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Cop in the Hood: My Year Policing Baltimore's Eastern District

Cop in the Hood: My Year Policing Baltimore's Eastern District

by Peter Moskos


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Cop in the Hood: My Year Policing Baltimore's Eastern District

"A devastating critique of America's failed war on drugs. Cop in the Hood is a powerful and truly unique document in the sociology of criminal justice. Using an original blend of personal experience, adroit cultural interpretation, and hard-edged sociological analysis, Moskos sympathetically dissects the social context of the drug users' world, and shows us this tragedy close up from the police perspective."--Orlando Patterson, Harvard University"Cop in the Hood is a thoughtful, highly entertaining record of a police officer's year spent patrolling one of the country's toughest urban districts, delivered by Moskos, who wore the uniform. For those who are interested in crime and how things work, and for readers seeking a reasoned look at the war on drugs and its implications, this is the handbook."--George Pelecanos, writer and producer for The Wire"This riveting tale of policing begins honestly and continues with great sincerity and pathos. A sensitive and timely account of the daily trials of police work by someone who knows Baltimore's streets firsthand, Cop in the Hood challenges journalists, social scientists, and others who profess knowledge of the inner city to walk those streets before making bold declarations and righteous claims for policy and redress. A must-read."--Sudhir Venkatesh, author of Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets"Peter Moskos, a sociologist by training, somewhat inadvertently became a police officer. Cop in the Hood is the fortuitous and fascinating result. It gives the reader the real dope from someone with the training and ability to put the street into the larger context. Highly recommended."--Alex Tabarrok, George MasonUniversity, cofounder of"Cop in the Hood is an extremely valuable study centered on patrolling a drug-infested Baltimore police district. Readers interested in drug policy, criminology, or policing cannot help but to learn a lot from this book. I know that I did, and I am grateful to the author. Many of his insights are eye-opening. His voice is unique and essential in debates concerning drug-policy reforms."--Jim Leitzel, University of Chicago

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691143866
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 08/23/2009
Edition description: With a New afterword by the author
Pages: 280
Sales rank: 248,267
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Peter Moskos is assistant professor of law, police science, and criminal justice administration at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and at the City University of New York's Doctoral Program in Sociology. He is a former Baltimore City police officer.

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My Year Policing Baltimore's Eastern District


Copyright © 2008 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4008-2820-3

Chapter One

The Departed

Just what I needed, is a college boy.... What's your degree? ... Sociology? You'll go far. That's if you live.... Just don't let your college degree get you killed. -Clint Eastwood as Harry Callahan in Dirty Harry, 1971

Most days I don't miss being a cop; being a professor is a better job. But I do miss working with people willing to risk their life for me. And as a police officer, I would risk my life for others, even for those I didn't know, and even those I knew I didn't like. That's part of the job. As a professor, my colleagues are great, but there's not a single person at John Jay College of Criminal Justice I would die for. It's not that I wish teaching were more dangerous, but there is something about danger and sweat that makes a beer after work particularly cold and refreshing. You can't learn this in a book.

Danger creates a bond. Most police retire in one piece, and other jobs, at least statistically, are more dangerous. But policing is unique in that injury and death come not just from accidents but from job performance. When a police officer is killed, criminals don't call time out. For police, the show must go on. At a police funeral, no one composes eulogizing platitudes of "never again." It will happen again-just hopefully not to you or anybody you know and love.

The shared experiences of police work help overcome many differences, but the so-called Blue Brotherhood is not a monolithic entity as much as a tent under which a diverse clan of cousins constantly feuds and squabbles. Elite colleges should envy the true racial and economic diversity of an urban police academy. Police identity is not so much a unifying force as a tool that allows effective functioning in spite of differences. As one police academy instructor said, "When you put on that uniform, you're not white or black. You're blue. We're one big happy family, right? Dysfunctional as hell. But what family isn't?"

Police culture is actually less mysterious and exotic than outsiders believe. There is no secret handshake. Social isolation comes not from corruption or brutality but from the grind of daily shift work combined with doses of unfiltered and politically incorrect reality. Being police is working-class and not particularly intellectual. This is more a matter of selection than one of initiation. Much of what is perceived as police identity-socially conservative values, a rejection of lower-class culture, a resentment and envy of the professional class-is present before officers enter the police department. Many potentially good police are turned off by a shamefully low starting salary, others by the pseudo-military environment of the academy. Standing at attention, saluting, and doing sit-ups are terrible methods to teach the needed police skills of problem-solving, in dependent thinking, quick action, and the ability to articulate everything. The tricks of the trade involve knowing which corners to cut and why, what form to fill out and how, and when to modulate your radio voice so backup starts heading in your direction before trouble starts.

Fresh out of the academy, police are usually placed in high-crime districts because these areas are the least desirable to work. And besides, you learn fast in the 'hood. You learn about the importunate demands of the dispatcher, the futility of rapid response, and the persistence and harms of the drug trade. It's unfortunate that the ghetto becomes a real-life training arena. Mistakes are made. High-crime areas are where the best and most experienced patrol officers are needed. The enthusiasm of the young is no substitute for the wisdom of the old. And the on-the-job education of police officers is not all productive. Criminals don't want to work with the police any more than police want to coddle criminals. But when drug laws criminalize so many, the police and public inevitably coexist in barely disguised mutual antipathy. Young police learn that the job has more to do with public control than with public service.

Citizens call 911 and expect the police to do something. So police fall back on arrests. And arrest they do. The drug corner is bursting with criminals and addicts seemingly waiting to go to jail. But drug dealers aren't stupid. There are rules of drug dealing that protect most drug dealers. Usually a kid is left holding the bag, literally. The child comes from an overwhelmed and dysfunctional home. The father, very likely, has already been locked up for a drug crime. The child needs many things, but none of these is provided by police. Uniformed police patrol does little but temporarily disrupt public drug dealing.

I know, because for eight and a half hours a night, I policed East Baltimore, one of the worst ghettos in America. "Worst" is a horribly judgmental term. So is "ghetto," for that matter. But in terms of violence, drugs, abandonment, and despair, East Baltimore certainly holds its own. Originally my goal was not to be a police officer at all. I was an Ivy League graduate student planning a comparatively mundane one-year study of police socialization. I do not come from a family of police. None of my friends were police. My parents were teachers. I had few dealings with police. I was part of the liberal upper-middle class raised with the kindly lessons of Officer Friendly. As a high-school student, the few times I could have gotten in trouble, Chicago police officers always cut me a break. I'm very polite. And white.

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 minefield of social defenses to reach the inner reality of police work." I wanted to become an active member of an academy class and follow in the footsteps of MIT professor John Van Maanen, who did this thirty years earlier in Seattle. My plan, after a few rejections from other cities, was accepted in Baltimore, Mary land. I moved to Baltimore knowing the city only from the movies of Barry Levinson and John Waters. I was given a police-officer-trainee uniform and reported at 07:39 hours for day one of the fifth academy class of the year.

On day two, I was pulled out from some mindless military marching drill and told I could not continue as a researcher. The police commissioner who had approved my research, Thomas Frazier, was out. The interim regime was not friendly. Suddenly my research was ex post facto disapproved. In a matter of minutes, I was in a very tense meeting with the acting commissioner of the police department. During this rather unpleasant half-hour, he asked me, "Why don't you want to become a cop for real?" Previously I had taken and "passed" the police civil service exam in Massachusetts, but I was never called back. I wondered aloud who would hire me knowing I would quit after a year and write a book. He said that he would, if I could meet all the hiring requirements. My research could continue provided I successfully completed an expedited hiring process. I needed to become a fully active and paid police officer.

I passed the battery of tests and ran one and a half miles for the first time in my life. I was hired in two months (a record time) and managed, barely, to stay with my police academy class of "99-5." Meanwhile the acting commissioner was pushed out and Edward Norris from New York City was appointed commissioner. Perhaps I was lost in the shuffle, but I had no further problems continuing my research. As an employee, the research advantages were tremendous. For starters, I was paid. While such pecuniary matters are not supposed to influence objective academic research, a meager paycheck can go a long way to advance the noble pursuit of knowledge, especially since none of my grant applications had been accepted.

Going into the academy, I didn't know what to anticipate. As I looked around at my classmates, I thought, "I may not be the best cop in here, but I certainly won't be the worst." I thought I could handle the job, but not because I knew what to expect. I'm good at improvising. And even if policing isn't the best job, there are certainly worse.

On the street, new police officers learn quickly because they have to. And what do they learn? That they're to patrol in their cars, respond to 911 and 311 calls for service, take reports, and make arrests by sending drug users and sellers through the justice system's revolving door. Police officers learn that they're on the streets to serve the needs of the larger war-and to make it look as if the battles are being won. Over time, the connections between the war on drugs and the demands placed on police officers became crystal clear. Police attack drug corners as if they were brush fires, stomping out one only to see it flare up again as soon as they move on to the next. People's desire to get high and a stubborn national commitment to drug prohibition provide the fuel. Drug dealers and users are just the kindling. As police cannot get at the source, they do what police do best: lock people up. Our nation's poorest and least wanted are swept off the streets, sorted by the courts, and collected in our jails and prisons. But sooner or later they all come back, ready to burn again.

Some will criticize my unscientific methods. I have no real defense. Everything is true, but this book suffers from all the flaws inherent in ethnographic work and some, perhaps, of gonzo journalism. Being on the inside, I made little attempt to be objective. I did not pick, much less randomly pick, my research site or research subjects. I researched where I was assigned. To those I policed, I tried to be fair. But my empathy was toward my fellow officers. Those next to me became my friends and research subjects. My theories emerged from experience, knowledge, and understanding. In academic jargon, my work could be called "front- and backstage, multisited, participant-observation research using grounded theory rooted in symbolic interactionism from a dramaturgical perspective." But I can't even say it with a straight face. And if I wrote that way, very few would read it.

My notes varied greatly in both quality and quantity. Ultimately they filled about 350 single-spaced, typed pages. But I should have typed more. Some days I felt I had nothing to say. Other days I had a lot to say but was too tired to say it. After a long night's work and a few beers, it was too easy to convince myself that memory would suffice. Whatever I didn't write down is gone forever. Just one example: on May 28, 2001, I helped guard the crime scene of a twelve-person shooting. I remember being there, talking and whiling the night away, making tasteless jokes about the blood-spattered remains of the food spread. Out of boredom, I smoked a cigar another officer gave to me. I don't even like cigars. Six years later, when I looked back to my notes, the entry for the night was blank. Perhaps I had nothing insightful to say. It's still more likely that I thought I would never forget the details of a twelve-person shooting. Well, I have.

Most police officers-whether out of a desire to express themselves or the simple boredom of being confined in the intimate space of a squad car for eight hours-speak extremely candidly. Usually I would talk to my squadmates parked next to me in the classic police style: driver's-side window adjacent to driver's-side window. Undoubtedly my greatest sources were those with whom I became friends. Given time, I had the luxury of being able to wait for sensitive issues to come up naturally. When such topics arose (or when I could bring them up), I would ask extremely pointed and personal questions. More often than not, I could spark candid conversations. Except when noted, all quotations come from personal conversations with police officers, mostly my squadmates.

As a group, police officers are not inclined toward heady discussions of academic theory. Like everybody, police officers talk about personal relationships, sports, hobbies, and plans for days off. Perhaps more unique to police, conversations frequently veer toward the sick humor of the most recent call-for-service; ineptitude in the police organization; and sexual matters true, false, and fantasized. In the day-to-day routine, the inner working of a big-city police department resembles a bureaucratic Kafkaesque nightmare more than the latest installment of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.

When taking notes for a book, it helps that pen and paper are required for police officers. Usually I jotted a few things at the scene and expanded my writing when I returned home from work. I reconstructed quotes as quickly as possible and to the best of my memory. I experimented with, and then decided against, tape-recording police interviews. Data from recorded interviews were less revealing than what I could gather through casual conversation. While accurate transcripts are extremely useful for quotes, I found that when the tape recorder is running, police officers remain on guard, talking in a stilted and formal style reminiscent of police officers on the TV show Cops. (I loved the show Cops before I was a cop. But as a police officer I learned to dislike it. Partly I didn't want to watch work videos when I wasn't working. And without a doubt, police conversations are far more revealing when the camera isn't rolling. But even more than that, I don't like watching bad policing. To the outsider, good policing should appear boring. It is only when things go wrong and mistakes are made that policing becomes entertainment.) A few times I brought a small laptop computer and could write detailed notes during slow periods on the midnight shift. But the steering wheel gets in the way of the screen.

Because of the nature of the work and the cultural background of most police officers, language is very sexual, scatological, and personal. The concept of "political correctness" is simultaneously understood and mocked. One officer said, "[People in the Eastern District are] drugged-out, lazy motherfuckers. These people don't want to work. They want to sit on their ass, collect welfare, get drunk, and make babies. Let them shoot each other." After a brief pause he turned to me and said with faux sincerity, "I think the problems here are caused by social conditions, which can be solved by better education.... That's so when you write down all this stuff for your book I don't come out like an asshole." While quotes selected naturally emphasize the extreme over the mundane, I believe they represent the collective views of most police officers I worked with.

I never intended to write a "kiss-and-tell." There's better kissing-and-telling out there. The only real scandals I saw were living conditions in the ghetto and a general lack of support for hard working police officers. There is no culture of corruption or brutality among Baltimore City patrol officers. Police love talking about beatings, but I did not see any police commit criminal acts. Good behavior, while not universal, is the norm. This is not to say that police, myself included, are angels. Police violate departmental regulations all the time. Like any other public employee with bad working conditions, obnoxious customers, and excellent job security, police get pissed off and can be assholes. I tried not to be.


Excerpted from COP IN THE HOOD by PETER MOSKOS Copyright © 2008 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

CHAPTER 1: The Departed 1

CHAPTER 2: Back to School: The Police Academy 19

CHAPTER 3: New Jack: Learning to Do Drugs 38

CHAPTER 4: The Corner: Life on the Streets 64

CHAPTER 5: 911 Is a Joke 89

CHAPTER 6: Under Arrest: Discretion in the Ghetto 111

CHAPTER 7: Prohibition: Al Capone's Revenge 158

EPILOGUE: School Daze 184


Policing Green 197

Notes 213

Bibliography 233

Index 257

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Cop in the Hood: My Year Policing Baltimore's Eastern District 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Derek_Riemer More than 1 year ago
I read this book for a project I conducted on police for school. I never realized how hard cops work. While reading this book I learned lots of information about the role that 911 plays on police who would otherwise work by patrolling specific areas of the ghetto and keeping violent criminals from having their way on drug corners. The book uses examples to prove points. The writing jumps around quite a bit which causes the book to lack some structure. The book talks a bit about the prohibition of drugs and how it makes things hard for cops because of the restriction of what a cop can search for on criminals. It would be, as proven from the book, easier to just leave people alone than go through the hassle of searching them. I feel that this is the most important part of the book because it points out an inefficiency in the criminal justice system. It is also important to realize that this inefficiency may be seen as a check on the power of a police officer. If you enjoy reading about the experiences of professions this book may be for you.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago