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.


I find it interesting that the ones who cry the most are probably the ones who do the crime.

Stop whining that they took your stash and gave it to the neighborhood.

That's one way to take the 'hood' out of neighbor!

Brian Rock

Let me see if I can follow the logic here:

The legal system is broken. Therefore we should break it further.

I'm not convinced.

The empirical data isn't particularly persuasive either. Police-as-judges doesn't seem to have been effective at eliminating crime in Chicago & New York.

No doubt the retort will be they weren't allowed enough free reign to make it work. I'm sure that's true: give the guys with the guns free reign to enforce the rules and you'll get near-universal compliance. The Taliban in Afghanistan have been using that principle for years, and look how splendidly that's worked out.


The interviews with these three "cops" are nonsense. They are either the pure fantasy of the writer or made up stories of people who were never really cops.


Perfection. Besides, all those saying that "no one is above the law," who is to decide which is above the law anyway. Law is nothing more than a guidline, what we do with that guidline is entirely up to us. I'm sure that a cop doing these things is more "lawfull" than the people actually being affected by their actions.

Case and point, I am the win

Terrible Terry

Don't be fooled, it is a truly "us and them" scenario. As one retired Chicago detective told me when I asked him about "justice". He laughed, looked me in the eye and said we (his cronies) call it "just us".


Trust me, these guys are not Robin Hood. They are pocketing the drug money themselves.

Bottom line: Police should not be above the law.


my sister was arrested in kenbridge va last night for a crime she did not do. recently the police came into her home with some neighbours and claimed my sister had taken items from neighbours and allowed these freaks to take any and everything out of my sisters home they wanted
then they turned around three weeks later and charged my sister with Receiving Stolen Property
they listed HOUSEHOLD ITEMS, the ones they took and returned? who knows, the other other ones they took and did not return who knows?
all i do know is a DIRTY COP in kenbridge va is out to get my sister and to cover his tracks so when she tried to file charges against the cop who did this and the neighbors the magistrate told her he would not file against a co worker and called her a thief and told her what a bad person she is
and of course instead SHE GOT ARRESTED
its a small town in va and everywhere you try to turn to back fires on you because everyone knows everyone in a population of less than 1k so by trying to stand up for her rights she got arrested
do you know of anywhere or anyone we can turn to get help i was thinking if the press got involved it could help her
my sister is destroyed , her life is destroyed, this is a mess those dirty people took christmas stockings with her childrens names on them
the police gave her some of her things back said the neighbors realized it was not theirs and wanted to return it
this entire situation includes dirty cops and uneducated HILLBILLIES low life family to do this
also the new charges say they had nine guns in their home that are now missing so my sister MUST have stolen them and yes they charged her for stealing their gun
she did not steal anything thus the reason no one saw her steal it nor was any of this crap they accuse her of found in her home

anyway sorry im desperate to help my sister and this cop is EVIL and arogant and even lawyers there HATE his guts because he is a BAD BAD BAD PERSON dishonest PIG
any help you can offer or direct me to how i can help her
I plan to put the word out to all of va , every email, every fax , every whatever so that they wont even beable to do a trial in va err sorry im so upset and the police, magistrates will NOT help they cant go against their own but the press can help if they will


dan p

@ Laura #126 -

Just because the cops have pulled something illegal from your person/vehicle/house DOES NOT mean that they did so legally. That was the point of THE BILL OF RIGHTS.


The "Judge Dredd" theory of a law enforcement officer deciding one's punishment is interesting and at best science fiction. Their are many forms of education, the street and classroom being two forms and cops mainly are served the street education. That said, if we have no requirements of formal education, i.e. college or any academic institution, society will have a mafia like mentality of police ruling the streets. Moreover, many crimes are complex and require further investigation and contemplation. I agree that the court system is tired and is in desperate need of miracle. However, judges and lawyers were required to study sociology, philosophy, economics, and a variety of other subjects that cops are allowed to ignore. Don't forget law school!

Then again what do I know. I'm just responding to a post.

Charles L Best

A cop puts his ass on the line every day. If I were a cop I would take some of the serious repeat offenders out in the desert and put a .45 in their head. I admire the police restraint.

Sara P

I find this article very unsettling-- some of these examples of creative retribution seem effective, but these are only three individual police officers. I don't want just any police officer to be allowed to use his or her own discretion to decide what's just! The qualifications to become a law enforcement official do NOT give police officers the freedom to override the 8th Amendment. Though some of these examples don't seem particularly cruel, they are definitely unusual.


"Act like a decent human being and follow the law. If not, you get what you deserve. How hard is this?"

Okay, so what do these police officers deserve for breaking the law?


You freaking ROCK!
Thanks again for another great post.
And I totally agree with these officers though it is quite risky.
I would hate for a "bad" officer to be judge and jury.
Like that jerk from Memphis that beat the transsexual for no reason

Paul Dhall

I was a police officer for many years back in the day. I would just ask that all here consider their world should they wake tomorrow and there were no enforcers of the law. They just decided to stay home or get a safer job. Think about it.

As a boy the cop on the beat was my friend and mentor. There was no bullying allowed on the block or Officer Mike would box your ears and then tell your Dad who would do the same. Get caught stealing from Cappo's on the corner, you'd get the ear boxing and you worked there until what you had stolen was paid for. Then Dad would whip my ass till I couldn't sit down for a few days. Justice was sure and swift.

Now let's see... There's a physical assult by Officer Mike on a minor, enforced labor without pay and child abuse.

Guess what? I grew up, married, served 2 tours in 'Nam, went to collage, worked as a law enforcement officer, was a member of the local school board, owned my own business, wrote 2 books, raised 6 kids and have 8 grandchildren. never been arrested, had 1 speeding ticket in my life. The way I figure it, Dad and Officer Mike raised me right.

Our justice system has lost the surity of the law and all the badasses know it. There is no justice anymore.




Robert Beattey

The only difference between what the police officers interviewed suggest and the current system is that it makes the police officers feel better. Nothing they suggest addresses the need to deter crime in the first place, or explains how their retribution is better then hauling them before a judge and letting a prosecutor have a crack at them.


That article truly re-enforced my distaste for police. Who do they think they are? Since when do they get to decide who is guilty and how to punish them? That is completely ridiculous. Obviously our legal system is not perfect, but nothing is. There are a lot of things I would like to do at my job that I think would make me more effective. However I am not permitted to, and if I did, I would get fired. Next you'll be telling me that cops should get to write the laws too.


So why should we mourn when a cop gets shot? They are just gang members with a different uniform. Oh, that and we pay them. We pay them more that we pay school teachers (by far).




This is not about Judge and Jury? There was a time were people knew right from wrong, or at least knew there would be consequence's for there wrong actions. We now live in a society were there truly isn't any punishment. Police deal with the darkest side of humanity day in and day out. They see victims in their darkest hour and walk away defeated by the system. I read these comments and can tell by experience who has walked in my shoes. I leave you with this. Don't wait until something drastic happens to you or a loved one to be able to see how poor the system really is. Go to your local court house and find a crime you could feel for the victim. Then after the result comes back reply! Then judge a person who places all his time and effort into making a difference in a society that is against them at least until they our the victim! Oh and don't forget to dial 911! You can always count on a response from one of us in blue that you critique so often to come and risk it all for you and your family...