Why Cops Should Live in the Hood: Talking Traffic With Peter Moskos

To get an idea of what police think about pedestrians, cyclists, drivers, and maintaining peace on the streets, who better to ask than a cop?

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Peter Moskos is a former Baltimore police officer and an assistant professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He is the author of "Cop In The Hood" — the book and the blog. In this Streetsblog Q&A, Moskos discusses why cops hate traffic enforcement, why someone else should do it, and how jaywalking is good for New York.

Brad Aaron: In an interview with Transportation Alternatives’ Reclaim Magazine last year, you pointed to the thankless nature of traffic duty as one cause of lax enforcement. Can you talk a little more about that?

Peter Moskos: Police work can basically be divided into two categories: work that assists the public and work that obstructs the public. Like all public servants, police are loved when they do the former and hated when they do the latter.

But police work, more so than other jobs, needs the support and cooperation of the public to be effective. People love police when they catch criminals and maintain order. People hate police when they tell you what you can’t do and write tickets. Crimes get solved when people talk. And people won’t talk to police if they hate the police. So from a police perspective it makes sense to define police work in a way that maximizes the good and minimizes the bad.

"Police don’t like always being the bad guy. But that’s what traffic enforcement is. Nobody thanks you for an accident that didn’t happen."

Police already do enough thankless work. And while it makes sense that criminals don’t like police, there’s no good reason for the general public to have unpleasant interactions with the police. Police don’t like always being the bad guy. But that’s what traffic enforcement is. It’s shit work and people hate you even when you do a good job. Nobody thanks you for an accident that didn’t happen.

It’s interesting that when cars first appeared on our roads, there was debate about whether traffic was a police matter at all. Leading police figures of the early 20th century, such as August Vollmer, called the "father of American policing," argued against it. But Vollmer lost this battle.

You don’t really have to be a police officer to write a ticket. It’s better for the police to contract the hate out to others. While somebody needs to enforce traffic regulations and write tickets, it doesn’t have to be the police. In the 19th century, police stations used to be homeless shelters. Then we decided that wasn’t a job for police officers. We could expand the authority of traffic enforcement agents ("meter maids" for the politically incorrect) to cover traffic stops. This would free up police to focus on something other than cars.

BA: New police chiefs in San Francisco and Los Angeles are reaching out to cyclists and other street safety advocates. Could such an effort by NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly help raise the profile of traffic policing so that it is perceived as something beyond grunt work?

PM: It would make me feel warm and fuzzy if Kelly said that bike safety was a top priority. But that wouldn’t do anything to change the car-centered attitude of the rank-and-file. And it wouldn’t change the nature of traffic police. Honestly, it is grunt work. But look, police will do what they’re ordered to do. And if Kelly said that all officers needed to write five traffic citations a day, it would get done.

And while quotas are horrible for arrests and criminal citation, I don’t see anything wrong with traffic quotas because traffic violations are everywhere. Officers can write as many or as few traffic tickets as they want. And it would be better if they wrote more.

BA: Do you believe applying the "broken windows" theory to traffic crime — tracking and preventing relatively minor infractions in order to reduce violations that could result in injury and death — would bring results comparable to those NYPD has achieved in other areas?

PM: When police cracked down on turnstile jumping in the 1990s, felony crime on the subways plummeted. That was Broken Windows in action. The "Broken Windows" theory of crime prevention says that community disorder, like an unfixed broken window, leads to more disorder and then serious crime. So the job of police is to work with the community to identify and enforce quality-of-life issues, maintain order, and create an environment less conducive to other criminal behavior. You crack down on the little things not just for the sake of cracking down but to have an impact on more serious crime.

Can that be applied to driving? Probably not. But to apply Broken Windows to dangerous driving would be an interesting experiment. It’s important to remember that Broken Windows is not zero-tolerance policing. Broken Windows is problem solving combined with police discretion. But sometimes what is needed for traffic violations is simple mind-numbing zero-tolerance enforcement. It’s grunt work. And since nobody else does it, it becomes the job of police.

BA: We talk a lot about "windshield perspective" on Streetsblog, and it is commonly believed that one reason police don’t seem to have much interest in the perils faced by pedestrians and cyclists is that they mostly travel by car. As a former officer, does this ring true to you? If so, what can be done?

"In a crash with a car, why is it that a bike or pedestrian has to be 100 percent right to not be at fault, but all a car has to do is stay at the scene and not be drunk?"

PM: Absolutely! Unlike most New Yorkers, police are very car-focused, both on and off duty. The problem is worse for police who are from the suburbs and have never lived in the city. They simply do not get Jane Jacobs and what makes urban life function and fun. The car corrupts the very nature of city living.

For instance, even if I could wave a magic police wand I wouldn’t stop jaywalking in New York City. It’s beneficial to urban life here. But you wouldn’t know that if you’ve never walked the streets.

That’s because as drivers, police are often frustrated by New York pedestrians. I mean, I’ve driven in New York and pedestrians are frustrating. But so what? Unlike drivers, pedestrians won’t kill you. Cars and drivers need to be held responsible for the danger they present, and the harm they do to the urban environment.

In a crash with a car, why is it that a bike or pedestrian has to be 100 percent right to not be at fault, but all a car has to do is stay at the scene and not be drunk? If a speeding car hits a jaywalking pedestrian, our sympathies should be with the pedestrian. But police almost always take the side of the driver. For some reason going "just" five miles over the speed limit or accelerating through a yellow light is seen as normal behavior. I mean, most drivers don’t want to kill you. They just drive stupidly until they do.

Every other aspect of our criminal justice system uses punishment as a deterrent. Why shouldn’t we apply that philosophy to reckless driving?

The police attitude could change by having police officers who live in the city. Or at least have more officers patrol on foot or bike. It would be nice to have a system where police officers could actually be promoted to foot patrol. But I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

BA: Does traffic enforcement come up in your classes? If so, in what context?

PM: No. Not at all. I guess, just like most cops, I don’t consider it real police work. The cop in me finds it boring. And the professor in me wants something more intellectual. What a shame! But maybe I can include something next semester. I’m always looking for new material to bring to class!

  • Great piece. I felt like standing up and applauding a half-dozen times.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Funny, I just recommended removing police officers from traffic enforcement and direction, along with one officer patrols in safe neighborhoods, on Room Eight. But for financial reasons, not thinking about this issue at all.

    Basically, we can’t afford to pay sworn officers something other employees could do, because they are so expensive.

  • J:Lai

    so very much of it could be automated . . . which would both lower costs of enforcement and create more consistent and predictable enforcement.

    re-instating something like a residency requirement for public servants, especially in law enforcement, has a lot of merit but is very tied up in other issues like affordable housing.

  • Omri

    Bollards are the best kind of traffic cop. Objective and implacable.

  • Great interview: “If a speeding car hits a jaywalking pedestrian, our sympathies should be with the pedestrian. But police almost always take the side of the driver. For some reason going “just” five miles over the speed limit or accelerating through a yellow light is seen as normal behavior. I mean, most drivers don’t want to kill you. They just drive stupidly until they do.”

    Who is going to stop people from driving so dangerously stupid? Moskos doesn’t want the police to do it, and apparantly the NYPD do not want to do it. Moskos proposes expanding the authority of traffic enforcement agents to cover traffic stops. Would that do the trick? (I doubt it).

    Like J:Lai, I think much could be automated. Personally, I would love to have red light cameras on every single traffic signal in the city, with fat tickets sent out for every offence, and a phalanx of towtrucks confiscating the automobiles of anyone missing a payment. But that is just me.

  • JK

    Moskos says “I don’t consider it real police work.” Why is that? Far more people are killed or badly hurt by strangers breaking the law with a car, than strangers wielding another weapon. What is more intrinsically police work than stopping one person from endangering the physical well-being or life of another through law breaking? If Moskos wants to argue that traffic enforcement is tedious, and cops would rather do other things, so be it. But “traffic violations” are not victimless crimes. Speeding and dangerous driving not only kills and maims many hundreds of people a year in New York City, it also discourages many people from bicycling, and in some places walking. More so, speeding cars are loud and intimidating and destroy neighborhood quality of life. Cops don’t like dealing with a lot of things, including domestic disputes. That doesn’t mean it’s not a crime to beat up your wife. Traffic crimes are crimes. They result in people dying. Don’t trivialize them.

  • Ian Turner

    JK, false advertising is also not a victimless crime, but that doesn’t mean that the police are the best part of the government to address it. The reason that Moskos is justified in feeling that it’s not “real” police work is that, like white-collar crime, enforcement is essentially administrative in nature.

    The ideal division of labor, as others have noted, would have traffic and parking enforcement be an automatic administrative matter and the only time the police would get involved would be to clean up the occasional mess or if an arrest were for some reason needed.

  • Thank you, Ian.

  • Joe

    For a guy with degrees from multiple Ivy League colleges, Moskos makes some pretty stupid statements in this article. Traffic enforcement is an important police function because it often leads to the discovery of other criminal activity, from open warrants to gun and drug smuggling. Criminals that break big laws also disregard traffic laws.

    And yes, Peter, jay walking isn’t “beneficial to urban life.” It kills around one-thousand people per year in the city. Interestingly enough, Moskos was not a New York City cop. He did his very brief stint as an officer in Maryland.

  • For someone so smug, you make up some pretty stupid statistics.

    In New York City, about 150 pedestrians die each year (some of those just walking on sidewalks or crossing with the light.). Jaywalking, in fact, kills nobody. It’s the cars that do the killing.

    But you’re right that traffic enforcement sometimes leads to the discovery of other criminal activity. So would stopping everybody walking down the street. And so would busting into random homes to look for drugs. None of these activities should be the function of police in a free society. And you miss my more subtle point: the more the non-criminal public has adversarial interactions with police, the worse it is for all involved.

    We need traffic enforcement. We need more traffic enforcement. It just doesn’t have to be function of police.

    And since you’re so interested in where I was a police officer, you should read the book I wrote about my brief stint, “Cop in the Hood.” I policed Baltimore’s Eastern District. I suspect you’ve never been there.

  • Harrington

    I’m not certain I buy the idea that traffic enforcement is similar to blanket pedestrian stops or random home entries. Prof. Moskos quite correctly points out that the latter techniques are not the function of police in a free society. However, legitimate traffic stops require reasonable suspicion of a violation, and that’s consistent with policing in a free society.
    Also, I didn’t care for Joe’s slightly dismissive tone when referring to Maryland. Setting aside the Eastern District’s bona fides as a ghetto, there isn’t a jurisdiction in this country where police officers aren’t at risk. All cops face the same danger, it’s just more frequent in large urban areas.

  • Harrington,

    You make a good point. But remember that police use car stops for a lot more than just catching traffic violations.

    Indeed you need reasonable suspicion to stop somebody, but the list of traffic regulations is very long indeed! There was never I time I wanted to stop a car but could not do so. Legally. I never had to drive more than a few blocks to observe a real (though admittedly petty) traffic violation. And this is when drivers are trying to be careful because there’s a police car right behind them. (My favorite petty violation was for cars that did indeed stop at a stop sign, but went just past the actual sign before stopping. )

    And then this can be combined with Whren v. United States (1996) which stated that police can use traffic violations as an excuse to stop a car for an unrelated reason (called a “pretextual” car stop). As long as the stop isn’t based on race (and other factors), it’s entire legal. In the hands of the wrong officer, it can smell a lot like blanket pedestrian stops or random home entries.

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