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by Peter Moskos

December 24, 2009

Ethnography Bashing

I don't mind a mixed review of my book (Contemporary Sociology), but it does bother me when a reviewer calls my participant-observation research a "major flaw." It's like a man who doesn't like olive oil, fish, and lamb bashing a Greek restaurant for being too "Mediterranean." If you don't like the concept, don't review it.

Basically, goes the tired old sociological argument, because I was a cop, I can't see police objectively. This is called "going native." Like all sociology majors, I learned this in college (in my case as a Princeton sophomore in Professor Howard Taylor's most excellent "Introductory Research Methods in African American Studies"--the class that made me a sociologist!).

While going native certainly is a possibility. Given the sum of my book and writing, to say I did so is a bit absurd.

The reviewer writes:
This raises the possibility that [Moskos] was not privy to some of the more sensitive issues and events that may have happened. He states categorically that he witnessed no instances of illegal police behavior while on the Baltimore Police Department which suggests that he failed to encounter them either because he was shielded from such events or he did not define them as illegal because he had adopted the police view that such activities were necessary to get the job done.
Actually, I stated categorically I saw no instances of police corruption. I wrote a bit about illegal behavior: "High-arrest officers push the boundaries of consent searches and turn pickets inside-out. Illegal (and legal) searches are almost always motivated by a desire to find drugs." So much for a thorough reading.

I did write this (p. 78):
I policed what is arguably the worst shift in the worst district in Baltimore and saw no police corruption. ... Incidents do happen, but the police culture is not corrupt. Though overall police integrity is very high, some will never be convinced. But out of personal virtue, internal investigation stings, or monetary calculations, the majority--the vast majority--of police officers are clean.
Sometimes reality causes cognitive dissonance to people with strong prejudices. I guess the idea that most cops are clean (cleaner than professors, I like to add) is just too shocking for some in academe. Rather than face up to one's own anti-police biases, I guess it's easier just to bash ethnography.


Jeff N said...

I still need to buy your book, so I can't yet comment on your bias in the book. But I can comment on what you have written here.

Are cops clean? This all depends on how you define 'clean'.

Is there a major police department where corruption has NOT been found lately? Just going up the east coast from where I live in DC. DC destroys incriminating evidence against itself and has robbery/murders. Baltimore has/had drug dealers in the department. Philly has cujdik. New York has judges saying the entire department is institutionally corrupt for false testimony. Boston has cops working as enforcers for drug dealers.

I guess you will argue that these are isolated instances and the fact that they were exposed means the system is working.

I am of the belief that corruption this widespread does not happen in a vaccuum. And that this is not one bad apple, it is bushels and bushels of bad apples.

Anonymous said...

The man who reviewed your book used the word "systematical" at the end of the review. This is not a word. He is dismissed.

Anonymous said...

That's a lovely circular argument your reviewer has constructed. So you didn't uncover the rampant corruption and abuse because you were habituated into the system. Whereas if you had been an outside observer you would not have uncovered the rampant corruption and abuse because you were an outsider. If there's a sociological equivalent to the Heisenberg Principle this guy is torturing it to death. It's a half-step from implying your badge had a decoder ring in it and you took an oath of omerta
when you were sworn in.

In one backward-assed way he was correct though. You were shielded from corruption. Not because you were doing research but because you were an honest cop. Bad cops don't hold recruiting drives, and they sure don't advertise what they're doing to honest cops. Bad cops know what the public always forgets: they're always brought down by other cops. I worked in some high-crime, high-intensity areas with some guys that I was fairly certain were on the ethical edge. Most of those in question a) respected me enough to not place me in a precarious position and b) knew I wouldn't tolerate it if they did.

Meh said...

Jeff, how do you know all those claims are true? Sounds to me like you have been watching too many episodes of The Shield (great show btw). Of course there are bad cops but they are very rare and are not tolerated once discovered.

PCM said...

I started watching the Shield but couldn't get into it because of all the lack of realism including, especially the high level of corruption.

PCM said...

And even if 1% of cops are corrupt (and I'm just making that number up, but it's probably not far from the truth), that still means 30 dirty cops in Baltimore and 400 dirty cops in NYC. I doubt you'll find many organizations with such a low percentage of its workforce corrupt.

But you'll hear about the dirty officer because they'll get caught. But still 1% of the workforce can do some harm. But to constantly harp on the bad does not improve the organization or do justice to the 99%.

I make an analogy with "shrinkage" in retail. Some of it is inevitable. It doesn't make it right. And you attack it where you find it. But if you were boss and that is all you were worried about, you would quickly go out of business. The only way to end corruption completely is to have no contact with people.

Quite frankly, police departments have bigger problems than corruption and anti-corruption efforts often do more harm than good (for details see the excellent book The Pursuit of Absolute Integrity).

So now here we are. Me and other police officers say we don't see corruption in the police department because it's not part of police culture.

And you and other outsiders, who generally have what little knowledge they have of policing from TV and pop culture, say, "you're all corrupt!" Who would you believe?

I mean, if police are as dirty as you and other say, we who say otherwise are either lying or fools. Which one is it?

Jeff N said...

Johnny Law - Those stories are not from TV, those are from news of police who were convicted(except for cudjik and crew who have yet to be convicted)

PCM - A Federal judge wrote recently of the NYPD .. "Informal inquiry by [myself] and among the judges of this court, as well as knowledge of cases in other federal and state courts ... has revealed anecdotal evidence of repeated, widespread falsification by arresting officers of the New York City Police Department," Weinstein wrote. "

The police commisioner acknowledged that police lie in their testimony, but its ok because its not for personal gain.

To me this is a flashing neon sign saying that the percent of corruption is much much higher than the 1 percent you proposed.

In DC, there is no question that police logs and audio tapes were altered to destroy evidence showing who gave arrest orders in Pershing Park. This means to me, corruption from top to bottom, from the Chief of police who might have given the orders and who wanted them covered up, to the peons who were taking the logs, to the tech guy who erased the critical parts of the evidence, and to all of the other officers who were there and all of a sudden have memory issues.

Those are just a couple examples. The one I didnt mention in my original post that pretty much removed my trust of police in general was Abner Louima.

Not for the assault itself, thats just your proposed 1 percent bad individuals.

But for the fact that after the assault he took the bloody stick and showed it off to the precinct, and then many other police helped attempt to cover it up, thats my institutional corruption.

Are you lying or fools? Thats a difficult question, maybe you are some third option, willfully ignorant? There are good police I hope. Is it situational ethics which allow these things to happen? The job being too important to gum it up with minor things? Or it could be a band of brothers situation, you guys have impossible and dangerous jobs. You choose to look the other way instead of investigating problems. Or maybe just different standards as to what corrupt means? It's ok to lie about some things, as long as the big problems are address?

PCM said...

Police need situational ethics. I wish they taught that more in the police academy.

If you think there is a clear split between right and wrong and good and evil, you would make a horrible police officer.

Police should have a more "gray" definition of right and wrong than most (within the bounds of legality, of course). This reflects the real world. Or as the old saying goes (I just made this one up), "If it ain't a crime, it's not illegal."

Certainly police officers do see the criminal justice system as a joke and game (because it is). And like everybody else in court, police want to win. But that doesn't mean police should perjure themselves to put away guilty people. It's not worth it.

I didn't go looking in dirty corners of the police department. It's not so much turning a blind eye as trusting others to do their job. But I worked in what many people considered a dirty corner and I'm pleased to report it was a pretty clean room. So I give others the benefit of the doubt.

Are I being willfully ignorant? I doubt it. Yes, I tried to avoid officers whose work habits I didn't like. That's logical self-preservation for the individual officer. And no it's not good for the organization, but if somebody were going to get in trouble, I wanted to be as far away as possible!

But you can only tighten your blinders so much. If police were really so corrupt but not in front of me, wouldn't that be great? That would mean that all it takes in the mere presence of one clean police officer to make everybody else clean. Well wouldn't that be great news?

Seriously, though, if we really wanted to get rid of corruption, all we would have to do is get police out of the vice and drugs game (there I go again). Show me one bit of police corruption that isn't linked to vice or drugs. You can't.

The fact remains that most cops are clean. And to say that all cops are dirty or protecting those who are is offensive to the vast majority of police officers. It would be to you too.

Jeff N said...

Thanks for responding thoughtfully and not giving pat or dismissive responses.

Look, I am not an anarchist, but I am a skeptic. Police are absolutely needed to keep society working. I hope that if I am ever a crime or accident victim that a Police officer would be there to help.


If I had co-workers and even the head of the organization I worked for (did you work for ed norris?) going to jail, I don't think I would find it offensive if people were a bit skeptical of everyone at my company.

PCM said...

Yeah, I worked for convicted felon Ed Norris. And I liked him at the time. I even think he was a good commissioner.

But then I liked him a bit less when he claimed to be "shocked" that there were racial politics in Baltimore (a city that is 65% black). I liked him even less when he found a golden parachute and went to work for the state (shockers: turns out he was a Republican all along!).

But things really took a bad turn when it was discovered (I think to cover my ass I'll throw in the word "allegedly" at this point) that he was screwing whores with slush-fund cash. And not just screwing whores, but doing so when he was supposed to be of attending sessions at a terrorism conferences! You know, keeping the city safe. That latter part rubs me the wrong way.

And the fund was meant for "officers in need." So perhaps he qualified.

But I didn't really dislike the guy till he was an incredible prick to me on his radio show a while back. But that was only after I was off the air and couldn't defend myself. What a pussy.

Once he started laying into me, my sergeant wife's actually called to defend me! (That was actually the best part. But he just ignored her. I guess that's why it's called the "Ed Norris Show.")

Of course he was only convicted of financial issues related to money to or from his father and whether it was a "loan" or a "gift." I was surprised that he did jail time for that.

But it turns out, so I hear, that they had Eddie by the short hairs. Rumor has it he copped a plea only after they threatened to go after his father. And all this was because, as I have heard, he told the prosecutor to go fuck himself. That's not a smart thing to say to a federal prosecutor. I can't help but think of that Cheech and Chong movie where the guard replies: "No senor, fuck you!"

But honestly, no, I don't see the link between Ed Norris being a felon and me. Do you think all city employees are corrupt?

IrishPirate said...


Seems like Ed Norris is a legend in his own mind. Shades of Bernie Keric.

He even would like a pardon from President Obama and would like to be a cop again.


What's the betting on that possibility?

Perhaps he can get the odds from one of his ex girlfriends.

My suggestion, Ed, keep your day job.

By the way cavorting with hookers, allegedly, doesn't bother me. Using government funds to do it.......that bothers me.

PCM said...

And he's never even admitted he's even done anything wrong!

And he didn't exactly use government funds. He used slush-fund funds--the one for needy police officers--but he was supposed to be on police-related business.

Norris plays himself off as a victim. Of what or whom, I'm not quite sure. I don't think remorse is everything. But really, it's a start.

And Norris, a former lock-em-up police commissioner, after getting out of prison, to complain about how hard it is for a convicted felon to get a job! Oh, the Chutzpah!

Meh said...

All I can comment on are my personal experiences when it comes to corruption. In my 10+ years I have never seen it as huge issue. There have been a few isolated cases where an officer were involved in misconduct. In each one, the department aggressively investigated the incident and the officers were either exonerated or terminated, depending on the evidence.

I know several folks in Internal Affairs and know that there was no blue wall of silence. Officers that had knowledge of the incidents were usually the ones that turned the other officer in!

As I mentioned earlier, I used to work narcotics. We would often seize large amounts of money and dope. There was never any talk of doing anything improper or even the hint of misconduct in that unit.

Jeff, all I can tell you is that it is not that big a problem. Does it exist? Sure. As long as you recruit officers from the human race, you are going to have some who fail to meet the standards. If you expect perfection, you are going to always be disappointed. the way to minimize it is good background checks, aggressive investigations of allegations, and paying cops a fair wage.

With that being said, I really liked the Shield.

Marc said...

"Of course there are bad cops but they are very rare and are not tolerated once discovered."

The union up here seems to love the Cujdik family

PCM said...

The union is generally obligated to defend all its members, even the bad ones (of course they can do so with more or less gusto).

I bet the rank-and-file is less supportive.