Peter Moskos’ Cop In The Hood

HBO’s police procedural drama The Wire made the Baltimore drug trade – and the incredible crime and violence it creates – familiar to American television watchers, but in roughly the same time period that the show was taking place, a young man named Peter Moskos took a job as a police patrolman in Baltimore’s Eastern District while completing his doctoral dissertation in sociology at Harvard University. It was always, in his mind, a temporary career move, a way to gain first-hand experience of what his future, academic career would be centred on: crime and policing. Moskos is now a professor at John Jay College and the director of their NYPD Executive Master’s Program, though he also serves on the faculty of both City University of New York’s and LaGuardia Community College’s social science departments, and as a Senior Fellow at Yale’s Urban Ethnography Project. Cop In The Hood is an account of his year policing Baltimore’s notoriously violent Eastern District, as well as his policy recommendations for alleviating the violence and decreasing the grotesquely high number of incarcerations that result from policing the drug trade.

Moskos opens by describing what is commonly known as “culture shock,” the first reaction of every middle-class visitor to America’s most dysfunctional inner-city neighborhoods.

Old women sweep the streets. People rise before dawn to go to work. On Sundays, ladies go to church wearing beautiful hats and preachers preach to the choir. But if you’re looking for stereotypes, they’re there. Between the vacant and abandoned buildings you’ll find liquor stores, fast food, Korean corner stores, and a Jewish pawnshop. Living conditions are worse than those of third-world shantytowns: children in filthy apartments without plumbing or electricity, entire homes put out on eviction day, forty-five-year-old great-grandparents, junkies not raising their kids, drug dealers, and everywhere signs of violence and despair.

The ghetto, for too many of its residents, is not merely physically but spiritually desiccated, a place shorn not only of basic material comforts but of the psychological comforts of functioning families. And because Moskos is writing an ethnography, he continually quotes from his fellow officers, whose daily confrontation with this pit of American despair has understandably made them cynical and fond of gallows humour.

One officer said, “[People in the Eastern District are] drugged-out, lazy motherfuckers. These people don’t want to work. They want to sit on their ass, collect welfare, get drunk, and make babies. Let them shoot each other.” After a brief pause he turned to me and said with faux sincerity, “I think the problems here are caused by social conditions, which can be solved by better education … That’s so when you write all this stuff for your book I don’t come out like an asshole.”

If this strikes you as heartless, or overly cynical, make some allowance for the nature of the work: no other profession puts people into regular contact with murderers, rapists, child abusers and drug addicts. “Police officers don’t see the good. That’s not their job. Nobody calls 911 to report a graduation party, an anniversary, or another hard day at work. People don’t need police when they’re happy and everything is going well. Police see misery at its best.” Moskos reports on a phenomenon that’s both deeply tragic and eminently understandable: the creeping cynicism that takes hold the longer police officers perform their duties. He cites statistics that “60 percent of trainees – 80 percent of black trainees and just under half of the white trainees – stated a desire to ‘help other people’ as a major reason for becoming a police officer.” The same cynicism and despair that characterizes the ghetto of East Baltimore inevitably takes hold over the officers charged with attempting to restore order to its chaos.

In Baltimore, roughly 10% of all citizens are suffering from drug addiction, but the estimates for the Eastern District are far higher – with high estimates topping 50%. As The Wire‘s creator David Simon described it, Baltimore is a “company town,” and that company is the drug trade: those few who aren’t using are likely to be selling, and that creates a perverse situation for police officers, who cannot be expected to enforce the laws – as written – without locking up many more people than they already arrest.

One officer described the scene around an open-air drug market: “[This is an arrest] free-for-all … [Banging steering wheel of car] Junkie, junkie, junkie! You can pull up to any corner and lock up everybody walking away [or] any white person you see. They’re all dirty … If you want court time, this is where you come.

And here, where the drug trade meets policing efforts, is exactly where the corruption begins. Police officers are ruthlessly evaluated by their superiors on the basis of quantifiable statistics: how many arrests they make, for example, or how many murders they solve (“clear”). A lazy policeman might easily rise to the tops of his department’s arrest statistics by canvassing these open-air drug markets and arresting anyone he sees using. He doesn’t even need to concern himself with whether or not his arrest will lead to a conviction, since the metrics evaluating his performance care only about the arrest itself. “The decision to arrest or not arrest those involved in the drug trade becomes more a matter of personal choice and police officer discretion than of any formalized police response toward crime or public safety.”

In William J. Stuntz’s The Collapse of American Criminal Justice, I read about how more and more arrests were resulting in plea bargains rather than actual trials in the aftermath of the war on drugs. Greater penalties (as measured in longer prison sentences) disincentivized trials and incentivized plea bargaining to a lesser conviction (possession with the intent to distribute becomes possession, for example), causing prosecution rates, in turn, to skyrocket.

It takes very few appearances in court to see that the legal system is not a well-funded search for truth and justice. Courts are a game to be mastered by defendants , prosecutors, police officers, and judges alike. They all manipulate the system to serve their own interests. On one hand, the overloaded system often fails to punish the guilty and dangerous. On the other hand, the system does little to accommodate crime victims or protect those falsely accused. The truly innocent, those who face charges without having committed any crime, are very rare. But because they are so rare, the presumption if almost always of guilt. The courts become a bottleneck on the road to prison. Police keep pouring the guilty into an already overflowing funnel. Baltimore’s Circuit Court, for example, with a capacity to hold 500 jury trials a year, handles 10,000 felony cases annually. In both the literal and figurative sense, justice is plea-bargained.

The Kafkaesque absurdity of this situation is made clear when Moskos points out that those convicted of drug crimes could put an end to the war on drugs immediately, if only they could exercise some collective bargaining power: the mere refusal to plea bargain, and the insistence on their constitutionally-protected right to a fair trial, would hopelessly backstop the criminal justice system.

Refreshingly, Moskos doesn’t merely describe the despair and dysfunction he sees. He also attempts to provide policy recommendations that might help to alleviate it. The first (and perhaps least actionable) of these is to legalize drugs. The sky-high murder rate in cities like Baltimore is intimately connected with the sale of drugs (particularly crack and heroin, rather than marijuana), as rival gangs compete for valuable “real estate” (city blocks, public parks, and government housing parking lots) on which to hawk their wares. Legalizing these drugs, Moskos argues, would decrease their cost and break the gang monopolies on their provision. But policing, too, needs to be reformed. Arrest quotas – officially outlawed, but nonetheless an unspoken reality in most police departments – must be abolished, and the car patrols that are so popular among police officers must be replaced by foot patrols, which Moskos argues have a much better record of preventing crime, rather than merely reacting to the commission of crime, and help officers integrate into the neighborhoods they’re policing.

Cop In The Hood is a clear-eyed look at what has become an American tragedy, and one that has been shamefully overlooked for more than seven decades now. This book gives me new confidence that we have the knowledge and the power to turn things around, to break the cycle of social breakdown, addiction and crime that has ensnared so many lives. Let us now hope we can summon the will.