Sunday, January 10, 2010

Note on Cop in the Hood
Cop in the Hood by Peter Moskos

The simple way to describe Cop in the Hood is to say that it is the academic version of The Wire. Moskos, a sociologist PhD candidate, went to work as a Baltimore policeman (POE-lees, as they say in Baltimore) for two years as a research project. The congruences between The Wire and this book are pretty profound. And like the TV series, Moskos has two purposes--to describe life as a cop, and to prescribe certain practices associated with policing.

His big problem is with drugs and the fact that they are illegal. I won't reiterate his arguments for legalizing it--they are pretty familiar to anyone who has heard the various public health, harm reduction, and cost-benefit arguments for legalization. Moskos does a good job of summarizing them and relating them to the lives of working police.

His other argument is about police being proactive versus reactive. 911 is one of the big villains here. As Moskos describes it, it is nearly impossible to successfully stop a crime called in to 911. It's not like a medical emergency or a fire--by the time the paramedics or firemen get there, there's a very good chance that the fire or medical emergency is still in progress and can be stopped. For a cop, even if the response time were instantaneous, the crime is over or (in the case of drug dealing) easy to stop doing by the time the police arrive.

But 911 means that police will constantly be reacting instead of preventing. And this leads to Moskos's other big complaint--police in cars. Putting police in radio cars was a big technological advance in the late 40s and 1950s, but it has ended the regular contact between ordinary citizens and the police. Furthermore, as citizens are encouraged to call 911, people are discouraged from dealing with neighborhood problems on their own. Moskos shows the relative efficacy of foot patrols, but also says that police hate foot patrols. They hate pounding the pavement in all kinds of bad weather, not to mention the very real danger of being physically exposed. Foot patrols are considered punishment.

Moskos's solution is simple and a bit crass. Pay officers more for doing foot patrols. As Moskos puts it, it's expensive to send out a patrol car every day--the money saved on gasoline could go straight into a cop's pay--that would get a few out of their cars.

But one thing about foot patrols is that they may be practical in Baltimore or New York, but what about Houston (or Phoenix or L.A.)? The people who planned and built the roads and subdivisions of Houston built them for cars--the city is very low density (except in certain neighborhoods) and thus difficult to cover on foot. This can be mitigated by bike patrols, but not totally.

But that is a minor quibble. This is a very good book, and Moskos also writes a very good blog here.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is not a minor point, it may be THE point. What works for one place may very well be insane for another. An eventuality forseen and planned for by a bunch of old white guys back in the 17-18 hundreds.

One thing that would work everywhere - try not to have so many laws. It would make enforcement much easier.


1:28 PM  
Blogger  Robert Boyd said...

When I said it was a minor quibble, I meant in the context of the book as a whole. The book was about being a policeman in Baltimore. Solutions to problems of crime in Houston may necessarily be different than those in Baltimore, but to concentrate on that would be to miss the point of the book. In any case, I would suggest that his problems with the purely reactive 911 policing culture apply to Houston. I don't know what the solution might be, though. I think more bike police in particular neighborhoods couldn't hurt, though.

2:28 PM  

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