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by Peter Moskos

July 14, 2008

Wall Street Journal Book Review

The Wall Street Journal reviewed Cop in the Hood today. In the small world of books like this, that's big. And it's a good review! My only complaint is his assertion in the last paragraph that I lacked the impulse to run toward gunfire. I often did. My heart was big enough to be a good researcher and a good police officer.

A Close Look at Mean Streets
July 14, 2008; Page A15

Cop in the Hood
By Peter Moskos
(Princeton, 245 pages, $24.95)

Never Mind "The Wire."
Here is the real thing.


High on the list of things that police officers loathe -- and the list is a long one -- is the sight of an egghead doctoral candidate approaching the precinct house in the hope of finding a research subject. Among cops it is generally assumed that, no matter how much time an academic researcher may spend on ride-alongs in the field, and no matter how well intentioned he may be, he will remain an outsider, studying a culture that is all but impenetrably foreign to him. Which makes Peter Moskos's "Cop in the Hood" all the more remarkable and all the more welcome.

Mr. Moskos is an assistant professor of law and political science at New York's John Jay College. In 1999, as a graduate student in sociology at Harvard, he was granted permission to join a police academy class in Baltimore for the purpose of studying police training. On his second day, though, he was pulled from the class and told that he could not continue. A shift in Baltimore's political winds had swept out the police commissioner who had approved the project, and the interim commissioner was unreceptive to the idea.

But Mr. Moskos was offered an interesting alternative: He could continue his research, he was told, if he completed the city's hiring process and became an actual police officer. He accepted the challenge, passing a battery of tests that included the first mile-and-a-half run of his life. In "Cop in the Hood" he acknowledges that having been on the payroll of the organization he was studying presented, in strict academic terms, a potential conflict of interest, but he writes that "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."

Mr. Moskos completed his training and was assigned to the midnight shift in Baltimore's Eastern District. He spent 14 months as a patrol officer before returning to Harvard, but in that short time he saw more mayhem than most police officers see in 14 years. The murder rate in Baltimore is six times that of New York City, and the Eastern District is the city's most violent.

Mr. Moskos discovered that the police academy, with its emphasis on quasimilitary formalities and tedious routines, did little to prepare him for the reality of Baltimore's meanest streets. Like most rookie police officers, who tend to be law-abiding members of the middle class, he had had little exposure to life in what he unabashedly calls the "ghetto," where he was routinely called into people's homes "because the residents have, at some level, lost control."

He describes in unsparing detail the conditions he found to be all too common -- homes "without heat or electricity, rooms lacking furniture filled with filth and dirty clothes, roaches and mice running rampant, jars and buckets of urine stacked in corners, and multiple children sleeping on bare and dirty mattresses." Entering a "normal" home, one that was "well furnished and clean," he writes, was "so rare that it would be mentioned to fellow officers."

A lot of his time on patrol was spent "clearing the corners" of young drug dealers. The task was usually accomplished through a simple assertion of dominance, in which the cops stopped their car and stared the dealers down. The dealers who got the message and moved on were allowed to do so, while those who defiantly returned the stare were detained and often arrested for loitering. As Mr. Moskos discovered, much of police work simply involves the cops exerting their authority, either formally or informally, over those they believe to be lawbreakers. "Every drug call to which police respond," he writes, "indeed all police dealings with social or criminal misbehavior, will result in the suspect's arrest, departure, or deference."

In "Cop in the Hood," Mr. Moskos manages to capture a world that most people know only through the distorting prism of television and film, where police officers are usually portrayed as quixotically heroic or contemptibly corrupt. "Incidents [of corruption] do happen," Mr. Moskos says, "but the police culture is not corrupt."

For all the book's detail, Mr. Moskos reserves his most passionate writing for a call to abandon the war on drugs. He claims that the drug war -- with its violent turf battles and revolving-door cycles of arrest -- has caused more social devastation than drugs themselves. This is an opinion much in vogue today, one no doubt shared by most of Mr. Moskos's colleagues in academia but not by most police officers.

One must admire Mr. Moskos for his willingness to walk in a police officer's shoes for 20 months. But it is important to remember, while reading "Cop in the Hood," that though he wore the badge and carried the gun, in his heart he was still a researcher foremost, not a police officer. He lacked the attribute that marks out the genuine cop -- that rare and inexplicable impulse to run toward gunfire when other sane people are running away. It is an attribute that may be described and analyzed at Harvard, but it is not often found there.


Mr. Horan is a police officer in California.


Anonymous said...

And where is Mr. Horan employed specifically? Does he deal with the level of violence (including active shooters) that a Baltimore City Police Officer assigned to the Eastern would? That comment sounded snide and his attitude on the drug issue was dismissive. Oh, well you're still moving up in the world professor.

PCM said...

I can't figure out where he's employed. It was a snide comment. It only bothers me because it's wrong. But cops never believe that other cops really know what's it like in their hard core [fill in the blank: neighborhood, city, state, country, park district, school]. And I'm certainly no exception.

And another way to read that last paragraph: every review has to have something negative. That's pretty minor and doesn't take away from the book. I can take it!

I'm just happy the review was written.

Anonymous said...

Tru dat. Congratulations Pete.