Thursday, November 13, 2008
Not so long ago, Baltimore was one of America’s premier cities. It was prosperous and bustling, with a peak population of close to a million in the 1950s. The port and steel plants provided thousands of middle-class jobs. Luminaries such as H.L. Mencken helped shape the city’s rich cultural heritage.
These days, Baltimore is widely known as one of America’s most blighted cities. Its middle class has fled, leaving behind a mix of the well-heeled and the very poor. The city’s murder, disease, and drug addiction rates are among the highest in the country. Its myriad social problems have generated copious material for hit TV shows such as NBC’s “Homicide: Life on the Street” and HBO’s “The Wire.”
In his new book, Cop in the Hood (Princeton, $24.95), sociologist Peter Moskos examines Baltimore’s troubles from a unique angle. He is now an assistant professor at John Jay College, but for 14 months as a Harvard graduate student he embedded—after graduating from the police academy—with Baltimore policemen working in the city’s hellish eastern district. Moskos witnessed more crime and mayhem in just over a year than many cops do in a lifetime.
Moskos witnessed more crime and mayhem in just over a year than many cops do in a lifetime.
His mission was academic and empirical: Moskos wanted to gather data on police behavior for his dissertation. But Cop in the Hood eschews charts and statistics; instead, it offers a firsthand account of the war on drugs and ghetto culture, both of which have engendered deep frustration and cynicism among police offers.
While many people complain that cops should do more to do get drug dealers off the streets, it isn’t that simple. For instance, policemen cannot lock up someone for drug dealing unless they actually see, at close distance, drugs being exchanged for money, which is harder than it sounds. In open-air drug markets, one dealer takes orders and another retrieves the goods from a nearby stash. “Where money is taken by one person and the package is inserted by another, conviction is difficult if not impossible,” Moskos explains.
Even if a case does make it to court, more obstacles remain. The standard “probable cause” required to make an arrest is much lower than the “guilty beyond a reasonable doubt” imperative needed to obtain a conviction. This gap, Moskos writes, “is the root of much conflict between the police and the courts.” Cops are eager to see drug dealers behind bars, but they don’t want to perjure themselves, and those who do testify often find that it proves futile. Moskos describes one female officer who testified about witnessing a drug deal, only to have a city official demand to know how she could be certain that drugs and not Oreo cookies were being purchased.
So how do policemen hamper the dealers? They often cruise through open-air drug markets and order the crowds to disperse. If the people return, police can arrest them for loitering. Plenty of cops are also happy to lock up junkies for drug use. It sends a message and also bolsters the cops’ arrest records.
Moskos takes a long, hard look at the drug war and pronounces it a failure. He compares modern drug crime to Prohibition-era crime, arguing that violence is the predictable result of illegality, clogged courts, and high incarceration rates. His jeremiad against the drug war is at times persuasive, though it is more than a stretch to say that drug dealing soared in the 1980s partly because of “Reagan-era budget cuts.”
The book paints a depressing picture of the 9-1-1 emergency system, which Moskos calls a “joke.” Now that cops no longer walk a neighborhood beat, and instead ride around in cruisers, policing has become “a process of merely waiting to respond to a crime.” Law-abiding citizens who witness a crime are told to stay indoors and call 9-1-1 rather than intervene. Abuse of the 9-1-1 system is rampant, which means police waste precious time responding to pranks, angry junkies who bought bad drugs, and petty domestic squabbles.
Moskos holds his former colleagues in the highest esteem, and he takes offense at claims that urban cops are crooked and racist.
Cop in the Hood is especially vivid in its depiction of life in the Baltimore slums. Moskos describes “intensely overcrowded apartments next to abandoned housing and empty lots, families 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.” Encountering a “well furnished and clean home” was rare.
The most encouraging aspect of this book is its portrait of the police officers themselves. Moskos holds his former colleagues in the highest esteem, and he takes offense at claims that urban cops are crooked and racist. There will always be bad apples, but the officers he met were honorable, if a bit hard around the edges. (“We’re not social workers with guns,” one cop joked.) Ultimately, readers of Cop in the Hood are left with a renewed appreciation for the men in blue.
Rachel DiCarlo Currie is managing editor of the Hudson Institute.
Credit: Peter Moskos.