One on One with…Peter Moskos

While many Harvard graduate students have picked up side jobs tutoring undergraduates, waiting tables, or working in the campus library, this month’s interviewee decided to do something unique—he took a full-time job as a Baltimore City police officer in between coursework and writing his dissertation. Professor Peter Moskos currently teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice after spending a year patrolling Baltimore’s tough Eastern District. His book, Cop in the Hood, chronicles the life of a patrol officer in one of the country’s most violent and underserved neighborhoods. This month he sat down to talk with Dispatch Managing Editor Zoe Mentel.
Book Cover: Cop in the Hood

CP Dispatch: Can you tell us a little bit about the transition from the Harvard Sociology Department to the Baltimore PD, and then the transition out of uniform back to academia? That’s not a normal career path for a patrol officer.

Moskos: No, nor is it a normal path for a graduate student. Originally, when I went to Baltimore, I was not planning on becoming a police officer. I was just going to do academic research…but in an awkward meeting with the police commissioner, he said, “Why don’t you become a cop for real?” When I said, “Who would hire me knowing that I am going to quit after a year and then write a book about it?” he told me that if I could qualify, he would hire me. So that’s a sort of unusual process…and my professors at Harvard were not thrilled. I think some of that was a legitimate concern that it was such a drastic change of my plan and some of it was probably a bit of academic snobbery, that a Harvard student was too good to be a Baltimore police officer. I wasn’t very sympathetic to that. I felt more hassle from the academic side about being a cop than I felt from police officers about my academic background.

CP Dispatch: There seems to be a disconnect sometimes between “the ivory tower” and “the thin blue line”—both metonymies, by the way, that in some way seem to misrepresent each profession. What do you think academics could learn from the beat cop, and vice versa?

Moskos: They could both learn a tremendous amount from each other…and one of the advantages of a school like John Jay College is that we do bring the classroom and the street together. I can’t imagine being the professor and teacher that I am in the classroom today without having had that background as a police officer, and it definitely gives me at least some street cred in the classroom. Certainly, most professors don’t have that background and yet can teach quite well, but there is an individual knowledge that you wouldn’t get necessarily from looking at statistics and aggregate numbers and averages. You cannot talk about policing and crime prevention unless you understand what the police officer’s job is like. On the flip side, I think that a lot of police officers are far too dismissive of, dare I say, knowledge [perhaps] because they think there is a liberal bias by academics. But it’s not so much a matter of learning classroom knowledge [just] for its own sake. This knowledge can make you a better police officer. It can make the job safer when you understand the situation and the environment in which you’re policing. I think a lot of police officers lack that and it’s to their detriment, which is my focus, but of course the community suffers as well.

CP Dispatch: In your book, you’re an outspoken critic of the current management of 911 and responding to calls for service. You’ve written, “Car patrol eliminated the neighborhood police officer.” Many others have made similar observations, and community policing was implemented in the ‘80s and ‘90s in part to counteract this phenomenon. What do you think are the benefits of getting police out of their cars, and how feasible do you think that is, given police culture as it is now?

Moskos: I think the benefit of getting police out of cars is tremendous and perhaps, I overstate the benefit but…it is impossible to do any policing with consent from the community if you are in a police car. Your perspective of the community changes, you only see people in need, and you spend a lot of your downtime trying to avoid people. I tried to get out of my car as much as possible when I policed, but it’s not easy though, because you are considered out of service when you are out of the car. The interactions that I had [on foot patrol]—not only did I learn and gain intelligence that I could use as a police officer—it made the job better because I got to talk to people who weren’t criminals. A lot of police officers, when they do get out of the car and start walking around, realize it’s a good alternative to the same sort of grind of answering 911 calls day in and day out. At some point, there is a law of diminishing returns. Having the 50th squad car out there as compared to 49 is not as much of a benefit as having one [beat patrol] police officer when you need it. So there is this idea that you have to have car patrol and everything else is sort of icing on the cake, and that’s the mentality that has to change—this notion that patrol at its core must be car patrol. But, no, unfortunately I don’t see a great ground swell of support to get police out of cars because you would have to unsell 911, you would have to deemphasize response time, and these things are easy to measure. The benefits of car patrol, unfortunately, are very short term and easy to measure, where the benefits of patrolling on foot or bike or any other form of non-car patrol are much more long term and a much tougher sell politically.

CP Dispatch: The mission of the COPS Office has been to support the work of community policing (“Community Oriented Policing” is even in our name!), which really began gaining momentum with Wilson and Kelling’s 1982 article on the Broken Windows theory. Broken windows is often misunderstood, even falsely equated with zero tolerance for minor infractions. You’re a big proponent of broken windows. Can you explain how you understand broken windows and why you think it works?

Moskos: Broken windows was revolutionary in the police world because, on the general level, it got police back in the crime prevention game. For decades, it was assumed that the job of police officers was to respond to crime after the fact and arrest criminals after they have committed a crime. Broken windows changed that, and that’s a legacy that I think will stick with policing for the better. There is still a lot of debate on whether Broken Windows is true: does disorder lead to crime? But even if there isn’t a direct correlation between graffiti and murder, by simply having police focus on quality of life issues, they began focusing on what members of the community wanted them to focus on. Broken Windows is a problem solving technique much more than a silver bullet solution. At the time, a lot of police were surprised because it was an era of high crime and the public was more concerned about quality of life issues, which isn’t surprising if you live in a neighborhood that has quality of life issues. The problem is that [Broken Windows] has been a bit usurped and labeled, mostly by its opponents, as synonymous with zero tolerance. George Kelling goes blue in the face saying how much he hates zero tolerance, and I think people should listen to him more. The big difference is that Broken Windows emphasizes police discretion while zero tolerance wants to take that away. Broken Windows in theory has cops doing a lot, but not necessarily writing a lot of tickets or arresting people. Zero tolerance sets a goal of writing as many tickets, generating as many police stats as possible and with the minimum amount of effort. So discretion is the key to Broken Windows; it is not about producing stats that can be easily measured. It is a risk that Broken Windows can morph into a zero tolerance form of policing, but they are really, at the core, opposite in terms of their relationships with the community.

CP Dispatch: Large police budget cuts and massive layoffs have made headlines recently and there is some concern that proactive, preventative police work is going to fall by the wayside as a result. What do you think law enforcement can do to protect our communities more efficiently while resources fall flat or decline?

Moskos: It’s going to be tough because at some point the number of police matter. When you hear about cops being laid off, it’s not going to make the job easier. Luckily, what’s probably more important than the number of police is what those police officers actually do. Crime has dropped so much in the past 20 years that I think we might be growing complacent or thinking that [crime rates] have dropped as far they are going to drop, which I don’t think is necessarily true. I also think the idea that, as other people say, police didn’t play a major role in the crime drop is a bit absurd at face value. The risk with budget cuts is the focus will remain on quantifiable statistics of police productivity and I think nothing could be more harmful for the police. The police need to judge their effectiveness in crime levels and not in arrests, not in citations, not in response time. Sometimes those are related, but not necessarily. If crime goes up and a police commissioner says response time is down, that should be an irrelevant statistic. Perhaps it might even be part of the problem; it’s showing that too many police are busy responding after the fact. With limited resources, it is a matter of reeducating the public, who have been sold for decades about the idea of 911: you pick up the phone and the cops are going to appear. So police have to be able to present an alternative and sell the public on this, because there will be opponents. There will always be some story where occasionally 911 does save a life, but it’s rare and we should not have half the police department dedicated to this. This idea that police are going to appear instantaneously is crazy; it doesn’t work that way….In some ways, a boring day for a cop is the ideal day because it meant you did your job. If you judge your work day in responding to shootings and picking up the pieces after the fact, that should hardly be seen as an institutional success of police departments. Budget cuts are going to make it tough because the last thing going to be cut is car patrol. And at some point, given limited resources, you need other forms of policing out there.

CP Dispatch: The flip side to declining resources is that the public is becoming more aware that “arresting our way out of crime” isn’t a viable, moral, or cost-effective strategy. Do you see the public dialogue about crime changing?

Moskos: I wish I could be optimistic and say I do; I don’t. I still think in large part that the public—if not the public, then certainly the politicians—see arresting their way out of the crime problem as some type of viable alternative—despite all the evidence to the contrary. It should be a moral issue; it should be a cost issue for those who don’t care about the moral issue involved. The fact that we have more people behind bars in this country per capita, and in numbers higher than any other country in the history of the world ever, that’s a moral issue to me. But many people only see it as a crime issue. You get people who falsely equate incarceration with the decrease in crime. The biggest decrease in crime for large cities has happened in New York City. And during that time, New York City and state have had fewer people in jail and prison than they did at the height of the crack epidemic in the late ‘80s. This is an untold success story; unfortunately, there seems to be very little link between incarceration and crime. I think the public first needs to understand that, and then you can start talking about arrests, and what the goal of an arrest is. Part of the problem for policing, especially when you don’t have a focus on community policing, is arrest becomes the only option police have. It’s the one tool in the tool belt. So I think the cost [of arrest and incarceration] is the best way to reach the public. Because if you start talking about morality of incarceration, people just mix you as soft on criminals and it becomes a liberal–conservative divide. It’s very hard to get that number: how much does an arrest cost? There are some estimates, but we still don’t know, partly because it is broken up among different jurisdictions. You have the police costs, court costs, and jail costs, and often those are three different bureaucracies. But at a very basic level, we should know, “What is the cost to arrest somebody for a minor offense or for marijuana possession?” Is there something else we can do with that money? Of course, I think the answer is yes. I don’t know if the public is aware that there are alternatives yet. I think that the amount of public discussion is increasing, at least, but I still think that there is a long way to go. I believe the public is still sold on car patrol, rapid response, and arresting everybody, but it’s not a sustainable solution to the crime problem.

CP Dispatch: Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us today. Our readers really appreciate your thoughtful responses.

For those of you interested in more about Professor Moskos’s work, please visit his website at

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