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!

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