“You Have to Crack Down on Gun Offenders”: A Conversation with Peter Moskos
By Greg Berman
Over the past couple of years, John Jay College professor Peter Moskos has been a prominent voice warning about the rise in violence in American cities and the potential perils of depolicing.
Moskos brings a unique point of view to the public conversation about policing: in addition to being a Harvard-trained sociologist, he spent more than a year working as a police officer in Baltimore, Maryland. That experience served as the basis for his first book, Cop in the Hood, which offers a first-person perspective on the challenges of street-level law enforcement.
Moskos is working on a new book, an oral history of the New York City crime decline that started in the 1990s, told from the perspective of police officers on the ground. In addition, he hosts a podcast, Quality Policing, and curates the Violence Reduction Project, a collection of essays about short- and medium-term strategies for reducing neighborhood violence.
Greg Berman, the Distinguished Fellow of Practice at The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, talked to Moskos about New York City’s historic success reducing crime and incarceration and about what has gone wrong in recent years as shootings have increased. This transcript of their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Greg Berman: Your father, Charles Moskos, was a sociologist who devoted his career to studying the military. Is it just a coincidence that you are a sociologist who spends a lot of time looking at paramilitary organizations?
Peter Moskos: I’m an apple that did not fall far from the tree. My brother’s a businessman in Holland, so he did not take that path. But both my dad and my mom, who’s still alive, were both thinkers so we had lots of intellectual conversations around the dinner table. I thought that everyone did, but when people would come over they would say, “No, this is a little bit odd.” I grew up in an intellectually rigorous household, but I was never pressured to follow in his footsteps. But I did. I went to the same college, and I’m in a field that’s shockingly similar to his. I think part of it was I saw that my parents were both teachers—my mom was a high school teacher—and we had a pretty good life. Certainly, I don’t think I’d be where I am now if it weren’t for them.
Your first book, Cop in the Hood, was about the time you spent working as a police officer in Baltimore. I’m interested in experiential learning versus book learning. How did your experience of being immersed in practice compare to your graduate studies?
It was very different.
When I started grad school in ‘95, I went to study something urban-related because I’ve always been a city boy. That was when murders were plummeting in New York. And when I read some of the literature, all the experts said it couldn’t happen. Not unless we fixed the root causes and changed society. That was the traditional sociological argument. I thought they were wrong on some fundamental level. It seemed obvious that the data didn’t fit the theory. I thought to myself that sociology is probably a good field to get into if all the leading experts are basically wrong about it.
In a graduate class, I read John Van Maanen’s Observations on the Making of Policemen, which is a great ethnographic work on the Seattle Police Department in the late ’60s. My original plan was just to replicate his study and look at socialization in the police academy. I set out to try to get access for that. It wasn’t easy. Police departments don’t want researchers. Certainly, they didn’t back then.
Most researchers aren’t part of the group they study, and, of course, there are issues about bias and objectivity. But absolutely the things I learned as a cop I could not have learned just as an observer.
But Baltimore said I could do it there. And when I got there, the politics had changed and there was a new commissioner. They said, “You can’t do it.” I said, “If I go back to Harvard, I don’t have a place to live.” And that’s when they said, “Well, why don’t you become a cop for real?” So that’s what I did. I went through the process and got hired. I told them that I was going to quit after a year and write a book about it. My advisor at Harvard was not pleased with this plan, but in the end, it all worked out.
Why was your advisor opposed to it?
I think he thought I’d pulled a bait-and-switch on him, because it wasn’t my original plan. Some of it might have been just pure class snobbery. Eventually it got smoothed over and ultimately he was supportive. But there were a rough couple of months there where I was having problems on both sides.
But I’m lucky. I think I could have gotten a dissertation out of my original research plan, but it wouldn’t have been anything more than that. The academy is not where the real story is. Ultimately, it is about being a cop on the street. Where I was assigned was a pretty good place to learn if you’re going to be a cop for a short period of time. Most researchers aren’t part of the group they study, and, of course, there are issues about bias and objectivity. But absolutely the things I learned as a cop I could not have learned just as an observer. And certainly as an observer, you wouldn’t have that access. And that experience in Baltimore has given me access to cops ever since. I can talk to cops because I walked a mile in their shoes.
Before we get into what’s gone wrong in New York and other cities of late, I want to spend a minute talking about what went right previously. When I talk to my kids about criminal justice in New York, I tell them that, up until very recently, basically every indicator that we care about was pointed in the right direction—crime was down, jail was down, complaints against the police were down, use of force was down, etc. They are shocked, because the only things they have heard about the criminal justice system are negative. What’s your answer to what New York City got right prior to the past two years?
Well, that’s what I’m working on right now. My next book is going to be an oral history of the crime drop in the ’90s. I think the fundamental thing that went right was when William Bratton became [New York City police] commissioner for the first time, he said, “We’re going to reduce crime, fear of crime, and disorder.” He got the police back in the crime-prevention game. That was really revolutionary. If you go back to the Kerner Commission [convened by President Johnson to study U.S. civil unrest in the 1960s], they articulated what became the sociological party line about crime: that we have to fix society to address crime and that police don’t play a large role in that. In fact, they blamed police for a lot of the riots that happened. And that was just accepted by everyone.
In New York City before Bratton, if you made arrests in 30 percent of the serious crimes, you were doing okay. As long as there was no scandal, you were fine. It was very much an anti corruption-obsessed department post–Serpico and the Knapp commission. That was business as usual. There just wasn’t any drive to do better.
Bratton effectively said, “To hell with that.” The idea of going back to the crime-prevention game was the major switch. It was essential that he said, “This is our job.” I think a big part of what has been lost over the last year or so is that police departments suddenly said, “Okay, we won’t be in the crime game again. If you’re worried about police use of force, we can focus on that and disengage.”
[The crime-tracking tool] CompStat gets a lot of credit, but at some level, it’s just a crime map. But it was an accountability tool and that was the key. It was about saying to precinct commanders, “This is your job and you have to know what’s going on.” The results were shockingly quick.
Violence in New York didn’t start to go down in 1995 because lead was removed in 1980. All those macro things, I’m not saying they don’t matter, but they don’t matter so much in New York City. It was so basic, this idea that the police should care about crime. Other departments quickly followed suit. It was basically saying, “This is our job again.” And we’re still going to worry about corruption, but we’re not going to be obsessed by it. And of course there are tons of little details, like the broken windows approach of saying we are going to focus on public order.
I want to return to broken windows in a minute, but first I wanted to ask you how much credence you give to Patrick Sharkey’s argument that some percentage of the crime decline in New York City was due to the existence of community groups, business improvement districts, and other nongovernmental organizations?
That’s part of the story, certainly. I don’t focus on it because I’m focused on policing. But my book actually starts with three stories that don’t get enough attention, that really have very little to do with policing. Bryant Square Park reopened in 1990. The Times Square business improvement district remade Times Square. And the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey started cleaning up the bus terminal. The courts in New York ruled that the Port Authority and the subway system could make and enforce rules. They said that begging on the train wasn’t a constitutional right. It couldn’t have been done without that course correction. All this happened before the crime drop and, in a way, set the stage for it.
To say it's bail reform's fault that shootings have gone up is not accurate. But people are using bail reform as a proxy for the whole movement in general. In that sense, I think it's a fair criticism.
Another important milestone was getting graffiti off the subways in the ’80s. This was significant because it was the first victory against disorder that the city had seen in literally decades. This problem that was supposedly insurmountable was fixed. The idea that we can actually make a difference here was, I think, an important philosophical foundation for what happened in policing.
But the actual major decline in violence was primarily, I think, a focus on gun offenders and on public order. The police got back in the crime-prevention game. But I don’t want to dismiss these other things. New York was also in a good position. Compared to other cities, we had money. We also have a rich tapestry of treatment and alternative-to-incarceration programs. They’re all little pieces in the jigsaw puzzle. Collectively, I have to assume it makes a difference.
Let’s talk about broken windows. In other forums, you have said that broken windows policing has basically ended in New York City. I’m wondering what your reaction is to those who argue, “Well, that’s a good thing because it lightens the touch of the system, particularly on overpoliced populations like young Black men”?
I would say: ask people in those neighborhoods what they want. There’s a great strain of paternalism out there. People are telling other people how their neighborhoods should be policed.
Broken windows is not the cause of mass incarceration. It’s about changing behavior. When broken windows was first implemented, it was part of a community policing strategy. Bratton certainly saw it as community policing. It was part of the police asking the community what they wanted us to do. It was a bottom-up approach.
[Co-author of the broken windows concept] George Kelling, before he died, said maybe broken windows was a bad metaphor in hindsight, because he never expected the phrase to take off like it did. And he certainly saw problems in the way it was interpreted. But Kelling and Bratton were close until the end. Bratton really did fundamentally change the police department culture. And broken windows was a part of that.
But the problem is that after Bratton left, some things went off the rails. I’m pretty sure that stop, question, and frisk would not have taken over the police department in the late 2000’s had Bratton still been commissioner. That’s what a lot of people say and I believe that. Bratton was very much against zero-tolerance policing. Those two concepts have gotten linked by opponents, but they’re fundamentally at odds.
In terms of broken windows, I think the label has become toxic, but you could come up with a new name and do the same concepts again. Because we are having the same problems again.
I know that you haven’t done an empirical study, but what’s your sense of whether bail reform actually has had an impact on the streets of New York?
The idea that it has no impact is crazy. When people don’t get detained, some of them commit crimes. I don’t think it’s a huge number, but it’s not zero.
But bail reform is being used as a crude weapon to say, “Something’s going wrong, let’s blame bail reform.” Bail reform is a multifaceted thing and much of it is good. But, as I’ve said on Twitter recently, the absurd parts are so absurd. You could just fix it. You could allow judges to consider public dangerousness. You could fix the witness disclosure part of it. There are a few things that would be so easy to fix, and you could have the rest of it. But the politicians and activists who are rooted in the police and prison abolition philosophy don’t want to fix it.
So to say it’s bail reform’s fault that shootings have gone up is not accurate. But people are using bail reform as a proxy for the whole movement in general. In that sense, I think it’s a fair criticism.
Speaking of the movement, on Twitter you have written, “Prominent police reformers don’t want better policing, they want less policing and abolition. Reform is too often a disingenuous tool masking a misguided, dangerous, and unpopular goal.” Do you think that anything good has come out of the Black Lives Matter protests?
My first thought is no, but that’s not entirely true. Police do need accountability. And they’re not inclined to be self-reflective on that matter. Part of the reason I think New York is better in policing than other cities is because there has been accountability. Al Sharpton is a divisive figure in policing circles, but he and others did hold the NYPD’s feet to the fire. And the NYPD is better because of that. They don’t get away with things other departments do. Police should be under pressure. Police need critics. In that sense, it’s good.
How do you respond to the argument that American policing is rotten to its core, that it has its roots in slave patrols and that it is essentially a mechanism for oppressing Black people and always has been?
Well, it’s historically just inaccurate. I think it’s an important issue. It’s not just an academic debate, because this claim does lay the groundwork for everything that follows. If it were true that policing was a legacy of slavery, then yeah, you’d want to get rid of it. I think there’s a parallel to the 1619 controversy. Is American policing a bad concept that we’re doing our best with, or is it a good concept with flaws?
There’s no mystery how police in the North were established. And even in the South, before it came crashing down with the end of Reconstruction, the police were set up by an occupying army imposing a northern way. And it failed, unfortunately.
Look, it was a weird year and there was COVID, but the evidence that [the increased violence] was policing-related is pretty strong. Police got out of the crime-prevention game. There was a push and a pull that led to less policing.
It is true that, wherever they are, policing reflects American society and American society has often been quite ugly. Police are a part of city politics, and that was a pretty flawed institution when we’re talking about the late 1800s.
I recently looked at Frederick Douglass’s newspaper in Rochester, New York, because he was writing when police were established in Rochester. If it were really a White supremacist concept, you’d think he might have said something about it. But it just wasn’t on their radar.
Look, at a functional level, policing fills a need. That’s why abolishing policing will never work. Someone’s going to fill that vacuum. I’d much prefer to have it done by public employees who have to abide by the Constitution as opposed to private security guards and gangs. These experiments in Seattle or Minneapolis where you have police-free zones, they all come crashing down. We’re not ready for that yet.
Do you think that the police in New York have a legitimacy problem?
Legitimacy is a relatively new concept. Legitimacy is important for any organization, especially policing. But the same people that raise the issue of legitimacy are the ones actively working to undermine police legitimacy. The same people who are saying that police need to be more legitimate are also saying that they’re slave catchers. Well, you can’t be legitimate if you’re a slave catcher. So I find that argument disingenuous.
I think legitimacy is an outcome of good policing, broadly defined. Policing has legitimacy when it’s effective. That’s how police gain legitimacy primarily. Legitimacy is more of an effect than a cause, I think. Some people are never going to like cops for ideological reasons. And I don’t see any efforts to increase the legitimacy that actually do increase it.
There are reports that clearance rates are down in New York City. Do you think that is unrelated to people’s perception of police?
I don’t think the public really cares or knows about the clearance rate.
That’s probably true, but I’m asking if the clearance rates have gone down because people are less willing to participate in investigations.
I think there’s a link to bail reform. I talked to a reporter the other day who said that she is hearing people in the streets say that they’re not willing to be witnesses because they can’t remain confidential. That hasn’t gotten any attention yet. That does a lot to decrease the legitimacy of the system.
I also think that there’s more crime and that does lower clearance rates. When shootings double, you can be certain clearance rates are going to go down because suddenly there are twice as many cases. It’s not like they have twice as many detectives to resolve these things.
Look, it’s not like people were talking to the cops ever. I mean, the very first shooting I handled, the victim wouldn’t tell me his name. The idea that you don’t talk to cops, it’s been around forever. It’s very hard to convict someone if you don’t have someone who’s willing to testify. I’m inclined to believe it’s gotten a bit worse recently, but we don’t actually have data on that. And then the question is: why has it gotten worse? Well, if a guy’s got a gun and he’s not detained and he’s back on the street, then I think it’s understandable that people don’t want to tell the cops. The fact that the system isn’t working like it used to has an impact.
Tell me about your Violence Reduction Project, in which you invite a variety of people to explain how they would reduce violence. Are there good ideas out there that you’ve been unearthing beyond Cure Violence and focused deterrence?
When shootings started to rise in 2020, you had respected academics saying, “Violence can’t be up this much.” And then you had people saying, “Well, it was worse in 1990.” What a stupid debate to be having. I don’t care that it was worse in 1990. It just doubled now. More people are getting shot every week. This is real. And then, very quickly, you started to hear the same arguments that you heard in previous decades: “We have to fix society.”
Look, it was a weird year and there was COVID, but the evidence that [the increased violence] was policing-related is pretty strong. Police got out of the crime-prevention game. There was a push and a pull that led to less policing. Some of it was changing laws and decriminalization and legalization and nonprosecution. And some of it was police saying, “Well, screw it.” Cops are upfront about this. They’re like, “Yeah, if I see someone with a gun, I’ll still go after them. But if I see someone suspicious in an alley, I’ll just drive on. Because if I stop him, what if a crowd gathers and he resists and I have to use force and suddenly…” The bottom line is there was less policing and that correlates perfectly with violence in a way that COVID or the economy doesn’t.
Just hearing gunshots outside your house is traumatic. Most privileged people have no connection to that level of violence. And I think that's part of the problem. It needs to be a higher priority.
So I said to myself, well, maybe I should figure out what can be done. So I put that website together. The only condition for contributors to the violence reduction project is: I don’t want long-term solutions. It’s got to be short- or medium-term. And it has to be somewhat feasible, politically. Give me your solution.
Do you have a favorite among the contributions?
They’re all my babies, but I think gun prosecution is key. It was key in the ’90s and it’s key now. You have to crack down on gun offenders. That’s probably the single most effective thing that can happen. But that’s more of a prosecutorial thing than a police thing, because cops are arresting the gun offenders, at least in New York.
But part of me doesn’t want to have a favorite because I think you do have to do everything. I want effective violence interrupters, though I do think it’s vastly overblown. I don’t think any of it will work without police. For these programs to work, you need a certain level of public safety. You’re not going to improve society if people are getting shot every day on your block, or you hear gunshots. For people to say that things were worse in 1990, I don’t think they understand the trauma of gun violence. It really should dominate everything.
I think, in particular, people don’t understand the ripple effects of shootings.
Just hearing gunshots outside your house is traumatic. Most privileged people have no connection to that level of violence. And I think that’s part of the problem. It needs to be a higher priority. In terms of absolute death, it’s actually about 20,000 a year, which is less than a lot of things. But the trauma is so much greater. People sometimes say, “Well, someone was shot, but they will recover.” No, you don’t. You don’t recover from a gunshot wound, really, ever.
How hopeful are you about New York City Mayor Eric Adams and the new administration?
Adams wasn’t my first choice, but I’ve liked everything he’s said and done since the primary. And it’s interesting that he basically won all of Black and brown New York while the progressives all voted for Maya Wiley and all the New York Times readers voted for Kathryn Garcia.
A lot of New York still speaks with a New York accent. I think it’s important that Eric Adams feels that that’s his base. And he made crime an issue. No one else was talking about crime before he did. As I said before, before you can solve the problem, first you have to say, we’re going to care about this. So I think Adams is passing that first test. The devil is in all the details, but I do have an atypical feeling of optimism right now.
Do you think Adams will close Rikers Island?
Rikers is a frustrating issue. Who would have thought that the plan to close it was going to get outflanked from the left? Rikers is horrible. But I think the left may have effectively killed the idea of building new jails. At some point, there are going to have to be jail beds for people, whether they’re on Rikers or somewhere else. The idea that we’re going to achieve prison abolition simply by closing prisons…it’s not going to happen. I fear it’s going to backfire. I don’t want a right-wing overreaction.
From the outside looking in, it seems like the intellectual climate in the academy is bad right now and that things have become very politicized. Do you think this is a fair assessment? And have you paid any professional price when you have departed from the social justice orthodoxy of the moment?
I don’t think so. I’m always afraid it’ll happen. I think it helps that I’m in a nontraditional department in terms of my academic field. I think it also helps that I’m not a right winger, though certainly I know many people think I am.
Academics are a weird breed. It’s amazing how afraid academics are. My own theory is that the PhD weeds out people who don’t comply. In my mind, the press is a bigger issue. I hear from respected older journalists a lot and they’re afraid. They’re afraid of the newsroom. That’s troublesome, that idea that objectivity is somehow bad.
I do find in general that the left is far less willing to engage. I don’t get invited to those panels. They don’t want to hear dissenting views, and I think that’s worrisome. There is an attack on the traditional model of free speech that I think is probably the single most dangerous part of the movement. But hopefully the pendulum will swing back.
Greg Berman is the Distinguished Fellow of Practice at The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation. He previously served as the executive director of the Center for Court Innovation for 18 years. His most recent book is Start Here: A Road Map to Reducing Mass Incarceration (The New Press).
Views expressed are the participants’ own and not necessarily those of The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.