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by Peter Moskos

February 29, 2008

Shocks the conscience

One-in-a-hundred adult Americans is behind bars. This figure has shocked some people since it made the headlines the other day.

The Times quoted a Professor Cassell as saying that our rate of imprisonment has “very tangible benefits: lower crime rates.” But this isn’t true. The prison rate has been increasing since 1970, so why didn’t crime go down until the mid 1990s? Why should prison get credit for the crime drop of the past 10 years but the not the crime rise for the previous 20?

There is plenty of research on this matter. Granted, if we locked everybody up, we’d cut all crime outside of prison. But we’re locking up lots of people who aren’t or didn’t have to be hard-core criminals. The link between increased incarceration and lower crime isn’t clear. Even if it exists, it is inefficient.

Professor Cassell goes on: “it would be a mistake to think that we can release any significant number of prisoners without increasing crime rates. One out of every 100 adults is behind bars because one out of every 100 adults has committed a serious criminal offense.” I don’t like Professor Cassell’s attitude.

We will release virtually everybody in prison. The only question is when, and whether we'll refill up the beds as quickly as we empty them.

Economist Steven Levitt (Freakonomics), who promotes the idea that increased incarceration lowers crime, estimates that the increase in prison population since 1990 accounts for only about 1/3rd of the crime drop. I don’t know if it's worth it.

Given the money it takes to lock somebody up, about $24,000 a year per person (and much more in New York), couldn’t we do something better with this money to prevent crime? Like hire more cops and pay them better?

Others point out that economists' number-crunching based logic is flawed. Some people are pretty bad and best behind bars. But most criminal work doesn't disappear when somebody is locked up. Lock up a corner dealer and somebody else will fill the role. Locking up the “bad guys” won’t have any impact when all it does is create new “bad guys.” This is the drug market at work. While we can police our way out of the crime problem, we can’t arrest our way out of it.

The real factor is the war on drugs. Prison rates don’t (just) reflect crime and violence. They reflect our desire to incarcerate people.

Our prison rate was more or less steady from 1900 until the war on the drugs at 100 per 100,000 people. This is a little high compared to other nations like ours, but in the same ballpark. Now it’s over 700 per 100,000. It is shocking.

We’ve got more people behind bars than China. And they’ve got over four times the population. And we call them repressive. We’re so quick to see prison as the answer. We lock up people now we never would have locked up 35 years ago. Drunken drivers go to jail. My friend Bob just told me his neighbor got locked up for writing bad checks. She wouldn't have been locked up in 1970. And just think, for the money we pay to lock her up, all her debts could have been paid off. What do you think the people she owed money to would have wanted? Why are we so willing to spend money to punish people but not to right wrongs?

If one-in-a-hundred behind bars is so shocking, where is the shock for one-in-fifteen black men behind bars? And this doesn’t count the much larger figure of people on probation and parole. There are more black men in the criminal justice system today (jail, prison, probation, and parole) then there were black men enslaved in 1860.

Baltimore Bad Image Award

I love Baltimore. I do. I hope my book makes Baltimore a better place to live and police. But one of my fears is that my book will just contribute to Baltimore's image problem. I wish I could write a book that talks about the good food and good people and good neighborhoods of Charm City. But I didn't. Instead I wrote a book about good police in a bad area.

Slogans like Believe, The City That Reads, and Greatest City in America don't seem to have much of an impact. My slogan: Baltimore--it means well. The next best slogan in undoubtedly John Waters's: Baltimore--it's shock you!.

Anyway, I'm sure I'm missing some great contributers to Baltimore's Bad Image. But anyway, here are my nominees for the 21st Century:

The Baltimore Bad Image Award

2000: Ray Lewis. Leads the Ravens to the Super Bowl. Lied to police about something he may have known about a murder investigation.
2001: The Great Train Tunnel Fire. Burns for days. Cuts off the Northeast’s supply of concentrated orange juice (I don’t make this stuff up)
2002: Darrell Brooks, firebombed the Dawson home, killed the whole family.
2003: The Wire, Season 2
2004: Ed Norris, former Police Commissioner (my police commissioner) goes to prison on felony charges.
2005: Another season of the Wire
2006: Ditto
2007: Homicides increase to 282. This is the most since I was in the academy in 1999. Hopefully the "magic" 300 number will never be reached again.

Here's hoping Baltimore gets some good news in 2008.

February 27, 2008

But that's my car!

A witness at the trial of the officers who shot Sean Bell testified today. She was a topless dancer at the club. Leaving aside all the real issues, I noticed something most people probably missed from her testimony: this woman is no stranger to crime scenes.

Put yourself in her shoes: You’ve just had a long night dancing, you’re leaving, you’re walking to your car when suddenly you see a man jump out of car and start shooting at another car. You dive behind some bushes, hear 50 shots in total, cars running into things, and no doubt there’s some screaming and yelling.

What would you do? Probably not what Ms. Payne did. According to the Times:
After two or three minutes, she ran back to her car so she could move it before the police arrived, but she was too late, arriving to see paramedics pulling bodies from Mr. Bell’s car.

She's right, too. If your car is on the wrong side when the crime-scene tape goes up, it’s going to be a long time before you get to move those wheels. If your car happens to have a bullet in it, it's even worse.

Such is one of the many petty frustrations of living in a high-crime neighborhood.

February 25, 2008

Police kill white people, too

But you usually don't hear about it. I call this the Al Sharpton effect. There is no white version of Al Sharpton.

As the trial of the officers involved in the Sean Bell killing begins, I've been thinking more about police-involved shootings and race. Given media reports, it certainly seems like police only kill black people. But I know this isn't true.

I did a little research. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports from 2000 to 2004, police-involved “justifiable homicides” kill about 350 people a year, 99 percent by shooting. [Update: That UCR data is horribly flawed. Some updated information starting here. And continuing here, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7. Also this post.]

Virtually all police-involved killings, most for good reason, are categorized as justifiable. Of those killed by police, 32 percent are black and 64 percent are white. While the percentage of blacks killed is high compared with the black percentage in America (13%), it is low compared with other indicators of violence, such as the percentage of homicide victims and offenders believed to be African American (both 48%)

Perhaps it is more useful to compare police-involved shootings with those killed by non-police officers. Among “justifiable homicides” by regular citizens—about 210 a year—African-Americans are 40 percent of those who kill and 56 percent of those killed. Compared with these numbers, police seem restrained in their use of force toward the black community.

Of course the numbers do not tell us the race of innocent people killed. And numbers are no solace to the family of any victim of police bullets.

Update (December 2014): Here's a video of a black officer shooting an unarmed white person. (A disabled vet, for what it's worth.) It happened in March, 2014. I didn't hear about it till much later. Unarmed white people who get shot by police just do not become national news.

Though horrible, and in hindsight wrong, I think the shooting was justifiable. Though not exactly a good shooting... but when that guy gets out of the pick-up truck and the long hard object goes up and into my face -- and keep in mind I'm watching a youtube video and I *know* it's not going to be a gun -- I still felt my ass pucker.

Would a reasonable officer have feared for his or life in that situation? Yeah, potentially, probably, I think so.

It would have been great if the cop had known it was a cane. It also would have been great if the guy hadn't gotten out of his truck on the highway and reached for his cane.

A mistake. But I think a reasonable one. I'd let that cop off.

And just in case you think this is the only unarmed white guy shot by police, here is a second case. Despite what some people think, it's really not that rare for an unarmed white person to be killed by police.

[Update: Here's a 2014 post with racial data on cop killers and those killed by police.

And in 2015 I discovered better non-UCR data.]

February 18, 2008

911 Is a Joke

Rapid response doesn't work for police. I've published an article in Law Enforcement Executive Forum saying as much. It's also a chapter in my book. I was reminded of the futility of 911 yesterday when I came across an old man who had fallen down and cracked his head open here where I'm visiting my parents in Santa Monica, California.

I really don't remember my medical first responder training from 8 years ago. But I still figure I'm better in such situations than most people. At least I can stay calm and not do anything incredibly stupid. Luckily, for the both me and the bleeding man, an off-duty firefighter was there who actually knew what he was doing (apply pressure to stop the bleeding and give the guy some basic tests to make sure he was with it).

I fished the man's wallet from his pocket to look for any medical warnings and check for ID (that's the cop in me). Then there wasn't much for me to do except watch the scene and wait for a cop or paramedic to turn the wallet over to (it would have been a little difficult for me to put the wallet back in his pocket and I didn't want to bother the guy examining him... no, I didn't take anything, but I couldn't help but notice that his wallet was a lot thicker than mine).

One woman made us aware of her presence by deciding that the bleeding man's problem was the head wound, but the firefighter helping him. She yelled: "You way too much up in his face and need to step back and let the man breath! He can't get no air! Step back!" She meant it, too, and seemed about ready to set things straight.

Now that I'm a professor and not a cop, I'm so rarely reminded of complete, honest, and destructive stupidity! I was reminded how quickly a scene in the ghetto could get ugly with someone like her provoking a crowd. Luckily, this was a crowd on Santa Monica's 3rd St. Promenade. It isn't by a long stretch the hood. A few other people in the crowd kind of cut her off and blocked her out.

Meanwhile others were trying to call 911 from their cells phones and nobody could get through. The entire L.A. County system was either overloaded or down. Luckily, some public security person (I think their main job is to harass the homeless) could radio directly for paramedics. The guy had bled some, but he was going to be OK.

What surprised me wasn't that people couldn't get through to 911. I was surprised that they were surprised they couldn't get through. We've been sold on the wonders and necessity of rapid response. But anybody who needs it knows the truth: 911 is a joke, most of all for police.

February 17, 2008

Criminal Justice Journalists

One of the best resources to stay on top of current police and criminal-justice news is a daily email from Criminal Justice Journalists. They're not exactly a secret, but most people don't know about it and everybody should.

Bookmark them or give them your email and they'll send you one e-mail every weekday (and nothing else and no spam). You get the headline from various stories and beneath that the first paragraph and a link to the full story. It's an essential part of my day, and not just because it gives the illusion I read every paper in the country.

Here's a sample of the headlines from Friday:

February 15, 2008
In This Issue
-- Prison Student Kills Six, Himself, At Northern Illinois University
-- Student Group Presses To Allow Self-Defense Guns On Campus
-- WA Crime Lab Director Quits After Charges Of Sloppy Work, Fraud
-- Houston To Offer $12,000 Cadet Bonus; Union Critical
-- Big Medical Group Seeks End Of Federal Marijuana Ban
-- Austin Sheriff Criticized For Letting Feds Set Up Office In Jail
-- N.C. Leaders Seek Funds To Pay For Sex Assault Victim Tests
-- Minneapolis Newspaper Finds 83 Sealed U.S. Criminal Court Cases
-- New Orleans Mayor Criticizes Media Over Gun Photo
-- Utah Police Seek To Block Public Access To Disciplinary Files
-- TV-Decency Group Protests CBS Show On Killer Forensic Expert
-- St. Louis-Area Chief Accused Of Deleting Database Arrest Record

A police perspective on cameras in squad cars

Today's Los Angeles Times Opinion Section has an excellent article by an L.A. police officer about cameras in squad cars.

I couldn't have said it better myself, so I won't. Here's his piece:
View from a squad car

Putting video cameras in black-and-whites won't clear up a distorted picture of the LAPD.
By Jack Dunphy
Los Angeles Times
February 17, 2008

The federal consent decree mandating reform of the Los Angeles Police Department was supposed to expire in 2006, five years after the city negotiated it with the U.S. Justice Department following the Rampart scandal. But in May 2006, the federal judge overseeing it ruled that the department was still not complying with several of its provisions and ordered that the court-appointed monitor keep watch over the department until June 2009.

According to the Police Protective League -- the police union -- the city has already spent more than $13 million for the monitor's fees and expenses and more than $30 million in complying with the decree's many provisions.

Now the Police Commission wants to spend more money to install digital video cameras in the LAPD's fleet of patrol cars. Its members believe that the cameras, along with a computer database of every officer's complete personnel information, will help satisfy the section of the consent decree that requires the department to "examine and identify officers demonstrating at-risk behavior," such as using excessive force or displaying racial bias.

Many police departments across the country have installed video cameras in their patrol cars. The images they capture have provided evidence in criminal cases and have helped prove or refute allegations of officer misconduct. The L.A. City Council is weighing several contract proposals for installing cameras in the LAPD's black-and-whites.

But many of us who work in the department are skeptical about how these video images will be used. And we have good reason to be. Consider: A recent internal audit of arrest reports concluded that a large number were unsatisfactory because they did not properly document whether Miranda warnings were given to suspects. On its surface, the finding suggested a dire problem. But a closer look at the audit revealed that there was hardly a problem at all. Department policy dictates that when a suspect under arrest has not been advised of his Miranda rights, the words "not admonished" must be written in a designated space on the arrest report. Some officers, however, used different words -- such as "not advised" and "not given" -- to report the same thing.

No matter, said the auditors. Because these officers didn't use the required language, they had to complete follow-up reports spelling out what any fool could have seen was clearly meant in their original reports.

Now imagine the effect on police officers if this kind of obsessive punctiliousness were applied to the images captured by the video cameras installed in their patrol cars. It wouldn't be long before officers reverted to the "drive-and-wave" mode of policing practiced during the tenure of former Police Chief Bernard C. Parks. Many officers regarded Parks as a heavy-handed disciplinarian, and rather than risk censure or punishment for breaking his rules, they backed off proactive policing. Total arrests declined 33% during his time as chief, and homicides jumped 41%.

The LAPD manual is hundreds of pages long and contains thousands upon thousands of individual regulations governing every conceivable aspect of police operations. In addition, special orders, training bulletins and all manner of directives are annually issued about such activities as how to park police cars in a traffic stop and how to answer a telephone.

If some auditor were to watch a video of me on any given day in the field, it wouldn't take long before he would see me violate at least one of the orders. Police officers sometimes cut corners, not because they are corrupt or dishonest or lazy but because no set of rules and regulations, no matter how voluminous, can possibly address every situation they may confront on the streets. If you show me an officer who does things strictly by the book all day every day, I'll show you one who doesn't have much of an effect on crime.

Compliance with the consent decree may be a worthy goal, but it should not come at the expense of fighting crime. If officers believe that their recorded actions in the field would be as rigorously scrutinized as were the arrest reports, they might be less inclined to risk their careers by being proactive.

What's disheartening to L.A. cops is that the need for reform seems the longest-running and most familiar narrative about their department. I've lived through many LAPD scandals during my career, including on-duty cops committing burglaries in Hollywood in 1981, the beating of Rodney King in 1991 and Rampart. These stories were exhaustively covered in this newspaper and in other media.

But how many people will recognize the names of Steven Gajda, Filberto Cuesta and Brian Brown? These police officers were murdered doing their duty during the time former officer Rafael Perez and other cops were committing the crimes that led to the Rampart scandal and the consent decree.

Randy Simmons, the SWAT officer killed Feb. 7 in a shootout in Winnetka, was laid to rest Friday. He has been justly praised in this newspaper and elsewhere not only for his on-duty valor but for his off-duty outreach to disadvantaged youngsters. But in a few days or weeks, he will likely be forgotten by all but those who knew him.

But the word "Rampart" will live on and continue to evoke images of a police department gone bad. Sadly, putting cameras in patrol cars to record "at-risk behavior" by cops is unlikely to lift the stigma of scandal that wrongly plagues the LAPD.

Jack Dunphy is the pseudonym of a Los Angeles police officer who writes a column for National Review Online.

The article can be found on the LA Times website. They hold all copyrights.

February 15, 2008

You heard it here first

Looks like I wasn't the only one bothered by the picture I posted of New Orleans Mayor Nagin smiling and pointing an automatic weapon.

Mayor criticizes use of photograph
by Times-Picayune staff
Wednesday February 13, 2008, 7:58 PM

Editor's note: Late Wednesday evening, the office of Mayor Ray Nagin released the following statement regarding a controversial photograph of the mayor holding a gun at a Tuesday news conference. The photograph appeared inside The Times-Picayune's metro section on Wednesday and in various presentations on nola.com. The image of the mayor smiling and holding a weapon kicked off controversy all day Wednesday on talk radio and in internet postings.

The full store is here.

More on IRBs

Fair warning:
If you’re not interested in Institutional Review Boards (IRBs)--and there’s no reason you should be--you should probably just skip this whole post.

Brief background: Federal regulations require IRB approval is required for all professors’ research on people. Since 1991 (I just learned this from Shrag’s blog), IRB approval was expanded to cover, among others things, participant-observation research (that’s what I do, with an emphasis on participant). You want to interview or observe somebody? You need IRB approval first. The purpose of the IRB is to protect research subjects. There’s a bit too much history about scientists doing bad things.

Professor Zachary Schrag, a man who keeps a blog about Institutional Review Boards, left me an interesting comment in regards to a previous post:

It's quite possible that an inept IRB would have blocked Venkatesh's research. But Venkatesh, by his own admission, "f[oul]ed up" by passing on information that people meant to tell him in confidence. So it is also possible that an adept IRB would have permitted the research while mitigating the harm. Not likely, perhaps, but possible.

Rather than deal in such speculations, I hope you will elaborate on your own experiences with IRBs that led you to distrust them.

I don’t distrust IRBs. My practical experiences have been more or less favorable. I just fundamentally question the very notion of needing IRB approval for non-experimental social-science research on capable adults. And I firmly believe that the simple nuisance and fear of conflict with an IRB limit social-science research.

But first let me deal in some speculations:

Not only do I think an IRB wouldn’t approve Venkatesh’s research. I don’t think an IRB doing its role of protecting research subjects should approve Venkatesh’s research. The risk of some harm from his research was so great as to be virtually inevitable. But I think Venkatesh should do his research, and hence my problem with the IRB in general.

I read one review of Venkatesh's book that went so far as to to use the word “evil.” I don't think it is. With regards to potentially violating protection of research subjects, I would draw the line between malum in se and mala prohibita. In other words: drug dealing OK, murder not. I don’t think Venkatesh crosses this line. But for Sudhir’s sake, I’m glad nobody shot somebody while exclaiming, “Am I going to make your book now, Mr. Professor?! Is this what you want?!”

While in theory the IRB could have mitigated harm in Venkatesh’s case, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where this would actually happen. I’ve never heard of an IRB with follow-up. Thus the IRB, while failing in its basic mission, still managing to hinder good qualitative research.

Too often, the quantitative researcher’s goal becomes how to outwit the IRB. I know of many good researchers and otherwise ethical people who admit to lying and deceit when it comes to the IRB. They feel, rightly or wrongly, that such deceit is necessary for research in their field to survive.

For my book's research, I honestly don’t remember or have a copy of what I gave to Harvard's IRB ten years ago. I know it took three of four drafts and I agreed to make an announcement on day one of the academy stating who I was. It was good to be forced to make this announcement as it wasn’t easy to make (so thanks, IRB). That being said, I also didn’t want to remind my classmates every hour that they were being watched by a researcher. Is this ethical? I think so. My point was to be honest and overt. And I was. But I think I was supposed to post something that never got posted.

I never got IRB approval for my switch in research plans when I actually had to get hired as a police officer. Between the heat from the P.D. brass disallowing my original research plan (for not being a cop) and the heat from my dissertation adviser for my new research plan (for being a cop), well, I had other priorities.

Alas, my fear of preserving confidentiality and protecting my research subjects went so far that I didn't leave any way to link specific people at different times to their actions and quotes. What if I get subpoenad(?!), I thought. This was a mistake. I could have written a better book if I had characters. I would have, if it weren’t for the IRB.

My own experiences with John Jay College's IRB have been pretty good. But there are still problems:

1) The line between doing research and not doing research is not as clear cut as the IRB want to believe. My book is done. I’m no longer doing research for it. But when a friend calls or writes, I’m still going to note information for my records. Am I supposed to get IRB approval before going to a Bull Roast? Am I to stop going to Baltimore now that my “research” is complete? Am I to ignore everything I see and do since I don’t have IRB approval?

2) Signed consent forms are simply impossible in police research. First of all, cops won’t sign them. Second, the social situation is flux. You arrive on a scene and officers come and go. Are you supposed to ask every arriving officer for signature? If signed consent forms were required and if this requirement were actually enforced, qualitative police research would simply end. Researchers who say they’re going to get signed consent forms from police officers are lying. Yet IRBs love signed consent forms. It’s like court overtime pay is for police. Just give ’em some and they’re happy.

3) IRBs want a guarantee of confidentiality. I won’t do that unconditionally. Luckily, Baltimore police behave pretty well, at least within the bounds of reason.

For those interested (and you might be if you’ve read this far), I’ll include the more original parts of my successful IRB submissions for approval without signed consent forms and without unconditional guarantees of confidentiality. And they said it couldn’t be done.
Requiring a signed consent form from every research subject would so limit my participant-observation research as to effectively kill it. Given the fluid nature of social interactions in a police station, it is not possible to have every police officer who enters a room or call for service to read, understand, and sign a consent form. My research methods are overt, but informal. While the bulk of police officers will be familiar with me and my research, it is inevitable that I will see and hear police officers who initially will not know who I am. Such confusion is usually clarified immediately by asking me or another police officer.

My research is confidential and offers minimal, if any, risk to police officers.

Police officers are not normally considered an “at-risk” group (quite the contrary, police officers are often seen as the group that places marginalized people at risk). Given the constant risk of observation by their supervisors, the public, the media, and internal affairs, an outside researcher who promises confidentiality present little risk. Police officers are used to being on-guard around people they do not know.
A Note on Criminal Behavior and Confidentiality

While IRB boards consider harms that may come to research subjects, the potential of research subjects harming others should not be ignored. Should a researcher remain quiet if confronted first-hand with research subjects who commit genocide, mass torture, or major war crimes? Of course not.

In reality, I do not expect to witness any war crimes. But I believe that in extreme cases, a researcher’s obligation as a human being come first. Were I to witness a police officer in severe violation of criminal law, I would have to weigh any promises of confidentiality with my moral and legal responsibility to do the right thing.

I would not violate confidentiality for violations of departmental regulation or even most criminal acts. In my years both as a police officer and as a researcher (often the two overlapped–I was a Harvard University graduate student researcher during my entire two-year tenure as a Baltimore City police officer), I have never participated in nor witnessed an act that would make me consider violating confidentiality.

But if, hypothetically, I witnessed a police officer rob and kill, or sexually abuse a 10-year-old child, or anally violate an innocent man with a plunger, I would feel little compunction legally and ethically to violate a vow of confidentiality. Of course the odds that I will witness such a scene are almost zero. I do not expect such a situation to occur. But I and the IRB must be aware that the possibility, however slight, exists.

I realize that it might facilitate approval of this project if I stated that all research subjects will sign consent forms and confidentiality would never be violated. But to pretend the former denies the reality of participant-observation research on police officers; to pretend the latter is morally irresponsible. I believe it is the combined duty of researchers and the IRB to promote ethical research and protect research subjects. This process begins with the presentation, discussion, and approval of an ethical and honest research proposal.

All researchers are free to use this for their own IRB submissions. I’m happy to try and help the field.

February 13, 2008

Cops love toys

So much bothers me about this story featuring this picture by Eliot Kamenitz of The New Orleans Times-Picayune The captain reads:
Mayor Ray Nagin and NOPD Superintendent Warren Riley try out a pair of the NOPD's new M-4 rifles Tuesday at the Superdome. Money from the state also provided 600 bullet-proof vests.

The story begins:
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Police Superintendent Warren Riley on Tuesday used the floor of the Superdome to display more than $1 million in new armament and other equipment, largely for use by the SWAT squad in emergency and riot situations, including a fully equipped mobile command post, two armored cars and modern assault rifles.

Nearly all of the equipment was financed from a $6.6 million state allocation to New Orleans police that was earmarked for crime-fighting items or strategies, Riley said.

The city officials said the new equipment reflected a determination by the Police Department to root out and arrest criminals and make New Orleans safer, as well as to help police handle any emergency situation encountered.

The money will also pay for 600 bullet-proof vests.

The 27- and 14-ton armored cars, costing about $380,000 and $270,000 respectively, will provide cover to officers in SWAT situations and help them safely evacuate citizens from dangerous situations, Riley said.

How this will reduce the murder rate, I'm not sure. Actually, I am sure. It won't.

This money should be spent on more police, on better police, on a pay raise, on foot patrol, and on giving language classes so police can communicate with the growing Spanish-speaking community. The bullet-proof vests are good. Half-a-million dollars on armored cars isn't

Automatic weapons and swat teams don't stop muggers. They do lead to innocent people getting killed and cops busting down the wrong doors in drug raids.

Congrats, Mr. Mayor and Mr. Superintendent! Have fun playing with your new toys. But Mr. Mayor, one bit of advice: you really shouldn't "laser" a police officer. Pointing a gun at a police officer will likely get you killed.

I didn't say that!

I am misquoted in today's Baltimore Sun. This is the first time I've been quoted by a reporter and said, "no!" when reading my words. It particularly irks me to be misinterpreted in the Sun because police I know and like will read it and think I've sold out (I'm not quite sure to whom, I guess Hillary Clinton and the liberal media cop-hating cult or something like that).

I said:
"I think that cops are terrified of video cameras," said Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore police officer who is now a sociologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. "I think the end result is cops will police a little more carefully."

I don't like this quote. I did say those words, but the way it reads is not at all what I meant. The quote makes it sound like I think that cops are terrified because they have so much to hide. That's not what I said or believe. I don't like the clever use of non-ellipses. What I said in the long discussion between those two sentences--what isn't in the article--makes my sentiments clear: Cops are terrified of video cameras because they don't want some out-of-context 2-minute clip on YouTube ruining an otherwise good career! And judging from this case, this fear seems to be justified. (For my longer and more nuanced argument, see my previous post)

In the long run, I think cops will benefit from more cameras. Not just because they may police better, but because more cameras will show entire situations and not just the part when cops get aggressive. It will show people acting like idiots and cops behaving professionally. Getting aggressive is sometimes an essential part of police job. You don't want police not acting because they're worried about how they will look on camera. Hesitation can get you killed.

Police officers have a career worth of history with the people, neighborhoods, and problems they police. All this matters and is part of good policing. A video clip can rarely show the whole story.

Good police need to do things that may not look good taken out of context and when judged by people who have nothing to do with the communities, cultures, and police involved.

I'm sure that there are 2-minute moments from my policing days that I wouldn't be proud of (and not just when I fell asleep), but that doesn't mean I have anything to hide. I don't want my brief police (or professorial) career judged by my worst moment. It's just not fair.

All the being said, I do believe that police should be accountable at some level to the public that supports them and pays their salary. I also believe that police shouldn't be, well, dicks (sorry, but I still can't think of a better word). If that comes from policing more carefully, then video cameras may play a positive role.

February 12, 2008

Candid Camera and Why Waiters Make Good Cops

There's a story in the Baltimore Sun about a police officer that got suspended over his conduct as shown on a YouTube video.

You can’t skate in the Inner Harbor (why, I’m not sure). You can’t bike either (I got busted once for biking through an empty Inner Harbor at 6:45AM on my way to the police academy). These kids were skateboarding and the cop goes off on one of the kids. Really, you shouldn’t call a police officer, “dude.” But on the video, the cop is being, well... a dick. I showed it to my class and my students think, well, the same.

The reporter, Annie Linskey, called me and asked for my thoughts on the video. I told her my first reaction. But I also said I couldn't be sure. At least not sure enough to go on record in the Baltimore Sun criticizing a Baltimore City police officer.

We don't know what happened before the video starts. Is it a school day? (probably not) Did the cop already tell the kids three times to stop skateboarding in the Inner Harbor? Did the kid flip off the cop right before the video starts? I think there are lots of possible situations that could justify the cop's behavior. As a former cop, my first instinct is to give a cop the benefit of the doubt. Patrolling the Inner Harbor is a plum assignment and the officer had no previous complaints. So he’s probable a good officer.

The truth is that cops, including myself, are all too willing to excuse other officers as to how they do they job. Though I would tell a cop in private how I think he or she could do better, I don’t think everything a cop does should be second guessed by people who don’t understand the nature of the job and the specific situation. In legal jargon, the totality of the circumstances.

Different cops handle different situations differently. Some cops are better at being aggressive. Some are better at talking to people. Sometimes cops should be courteous. Sometimes cops shouldn't be polite. Cops have to make quick decisions. Sometimes they’re right. Sometimes they’re wrong. Sometimes they’re just having a bad day.

Now let's say, for the sake of argument, that the video shows the whole story. If that’s the case, then the officer handled the situation horribly. If your goal is to get three kids to stop skateboarding, there are much better ways to do it.

To put it bluntly, how do you get cops to stop being dicks? It’s a serious question. And I’ve thought about it lots. I still don’t have a good answer. I think cops are rude simply because they can be. If you deal with the public at your job and you could be rude, would you? Nobody starts a job wanting to be rude. But if you’re dealing with a random selection of the public (or worse), it often ends up that way. Every wanted to really tell somebody off? Well, cops can. And some do.

I often half-seriously propose that the six months of the police academy could be better spend waiting table is a fine-dining restaurant. I’ve waited a lot of tables in my life. And one thing you learn in a fancy restaurant working for tips is an important lesson for police (and everybody). In stressful situations where people are rude to you, good waiters learn how to be polite to people they hate.

[Other skills from waiting useful for police: how to multitask, prioritize situations, stay calm under pressure, deal with idiots, work without sitting down, eat quickly, and bathroom breaks, and wash your hands a lot.]

Still, sometimes a person does need a lesson. Sometimes an arrest isn’t appropriate. Or legal. So as good police, you’ve got to put on an act: yell, threaten, cajole, lecture. All these are part of the job. But it’s important to have an objective when you deal with a situation. Then you have to figure out the best method to achieve your goals. Yelling for the sake of yelling isn’t good policing. I rarely felt I had anything to prove as a police. I had a job to do.

Cops tend to be scared of video cameras. Precisely because of videos such as this. How would you like it if you were suspended because of an incident at work seven months ago you may not even remember? But in the long run I think cameras will help police more than hurt police. It would be nice to have videos of criminals misbehaving. It would be nice to have videos backing up cops’ version of stories. It would be nice to see cops handling situations well.

It’s good to police assuming you’re being watched. These days, you probably are. If videos make cops less rude, all the better. My problem with asshole cops isn’t so much that they’re being an asshole, it’s that being an asshole is usually bad policing. It escalates. It has no ultimate goal. And it’s dangerous. I don’t want to backup a cop who provoked a fight because he and some kid got all macho with each other. I don’t want my work defusing a domestic ruined because some cop shows up and feels (sometimes incorrectly) like he’s being dissed by some idiot.

A police friend of mine saw the video and wrote this:
I saw part of the video and I know the cop. He is your typical Italian to say the least. He is a pretty nice guy but I guess by the looks of it he had a bad day. You know that I always give the cop a very heavy benefit of the doubt, but the kid was skateboarding. I mean shit, find a drunk or something. Shit, I felt bad just watching the tape. Granted the kid smoked or huffed way to much earlier but still they were riding skateboards. To top it all off, it was at the Inner Harbor in daylight for god sakes!!! I will stop ranting now.
So will I.

Outing the insiders

There’s a very interesting exchange on Slate.com between Sudhir Venkatesh and Alex Kotlowitz. These are two authors I respect deeply (and not just because Prof. Venkatesh was kind enough to offer to write a blurb for Cop in the Hood).

Their letters discuss the role of researchers vis-à-vis their research subjects. You should read all four.

I just finished reading Venkatesh’s Gang Leader for a Day. It’s a great book (and not just because Prof. Venkatesh was kind enough to write a blurb for Cop in the Hood)! I stayed up till 6am to finish it. Sudhir, as you may or may not know, got his hands on the books of a gang in Chicago. Like the actually financial books. With payments, employees, salaries. What a coup! He’s done great research in the old Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago. This book is the story of his research.

I’ve read two of Alex Kotlowitz’s books: There Are No Children Here and The Other Side of the River. They’re both great (and Mr. Kotlowitz didn’t write a blurb for my book). The former is about growing up Chicago projects and the latter about race and economic relations in St. Joseph and Benton Harbor, Michigan. He writes about cities and race honestly, fairly, and with great style.

In Gang Leader for a Day, Venkatesh arguably does some harm to his research subjects. This is a big no-no in the world of academic research. Venkatesh has gotten some flack for kicking a man who was in the process of getting a beat down. That doesn’t bother me, because in addition to arguably “deserving” the beat down, the man was attacking a friend of Venkatesh. More worrisome, at least to me, is Venkatesh taking part in business extortion and unintentionally “outing” the semi-legal hustles people use to get by in the projects.

Venkatesh could never have done his research if he had to go through a Human Subject Review Board (or I.R.B., Institutional Review Board). As a grad student, he somehow skirted this requirement. But I think the world would be a worse place without Venkatesh’s research. It’s good work and shame on the institution of I.R.B.s that wouldn’t allow it!

I’ve never been a fan of the I.R.B. Few professor are. I don’t think that overt non-experimental academic researchers should need approval to observe and interact with most human subjects. We’re not giving out experimental drugs. We’re not running experiments. We’re watching and talking and living. I don’t even like the term “human subjects.” It’s dehumanizing. They're people, damnit! It’s condescending to think that adults aren’t smart enough to make their own decisions about what to say to whom. And if they’re not, well, such is life.

Nor am I convinced that research subjects who harm others deserve institutional protection. I believe academics should act under a code similar to journalists. But federal law disagrees with me. And the press has explicit constitutional protection that professors don’t.

Kotlowitz, a journalist, doesn’t have to worry about I.R.B.s. But as human beings, both Venkatesh and Kotlowitz are naturally concerned about harms that may come from their presence. They both wonder about the obligation they have to their (poor) research subjects. Especially since they, the authors, are likely to benefit both financially and professionally.

Most research is done on the powerless and abused. In my study of police, I wasn’t dealing with what is traditionally considered an “at risk” group. If anything, police are considered by others to be powerful abusers! I wasn’t particularly concerned about my research “changing” my subjects. I want my research to change things for the better. I want a better police department and better policing.

But I had my concerns. What if I saw a Rodney King? What if I was asked to conspire in crimes? Should I stop my “research” and quit my job? Should I turn in other cops? Luckily, and hard as it is to for police-haters to imagine, I didn’t see any criminal or horrible police behavior (though I do think that somebody needs to keep better tabs on correctional officers—jail guards in particular).

Perhaps I’m underestimating the value of my Ivy League education, but I feel that any of my police colleagues could write a book as good as mine. Unfortunately they can’t write as well (and I give my public high-school English teachers more credit for that than Harvard or Princeton).

Researchers who “do” rather than just “watch” are always accused of not being “objective.” I’m not a big fan of objectivity. For starters, unless you’re a psychopath, I don’t think objectivity is possible. And even if it were, I’m not convinced it’s good. Too often objectivity is just a euphemism for ignorance. Objective outside research—that is to say, most research—runs the risk of being too ass-kissing and desperate, simply in an attempt to gain the access that naturally comes from an insider. Ethnography can’t and shouldn’t strive for the same level of scientific validity as found in the hard sciences. Ethnography isn’t chemistry.

What’s strange to me is the dearth of good social-science research on the police. I do think that it’s tougher to write about police officers than it is to write about gang members. You can write about who a gang member is, because there’s something more exotic there (at least to outsiders). The lives of people who go to work usually isn’t that interesting (so kudos to Ehrenreich for making it so). Workers provide for their families. I don’t think I have the writing skills to make a police officer interesting. But I do have the analytical skills to notice what police officers do. Luckily, what police do is often very interesting.

People also say police are closed to outsiders and hostile to researchers. That may be true, but only if you’re an outsider. Compared to Venkatesh befriending gang members, my becoming a police officer was a synch! And it’s very easy to become a police insider. They hire. And they even pay you.

You might say that my job as police officer was, to use Venkatesh’s language, a “hustle.” I used the police department to advance my academic career. I didn’t hide this fact. The Baltimore City Police Department knew this (and to their credit still hired me). Other police told me, “If you can use this job as a stepping stone to something better, more power to you.” I actually heard those exact words more than once. I had the luxury of being an insider.

If you’re studying the poor, or the working class, or prison guards, or restaurant workers, or taxi drivers, or drug dealers, you can simply become one or make friends with those who are. Maybe all groups aren’t open to outsiders, but most are. It’s human nature. The fact that most academics don’t even talk to the people they claim to study is either horrible class snobbery or a simple lack of cojones.

How not to get my ass kicked by the police

Last night I was stopped by police. It was about 1AM on the coldest night of the year and I was biking back from work. I needed some groceries and passed an unfamiliar grocery store. I went up on the sidewalk to look inside, trying to decide if it was worth my while to buy some stuff or wait till I got back to a store with a familiar layout.

I was stopped in front of the store, figuring this out, when po-po pulls up next to me. The passenger side window rolls down and a man asks, “Do you have ID?” “Sure,” I say almost happily. Given my cop background and professional interests, I actually kind of like being harassed by police. I’m good at talking to cops. Don’t play dumb. Don’t lie. Don't act pissed off (even if you are). Don’t say, “don’t you have anything better to do?!”

Does he think I’m looking for drugs in the projects across the street? Does he think my balaclava means I’m going to rob the store? Or is he just going to bust me for being on the sidewalk or not having a bell? I give him my work ID.

He looks at my ID for a moment and says, “We stopped you for riding on the sidewalk. You know that’s not allowed?” It was 20 degrees out. At 1AM. In Queens. But I put on my sheepish face. “Yeah, I know it’s not allowed. But I just wanted to look in this store and figured you wouldn’t care because it’s ten below out. I’m sorry.” My tone was nice, conversational, even respectful. We actually exchanged some pleasantries and then they left. I continued to break bike laws all the way home.

February 10, 2008

"Unfortunate accident"?!

This was five years ago and more than an unfortunate accident, it was bad policing and a bad shooting:
"Here you got two of the sweetest kids on the Earth going to the mall and having Slurpees, getting shot through the car window. It's a mess. Yeah, I'm angry," Harkum said from his Pasadena home.
It goes down something like this: After a bank robbery, FBI agents make a car stop, perhaps their first ever car stop. One agent orders the passenger to unlock the door. The other agent demands to see his hands. Joseph Charles Schultz, the passenger, listens to the first FBI agent and gets shot in the face by the by the second. Oops. Also, it was the wrong car. Schultz and his girlfriend really were just minding their own business.

In July 2007 the government settled. The agents were absolved.

February 7, 2008

Read Chapter One

The book is at the printers, the press is excited, and I can offer you a sample from the book. Read Chapter One. Read it, like it, and then buy the book. Release date is May 1 but you can preorder from Amazon. What better way to celebrate May Day than to march under fluttering red banners for the workers of the world while holding aloft a copy of Cop in the Hood?