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June 11, 2008

Vol. 108, No. 15

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My time as a police officer in Baltimore

By Peter Moskos '94
Published in the June 11, 2008, issue

James Steinberg

Peter Moskos ’94 is an assistant professor of law, police science, and criminal-justice administration at the City University of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice. This essay is adapted from his book, Cop in the Hood, which is scheduled to be published in June. Copyright © Princeton University Press.

Just what I needed, is a college boy. ...
What’s your degree? ... Sociology? You’ll go far. That’s if you live. ... Just don’t let your college degree get you killed.
— Clint Eastwood as Harry Callahan in Dirty Harry, 1971

Most days I don’t miss being a cop; being a professor is a better job. But I do miss working with people willing to risk their lives for me. And as a police officer, I would risk my life for others, even for those I didn’t know, and even those I knew I didn’t like. That’s part of the job. There is something about danger and sweat that makes a beer after work particularly cold and refreshing. You can’t learn this in a book.

I don’t know of any other Princeton-grad police officers. That’s a shame, for both police departments and Princeton grads. Elite colleges should envy the true racial and economic diversity of an urban police academy. Police departments should envy the intellectual rigor of Princeton.

I do not come from a family of police; my parents were teachers. None of my friends was an officer. I had few dealings with police. I was part of the liberal upper-middle class raised with the kindly lessons of Officer Friendly.

As a Harvard graduate student, I was planning a comparatively mundane one-year study of police socialization as Ph.D. dissertation research. But the Baltimore police commissioner who had approved my research was out, and in a very tense meeting with the acting commissioner, I was asked, “Why don’t you want to become a cop for real?” I wondered aloud who would hire me knowing I would quit after a year and write a book. He said that he would.  

My goal wasn’t to write a kiss-and-tell. The only real scandals I saw were living conditions in the Baltimore ghetto and a general lack of support for hard-working police officers. Good behavior, while not universal, is the norm. This is not to say that police, myself included, are angels.

I wasn’t a police officer for long — just six months in the academy and 14 months on the street. But you learn quickly in the Eastern District, where much of the HBO show The Wire was filmed. With less than two weeks on the street, I was the primary officer responding to a shooting. Officers with 30 years in a safe suburb might wonder if they can handle East Baltimore. I know I can handle anything.

Police officers primarily are concerned with staying safe, staying out of trouble, and not jeopardizing their pensions. Policing certainly is a job like no other. But for most police — day in and day out and for better and for worse — the job is just a job. Ultimately I felt I was judged as all police are: by work performance and personality. On the street I received no hazing, and I had no problem receiving backup. As far as I know, co-workers did not mind riding with me as a partner. Police officers wished me luck on my book and urged me not to forget them. I haven’t.

Baltimore police officers rarely gave me flak for being a Harvard graduate student. I got more flak from college grads for being a police officer. Maybe it took being a police officer to make me really appreciate the privilege of an elite Princeton education.

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CURRENT ISSUE: June 11, 2008