‘The protests were whiter than the police department’
Peter Moskos – sociologist and former Baltimore cop – talks to spiked about race, policing and mass incarceration.
‘If the goal is to save black lives, it’s not working. If the goal is to get rid of police, it’s working’, says Peter Moskos, professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City and a former Baltimore cop.
In the wake of the brutal police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, protests have erupted nationwide, and politicians have responded by cutting and disempowering police.
Meanwhile, crime has spiralled in precisely the communities the Black Lives Matter movement hopes to defend. ‘We’re dismantling the NYPD now, and violence has gone up 200 per cent’, he says.
In the increasingly polarised debate around policing in America, Moskos offers a unique perspective. He calls himself a pro-cop liberal – ‘it’s a very small Venn diagram’, he jokes.
A Harvard-trained sociologist, Moskos spent 14 months working as a policeman in the ghettos of Baltimore’s Eastern District. He published a book about it in 2008, Cop in the Hood.
He has chronicled countless police killings, but that didn’t make the video of Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes any less disturbing for him.
‘It’s a different league’, Moskos says. ‘I have seen a lot of these and usually I’m like, well, is there a way I can see it from the cop’s perspective? But this one was just… I don’t get it. And no one really gets it… He killed the guy.’
The universal condemnation of that sadistic killing and the swift action taken against Chauvin were a rare example, he goes on, of the system actually working.
‘Everyone has condemned the killing, including police unions. I’ve never seen that before’, he says. ‘The guy was charged and arrested. That is our system of justice.’
But the protests nevertheless spread like wildfire, burnishing a long-running narrative about racist cops and resurrecting the Black Lives Matter movement.
This has prompted drastic political responses not just in Minneapolis, where the city council voted to abolish its police department, but also across the country.
In NYC, mayor Bill de Blasio has cut the police budget, halted the hiring of more officers, and disbanded the NYPD’s plain-clothes ‘anti-crime’ unit, credited with taking thousands of illegal guns off the street.
This, Moskos says, has meant a withdrawal of police from high-crime areas that has sent violence in the city skyrocketing. In June alone, 270 people were shot in the city, a 154 per cent increase on the previous year
The stories behind the statistics are heartbreaking. At a Brooklyn cookout a few Sundays ago, one-year-old Davell Gardner Jr was shot dead in his stroller.
Such horrors, Moskos says, reflect a police department in collapse, as a consequence of political choices:
‘I compare it to Jenga, because they kept pulling away these blocks of policing. And individually, it wouldn’t matter. If they had gotten rid of plainclothes cops first, the foundation would have stood. But they pulled one too many, and suddenly the whole thing’s come tumbling down.’
For New York City, this looks as though it will cap the end of a remarkable period of (relative) safety.
The crime drop experienced across America in the 1990s was particularly pronounced in New York. In 2019, there were 319 murders in the city, marking an 86 per cent decline from 1990.
‘Given the number of shootings in the past 28 days, if that becomes the yearly average, we frittered away half of [the violent-crime drop] overnight’, Moskos says.
‘The NYPD is arguably the best police department America has ever seen. But we have to dismantle it, because, you see, a cop killed a man in Minnesota. It just makes no sense to me.’
Indeed, even on the lightning-rod issue of the day – police killings – the NYPD has a striking record:
‘Cops in New York this year have killed three people, which is now typical for New York. All three of them had fired guns and two of them had murdered somebody. What else can they do?’
There are thousands of police departments in the US, all with varying records, practises and problems. But the protests, Moskos says, take no account of this, leading politicians in cities where police are actually getting a lot of things right to cave in to demands to defund police.
It is ultimately black and Hispanic communities, Moskos says, who will pay the price for all this. Defunding or defanging police is ‘going to cause more people to die, and more black people to die’, he says, bluntly.
‘I find it interesting now, with this recent increase in violence, newspapers won’t mention the race of victims. The New York Times is obsessed with racial disparity. And there’s a chance that 100 per cent of shooting victims recently have been black or Hispanic. I mean, normally it’s like 97 per cent. So, there might be a white person in there. But there’s a chance that it is literally 100 per cent of shooting victims in New York are black and Hispanic this year, and they don’t even mention it… at some point, that’s just racist negligence.’
Moskos is no tough-on-crime conservative who thinks law and order is the answer to the problems of America’s inner cities.
He is a prison abolitionist. He says the war on drugs has destroyed black communities and helped to plunge them into unending cycles of violence. He thinks a European social welfare system would do much to address America’s deep-seated problems of racial and class inequality.
But he is also practically minded, and believes that in the absence of the big changes, you need to do what works in the here and now.
For him this means proactive policing – cops clearing drug corners, maintaining order and giving communities the space they need to reassert control over their own neighbourhoods. (This does not, he stresses, mean locking more people up – incarceration, he points out, went down in New York as police became more proactive and crime fell.)
‘Police serve a role in crime prevention’, he says. ‘And that is not an accepted fact, especially in the academic world.’ For decades, he says, academia has been in thrall to the ‘root causes’ explanation for crime.
‘We should focus on poverty and unemployment and racism and structural inequality and healthcare. All those things matter… but policing has to do with the cards we are dealt. I don’t want to wait for society to be fixed.’
Police have to be part of the solution, he says, and this is why the anti-police narrative and the misleading claims about endemic police racism need to be challenged.
‘The idea that this is a national emergency, or that police are out executing black men, it’s demonstrably false, we know from the numbers now’, he says. ‘Yes, there’s a racial disparity, but there’s a racial disparity everywhere in America. The racial disparity doesn’t seem to be incredibly out of whack when taking other variables into account, including perpetrators of violent crime.’
A study by Harvard economist Roland Fryer found in 2016 that while black people are more likely to be manhandled and pepper-sprayed by police, there is no racial disparity in terms of lethal force when all context is taken into account. Fryer, an African-American, called it ‘the most surprising result of my career’.
Far more important to look at here, Moskos says, are regional disparities in police killings.
‘If we could get California down to the national average, California alone, that would save one hundred or two hundred lives. That seems kind of doable, but then we have to move away from the laser-like focus on race.’
‘To put it bluntly’, he adds, ‘white people get shot too, and for a long time, people didn’t believe that, because usually those shootings don’t become national news because there’s no racial angle’.
‘If you want to reduce shootings, we can do it and we should do it, but at some point you do have to keep it in perspective.’
Moskos is the first to say so when he thinks cops and police departments get things wrong, but he’s almost unique in this field in actually knowing – and liking – the people he is criticising.
Cop in the Hood is candid about the problems of policing, but it also gives police officers themselves a fair shake, who quickly absorbed him into the fold when he joined to write his book.
‘They were more tolerant of me as a liberal Harvard grad student than l think liberal Harvard grad students would be of them’, he says. ‘A lot of the misunderstanding comes from that class snobbery.’
Cops are one group of public servants largely untouched by political correctness, and Cop in the Hood quotes some pretty robust exchanges between cops about the neighbourhoods they work in.
At one point, one white cop wonders out loud about ‘napalm[ing] the whole area’. A black cop disagrees, suggesting ‘flood[ing] the place, biblical-like’, would be preferable.
But we can perhaps forgive them for being a bit jaded. ‘Police officers don’t see the good. That’s not their job’, writes Moskos. ‘Nobody calls 911 to report a graduation party, an anniversary, or another hard day at work. People don’t need police when they’re happy and everything is going well. Police see misery at its best.’
‘Some people are so critical of policing and really do have no clue as to what the job actually entails’, he tells me. ‘Cops have to deal with dead people. And yes, you remove yourself and you make tasteless jokes about murders and all that, but at some point cops believe, and sometimes for good reason, that they are the only people who care.’
When Moskos was a cop, more than 10 per cent of men in Baltimore’s Eastern District were murdered before the age of 35. ‘It’s disturbing to see that level of deprivation’, he tells me.
‘When you see some three-year-old kid on a mattress without sheets and there’s no electricity in the house and bottles of piss in the corner and mom’s turning tricks. I mean, the kid has no chance.’
The response of many cops to the Black Lives Matter movement, he says, was ‘how dare you say I don’t care about black lives?’.
The dangers of paternalism is a recurring thread in Moskos’s work. The American criminal justice system, he writes, has been shaped by moral crusaders who deepened the problems they set out to solve.
Prisons are a key example. His 2011 book In Defence of Flogging explores how cruel and damaging the prison system is by comparing it to corporal punishment, which prisons were originally brought in to replace.
The gambit of the book, he tells me, is a simple thought experiment: imagine you’ve been convicted of a crime, and you’re asked to choose between five years in prison or five Singapore-style lashes. What would you choose?
‘Pretty much everyone chooses the Singapore-style lashes’, he says. ‘But we don’t allow that because it’s incomprehensible, cruel and unusual. So instead we do something that’s worse.’
Prisons were introduced to America by Quakers in the 18th century, championed as a more enlightened alternative to the floggings, executions and public shamings of the old world.
They were called penitentiaries because they were intended as places of repentance. They stemmed from a ‘firm and paternalistic conviction that crime is a moral disease’, Moskos writes.
But not only has prison proved ineffective at reforming criminals, it has also fuelled crime. ‘When released, people who go to prison are more likely to commit a crime than similar criminals who don’t go to prison’, he writes.
Moreover, the rise of mass incarceration in recent decades has gutted entire communities. ‘When too many young men from one neighbourhood are in the criminal justice system… the area reaches a tipping point, after which it can’t function properly’, he writes. ‘Crime increases because a significant proportion of the male population is not present.’
‘We’ve normalised a system that I think is worse than corporal punishment’, Moskos tells me. ‘The caveat is that there are a few people who we’re just afraid of, who we actually lock up because we don’t want them to kill us. But that number is so small. A few thousand people in America, probably.’
The prison population in America was 2.3million in 2016.
‘We have more prisoners than China, and they have a billion more people than we do’, he writes in In Defence of Flogging.
Another progressive paternalism that continues to haunt America is prohibition. While the ‘war on drugs’ was coined by Richard Nixon, its logic, Moskos argues, sprung from the ‘progressive’ prohibitionist movement, responsible for America’s disastrous 13-year experiment with alcohol prohibition from 1920 to 1933.
Just as prohibition of alcohol fuelled organised crime, the war on drugs is fuelling violence in America’s inner cities, he says. ‘Not all violence is directly related to the drug trade, but a lot of it is. It stems from it. You’re creating a group of people who are by choice and necessity outside the law, who have to be armed.’
For Moskos, it seems, the anti-police movements of today fit into this tradition of progressive paternalism, of well-meaning white reformers pushing their morality and ideological experiments on to the poor.
‘It’s a bunch of white progressives telling black people that they don’t need police’, he tells me. ‘They could try it in their neighborhood first, but they don’t want to do that.’
‘Before I would just say it’s paternalistic or wrong. Now I’m just saying this is racist. If you’re white and telling other neighbourhoods they don’t need police, and they’re getting killed… it’s horrible.’
Indeed, another disparity we often don’t talk about is the one between white and black attitudes to police numbers. In 2015, a Gallup poll found black Americans were 20 per cent more likely than white Americans to say that they wanted more police on their streets.
‘We have young white people yelling at older black cops and screaming that they’re racist’, Moskos goes on, nodding to some of the more absurd viral moments of the recent protests. ‘I mean, the protests were whiter than the police department.’
He is currently working on a book about the 1990s New York crime drop, an oral history based on the recollections of cops. Now that violence in the city is spiralling again, it must be a bittersweet undertaking.
Mournfully, Moskos says all the city needs to do to bring violence down again is ‘start doing what we were doing literally one year ago’. But he’s not hopeful of this happening any time soon.
‘There’s no political consequence to politicians of rising crime, especially in cities that don’t have a diverse political slate’, he says. ‘That’s the problem: if murders went back to 1,000 [a year in New York], it affects politicians less than if cops killed one person.’
‘At some point someone has to push back on the narrative. But that won’t happen, because of politics… I could be wrong, things could be less bleak. But I’ve never been this pessimistic, ever.’
Tom Slater is deputy editor at spiked. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Slater_
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