Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


October 16, 2008

Cop in the Classroom

Cop in the Hood writer Peter Moskos tells Gelf about how he went from the ivory tower to the street and back again.

Michael Gluckstadt

In season four of The Wire, former police officer Roland Pryzbylewski begins a new a career as a teacher in West Baltimore's Edward Tilghman Middle School. At first, he's overwhelmed by the unruly young hoods in his classroom—on his first day, he stands by, shell-shocked, as a female student attacks a classmate with a box-cutter. Eventually, "Prez" gains the respect, or at least, attention of his students, drawing on his experience as a police officer to establish his authority.

Thankfully, Peter Moskos hasn't had to deal with any of his students attacking each other at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Still, his work as a patrolman in East Baltimore has helped him in the classroom. Having actually been on the mean streets, he can expose his students to what he calls "the political incorrectness of reality."

Peter Moskos
"It's a cliché to say I'm giving them a voice, but nobody's giving the perspective of the lowly beat cop. Even The Wire focused on homicide detectives."

Peter Moskos

In addition to teaching, Moskos has chronicled his work as a Baltimore policeman in Cop in the Hood: My Year Policing Baltimore's Eastern District. The book is part sociological study and part personal narrative. In it, he explores the failure of the war on drugs and the "blue brotherhood" of the police force. Gelf spoke with Moskos about the problems with prohibition, why he changed the names in his book, and how much of a role The Wire played in the publication of his book ("None," he says). You can hear Moskos and others speak about Crime in the American City at Gelf's free Non-Motivational Speaker Series event October 23rd, in New York's Lower East Side.

Gelf Magazine: What was the hardest thing about being a cop?

Peter Moskos: The drudgery of the job—I know that's not what most people expect to hear. The hard part was just punching the clock and doing the same thing day in and day out. The parts of the job that people think are scary or difficult make the job more interesting, if anything. Working for a largely dysfunctional organization in a poor city is rough.

GM: How does police work compare to teaching?

PM: I always say that teaching is a much better job because you get more pay, summers off, and nobody shooting at you. I was lucky to have the education that I could teach, whereas most cops don’t.

GM: How has your work in one field influenced the other?

PM: When I was a cop, having an educated background gave me broader perspective on the problems and the people. You see a more nuanced view. Day to day policing isn’t affected all that much—many cops don’t have a college education and they were much better at it than I was.

GM: And how has your police work influenced your teaching?

PM: It helps keep order in the classroom, that's for sure. I can't imagine doing the job I do without having been a cop. What I saw on the street—the political incorrectness of reality—takes you away from the academic background. In the ivory tower, you can lose touch with the real world. Having been a cop also gives me some instant street cred. In my college, there are a fair number of cop wannabes as well as active NYPD, so having done the job makes people more willing to hear me talk about it.

GM: When you were patrolling the streets, did you think of yourself as a sociologist or strictly as a policeman?

PM: When I was a cop, I was a cop. Being a sociologist is helpful, but it doesn’t really keep you alive on the street. Not to overstate the macho-ness of the job, but when the shit hits the fan, you have to be a police officer.

GM: Did you feel that your background and education created much of a divide between you and your colleagues?

PM: Surprisingly little. I was worried going into it about what they were going to think of this Harvard-educated egghead joining their ranks, but I got less resentment than I thought I would. A lot of cops use the police as a stepping stone to something else, and there was an understanding that that's what I was doing. To be accepted as a cop you just need to fill three requirements: You do the job, you're not an asshole, and you go out drinking after work. Even two out of three might be enough, and I'm sure I got the last one down.

GM: How did they feel about you writing the book, and have they read it?

PM: They were a little wary, but they trusted me. They hope, and I hope, that the book did a good job of showing hardworking people doing the best they could in a fucked up situation. It's a cliché to say I'm giving them a voice, but nobody's giving the perspective of the lowly beat cop. Even The Wire focused on homicide detectives.

GM: Given that you were giving voice to them and didn’t really have anything to cover up, why did you feel the need to change all the names in the book?

PM: That's just an academic requirement with human subjects committees and educational review boards. I couldn't use the information otherwise. Also, I wanted to give people plausible deniability so that they'd feel more comfortable sharing information with me.

GM: The book is a combination of sociological research and personal narrative. How would you classify its audience?

PM: I'd say it's written for educated people with an interest in the subject. The problem with academic writing is that it's awfully boring and that the jargon immediately turns off the entire nonacademic world. I wanted to write something that regular people can read, and if it has to be a book instead of a piece in an academic journal, that's fine.

GM: Here come the obligatory Wire references. How similar is what you lived to what you saw on HBO?

PM: I'd say The Wire is about 75 percent realistic. The idea of creating a drug-free zone—"Hamsterdam" in season three —couldn't happen. The police department is just too porous to keep something like that under wraps. I asked George Pelecanos about that, and he said that the show is fiction, not a documentary. I think that the liberties of fiction allow the show to get at greater truths—in this case, the failure of the war on drugs.

Hamsterdam gets formed in The Wire

GM: Why do you think the war on drugs is failing? Could a limited Hamsterdam actually work?

PM: The war on drugs is failing because people want to get high. Prohibition doesn't work. I'm all for drug legalization, though that's not really the issue. The issue is about distribution. An actual Hamsterdam would be a terrible place. What we need is a better way to get people drugs that doesn't involve hoodlums on the corner shooting each other. That is very achievable.

GM: How can we do that? What's a safe and legal way to get junkies high?

PM: The same way you get alcoholics drinks and nicotine addicts cigarettes. You could have bars selling drugs like coffee shops in Amsterdam. Absolutely anything is better than what we have now. The key is regulation.

GM: Many of the arguments you make in the book are echoed in The Wire. The failure of the war on drugs, the pointlessness of locking up junkies, making the police the bad guys for no particularly good reason—does this come from having a similar world view to the writers, or are these just logical conclusions from policing inner city Baltimore?

PM: These are logical conclusions. Ed Burns was a cop for twenty years and I was a cop for twenty months. All the cops know that we're not going to win the war on drugs; the question is what we are going to do about it. Drug legalization is still taboo among most politicians, which is why it remains a moral issue instead of a policy one.

GM: The promotion of the book leans very heavily on references to The Wire, though the book hardly mentions it. How much of the book's writing, publication, and readership was due to the critical success of the show?

PM: None, none and a little. When I started writing the book it really had nothing to do with it, and that's when it got picked up as well. Towards the end, they started to make the natural pairing, but in truth, how many millions of people watch The Wire and how many thousands read my book? Not that many.

GM: What did you learn from your time policing the ghetto?

PM: That it's worse than people think. There are a lot of people there who live normal lives, but overall, the poverty and despair is worse than third world levels. There are just a lot of people getting shot out there, and it doesn't make the news.

Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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- Law
- posted on Oct 22, 08

This isn't adding anything to the conversation, but great interview. Job well done on both ends.

Article by Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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