How Cops Really Want to Police

After writing my last Freakonomics post, I received a phone call from a police officer who began his career in Chicago.

Carl, the 54-year-old cop, started working in Chicago’s inner cities at the height of the crack epidemic. He transferred to the suburbs of Seattle for a lifestyle change — “I was tired of getting shot at,” he said matter-of-factly.

I had promised readers of this blog that I would ask about the creative, informal ways police respond to crime — sometimes even tolerating certain anti-social or criminal behavior for (presumed) larger gains. Carl was eager to respond.

I will post Carl’s comment below, as well as the responses of two other law enforcement officials.

1. “Judge on-site.”

Carl wanted to make a single point: he felt cops should have the freedom to act as “judge on-site.” (See Chance‘s comment, #6.) Carl preferred working in poor communities because, in his opinion, they had a healthy distrust of the court system.

“You want to really lower crime?” Carl began. “Let cops enforce the rules. The whole way. You ask any cop on the street and he’ll tell you that he would love to dish out the punishment, on the spot.”

“You want to be the cop and the jury?” I asked, incredulously.

You laugh, but the good cops never let problems get to judges. They are judge on-site, I like to say. And, I don’t mean just for stupid things like kids shoplifting — you might get the kid by the neck, make him to apologize and work for the store owner for free. I mean for serious things.

In Chicago, back in the 1980′s, we had all these problems with drug dealers selling their dope on the street. We used to catch them and bring them in front of the older folks. We used to take their drug money and give it to all the neighbors on the block! They loved it, and the f–ing gangbangers hated it, of course. But, the people on the block always said to us, “We know you can’t get these guys off the streets, so keep doing what you are doing.”

“Isn’t that just a convenient excuse?” I pressed on. “Would you tolerate that kind of behavior in the suburbs where you work now? I can’t imagine any God-fearing middle class person would allow drug dealers to stand on their corner. I certainly wouldn’t.”

He continued:

No, but around here [in Seattle's suburbs] it’s all inside. But we actually still try to do the same thing. If we catch teenagers selling drugs, we take their money and give it to the school principal or to a block association — sometimes they take it, most of the time they shy away. The problem here is that people trust the prosecutor, the judges. Inner-city people know that these people are really useless. Around here, where you’ve got a lot of domestic violence, a lot of drunk driving, I would love to do other things to stop crime, but …

“Like what? What would you do for a drunk driver?” I asked.

Well, I hate taking that son-of-a-bitch to the station because those tests always fail and they get off (with little penalty). But these guys are a terror around here.

Everyone drinks and drives — especially those guys who drive home after work. I’d love to give them a tattoo, right on their forehead — like one of those scarlet letters. I’d like to get them all out on a Saturday and have them stand on a corner with a sign: “I’m a drunk driver and I’d like to wash your car for free.” I wouldn’t mind taking them around to do errands for others on their block for free on weekends. Or maybe they have to wear a bright orange suit for a month everywhere they go! You know what I mean? The courts don’t do sh-t.

2. “I hate wife beaters.”

Jordan is a 51-year-old police officer who works in New York. I met Jordan when I was studying prostitution. He was based in Manhattan, in Hell’s Kitchen, around the time when the police sought to rid the area of the sex economy — e.g., strip clubs, street-based prostitution, and video parlors. He also felt that the courts are largely impotent, but his pet-peeve was domestic violence. He says that he developed a set of skills that he now uses in “DV” incidents in the middle-class communities outside of Manhattan:

The one thing I hate is a wife beater. Or, anyone who beats women. I never arrest those idiots because they always get out of jail and go back and beat up their wives. It’s really frustrating. I have a daughter, and it just makes me sick … When I was in Hell’s Kitchen, I used to make those guys pay their women [prostitutes] extra, for maybe two months at a time, if they bruised them. You know, to make up for what they did. I’d just get their number at work and I’d call them and say, “Hey, you need to bring Shirley $500 because her kid needs school clothes. If they didn’t do it, I’d call their boss or show up at their job.

And, you know what? I do this now where I work [in wealthier areas of New York City]. These guys get arrested way fewer times [than the poor]. They think they are totally invincible because they make so much money. So, I do the same thing. Traders on Wall Street, lawyers — I don’t care. I tell them they have to pay up. I usually make them donate to a battered women’s shelter … See the one thing to know about these guys with money is that they HATE to give even a penny away! So it hurts. And, I take their money for months. A bunch of cops do this with me.

3. Bill’s Top Five List

Bill is a retired police officer who worked in many Chicago neighborhoods. He made a list of, in his words, “the things that cops do to keep the peace that no one wants to know about.”

1. If a drug addict robbed somebody, we used to take his drugs away and give them to someone else. Then we used to make him watch his buddy smoke all his stuff. THAT was real pain!

2. Let people decide what to do with the gangbangers. The funny thing is that the gangbangers don’t mind going to jail, but they can’t stand it when people in their community get back at them. And, let me tell you something, parents who have children can get really pissed. They make gangbangers clean their streets, pick up trash, and stand outside and look stupid. The key is letting folks decide what’s best [in terms of] dealing with criminals.

3. Always deal with domestic violence on the spot. Make sure that when you catch a perp, all the folks on the block see you drag his sorry a– to court. Shaming somebody can sometimes be your greatest weapon. Hell, sometimes we will cuff the perp to the car, turn on the lights, and just keep him there until all the people get a chance to see him.

4. We like to play gladiator. You know what I mean? Let two gangs beat each other up without weapons, and the winner gets to deal on the corner. Or, we grab a bunch of muggers, or maybe two crews who steal cars, and tell them, “Okay, you all fight each other — the one still standing gets to avoid jail.” I know: it sounds awful, but believe me, this really works.

5. You have to let people get revenge. One time, I caught a guy who was running around stealing jewelry. So I asked the women — the ones who got their rings stolen — if they’d like to come over to his place and take something. Two of them said, “Hell yeah!”

I brought them to this guy’s house, and they took a bunch of his things — a TV, a painting! It was hilarious. This doesn’t happen often, but I think it would be a great way to stop people from doing the little things — you know, robbing, shoplifting, beating up people.

I was struck at the extent to which the drive for autonomy — the ability to act outside the formal system — was invoked by the police. The running theme in my conversations was their lack of trust in the courts. This is not entirely surprising since most cops believe there is a never-ending cycle of criminality in place whereby the punishment doesn’t deter the crime.

To some degree, the wave of urban “community policing” initiatives — whereby residents and police communicate more effectively with each other around — was supposed to rectify the situation. Community policing was developed by public officials in order to incorporate the informal social control mechanisms that exist in any community.

Here, one thinks of the “eyes on the street” approach of social critic Jane Jacobs, in which people police one another’s behavior, with law enforcement playing a mostly supportive role. But, it sounds to me like some police would like greater discretion to enforce the law.

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  1. Witty Nickname says:

    Sometimes I think if I could do away with all the cumbersome policies at my job the organization would run better. The truth is these policies are there for a reason, and the things these cops are doing is illegal.

    Some things I can shrug off, making wife beaters give to shelters, fine; threatening to show up at their job, good. Making gangs fight over street corners, not cool, that guy should loose his badge.

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  2. Emily says:

    Hey, that’s just like every job I’ve ever had, where I thought that the place would run best if only I could be the one to determine and enforce all of the rules.

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  3. Mat says:

    wow … and why not cut the hand of a thief when he gets caught.

    I don’t think these guys ever heard of the saying An eye for an eye and the world goes blind …

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  4. Will says:

    The thing about corruption in every country is that it’s always rationalized. Cops in other countries never ask for a bribe, they ask for money to buy Coca-Cola or beer.

    And in the U.S. they rationalize because it’s going to a “good” cause.

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  5. Josh says:

    I don’t condone what these cops are doing, however, with our current legal system, there isn’t much choice. Of course they don’t trust the courts, the courts are too busy, the jails are too full, and it’s impossible to crack down on all the criminals because there are so many crimes.

    Legalize dope, cocaine, and other such drugs. Sell them in stores, tax the sale. Get rid of the profitability of selling illegal drugs which then gets rid of many murders and shootings etc.

    Then, with the savings from a decreased prison population, the influx of extra money from drug sales taxes, and with the extra time officers and the courts will have we can properly police other crimes and make our courts more effective, thus reducing the incentives to enact street justice.

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  6. J says:

    The problem is that even though these actions may be done with the best of intentions, allowing police to enact punishments like this leaves a huge window to corruption and abuse of power.

    While having significant authoritarian power (as these officers exercise in their examples) is the simplest and most effective way to fix problems (e.g. benevolent dictatorship) it is also a very dangerous situation when the wrong person, or a good person who becomes corrupted, gets that power. Our entire system of representative democracy, and courts of law are intended to mitigate such power.

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  7. surly says:

    I am a bike messenger. I’d LIKE to be allowed to break every traffic law in the book in order to help the economy by delivering contracts and other important documents in a more efficient way. I have no plans of hurting anyone, or causing damage. Do I believe I should be given this right? NO! Because these laws are in place for a reason. What happens when a pedestrian cyclist follows my lead without my skill or experience? Or what happens when I brain fart (everyone does)

    Everyone would LIKE to make their jobs easier. Unfortunately, life isn’t quite that way. If you cant hack your job the way it’s supposed to be done, find a new job. It’s that simple.

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  8. Scared says:

    Frightening. Cops bragging about committing extortion, robbery, and assault. Who polices the corrupt police?

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