Interview with Peter C. Moskos—Sociologist, Author, Criminal Justice Professor and Former Cop (Part 1)

“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 life for me. And as a police officer, I would risk my life for others…” – Cop in the Hood by Peter Moskos

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Peter Moskos’ book, Cop in the Hood (2009), describes his time patrolling an East Baltimore neighborhood—“one of the worst ghettos in America”—strife with violence, drugs and a 37% poverty rate. While Moskos was pursuing his Ph.D. in Sociology at Harvard University, he was originally given permission by the Baltimore Police Department to act as an “observer” for his research. Soon after his arrival, he was told he couldn’t merely be a “fly on the wall,” but would have to formally become a cop. So Moskos, spent six months in the police academy and 14 months patrolling the streets, researching police culture in the most direct way possible—as a member of the “Blue Brotherhood”. As you will see by the following interview, this is an especially rare experience for a sociologist, let alone any academic. Moskos is also the author of In Defense of Flogging (2011), as well as a police science/criminal justice professor and sociology faculty member at several institutions under the umbrella of the City University of New York.

CJSI: What inspired you to pursue your Bachelor, Master and PhD. Degrees in Sociology?

PM: It’s a very forgiving field, I think partly because I didn’t know what I wanted to do until I was in the Ph.D. program. I mean specifically with sociology, it’s broad enough that it covers a lot of interests. My father was a sociologist, so I don’t think it’s a complete coincidence. He had a pretty good life, so I, to some extent, followed in his footsteps. But mostly I’ve always been interested in cities and things urban-related.

CJSI: When did your research interests start to veer specifically towards law enforcement?

PM: It was at the start of my Ph.D. program because I entered graduate school in the mid 90s and that was just as the big drop in crime in New York was in full effect. The entire academic field said that police had nothing to do with crime and that crime wouldn’t go down until root causes were addressed, and crime isn’t going down and crime wouldn’t continue to go down…To some extent they were all wrong and I thought, “Wow if the whole field is wrong, this is something worth getting into!” It also satisfied my interest in cities and the way they work.

CJSI: Are you glad you served as a cop, rather than an “observer”, in Baltimore?

PM: It turned out to be a great break for me in the sense that I don’t know if my original plan would have worked, and certainly it would not have given me the knowledge and experience that I got from being a police officer. I find it a bit strange that in the academic field there is sort of pressure to play a more passive role and yet certainly I’m a better professor and I think a better person because of my experience as a police officer. If you really want to understand something it helps to do it. To some extent it can make you more objective because if you’re on the outside looking in, you’re always trying to gain access and be accepted. But when you’re just doing the job, it sort of goes into a normal routine that I think is beneficial from a research standpoint. And I got paid for it!

CJSI: What surprised you most working as a cop?

PM: People, from watching TV or movies, think the job is all excitement or danger and certainly where I policed there was more than our fair share of that. But day in and day out, you’re clearing the same people from the same drug corner and doing it again and again and it gets kind of tiring. Even though each day is different, it was surprisingly repetitive. If I was still there, I’d have 13 years on now and I’d probably be pretty burnt out.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of our interview with Professor Peter Moskos, where he discusses the decrease in crime rate in NYC and gives valuable advice to prospective criminal justice professionals.