Posted on May 22, 2015

Policing Mean Streets

Jared Taylor, American Renaissance, May 22, 2015

Robert Jackall, Street Stories: The World of Police Detectives, Harvard University Press, 2005, 429 pp., $16.33.

This book is about New York City detectives: what they do, how they think, and the criminals they catch. It was written by a sociologist at Williams College who spent several years working with detectives–long enough to understand every aspect of their work, but not long enough to lose an outsider’s perspective. In this book, Prof. Robert Jackall does two things: He tells detailed stories about the gritty work of solving crimes, and draws larger conclusions about the nature of police work–and he does both very well. Street Stories was written 10 years ago, but it is still a first-rate introduction to a profession that, aside from glamorized movie portrayals, is completely unknown to most of us.

Most of the action is set in the 1980s and 1990s, when New York was about 40 to 45 percent white (it is now down to 36 percent white), but detectives, then as now, had an overwhelmingly non-white clientele. Prof. Jackall notes that in 1990, at the height of the plague of subway robberies, there were 1,002 reported cases of robbery by wolf packs, or groups of young people. In all but two cases, the criminals were described as black or Hispanic, and the other two descriptions were “ambiguous.” Only 10 percent of older subway robbers were white.

Prof. Jackall writes that black officers, “who regularly get called Uncle Toms by black culprits and vilified mercilessly by them in other ways, simply accept the racial composition of subway predators and distance themselves as much as possible from the black culprits whom they arrest.” In the stories Prof. Jackall tells, there are scores of criminals, accomplices, buddies, and hangers-on; hardly any appear to be white.

Tricks of the trade

New York City detectives start as uniformed police officers before they are promoted to “gold shield” status. They used to be chosen for their brains, bravery, and initiative, but that gave rise to charges of favoritism (and, no doubt, “racism”), so promotion has become more routine–18 months of a certain kind of drug-busting assignment, for example, means an automatic gold shield. Mr. Jackall says this has dragged down quality.

The detective’s job is to figure out who committed the crime, gather enough witnesses and evidence to get a conviction in court, and make arrests. Street Stories makes it clear that almost no crimes are solved through Sherlock Holmes-type intellectual theatrics. (The author of the Holmes stories, Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle, tried his hand at real-world crime solving, and was a flop.) Instead, as Prof. Jackall explains, “All detectives rely on informants for information,” and that “virtually all criminal investigations come to a standstill without informants of some sort.” Why do they talk?

Some informants see cops as father figures to whom they can divulge the wickedness all around them. Others barter information in exchange for investigators’ turning a blind eye to their own criminal activities. Still others want an immediate payoff in the form of money or bags of drugs left behind after a raid they help arrange. Still other informants want the police to protect them by locking up their enemies.

Surprisingly often, an informant shows up uninvited at the station house, but most detectives carefully cultivate informants. Prof. Jackall writes of one detective who knew not only the names of all the prostitutes in his area but the names of their children. He was always square with them, and they gave good information.

Informants have information only because they live in or at the edges of the criminal world, so they must be discreet. If an officer gives them a ride home from the station house, they want to be let off blocks away, even if they’re in an unmarked car.

Informants often have good information because criminals talk about their crimes. This is not always because they are stupid, though many are. In their world, it is useful to have a reputation for violence, so if a robber shot or carved up a victim last Friday, it burnishes his reputation to brag about it. As one criminal explains, “A murder ain’t a murder until you talk bout it on the street.” A high-profile murder that makes the news is especially gratifying to its author, so the temptation to blab is all the stronger in those cases that the police are most desperate to solve.

But detectives often get only partial knowledge from informants. They may learn that “Shorty,” who hangs out at an after-hours club in the Bronx, was in on the hit, but the informant doesn’t know Shorty’s real name or address. It may take days of leg work to track him down, and he might be the wrong Shorty.

Figuring out who committed the crime is sometimes the easy part. Detectives then have to persuade witnesses to testify. Often they are:

civilian witnesses usually so terrorized or confused that their perceptions are jumbled or limited, neighborhood residents, some of whom are civilians too frightened to come forward and who may be indirect beneficiaries of criminal activities, and some are themselves criminals who reveal information only when they can trade it for their own advantage.

Key witnesses may be low-lifes who make a bad impression on the stand even when they are telling the truth. Sometimes, criminals are offered reduced sentences to testify against accomplices, but this will come out on cross-examination. What is a jury going to think of “bought” testimony?

Lining up witnesses is even more complicated because some racial groups refuse on principle to help the police; the phrase “snitches get stitches” has been around a long time. Detectives find themselves giving potential witnesses assurances that may not be true: that their testimony will lock the rat up for sure, and he will never have a chance to take revenge. The problem with witnesses is so bad that Prof. Jackall worries that “the reluctance or fear on the part of civilian witnesses to testify against violent criminals represents a danger to democratic institutions . . . .”

The best evidence is therefore a confession, and Prof. Jackall writes that street criminals are surprisingly likely to confess. Their first mistake is talking to detectives at all. They don’t clam up or insist on a lawyer because think they can trick the police into thinking they are innocent. They think that will cross them off the suspect list and they will go home free. The interview begins, and both sides settle in for what Prof. Jackall calls “endless recitation of almost identical excuses and justifications, improbable explanations, and outright lies.”

Detectives often use trickery to get a confession. They act as if they have evidence they don’t. They claim an accomplice has ratted, so the suspect better tell his side of the story. One of the cleverest things they do is suppress all moral revulsion and appear to sympathize with criminal motives. No one likes to confess in the face of stony disapproval, so the detective has to sound understanding: A rival dealer stole your crack so of course you had to kill him. It’s only right to stab a girl 25 times if she two-times you. The robbery victim fought back so there was no choice but to shoot him. “You gotta give em an out,” explains a detective. At the end of a long battle of wits that finally ends in a confession many criminals fall asleep in their chairs–police call this “the sleep of the guilty.”

Detectives spend hours talking to criminals, walking them through their self-serving stories, catching them in contradictions, and leading them into traps. They have to know how to think exactly like a criminal.

Detectives also have to weave very carefully through the thickets of laws that proscribe what they can and can’t do at every stage of an investigation. As often as not, Prof. Jackall explains, getting results requires “a willingness to bypass or bend procedure.”

The ability to think like a criminal–and sometimes even commit what are, technically, minor crimes in the pursuit of evidence–unnerves the prosecutors and judges with whom detectives have to work at trial, but justice often requires that rules be bent. Most people involved in the system know that. Even so:

The legal system’s dependence on the morally ambiguous role of criminal investigators confers no privileges on detectives themselves, however. When it comes to formal proceedings, the watchword among detectives is: “It’s always the detective who’s on trial.”

Defense lawyers are always on the lookout for slipups, and are past masters at setting clients free–even when they are obviously guilty–on the basis of some procedural error by the police.

There is constant tension between official regulations and what detectives have to do to get the job done. In general, the higher-ups who have spent the least time on the beat are the worst sticklers for procedure. Women, especially, try to get off the street as quick as they can, and are good at taking promotion tests. They also rise rapidly in departments that are desperate to showcase women in management. Detectives hate taking orders from “house mouses” who have not “made their bones” working dangerous neighborhoods.

The amount of effort detectives put into a case varies according to the moral status they give the victim. They pour their hearts into cases with innocent victims, especially women or children. In one of Prof. Jackall’s stories, detectives made genuinely impressive efforts to find the man who raped and killed an unoffending 50-year-old Dominican widow who lived across the airshaft from her law-abiding adult son.

In 1977, a man specialized in snatching women’s purses in the subway so he could get their keys and address and go burgle their apartments. In order to make sure he had plenty of time for the burglary, he shoved the women onto the tracks in front of an on-coming train.

Detectives live to catch people like him. Cases like that strengthen detectives’ image of themselves as champions of the good, an image shaken by countless cases in which the zeal for justice is dulled because everyone involved is scum. There is not as much joy in beating the pavement to find the killer of a brute who, more or less, deserved to die.

Prof. Jackall describes the discovery of a multiple offender found dead from a fall behind a notorious building full of dealers. Did he lose his grip on the fire escape while he was trying to steal drugs from one of the apartments, or did dealers catch him in the act and pitch him off? The building was full of criminal and semi-criminal Dominicans who would never cooperate with the police. The case was closed: accidental death by falling.

There are two kinds of cases detectives work the hardest. One is cop killings; police always want to catch someone who kills a brother officer. The other is high-profile cases that make the news. The whole world hears about it if a pretty young jogger is murdered in Central Park, and the police commissioner and even the mayor fear for their jobs if the killer isn’t caught. Enormous effort goes into cases like that, even if it means pulling men off murders in less glamorous boroughs while trails go cold.

Police officers tend to conclude that some people are just plain bad and can’t be helped. Prof. Jackall writes that “in the entire police department, one finds few believers in the inherent goodness of humankind, or in social explanations for criminal violence, or in the perfectibility of human society.”

Officers see so much “nonchalant, routine use of lethal violence” that they don’t mind seeing it used in what they call “public service homicides.” There are smiles all around the squad room when a robber and a drug dealer manage to kill each other in a holdup. Detectives like to hear about “street justice” but are, of course, forbidden to encourage it.

Police are also pleased when civilians take things into their own hands. An 80-year-old man fished out a shotgun and blew off the head of a man who broke into his apartment and was menacing his wife. When police asked if he had any trouble firing on the intruder, his reply won admiration in the precinct: “Heck no. It was just like shooting a big buck.”

“Jumpers” are the people who come from everywhere east of the Mississippi to commit suicide off the George Washington Bridge. Prof. Jackall reports that they “are often regarded with a level of scorn that those who work constantly with death by violence reserve for people who throw away life.” He adds that “detectives resist the painful work of informing suicides’ next-of-kin, not least because relatives of suicides almost always deny reality and insist that police open homicide investigations.”

Missing persons are a low priority. Even the most apparently normal people check out for a while without telling anyone, and usually show up again.

Detective work is dangerous, poorly paid, and misunderstood or reviled by just about everyone. Detectives retreat into a social circle that becomes almost exclusively one of fellow officers. Perhaps it is therefore not surprising that Prof. Jackall finds that if a man sticks with police work it is usually because he likes it. “With important exceptions, detectives exult in the danger of their work, in the heart-pumping excitement that only physical risk, the chase, and mortal combat afford.” Anyone who has carried a shield knows that “the streets can explode in a heartbeat” and that arrests “often provoke wild behavior that detectives remember for the rest of their lives.”

This is not a line of work that naturally attracts women, but only a few people dare point out the folly of dressing women in uniforms and putting them on the beat. When a bar or flophouse owner calls the police because the place is in an uproar, he complains if a woman shows up. He wants officers who can take firm action short of pulling a trigger.

One of Prof. Jackall’s best stories is about the hunt for the man who pulled the trigger on the first New York City lady policeman to die in the line of duty. His account is full of insights about how the department handled this highly-publicized crime, but Prof. Jackall lets the reader draw for himself what was really the most important lesson simply by describing the circumstances of her death. When rookie plainclothes officer Irma Lozada–all 120 pounds of her–tried to arrest a chain snatcher, he wrestled her gun away and shot her with it.

As an interesting sidelight, Prof. Jackall notes that right at the crime scene, several other officers thrashed Lozada’s veteran partner, 42-year-old Nat Giambavalo. He was expected to protect her.

Prof. Jackall clearly admires detectives, but he does not overlook their failings. Some use their authority to shake women down for sex. Some steal money or jewelry from crime scenes or even from murder victims. Some start selling drugs themselves. Prof. Jackall writes of one who kept a sledge hammer in his car, and methodically wrecked criminals’ apartments.

It is the job of the Internal Affairs Bureau to catch these miscreants, but no one wants to work for the “rat squad.” Prof. Jackall reports that the quality of work in the bureau was improved with a new system that required the best detectives to spend two years in internal affairs, after which they could pick their own assignment.

The criminal mind

A study of detectives is also a study of criminals, and Street Stories throws interesting light on the criminal mind. A man arrested for robbing subway token booths explained his career to Prof. Jackall: “You wants to know why I does what I do? I was making $8,000 a week [in 1991]. And I could fuck at will. Why should I take a straight job?”

When robbers start out as youngsters, they often run in packs and want to show how tough they are. They egg each other on and end up hurting or killing people unnecessarily. More experienced robbers never use unnecessary force. They cultivate an aura of implacable cruelty that terrifies people into compliance without a struggle. Violence is messy and gets attention from the police. Experienced robbers say they make 30 to 35 scores for every arrest.

Many robbers choose their victims carefully: old women or drunks, for example. Others rob Asians because they think the risk of being identified is lower: “All we niggas look alike to da Chinks.” Sometimes gangs of blacks rampaging through crowds shout, “Just the whites,” or, “Get the whites.”

Veteran criminals often give themselves away by following the same routine in the same part of town. If someone sticks a silver gun in your face in Washington Heights and says “This is a stickup; gib me everything you got,” police have a good idea who he was. They probably have a photo of him on file to show you for a positive ID.

Some criminals pursue their own justice. Prof. Jackall writes of a man who was invited to pick the thug who robbed him out of lineup. He politely declined, saying he would rather the man stayed on the street so he could kill him himself.

Criminals are not romantic. A man whom the police picked up had a woman with him. To the question, “Is this your girlfriend?” he replied, “Hell no; I just fuck her.” Prof. Jackall writes of two men who forced a woman into a car to take her to a lonely place and kill her. During the ride, the man in the back seat with her made her give him a blow job. When they stopped, he took her out and shot her.

Chivalry is not entirely dead: “I mean, it okay that he shot her cuz these bitches need to be taught a lesson. But you don’t shoot a woman in the face.” And criminals have rules: “You can rob all the peoples you want on the trains, but you don’t rob the peoples you smokes crack wit.”

Street Stories is full of inside details about police work.

* At least at the time this book was written, if an officer was on a stakeout that lasted longer than expected, he had to call in to get permission to stay out at overtime wages. If budgets were tight he had to go home.

* Many criminals escape back to Mexico or the Dominican Republic when things get hot.

* When you find a fresh corpse, how do you estimate the time of death? Take its temperature rectally, and calculate how many hours it took for the body temperature to drop.

One retrospective lesson of this book is that police work has had the same racial angles, decade after decade. Prof. Jackall points out that even though officers knew that criminals were overwhelmingly black or Hispanic 30 years ago, to admit to acting on this information would have been “fatal to a police officer’s career.” It is also clear from Street Stories that at least since the 1970s, the New York Times has consistently argued that the police are “racist,” and that non-white criminals are innocent victims of circumstance.

Just as it does today, it paid to riot. In 1992, a white police officer struggled with a Dominican drug dealer, and ended up shooting him. The press clucked about the poor downtrodden Dominicans, who rioted for six days over police “racism.” The black mayor, David Dinkins, rushed to give comfort to the drug dealer’s family, and the city paid for a fancy funeral in the Dominican Republic. Police were furious. A grand jury refused to indict, and it was proven that the original claims against the officer were lies.

Some things don’t change.