James Steinberg
My time as a police officer in Baltimore

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.

I saw my strengths as dealing well with people, calming situations, and writing good reports. As my sergeant put it, “Pete’s not a fireball on the street, but he’s got his act together.” I could handle action but looked forward to slow nights. Bad weather kept people inside and the radio quiet. My
primary goal, like most police officers’, was to return home safely every day.

Living in Baltimore, I was required to carry my gun both on and off duty. I never fired a shot outside of training. Only rarely was my service weapon — a charged semiautomatic 9mm Glock-17 with no safety and a 17-round clip — pointed at somebody. I occasionally chased people down alleys and wrestled a few suspects. I used Mace on one person, but did not hit anybody. I tried to speak softly and carry a big stick. The department issued a 29-inch straight wooden baton just for this purpose.

Young police learn that the job has more to do with public control than public service. Police attack drug corners as if they were brush fires, stomping out one only to see it flare up again as soon as they move on to the next. Drug dealers are just the kindling. Police do what police do best: lock people up. Our nation’s poorest and least wanted are swept off the streets, sorted by the courts, and collected in our jails and prisons. But sooner or later they all come back. Right now, with drug prohibition, drug dealing is an unregulated free-for-all. It’s not a matter of getting tough — we are tough. But we can regulate street drugs, just like we regulate more popular drugs like alcohol and tobacco.

I worked in a ghetto. If you really want to learn about the ghetto, go there. Visit a church, walk down the street, buy something from the corner store, have a beer, eat. But most important, talk to people. When the subject turns to drugs and crime, you’ll hear a common refrain:
“It just don’t make sense.”

Twenty months in Baltimore was long enough to see five police officers killed in the line of duty. And there were other cops, friends of mine, who were hurt, shot, and lucky to live. A year after I quit the force, my friend and academy classmate became the first Baltimore policewoman killed in the line of duty, dying in a car crash on the way to back up another police officer. Crystal Sheffield patrolled opposite me in the Western District.

When she died, I returned to Baltimore, hitched a ride in a police car from the train station to the funeral, and stood in the cold rain at attention in my civilian clothes with my uniformed fellow officers. Police funerals are one of the few events that bring together law enforcement. Funerals give meaning to that often-clichéd concept of Blue Brotherhood. At an officer’s funeral, police-car lights flash as far as the eye can see. Thousands of police officers wearing white gloves and black bands on their badges stand at attention. Guns are fired in salute. Bagpipes are played. A flag is folded. The coffin is lowered into the ground.

At the end of a police funeral, a dispatcher from headquarters calls for the fallen officer over all radio channels. The response, of course, is silence. After the third attempt the dispatcher states the officer is “10-7.” Ten-seven is the rather unsentimental radio code for “out of service.” Ten-seven usually refers to a car, an officer handling a call, or an anonymous murder victim on the street. To hear your friend and colleague described as 10-7 is heartbreaking. In this way the few officers left working the streets know the burial is complete. A few seconds later a routine drug call is dispatched or one bold officer reclaims the radio airwaves for some mundane police matter. A car stop. A warrant check. A request for a case number. Sometimes it just don’t make sense.