Cop in the Hood

by on March 16, 2008 at 1:58 pm in Books, Law | Permalink

Motivated primarily by a desire for court overtime pay, police officers want arrests on their own terms, ideally without victims, complaints, or unnecessary paperwork.  Young officers make more arrests than veteran officers.  These officers believe that making arrests is police work.  In my squad, the top three officers in arrest totals were three officers with the least experience.  An arrest-based culture can exist in a low-drug environment, but without a limitless supply of arrestable criminal offenders, an arrest-based culture cannot make a lot of arrests.  Neighborhoods, without public drug dealings will not produce a high number of arrests.

That is from Peter Moskos’s truly excellent Cop in the Hood: My Year Policing Baltimore’s Eastern District.  This is one of the two or three best conceptual analyses of "cops and robbers" I have read.  It is mandatory reading for all fans of The Wire and recommended for everyone else.

1 Guest March 16, 2008 at 3:11 pm

i suspect this book will abundantly confirm one of my biases, which is that the main purpose of the american criminal justice system is to produce criminals.

2 Grant March 16, 2008 at 3:53 pm

I certainly cannot speak for the entire US justice system, but from the descriptions I’ve heard from public defenders near my area, the main purpose of the system is to ruin the lives of people who cannot afford lawyers. Like the man says, cops are eager to arrest even for BS charges, and without a good lawyer they may be able to get you on something (my favorite is “resisting arrest” when the initial charges were fabricated).

3 Bill Stepp March 16, 2008 at 6:34 pm

Peter,

Right on disorderly conduct in NY. I was
charged with disorderly conduct in 2006 after punching out a jerk (in a Starbucks of all places) who stabbed me with the sharp points of a pair of brass knuckles. This after I saw him with some property
I had left behind while ordering tea.
When I asked him about it, he denied having taken it, at which point he moved his bag and revealed the property.
I then demanded it back; he stabbed me; I decked him and kicked him in the head.
I followed him out after he recovered, not wishing to let him get away, which was a mistake. (I should have barred the door and not let him leave. I was bigger, younger, and in far better physical condition–he mentioned to the cops he had diabetes and high blood pressure.) The cops finally came after 45 minutes and took both of us into custody along with his derelict friend.
The jerk lied to the cops, saying I started it. Evidently that’s why they charged me with disorderly conduct.
I asked the cops if they’d go back and question witnesses. They said they would, but they didn’t (!), according to the store manager, who I later questioned.
At the station, the cops made me throw away my copy of The Economist that had my blood all over it! My neighbor (a lawyer) told me that was patently illegal, but that they do stuff like that every day.
I had to untie my shoes and surrender my laces, which were later lost. I did get my belt back, amazingly.

I was told by a court administrator that I’d get off with an ADC–ACD–or some such thing, as long as I stayed out of trouble six months. I did, but only after a second court appearance, and spending $2500 for a criminal defense lawyer. (He did an hour or so of work, and spoke the right words in the right tone of voice to the second judge, who did what the 90-year old first judge wrongly refused to do.)
Don’t get me started on NYC cops ‘n courts.
They are the worst form of monopoly. I loathe them.
Your book sounds terrific and I’m going to liberate a copy.

4 Mike Fladlien March 17, 2008 at 7:45 am

i think the goal of a police force is social order and the goal of courts is justice. you can argue that finding justice in court is at the bottom of an abyss, but you can’t argue that police try to keep social order.

5 Mike Fladlien March 17, 2008 at 11:43 am

i can’t wait to read your book. you’re right about “courtroom 302.”

6 matter March 18, 2008 at 8:05 am

There’s a lot of dirty cops. They’re interested in racking up their arrest totals. Most of them are too stupid to have any clue about the constitution, and if you were to mention it you’d probably get a beat down.

7 Peter Moskos March 18, 2008 at 1:25 pm

Matter, there are a lot fewer dirty cops than you think. At least from my experience. The problem is that there are too many clean cops interested in racking up their stats (arrest totals).

Anon, corrupt police are not better than no police. Corrupt police create criminals, give the public good reason to hate cops, and make the job of police tougher for everybody else.

Many people, especially where I policed, are not raised to believe that cops are the good guys. Crying kids are told, “you better behave or that man will lock you up!”

And then war on drugs really blurs the good guy/bad guy distinction. Is somebody bad because they smoke weed? Deal crack? When does a person go from good to bad? There isn’t a clear line, despite what too many people want to think.

8 Mike Fladlien March 18, 2008 at 10:56 pm

i was wondering if the capture theory of regulation is relevant. in this theory, the regulators become so intimate with the captives that the roles reverse. so no matter what the motive for regulating crime, eventually the police will be captured or controlled by special interests of the controlled group. For example, the drug task force works closely with the GDs and eventually becomes controlled by the game. this can happen if they can see their side of story and thus be inclined to agree with them.

9 bruce March 19, 2008 at 2:49 am

Peter: If a jury believes beyond a reasonable doubt based on the officer’s testimony (and usually the scene video and/or the station video of the suspect either doing the standardized field sobriety tests or refusing to do so, and refusing to give a breath or blood sample) that the defendant was operating a motor vehicle in a public place while not having the normal use of his/her mental or physical faculties, then absolutely. Otherwise the state could never prosecute DWI if the suspects refused to give a breath/blood sample. Where you policed, how did your jurisdiction prosecute DWI suspects who refused to give a breath/bood sample so that intoxication could not be proven by showing they were driving “over the limit”? In every jurisdiction I know of, their refusal to give a sample is held against them at trial due to “implied consent” laws and then the cop takes the stand and testifies as to how the defendant showed signs of being drunk. If the defendant refused to do the SFSTs, that would be held against him too, and it would come down to the cop’s testimony of smelling alcohol, slurred speech, glassy eyes, and the alleged bad driving that provided reasonable suspicion for the initial stop.

Why arrest innocent people when there are so many guilty ones out there? Easy. The innocent ones will more likely take their case to trial rather than cop a plea, so the cop makes overtime money testifying (no testifying if they plead guilty and avoid trial). Second, finding all those guilty people takes time, energy, and investigation skills. If they’re really guilty, 97% of the time they will plead guilty and no trial means no overtime money for the cop, no matter what they’re charged with. The cop has nothing to gain from arresting a truly guilty person other than a marginal notch on his belt which is greatly outweighed by the risk of getting harmed or having to deal with a violent confrontation not present with an innocent, law abiding arrestee.

What’s even worse, and a travesty of justice, is that as a defense lawyer, at trial I’m not allowed to ask the police officer who arrested my client anything about his financial motives, how much overtime money he’s made testifying, and whether innocent people are more likely to go to trial than guilty people (they are). The (prosecution-friendly) Houston Court of Appeals has actually held that this issue, while conceding it’s relevant, would confuse a jury because cops just wouldn’t lie about probable cause for an arrest to make money and could get in big trouble if they did. I’m still in awe of the gall it took to hand down such a ruling.

Cops not only know they can’t get in trouble for lying about smell of alcohol, glassy eyes, slurred speech because their perjury can’t be proven (the only other witness is the DRUNK defendant plus the scene videotape with crappy audio), and even if somehow it could be proved that the cop was making it up to earn overtime money testifying in trial, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office is not going to prosecute a police officer for perjury or writing a false police report. And the cops all know it. The prosecutors are their buddies. They’re on the same team. They tell the cops what testimony they “need” in court in order to convict the scumbag defendant and the cops happily comply. Of course it’s all to protect the children and keep the criminal scumbags off the street (even the innocent ones). Better that a few innocent people get convicted than a few guilty people go free – your precious children have nothing to worry about if a few innocent people are locked up in prison, but they’re in grave danger if a few guilty people are set free. The local news – 28 minutes of crime reporting, 1 minute of sports and 1 minute of weather, reminds Houston citizens of this fact every night (and 6 other times during the day).

10 matter March 19, 2008 at 9:05 am

Moskos,

I live in New Orleans, LA. Dirty Copy Capital of the world. Perhaps I should have mentioned that in the first comment. LOTS of dirty fucking cops. Plenty of straight up thugs.

11 Peter Moskos March 19, 2008 at 1:40 pm

Matter, I know full well that NOLA police have a hard earned and well deserved reputation for everything bad. But I also know there are lots of dedicated and good (even heroic) police officers down there. So I don’t want to disparage everyone in the group. But suffice it to say I was hoping, perhaps a little naively, that all the bad NOLA cops were the bastards who ran away before and during Katrina.

Bruce, there are lots of cars that get away from police. I would guess than many of them are drunk. Cops have to be careful chasing (or following) cars, especially in cities with very strict pursuit policies.

You are indeed right about the link between overtime pay and arrests. I talk about this a lot in Cop in the Hood. This is a strange open secret. Everybody involved in the game knows this, and yet the public is oblivious to its existence and its implication. Overtime pay is why cops make discretionary arrests. And of course, in the police world, arrests are good. So there’s no problem with this.

Where I policed, it was hard to prosecute DWI. The only guy I convicted of drunk driving crashed his car into a house and later submitted to blood test in the hospital. He tried to get away after his crash and was about to get his ass whooped by a mob when I showed up. One of the nicer guys in the mob later handed me the drunk guy’s car keys.

The driver went to the hospital. He said he wasn’t even driving. He was. I had to be very clever to get the drunk redneck SOB to agree to blood test (“you know, since you weren’t even driving the car, I’m sure you would mind signing this so they test you. It’s just a formality and you can’t get in trouble for being a drunk passenger.†). He signed and was convicted.

I think you could get your license suspended for refusing a test, but not a conviction.

We patrol officers didn’t even have the tools for traffic enforcement. No radar guns (though occasionally we would hold out our night sticks and watch the cars slow down). No breath tests. All we could do was the occasional roadside drunk test. If you couldn’t say the alphabet, or walk a line (or stand up), these could be grounds for conviction. Officer testimony could add to this (I *do* know what are glassy eyes, slurred speech, and reeking of booze. I know a drunk person when I see one.).

Still, and we’ll probably just disagree, or maybe there’s a big difference between Houston and Baltimore, but I don’t think cops are locking up innocent people and committing perjury. It’s not worth the risk of losing your career and pension.

I generally tried to avoid traffic court because they did a lot in the afternoon (the middle of my night). But even there, you tickets get grouped. If 9 people don’t show up, all that matter is that 1 person does. You don’t get paid by the number of suspects. You get paid by appearance.

Where I worked, the best overtime pay came from arresting guilty people and having cases not prosecuted. Punch in at 9am, punch out by 9:01. Two hours guaranteed pay just for showing up. Multiple postponements also helped. The last thing you wanted for your overtime was actually having to stick around court for hour after tedious hour.

12 bruce March 19, 2008 at 3:40 pm

conviced = convicted (typo)

13 bruce March 19, 2008 at 6:16 pm

Mike how do I do that?

14 bruce March 19, 2008 at 6:52 pm

Peter: in my zeal describing the abuse in DWI enforcement here in Houston, I forgot to say that you are 100% correct about the evils of the drug war, how it is a complete failure and designed that way. It’s always refreshing to hear from a cop/ex-cop who finds the drug war disgusting and a travesty to justice. Unfortunately, even people who realize the drug war is a mistake usually can’t recognize that there is no middle ground between prohibition and full legalization. It’s east to advocate legalizing marijuana, it’s harder to advocate legalizing cocaine and heroin. But until such day as I can walk into Wal-mart (right across the street from a school full of impressionable little children) and buy a pound of 100% pure, USDA-approved heroin for $9.95 plus tax, the problems associated with the drug war will not subside. With drugs perfectly legal and widely available, America won its independence from the British, pioneered the industrial revolution, expanded to the west coast per its manifest destiny, and became a world superpower. Then we started to ban drugs (due to racist fears and not public health or safety) and things quickly went downhill. We The People have now abandoned our Constitution and Bill of Rights (as a lawyer I find it sad that most people are unaware of the judicially-created “drug exception” to the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, Ninth, Tenth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the Bill of Rights) and have imprisoned more of ourselves than any other country in the history of planet Earth. All due to irrational fears about drugs. Drugs are good. Drugs are safe. Children should be encouraged to use drugs and educated about how to use them properly (like driving a car – though never while driving a car). Parents and children should use drugs together – Cocaine Friday’s.

That’s how it’s been for 99.999% of human history. Out of the several hundred thousand years (or 6,000 if you’re a wacky religious nut) of organized homo sapiens civilization, we have used drugs, from smoking various leaves to milking the lovely poppy plant of its opium to fermenting sugars to make and drink alcohol to eating magic mushrooms to chewing on coca leaves. Sure, we have more drugs now, but they are all fundamentally the same. And alcohol is by far the most intoxicating and dangerous of all the drugs our species has yet to discover. The short, 80 year experiment (only half of that with any real zeal) in criminalizing and prohibiting the use, sale, and possession of drugs has proven to be a total, complete, and utter failure any way it’s looked at. We’ve given up our precious rights and liberties, become a prison nation, and created more crime, nationalized more property (asset forfeiture), ruined more lives, and put more people in danger than at any other time in human history. But we’ve made prohibition so profitable for all levels of government and the “drug treatment/rehab industry” that the influx of drug prohibition money has become the biggest addiction of all. Legalizing drugs would put so many people out of jobs (though it would create new jobs) and cost so many people power and money that it simply will never happen. That’s why our country is ultimately ruined and destined to fail.

15 Anon March 20, 2008 at 2:22 pm

Bruce, many of your points are good ones, but you’re preaching to the choir. The real challenge in all this is making the average lay person understand that this affects them and overcoming the Law & Order/MADD propaganda that’s instilled from a young age. Nothing will change until we start winning the information war.

16 Peter Moskos March 21, 2008 at 2:30 pm

The information war is key. That’s one of the reasons I wrote Cop in the Hood. Restricting press freedom (or any freedom) is no way to get the truth out there. But call me old fashioned, because I think that most crimefighters are good and many criminals are bad.

I agree that “protecting the children” is way overused and a ruse.

17 klinnth April 6, 2008 at 12:34 am

i dont know about everybody guilty of assault or battery being “evil”. what happened to the good old days of men fighting it out like men?

18 Kyle Sanders November 22, 2008 at 6:23 pm

Let’s get the addicts into drug treatment programs california , that way, they can get out of our state and not burden us financially, and 2nd, let’s fix the problem.

19 Narconon October 23, 2010 at 12:49 pm

As long as the law is so “nice” to drug dealers and people caught doing drugs, well, we are going to have that problem a long time… I know that you will probably say that my idea is quite radical, but I would sentence to lethal injection, any drug dealers with an age of 21 or above that… Narconon

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