to see if I'd testify in the case as a neutral expert witness. I accepted.
I met with the lawyers immediately.
The city attorney for the cops had been perfectly content to have a compliant jury, very likely mostly white, sop up the police fictions. He knew that white America loves and trusts its cops, whatever the police protestations to the contrary. Now he blanched visibly as I described the gravamen of my forthcoming testimony.
The next day the judge called to thank me and to tell me to stop my work on the case. The cops' lawyer had hied to the city rulers and spelled out what is, in another euphemism, artfully described as the city's "potential exposure." The city decided to settle lest they be depicted in the media as racists. I was sure the settlement would be a high figure. The judge told me the city was giving the woman a quarter of a million dollars and paying her legal fees, as well as mine. I received $1,233 for my efforts.
So much for the sanctity of the cops' sworn testimony.
The cops call this "testilying." Clearly they feel no shame in it.
Yes, it turns out to be true—the barrel does contain mostly healthy apples but these are content to live in uneasy symbiosis with the rotten.
MESSAGES TO COPS
Cops work within a social context that, while dry and dull as dust, needs to be described and analyzed if the police are to be understood.
The police enforce laws (which are nothing more than the written expressions of societal values) in a society that divides with increasing sharpness along age, race, and wealth fault lines.
The chasm between rich and poor widens by every measure and the attempts to erase the graduated income tax constitute the elite's most formidable Trojan horse in this effort. Eliminating the "death tax" is another blatant attempt at accelerating the widening chasm.
Although many black citizens are making it, any statistical analysis demonstrates that the vast majority are sinking deeper into the slough of poverty and despondency. Measures of wealth distribution and poverty reflect a bifurcating society, along both money and race lines.
A study released in August 2000 by the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbus University revealed that child poverty is higher, in all but a few states, than it was twenty years ago. More than 13 million children live in homes where the income, for a family of four, is under $17,050. This is three million more children than in 1979, or about the time when we decided the war on poverty had indeed been lost.
Seniors vote and juniors don't, which is why poverty centers on the young. The presence of females as single heads of poverty-stricken households, disproportionately in this population of the underclass, also speaks to their persistent plight. The result is social security, Medicare, and lower death taxes at the geriatric level and homelessness at the jejune. Blacks appear prominently in all statistics reflecting social, economic, and even political distress. Were they, for example, to vote with the same enthusiasm as white seniors, their victimization would be sharply reduced.
Travel the Sun Belt and observe an army of seniors in carefree repose on the quest for pleasure in caravans of recreational vehicles. There, state income taxes are low to nonexistent; senior athletic programs, with cultural facilities, are ubiquitous and cheap; real estate taxes are low amidst a general air of care for their well-being. Sales taxes, however, which strike with disproportionate ferocity at the poor—are uniformly high. Gambling, a sort of stealth tax on the poor and uneducated, can be found everywhere.
The other side of the coin are inadequately funded schools, a dearth of public housing, inferior medical care for the poor, harsh welfare policies, and a general scorn for "socialist" measures. The ultimate payers are the juniors and the blacks. There is not a single advanced nation—whether Denmark, Canada, Japan, or Australia—that offers its citizens the paucity of government support and programs that we do.
The transfer of wealth, from young to old, can be seen and heard in the debates over school funding and the other services provided by governments. The fewer the services, the more citizens get to keep of their money. Who can object? The result, however, is to consign the underclass to further depths of despair.
Even the attacks on welfare rolls accelerate the transfer of wealth from the underclass to the overclass. Surpluses induced by savings from shrinking welfare costs get transferred to the wealthier in the form of tax cuts. And if there weren't enough breaks for the haves, among the more popular ideas in Washington is the elimination of capital gains and death taxes, or the elimination of the federal income tax altogether. In 1998, a Republican Congress trotted out "victims" of IRS harassment and bullying in a highly publicized series of hearings.
If ever an agency was demonized it was the tax collector.
Two years later, the audit by Treasury's inspector general revealed that claims of abuse were bogus—mainly—and the politicians reluctantly granted they had overreacted. Enforcement, however, declined and IRS employees were described as demoralized. It had been another attempt at killing this federal program. In the end the clear winners were the tax dodgers.
The unprecedented boom of the nineties and the welfare reforms that accompanied it produced some salutary effects. Unemployment among black males was reduced to about 7 percent, or about triple that of white males. Yet in 2000, the jail and prison populations reached a record of 2 million—an undreamed-of total only a decade ago.
The economy itself mirrored the wider society in the contrasts it created and exacerbated. High-end jobs further enriched the top 5 percent, and low-skilled jobs mired the bottom 20 percent in poverty. The chasm of economic disparity widened, reflecting an educational inequality that featured, at one end, the world's busiest and most competitive institutions and, on the other, disgraceful warrens of ignorance and neglect.
Reducing capital gains taxes and increasing estate exemptions and profits from the sales of residences (every two years and one day, an interesting incentive to "serial builders" of their own homes) greatly aided the elite. It is possible in twenty-first-century America to build a residence, live in it for two years and one day, and sell it—pocketing up to a $500,000 gain with no tax liability. It is one yummy tax shelter and it can be repeated without limit. The principal benefit for the working poor was the "earned income tax credit" that largely exempted the first $25,000 or so of salary from federal income taxes. They still had to face the social security tax.
Welfare time limits postponed the reckoning and served as a ticking time bomb within the body politic.
While external, if no longer existent, threats were met with lavish and increasing expenditures on defense, the more serious problems of internal danger—from crime, riots, and other violence—received very short shrift, It wasn't even an item of serious discussion during the 2000 presidential campaign.
The surface was deceptively becalmed but the forces of social dissolution waxed, unseen, unattended, and unchecked, below the surface.
Less than half our eligibles vote, even in presidential elections, and the majority of these are suburbanites and elderly, as well as white. The vote of an elite in this diminished landscape gives their ballots twice the weight. Less than a quarter of potential voters decide our presidents—and the better-educated, richer, older, and whiter Americans are well aware of this fact.
Something that looks suspiciously like nascent class struggle is being played out in our public life, and the special interests aren't lobbying for the shirtless.
Much as it clashes with our egalitarian myths and ambitions, America has a growing underclass amidst unparalleled prosperity and, of course, a rarely named overclass provides the marching orders for the police. According to the United States Treasury, the distribution of net worth from 1983 to 1998 went from 33.8 percent to 38.1 percent for the top 1 percent of America's earners. The median net worth of families rose to over $80,000 for whites and to $10,000 for blacks.
Cops know that property rights are sacred. Attend any neighborhood rally in which any police concern is expressed and you'll soon hear the totemic "property values" concern expressed. The NIMBY (not in my backyard) factor is a variation of this theme.
The overclass wants—rightly, it must be said—order, but it also wants tidiness. It does not want to encounter unappetizing or threatening visions. Messages are transmitted in evolving and usually carefully woven euphemisms. "Law and order" gave way to "those people," and currently the threat is "gangs and outsiders." The cops get it. They'd better.
The overclass will not admit that its practices of privilege and exclusion create pressures for the underclass that drive it to revolt. This takes the form of street crime and, occasionally dotted over our history, riots. Unable to escape the ghetto's oppressions, some of its denizens succumb to drugs and alcohol.
The cops love what they do and they swallow the bitter pills, protect and serve, and stay and stay. Policing is about the stablest career imaginable, notwithstanding the police unions' periodic invocation of the myth of the exodus, the notion that cops are hard to hire and those in the ranks are on the verge of leaving—en masse.
Police work means being given a front row seat in the great drama of life. Any human would find such a privileged perch fascinating.
|2||A Police Career||29|
|4||The War on Drugs and Other Addictions||49|
|6||Crime Fighting As Myth||73|
|13||The National Scene||148|
|14||Sweeps, Roundups, and Other Abuses||166|
|17||The Internal Climate||202|
|18||Cops: Individually and En Masse||213|
|19||Reforms: Without and Within||234|
|20||Issues across the Landscape||241|
|21||Self-Improvement and Management||266|
Posted April 16, 2012
great writing. You'll need a dictionary, probably. In my opinion on the most well rounded balanced books about police culture and politics. I have read other books and liked them; However, Bouza explains the why and how in detail and I appreciate the transitions between chapters. The last sentence of one chapter sets up the next chapter. This was clever. It was also interesting to read his experiences in two different cities, NYC and Minneapolis. Good Stuff. I actually respects cops more now feeling that there truly are many good cops - I had become cynical over the last 15 years because of personal experiences here in the Deep South, Alabama. There are some disturbing practices especially in small rural towns. It's downright dangerous to be a citizen. I'm White but I challenged the status quo's racism and it was not tolerated.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.