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by Peter Moskos

July 23, 2008

Incisive and intelligent account of police work “in the hood”

Here's an excellent review from Professor Arnold Ages published in the Jewish Post & Opinion.

This is what the industry calls “a sleeper book.” There is no doubt that it will soon be auctioned off as a film script.

Peter Moskos, a professor at the City University of New York, researched his Harvard Ph.D. dissertation in a most unusual way: He joined the Baltimore Police and after graduation from the Academy, was assigned to Baltimore’s toughest district, the Eastern.

Moskos did not hide the purpose of his enrollment and for a year and a half he joined fellow police officers pursuing the bad guys and in so doing learned important things about the criminal justice system.

His book, however, is not only a description of the daily activities of the men in blue but also a meditation of the Black underclass, the drug war and the ethics of his fellow officers. This reviewer has not read a more objective, incisive and intelligent account of police work.

There is criticism galore in his essay—of the irrelevance of the police training academy, of the targeting of poor Blacks and of the misguided drug policies of the American government.

With regard to those with whom he served, Moskos has high regard for their dedication and honesty and observes that few police officers would jeopardize their pension benefits by becoming “dirty,” the name for corrupt cops. He admits that there are some, but they are few in number.

While violence is endemic in the area where Moskos served, few police officers, he says are victimized by gun violence: Most fatalities among the police occur as a result of auto accidents. The author himself lost a colleague in that way.

One interesting element in this essay pivots on the arrest phenomenon. It is well known that police everywhere are expected to fill their arrest quotas. Baltimore is no different. But what is not known is that police officers receive overtime pay for court appearances and this can result in handsome monetary rewards.

Moskos’s graphic descriptions of the drug culture in Baltimore’s Eastern District are the most detailed and analytical to be found anywhere. The author offers a comprehensive look at the “stoops” abandoned buildings, lookouts and benches where drug transactions occur. He also zeroes in on the personnel involved in the drug trade and provides ample details about the police’s efforts to inhibit that “business.” One of the surprising revelations that emerge from his reportage is that, except for the major bosses, street level entrepreneurs make relatively little money.

Their clientele, the author notes, use a form of English language that is sui generis. “Bank” means to hit; “bounce” is to leave; “hoppers” are troublesome young people; “cousin” in a close friend; “fall out” is to faint; “zinc” is a sing. Mastering this linguistic tool is important for police officers because ignorance in this area can lead to misunderstandings when interrogating suspects. “Snitch” is another word popular in Baltimore’s Eastern District, and it is a despised term. In fact, the phrases “snitches get stitches,” more or less sums up the scorn in which such people are held.

What distinguishes Moskos’s book from similar ones is the author’s plea for greater flexibility in addressing the rampant drug crisis. He characterizes the current ideology as prohibition—much like that which paralyzed the United States in the 1920s. Ultimately prohibition failed and Moskos feels that there are lessons to be learned from the experience.

Citing the example of Holland, where addicts can the drugs they need, Moskos argues that de-criminalizing the illegal drug industry will no de-stabilize the American moral compass and that tax revenues from the legitimate purchase of hard drugs will fill the coffers of government.

The reason the author is so passionate about his advocacy is because he has seen close hand what the alternative is in the microcosm of Baltimore’s Eastern District, where pandemonium reigns for its majority of poor Black inhabitants.

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