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Drug War Chronicle Book Review: "Cop in the Hood: My Year Policing Baltimore's Eastern District," by Peter Moskos (2008, Princeton University Press, 245 pp., $24.95 HB)

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #562)
Drug War Issues

Immortalized by the hit HBO series "The Wire," Baltimore's Eastern District is one tough neighborhood in one of the country's toughest towns. With some 45,000 residents, almost entirely black, it generates 20,000 arrests a year, the vast majority of them drug-related. It's a tough, gritty neighborhood with widespread poverty, open-air drug markets, a healthy heroin (or "hair-on" in Eastern District-speak) habit, and all the attendant problems associated with those ills.

For a bit more than a year, the Eastern District was Peter Moskos' beat. The Harvard educated sociologist (now on the faculty of City University of New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice) with an interest in police socialization joined the Baltimore Police Department to become a "participant-observer" on the sociology of policing in that department, enabling him to achieve a degree of intimacy with his fellow officers rarely achieved by outside academics.

For Moskos, and for his readers, his sojourn on the mean streets has paid off handsomely. Moskos got a book deal (and presumably a dissertation) out of his experiences, and we readers get a real treat. The uniformed Moskos -- he served exclusively as a beat officer -- was able to win the trust and fellowship of his colleagues, and in so doing, he was able to open a window on what it is like to be a police officer in the drug war.

I would imagine that most Drug War Chronicle readers -- LEAP members excluded -- have little knowledge of or empathy for the men in blue. The cops, after all, are the front line in the drug war. And, as Moskos reports, drawing on extensive notes, the drug dealers and users of the Eastern District are relatively easy pickings for police officers looking to generate arrest statistics.

"In high drug areas, there is no shortage of drug offenders to arrest," he writes. "The decision to arrest or not arrest becomes more a matter of personal choice and police officer discretion than of any formalized police response toward crime or public safety."

Not only do police routinely arrest suspect Eastern District residents -- for loitering, if nothing else -- they almost universal despise them and their drug habits. Moskos really shines at getting his comrades to speak openly and honestly about their attitudes, and in that sense, "Cop in the Hood" is as revelatory as it is sometimes disturbing. Such attitudes may be deplorable, but they are also understandable. When all you see is the worst of humanity, it's easy to get alienated. As one officer put it, "You don't get 911 calls to tell you how well things are going."

But not all beat officers are eager to arrest drug offenders. As Moskos details, the cops get frustrated by the revolving-door that sees drug offenders sent to county jail on arrest only to be spit out a few hours later or to have drug dealing charges reduced to simple possession because prisons are packed and prosecutors overworked. (Moskos observes that the drug war would grind to a halt if drug offenders uniformly demanded jury trials. Now, there's a reason to unionize drug users!)

Police officers don't want to be social workers, Moskos reports, and they are not interested in the root causes of drug use and attendant social ills. What they are interested in is doing their job with a minimum of hassle (from the streets or their superiors), returning home safely each night, and retiring with a nice pension. That means that for many officers, high drug arrest numbers early in their careers will drop off over time as they confront a combination of a sense of futility, overtime, and paperwork. As one officer put it:

You'll get out there thinking you can make a difference. Then you get frustrated: a dealer caught with less than 25 pieces will be considered personal use... Or you go to court and they take his word over yours. You're a cop and you're saying you saw something!... After it happens to you, you don't care. It's your job to bring him there [to court]. What happens after that is their problem. You can't take this job personal. Drugs were here before you were, and they'll be here long after you're gone. Don't think you can change that. I don't want you leaving here thinking everybody living in this neighborhood is bad, does drugs. Many cops start beating people, thinking they deserve it.

While Moskos by no means sugarcoats the behavior or attitudes of his coworkers, his reporting will undoubtedly help readers attain some understanding of how they got that way. "Cops in the Hood" is also useful for understanding the bureaucratic grinder facing police officers in large urban departments, where they are caught between pressures from above for more arrests, from Internal Affairs to do it by the book, from the neighborhoods to clean out the riff-raff and from the same neighborhoods to respect the civil rights of residents.

Moskos brings the added advantage of not writing like an academic. "Cops in the Hood" is engaging, even riveting, and makes its points straightforwardly. Yes, Moskos references policing theory, but he does so in ways that make it provocative instead of off-putting.

He also includes a well-researched and -written chapter on the evils of prohibition -- it's subtitled "Al Capone's Revenge" -- but in this case, it's hardly necessary. Like a good student listening to his English composition instructor, Moskos has shown us and he really doesn't need to tell us. Still, it is a strong chapter.

Moskos writes about his experience as a beat officer. That's a different animal from the largely self-selected group of police cowboys who end up in drug squads and SWAT teams. I have less sympathy for them, but that's another book, not this one.

People interested in the nitty-gritty of street-level drug law enforcement need to read this book. Criminal justice students and anyone thinking about becoming a police officer need to read this book, too. And the politicians who pass the laws police have to enforce (or not), need to read this book as well, although they probably won't.

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


Anonymous (not verified)

First of all, "The Wire" is one of the realest and grimiest shows when it comes to life on the streets and the drug war. Naturally, cops are human and citizens cannot expect them to be these morally and righteous individuals who want to "clean up the streets." The testimony from the officers is probably very relevant in this book that highlights the good and the bad of the drug war and its law enforcement initiatives. I really have no empathy for cops but I guess this book will show the front line of defense against this war on AMericans that we call a Drug war. I bet this really is a riveting tale, I would be VERY interested in getting my hands on this book, it isn't the first time I've heard about it, even the title intrigues you! Hopefully this book can also aid in some of the transparency needed by politicians, govt officlas, law enforcement and regular US citizens on some type of reform of the drug laws that our country desperately needs!

Mon, 12/01/2008 - 12:09pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

As a Baltimore City resident, naturally I was interested in this book. I've read it and also seen Moskos speak about it. I'd recommend seeing Moskos speak if you can, he does pretty straight Q&A style, which is great.

The review here covers it well. I do wonder about whether Moskos was getting the full story here though, since every person knew he was going to be publishing their conversations in one form or another. Then again, the anecdotes from law enforcement are quite candid.

I may have gained a slight bit of respect for Baltimore police at times while reading, although not much, considering I've seen plenty of questionable conduct from them while living here. One of the worst parts of prohibition, in my opinion, is the way it disenfranchises so many police. I have to think that affects their overall demeanor on duty quite a bit and ultimately negatively affects citizens.

Mon, 12/01/2008 - 8:38pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

There is only one statistic here that matters:

"With some 45,000 residents, almost entirely black, it generates 20,000 arrests a year, the vast majority of them drug-related."

I assume these numbers are accurate yet that assumption does nothing to quash my concern for the development of a culture of decay.

While this book may help us be more compassionate about the police officer's almost universal scorn for those they arrest perhaps we need a book that describes the feelings of those unfortunate children growing up in the trenches of a 94 year-old failed experiment. What are their feelings towards the police or authority in general?

Assuming the numbers are correct almost half the entire population is arrested each year in this community if that is not a failure I don’t know what is.

Wed, 12/03/2008 - 4:52pm Permalink
TylerG (not verified)

In response to the 'mathmatics of failure'. The statistic reported can be somewhat misleading. The neighborhood does consist of 45,000 individuals, primirarily black, the statistic does not specify however, that the 20,000 arrested are in fact residents of the neighborhood. I agree with much of what you are saying, but I hope that when you make the statement that a culture is in decay, the culture in reference is greater than what is initially implied. It is important to note that many addicts are coming from neighboring counties in search of cheaper product. These individuals certainly constitute a percentage of those 20,000 arrested. Failure cannot be attributed directly to the city, to be fair, it is equally relevant to call out the failures of these suburbanites. They are just as much contributors to the culture of decay that you speak of. Its sad to say but also competly realistic, the socio-economics that have created this drug problem have been present for almost a half a century. The situation is clearly to complex to be reversed by 'quick-fix' solutions imposed by the continually changing political idealogies of the city. Lets face it, as long as there's a supply and a demand and disenfranchised communities, theres going to be a 'drug culture' present in baltimore city. Lets just continue to finance blue light cameras and keep the open air markets away from downtown, making the tourists feel safe, and the problem just might quietly dissapear.

Sat, 03/13/2010 - 12:03am Permalink

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