Not only do you run a popular police blog, but in 2008 you penned a critically acclaimed book about your life as Baltimore cop. What compelled you to start sharing all these experiences?
The unromantic reason I wrote my book is that if you don't publish as a new college professor, you get fired! But I do hope I tell a good story about policing. It's too bad that more police officers don't write.
Have you always been a writer?
Both my parents are good editors and my father wrote a bunch of books. So maybe it's in the blood. In my mind, I really started writing when I started working for the Evanstonian, my high-school paper. It's when people read what you write and think about what you wrote that you realize it can actually be fun. My favorite writing is still an 800-word newspaper op-ed. But writing is hard work. Blog entries are pretty painless. And answering these questions is fun! But I think a dirty secret to writing is that nobody actually likes it. Sure, it's nice to have written. But the actually process is no fun. In fact, there's almost nothing I wouldn't prefer to do.
It took seven years after I quit the police department to finish Cop in the Hood. That comes out to 27 words a day. Of course it doesn't work that way (and it wasn't all I was doing for seven years). But when I think about my productively as a writer, it's kind of depressing.
Being a professor requires that you write. But it's a different game if you get paid every other week regardless, I tip my hat to those who write for a living. It's not easy.
What's one story everyone will remember from your book and/or blog?
What we as police find funny usually disgusts more normal people (and often for good reason). All good police stories involve the misfortune of somebody. And the good ones usually throw in a couple internal organs spilled out. I quickly learned that these stories don't go over too well with non-police. Rather than come away with a single story, I hope people will find my book a good read all the way through. Only then might we see the wisdom of Fat Albert's line: "if you're not careful you might learn something before it's done!"
What I find interesting is that different people take away different stories. I've had various people list every single chapter as their favorite. Maybe there really is something for everybody.
Is anybody in the book mad at you?
Not that I know of. When I wrote the book I was worried that some of what I say and quote would piss off people I like. The only people that criticized me are a few crusty old retired cops. They say they won't read my book on principle (I'm not certain what principle that is.) I only wish some of them would write their own stories. They have so much more experience and knowledge of policing than I do. I think I'm a quick learner, but I wasn't there for long. Regardless, the feedback from police has been very positive. That surprises me because there are a lot of quotes, taken out of context, that could make them look bad. But I think I get away with it because the book is honest, regardless of what people think of me and my position that drugs need to be regulated.
It doesn't seem like it's asking too much, but it's hard to find a simple honest portrayal of police officers on patrol.
Did your partners know you were writing a book? Did they accept you?
I was upfront and open about everything from day one. At first, some were naturally suspicious (as they should be!). But I got surprisingly little flack from police about being a Harvard student and planning to write a book. I think police are good judges of character. I won't pretend that everybody loved me. But on the street I did my job. And that's what counts most.
What's one piece of tactical gear that’s helped you time and time again?
My Streamline Stinger flashlight. When I was worked the midnight shift, it was essential, of course. But even now I still use the flashlight around the house. And with a little velcro block attachment, it's the world's best bike headlight. I got a new LED Stinger recently. I love how it lasts for hours on one charge.
You are got a doctorate in sociology from Harvard and now teach at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Do you find many undergraduates wooed by those CSI crime-solving montages?
Yeah. Too many. CSI has not helped the real world of policing. But it has gotten more people interested in law enforcement, which I guess is a good thing. At least The Wire has the added benefit of being filmed on the streets of Baltimore I policed and wrote about. The Wire is a lot more realistic, but even that's not perfect.
What's something you learned on the street that could never be taught in a classroom?
There's almost nothing you learn on the street that can be taught in a classroom. Seriously. But there are a lot of things you can learn in the classroom that you can apply to the street. You don't need a fancy education to be a good cop. But I believe a good education makes you a better cop.
What makes your blog different from all the other police blogs out there?
There are a few good police blogs out there and I think they all share honesty and a bit of a critical eye. The original goal of my blog was just to shill for my book, but now the blog has kind of taken off on its own. Ultimately, my goal is to make policing better. I like to ask, "how can policing be better" rather than just pointing out what is wrong. You can be critical of policing and still be pro-police.
But what I think makes copinthehood.com unique is that it brings together a much broader readership than most blogs do. I write for and hear from readers who normally wouldn't even talk to each other, much less listen to what others have to say.
The only way you'll ever learn is if you question your own beliefs. And in hearing from my readers, I certainly have to think about and question my own beliefs. I like that.
What's next for you?
I'm working on a book that proposes flogging as an alternative to prison. My conservative police friends already think I'm crazy because of my liberal beliefs. Now my liberal friends will think I'm crazy, too!
[I'm still on vacation, this post was scheduled to run in advance]