Robbers and Cops

I love to read books written by police officers about being police officers, and books written by criminals about being criminals.

In the latter category, I highly recommend Brutal by Kevin Weeks and Phyllis Karas.

Kevin Weeks was Whitey Bulger‘s right-hand man. He is loyal, loves to punch people in the face, and doesn’t mind committing the occasional murder. It is hard to know if he is telling the truth, but the book feels like it is honest at least.

I recently had the chance to talk at length with someone who had grown up in the neighborhood when Whitey was in charge. He had read the book and thought it rang true. I cannot recommend this book highly enough to any budding criminal. It is an excellent “how-to” book for being part of an organized crime ring. More importantly, it shows you the kind of people you will be competing with. If these people scare you (as they should), find a different career.

Much less scintillating (but I’m still glad I read it) is the soon-to-be-released Cop in the Hood. This is the story of a sociology Ph.D. student, Peter Moskos, who wants to study police, but ends up going through the Baltimore Police Academy and spending a year as a police officer.

The problem I had with the book is that there is no passion to his story. He doesn’t really want to be a police officer, it seems; it is just something to do to get his Ph.D.

After I read Blue Blood by Edward Conlon, I was inspired. Being a police officer became a secret fantasy of mine. Conlon loved being a police officer, despite the insanity and the low pay, and that inspires the book.

For Moskos and most of his fellow officers, on the other hand, being a cop is just a job. The goal is to make it to the end of the day, doing more or less as little as possible. Useful to know as an academic who studies crime, but it doesn’t make me drop to the floor to snap off twenty push-ups in anticipation of submitting an application to the Chicago Police Department the way Conlon’s book did.

A few neat snippets from Moskos’s book:

He describes the perfect natural experiment in policing…

(p. 115) One officer described an unorthodox approach [to deciding whom to arrest] he used very rarely. “Sometimes I’ll flip a quarter for a loiterer. Tails he goes to jail and heads he doesn’t. They’ll all be going, ‘Heads! Yeeah!'”

I asked if they ever fuss when the coin came up tails. He said, “No, not really.”

He gives an interesting justification for why anonymous 911 calls should not give the police the right to search someone:

(p. 116) … if anonymous calls did give police the right to search, some police officers would be quick to call 911 whenever they needed to search a subject.

Finally, he describes, as follows, what happened when he was doing research with police in Amsterdam:

(p. 191) … I saw a police officer give an addict back his heroin when the addict was released after a night in jail for some petty crime. I expressed my amazement to the officer that he could give illegal drugs back to a criminal. He explained to me that as soon as the man ran out of heroin, he would break into a car to get money to buy his next hit. It made no sense to the police officer to hasten the addict’s next criminal act by taking away his drugs. I asked about sending the wrong message. The police officer said his message was stop breaking into cars.


I acually just stared reading Blue Blood by Edward Conlon, and I cannot agree any more heartily with your assessment. Conlon really makes me feel like I know what it's like to be a cop (whether or not I actually know what it feels like to be a cop). His prose is enjoyable and the organization of the book keeps me turning the pages. When I finish, I might have to go right on to Brutal, if only to act as a counter-point to Conlon's Irish-cop story.

Matthew R.

""I asked about sending the wrong message. The police officer said his message was stop breaking into cars."

"I only wish most of our laws had that much common sense behind them. ""

Where's the common sense? The cop admitted in the text that his act merely postponed the next break-in. This act didn't solve the problem, but kicked the can down the road a little.


"I asked about sending the wrong message. The police officer said his message was stop breaking into cars."

I only wish most of our laws had that much common sense behind them.


You should read NewJack by Ted Conover, a journalist who works as a prison guard at Sing Sing. Crazy, occasional nausea inducing, stuff.


It's nice to know the socialist paradise of Holland cares about drug treatment as much as the U.S.


Even though it's a TV show, the HBO series 'The Wire' offers a lot of insights into the individual motivations of police officers, judges, criminals, politicians, journalists, and even unions to do what they do in the way that they do it. It's definitely the best show I have ever seen.

Tim Dellinger

Pimp: The Story of My Life by Iceberg Slim is a good one if you haven't read it yet. It was the basis of a story on This American Life a while back, which is also worth digging up.


I think Levitt misses the point in his critique of "Cop in the Hood":
He writes: "The problem I had with the book is that there is no passion to his story. He doesn't really want to be a police officer, it seems; it is just something to do to get his Ph.D."

But that's exactly the point that should be stressed regarding most cops:
they do their job for the same reason Moskos did it: to get paid, to get a pension, to take care of their families. If anything Cop in the Hood expresses the day to day harsh realities of a job that is repetitive in a very humane. Leave the passion for fiction; it's more likely to be there.

Brad Cane


I assume you are implying a causal relationship between drug use and crime/violence (which I think can be more concretely established between Dutch policy merely "kicked the can down the road a little" however if drug confiscation were their policy, it would do more than that. It wouldn't just move the crime up a few days or weeks but increase the aggregate crime/violence as a result of repeated drug confiscation.

It seems like common sense to me that if I had to choose between having my car broken into once a month or once a week, although neither option being optimal, I'd choose the latter.

Lastly, if you hold the illusion that drugs themselves cause violence, I feel you are a sorely mistaken. Drugs don't cause violence, maybe addiction does and drugs don't cause addiction. Do video games create addicts? Does running? Its uncontroversial to say that people are addicted to both and other agents that are not drugs. Addiction is a psychological condition and which method of dopamine-increasing activity is irrelevant.

Has the drug war thus far succeeded in reducing supply OR demand substantially? People will look to alter their consciousness and we should pursue harm reduction policies to mitigate the social-ill byproducts of such. That makes sense to me at least.



I was totally confused when you said Cop in the Hood is "soon-to-be-released" since both you and I have read it already. Then I realized you meant the paperback version. But they still stock the hardcover in a lot of stores it seems.

Peter Moskos

Much less scintillating that Whitey Bulger's right-hand man? I should hope so! I was just a poor beat cop in Baltimore. I never killed anybody. But my book, Cop in the Hood, isn't just a memoir, it has a point: end the war on drugs!

My book also helps explain why so many poor black American men are in prison. And it's not the reason you think it is, because it has nothing to do with being poor, black, young, or male. It has everything to do with police wanting overtime pay.

By the way, I loved New Jack. Though I thought it suffered from the fact that Conover was covert about his research. Conlon's book I thought trailed off in the second half. It's too long. But I liked it and loved his New Yorker articles. Slim, to my shame, I haven't read. The Wire I love.

Matthew R., what should have the cop done?

Peter Moskos

M Todd, basically I agree with you. I believe in personal accountability. I'm all for treating people who commit crimes against others like the criminals they are. They should be punished.

But I really don't care if you take drugs. If they make you happy, more power to you. But I do care if you rob from me, leave needles on the ground, or fail to raise your children right.

Is the problem the drug or the action? I'm inclined to believe the latter. I have friends who take drugs and don't harm others (but then again they're not addicted to heroin or crack). Yes, it would be great if heroin addicts could kick the habit. But in the meantime, I think police should do everything police can to prevent addicts from committing crimes against others. And if that means giving heroin back to a junkie, so be it.

The fact remains that we have addicts who commit crimes to feed their addiction. And drug dealers kill people. So the greater question is what do we, as a rich society, do?

What we're doing now--drug prohibition--simply doesn't work. Arrest, prosecution, and prison (with limited treatment thrown in the mix), is a strategy of proven failure. Getting "tougher" won't work. If it did, our prisons would be drug free (they're not).

Read my book, Cop in the Hood. Or check out my blog: I write more about these issues there.



"I cannot recommend this book highly enough to any budding criminal. It is an excellent "how-to" book for being part of an organized crime ring. More importantly, it shows you the kind of people you will be competing with. If these people scare you (as they should), find a different career."


Freakonomics indeed. Good God!

M Todd

I am not without compassion for those addicted, but I am realistic that some will never stop regardless of how much money we throw at them. I agree there are some very highly functional addicts. They produce and pay their own way. The idea that all drug users are addicts is also a myth. The majority of drug users do so for recreational purposes (I consider alcohol a drug) and use drugs to enhance their lives not destroy them.

The sad fact is where one person can responsibly smoke some weed or have a few drinks on the weekend, the ones who wake-up and stay stoned all day are the problem. The problem is our current system does not make the distinction between wise use and abuse. We also do not see a problem with the guy getting wasted at the country club dance society write it off as 'good old so and so, loves to party what's the harm', but if someone smokes a joint they are a raging drug addict who needs to be locked up for 10 years.

As for prescription drugs, the medical profession is so hyper that the DEA is going to raid them they will deny someone with a lifetime of chronic pain the needed medication. I remember when my grandfather was dying of cancer, the doctor was afraid to give him to much morphine because he may become addicted. He was reluctant until someone in the family pointed out he was 84 and had less than a few months to live, he upped the dose.

The problem is those at the helm of our drug policies are total abstainers and see any use for any purpose other than acute pain (short term only) to be unacceptable. There is no middle ground and they see anyone who drinks or smokes pot even once as addicts and should be locked up to protect society. That is why half of the current prison population is no violent drug offenders.

The first step is redefine what is acceptable and unacceptable drug use in society. Every society has its drugs and will use them.


M Todd

Our drug policy should be if an adult want to do drugs then do them, but if you commit a crime to secure money for drugs you should be procescuted same as any crime. If you cannot secure a job because of your drug addiction then you live a life in the street without any help from the tax payer. If you sell or give drugs to children you do hard time.

If one chooses to abuse drugs that harms the person. When they commit a crime or abuse their children because of their addiction then they must be held accountable for their choices and actions.

It makes no difference if someone breaks into my car for personal gain or to buy drugs, the result is still stealing. I would have more compassion for someone who is desperate and needs food for their family, but for their addiction, sorry their self-centered actions have now harmed a member of society and should be treated as such.

Peter Moskos

Malcolm Young's "An Inside Job" (Oxford Press) is my favorite on British policing.

Peter Moskos

I'll go a step further. Cops who passionately love their job often aren't the best police officers. I imagine a passionate car mechanic tends to be a very good mechanic. But a passionate police officer can be passionate for all the wrong reasons: authority, aggression, the thrill of carrying a gun, and knowing you'll win every confrontation.

Despite what TV and movies portray, and despite what Ed Conlon may honest feel (and more power to him), the majority of police work is boring, dirty, low-paying, and smothered in paperwork.

Policing is job and not a calling. You don't want to take things personally. Perspective is often better than passion. Saying this may make me a poor recruiting agent, but it made me a better cop on the streets of East Baltimore.

The challenge in writing Cop in the Hood is to portray these mundane realities of policing in an engrossing style. I think I succeeded. My book is better than the next B.S. drug call for service. Trust me on that one.

But Levitt has a point. If you're looking to be inspired to join the police academy, maybe my book isn't for you. But if you want to be a police officer or if you want to know what it's really like, read my book. You'll be happy you did.

My advice to Levitt is this: don't quit your day job. The veteran police officer who looks forward to going to work every day can be a wonderful police officer indeed. But it wasn't me (or I would say 3/4 of my colleagues). Professors like us got a great gig. And there are plenty of cops who would love to switch places.


L Robinson

"Most of the problem is not the drug, but money..."

Actually, the quest for funds to feed an addiction is the impetus for a great percentage of property crimes, at least it is in my jurisdiction.

But the larger problem, while less obvious, is more impactful. As long as addicts retain the ability to reproduce, the atrocities they visit directly upon their children and then indirectly, through them, onto the rest of society will continue.

I submit that it would be much less expensive (monetarily) to provide basic housing and sustenance, as well as an endless supply of the addicts substance of choice, in exchange for their reproductive ability.

But the most profound benefits would have impact well beyond our bank accounts.


#1,2 & 8 - Dutch drug law is so different that its probably not possible to compare circumstances with the UK or US (e.g. legal Cannabis 'cafes')...

Meanwhile, if you want an insight into UK policing, google 'coppersblog' to find 'The Policeman's blog'.

Peter Moskos

I still think we need to care about addicts. They are still human beings, after all. But generally, I'm with you.

Some addicts will stay addicted. Some addicts can get off with help. Others could support their own habits if we simply stopped locking them up so they could keep their job. Think about rich people and prescription drug abuse. Until 1981, Supreme Court Justice Rehnquist was a drug addict while serving as an active Supreme Court Justice(!).

But I don't have the solution for drug addiction. Nobody does. Leaving the problem of addiction aside, I'd be happy simply taking the money (and violence) out of the criminal drug trade. A complete solution? No. But a huge improvement compared to what's going on today in the streets of Baltimore (and elsewhere).

And yes, if we regulated and taxed marijuana, we could pay for whatever other drug policy we wanted.