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by Peter Moskos

July 5, 2016

Low Police Morale (or: the more things change...)

Last night a police captain said:
I'm in the Department and had better keep my mouth shut. But I must candidly say that I have never known the Police Department to be in such a bad state as it is it right now. One day we receive one imperative order, and on the next another quite different, so that we hardly know what to do. And because we can't do everything we are criticized by everybody and abused by every ragamuffin. It's nothing but "orders," "orders." And so many orders make nothing but disorders.

However I'd better not blab -- what right have we to blab? -- we're in the Department. But it's enough to make one swear. As I said before, we're pitched into by newspapers and by everybody.
Every complaint against a policeman, no matter how foolish, must be taken down by the clerk and investigated, because he has been ordered to do so.
But then I won't say a word. I'm in the department. There may be a reporter about, so I'll shut up.
--"A Grumbling Police Captain." New York Daily Times, Feb 2, 1856 (lightly edited)


Jay Livingston said...

Things do change. "But it's enough to make one swear." In 2016, he'd just say, "But fuck it."

Where did you find this gem?

Moskos said...

I was researching via newspaper archives the NYC police vs police battle of 1857. Archives go back to 1851. Lots of good old stuff.

And I'd bet he *did* say "fuck it." "Enough to make one swear" sounds very much like 19th century journalistic license.

Unknown said...

Make the pejorative "ragamuffin" great again!
This reminded me of my early days as a cop. I work for a small agency and when I started there had been alot of turnover. As it was, I was fresh out of the academy and got assigned to midnights with 4 new laterals from Baltimore. Needless to say, our sergeant had his hands full.
In an effort to make us think before we spoke (and try to keep the swearing to a mimimum), sarge would occasionally invent challenges at roll call. He would say "first one to work a Jackson 5 lyric into conversation during a call wins dinner on me."
One night the challenge was "olde english". Another officer and I get dispatched to a bar fight. He pulls up and announces "disperse ye band of ragamuffins, or its off to the clink with ye!" over the PA.
It worked! People were so confused that they forgot all about fighting and just stared strangely at my partner. Sarge bought him dinner and we still laugh about that call.
God, I loved working on that squad, nowadays its all spreadsheets and iniatives. Somehow we seem to have lost interest in art of good policing
and gotten hung up on the numbers. Most departments would not have nearly the problems they do if cops like my old sergrant ran things.

Moskos said...

Good times! Sounds like a great sergeant. And that could double on speak-like-a-pirate day as well.

While it did end the shenanigans (a favorite word from my squad), it was a wasted opportunity to use the olde spanish/english "hoosegow" on those ragamuffins.

Similarly, I also found that super formal and polite english would have a temporarily disorienting effect of the riffraff. As in "Gentleman, good evening. How are all of you this early morning? I've received a call regarding activities on this block. What might be the concern?" Of course that would only temporarily stun them, and you'd have to go to the lingua franca. But at least you got their attention without losing composure or face.

You really do gotta have fun on the job. Else you go crazy. That's too often overlooked.

Man, 90 percent of our cars didn't even have a PA system.

Unknown said...

You do have to have fun. While I welcome body cams, I do worry about the effect they will have on the innocent shenanigans and gallows humor that make the job "fun". How do we vent if every second of a terrible call is subject to discovery or could end up on TV? Then we keep it bottled up and instead of bad jokes on scene, our release has to be at home...or in a bar.

Moskos said...

Or let's say that a young woman with a drug problem who supports herself through immodest means ("a French lady," to use 19th Century language) is drunk and very animatedly telling you something that must be important to her. And somebody in your squad (he's a captain now, and good one) goes behind her and does an imitation of her every word and gesture... in pantomime (appropriate French method for a French lady).

At that moment, as a humble public servant and trained law enforcement professional, your only job is to keep a straight face. It's not easy.

Good times.

Moskos said...

Lessons from twitter: The scalawags have overtaken the ragamuffins and things are worse now. The roustabouts are not being kept in check!

Mr. B said...

For a minute I thought this was from more contemporary times. Then I saw the date...and I was like they used to talk like this, so modern. Of course words like "ragamuffin" and "clerk" kinda give us a clue as to the times. Yeah, the more things change. It would be nice to do a genealogy of the discursive practices and structures used around the relationship between law enforcement and civilians, especially People of Color (maybe nothing has changed much but the players).