More has been said, written, and muttered about the police than any other group of public servants. This emphasis is understandable. Schoolteachers and social workers provide services. We look to the police for physical survival. Three centuries after Thomas Hobbes, we still live in “continual fear and danger of violent death.” Yet even with the police, few of us living in large American cities feel fully protected. Ought we to expect more safety than we are currently receiving?

It can be argued that the problem has become one of numbers: the blue line is so thin that it can no longer cope with a swollen criminal class. At last count, in 1975, 664,000 people were employed as police, one for every 320 of the rest of us. Arrayed against them are those citizens willing to inflict physical injury on others. It is impossible to estimate how many; they include part-time and peripheral participants, few of whom regard crime as a permanent profession. We cannot even say if they number as many as one million. Close to 300,000 people now inhabit this country’s prisons; but not all are there for crimes of violence. Anyway, it is those on the outside who worry us most.

In 1975, the police made 373,000 arrests for crimes of violence: murder, manslaughter, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. The average officer works for more than a year without making a felony arrest. Even if we had several hundred thousand more police, the rate of arrest would not increase appreciably. Officers can’t be everywhere at once; nor would most of us like it if they were. Nor can we create a police presence pervasive enough to deter would-be criminals. An officer on every corner would still leave the side streets open. (One welfare hotel in New York, the scene of repeated mayhem, is next to the local police station.) Even Chief William Parker of Los Angeles, an oldschool hardline commander, held out little promise of protection. Crime rates, he conceded, pay “embarrassingly little attention to the most determined efforts of the police.”

This view is shared by James Q. Wilson, a professor at Harvard, whose Thinking About Crime has recently come out in paperback. Wilson’s own thinking accords with the view of his Harvard colleagues, such as Edward Banfield and Nathan Glazer, that social reforms seldom achieve their intended results. What makes Wilson’s book refreshing is that he applies the same skepticism to the popular remedies for the police, an agency often omitted from such scrutiny. Take the matter of patrols, the uniformed officers “driving through the streets, waiting for something to happen.” Wilson doubts that this costly and cumbersome activity has a discernible impact on crime. He cites a year-long Kansas City experiment, using three comparable precincts. The first continued with its usual allotment of patrol cars. The second withdrew cars altogether, sending them in only in response to requests. The third was given twice to three times the normal complement, a marked increase in visibility. The result, according to Wilson, was:

No substantial differences among the three areas were observed in criminal activity, amount of reported crime, rate of victimization,…level of citizen fear, or degree of citizen satisfaction with the police. For all practical purposes, the changes in the level of preventive patrol made no difference at all.

Nor does it help having more officers on foot. The chance of apprehending a robber happens perhaps once in a policeman’s career.1 Plainclothes policemen make many more felony arrests. But beefing up such details means even fewer glimpses of a uniform for an already insecure public. Wilson is also skeptical about more scientific modes of detection. (“Police ability to solve crimes may have very little effect on how many crimes are committed.”) Nor does he favor additional schooling. (“Patrolmen with a college education display a high degree of cynicism and a greater sense of deprivation.”) All told, Wilson can’t think of innovations that would do much to undercut crime. He takes the familiar conservative position that the kind of crime we have reflects the erosion of community life. When neighborhoods were more cohesive, with shared traditions, their built-in systems of controls ensured obedience to authority. Citizens kept watch on one another, doing much of the work of the police. As it happens, conservatives are not alone in this position, which was one of the main themes of Jane Jacobs’s Death and Life of Great American Cities.2 (The apprehension of “Son of Sam” lends some support to this view. The police received close to 7,000 calls from citizens, one of which actually pinpointed David Berkowitz. But the key factor in the capture was that New York could assign several hundred officers to this single case. One of these, routinely checking a parking ticket, made the final connection. Even with all that manpower, it took over a year to arrest a suspect. Nor were the murders in question the sort we ordinarily think of as “street crime.”)


The “police function” has only partly to do with crime. In fact most calls involve rushing people to hospitals, quieting noisy parties, or telling shopkeepers to clean up their sidewalks. (An academic friend of mine dialed 911 when a pipe burst in his kitchen.) On such occasions citizens look for prompt, attentive service, and feel aggrieved if it isn’t forthcoming. We use the police as an all-purpose agency, when we can’t think of anyone else. How many of us would know whom to call if a swarm of bees landed on our window? The police themselves think up work to do if they want to show they are on the job, periodically rounding up prostitutes, numbers runners, etc.

Cities differ in their experiences with the police. All start with similar pools of recruits. Some bring out the best in their people; others have less happy results. New York’s force, which was once the model for the nation—“The Finest”—has become a sullen and mutinous army. Nor did the public protest when, during the recent budget crisis, the city decided to cut the police equally with other agencies. The firemen call themselves “firefighters” and remain the most popular department. New York’s police know better than to promote themselves as “crimefighters.”

Nicholas Alex says he spent “two years in the field with a tape recorder” listening to forty-two New York City policemen. The book might easily have been titled “Griping.” What we get is an unbuttoned catalogue of laments, from men thoroughly unhappy with their jobs. They see betrayal at every turning: from judges, politicians, their superiors. Reports of brutality and corruption mislead an unappreciative public. Rules and regulations make arrests all but impossible. (“It’s a pain in the ass to make a collar. The only guys that want to make a collar today are the guys who are looking for the overtime.”) At no point do they speak of services they have performed for the public. No one alludes to challenging assignments, or methods they have personally worked out for themselves. They are counting the days to their pensions. At least as Nicholas Alex records their views.

What emerges from his book is that these policemen feel no affinity with the city that employs them or the people they are paid to protect. (During New York’s recent blackout looting, as many as 10,000 off-duty officers who were not on vacation or sick leave ignored their commissioner’s order to report to their precincts.) Half commute by car from the suburbs, and when off-duty stay away from the city. The rest live mainly in secluded sections of outer boroughs, far from the precincts they patrol. Coming to work is like entering a foreign country, where the natives cannot be trusted, especially if they are poor and black or Hispanic. But even middle-class New Yorkers become the objects of the hostility in their replies.

Police: Streetcorner Politicians provides a very different picture. William Muir spent a year living and talking with twenty-eight young officers in “Laconia,” a midwestern city of 500,000. What comes across is how well these men know the people on their beats. They speak hardly at all of personal grievances, and give much thought to their jobs. Sometimes they seem too good to be true. Muir’s opening sounds like the “voice-over” for a Blue Knight special. A policeman, he says, “has to grasp the nature of human suffering, achieving a tragic sense and a moral calm under threatening circumstances.” This may sound rather demanding for men still in their twenties. But listen to “Jay Justice,” not yet thirty and with less than three years on the force:

I’ll tell you what I try to do generally. I always try to preserve the guy’s dignity. I leave him an out. I make it so that it’s his idea to sign the ticket. Especially in a crowd situation. I leave him his dignity.

Of course smaller cities are different. Police officers are less apt to commute from a distance, or to regard the city as a restive colony. Many went to high school with people they see on the streets. Class divisions tend to be muted: the police manage to make contact, even overcome racial barriers. Here is how “Joe Wilkes” deals with family quarrels, a frequent call in his territory. “My own personality is to talk. We talk about his possibilities. About everything he has possibilities for.” Muir, who uses his eyes as well as his tape recorder, watched Wilkes at one of these set-tos:

He looked for anything that indicated what had once been important to the marriage—a car that was well taken care of, a valuable domino set, a good-smelling soup on the stove, a spotless kitchen—anything which indicated the locus of former concerns, anything which had been beloved, any basis for hopefulness.

Still, police work can be morally enervating. Even in a midsized midwestern city, too many cases seem beyond hope or remedy. Muir’s policemen are young. After ten years on the street, cynicism starts seeping in. Yet one point is worth mentioning. New York policemen still ride two to a car, even in the city’s outer reaches. “Laconia” has mostly one-man patrols, allowing each officer a better opportunity to strike up acquaintances with the people on his beat. He can stop to chat without having to consult a carmate, and talk in a way that is much more relaxed than when citizens meet two patrolmen at once. In New York, even if one officer is willing to gossip, his partner will signal his impatience. This may be why so many New Yorkers have never had a conversation with a policeman.


According to his publisher, Leon Radzinowicz of Cambridge University is “a frequent adviser on crime and penal policy to governments all over the world.” The Growth of Crime, written in collaboration with Joan King, tells us almost everything that is known on this subject, if by knowledge we mean the findings of studies. I am sure that Radzinowicz has toured precincts from Bombay to Sao Paulo. If so, he excludes these recollections from the book, relying instead on reports, monographs, and dissertations. A fact is not a fact unless it can be coupled to a footnote. Here is what he has to say on the class origins of the police:

Whilst one American researcher has contended that they come mainly from the working class and have therefore a penchant for tough language, physical force, and prejudice against minorities, another has categorized them as essentially of the lower middle class, preoccupied with order, cleanliness, thrift, punctuality, and conventionality of behaviour and dress.

On this matter, the findings seem inconclusive, as any research based on such gross conceptions would have to be. Or at least Radzinowicz does not pursue the ambiguity, perhaps awaiting a further study. Yet this confused dualism tells much about the police. For the fact is that while most policemen come from working-class backgrounds, they tend to be lower-middle-class in attitude and outlook. That they are “preoccupied with order,” of course, doesn’t mean they have stopped using tough language or lack prejudice against minorities. In the United States they are usually high-school graduates who do not go on to college. Police work tends toward the routine, involves a lot of standing and waiting; most tours of duty are during hours when everyone else is at home or in bed. It is not a white collar job: you must dash upstairs, run through alleys, and occasionally roll in the dirt. People with upper-middle-class aspirations seldom apply to the police. (Note how much uneasiness the presence of David Durk, Amherst ’57, has caused the New York department.)

We have police mainly for outdoor crime. Entire categories of wrong-doing bypass the police altogether. Federal prosecutions use FBI agents who spend most of their time out on interviews or conferring in airconditioned offices. Local indictments for fraud result from research by district attorneys, with accountants providing much of the evidence. To the police go the crimes of violence, which means they face mainly lower-class offenders.

Police forces were set up to control the lower class.3 Or at least its “criminal element.” From working-class origins themselves, the police were assumed to have some familiarity with those they restrained. This system still works in many places, as in William Muir’s “Laconia.” What has happened in larger cities, with their migrations from depressed rural areas, is that the police have become almost wholly dissociated from the people they end up arresting. In times past, the patrolman on the beat could talk with the O’Brien boy who looked like he might be going wrong. Now they cluster for forays into enemy terrain from places like “Fort Apache,” the South Bronx police station which was literally bombarded from time to time. Faced with a large and what one commander called a “feral” class of offenders, they conduct holding operations. New York and other big cities have an underclass which cannot be “policed” as in days when trees grew in Brooklyn and kids got spending money by delivering groceries.

To this must be added another development: the constitutional restraints on street enforcement. One of Nicholas Alex’s patrolmen describes the good old days:

When I came on the job, you were able to hold court on the street. You were the judge. You could give a guy a rap over the head, and that was the end to it right there.

Well, not quite the end. You could also run him in, and continue the rapping in the stationhouse cellar. In those days, the accused could end up in Sing Sing without ever having seen a lawyer. With the police doing judicial service, anyone arrested was automatically assumed to be guilty. News reports referred to the person brought in as the criminal. Calling him a “suspect” and inserting “alleged” are recent innovations. Today the presumption of innocence extends to every stratum of society. This reflects some deep-seated changes, which would have come about even without Earl Warren’s prodding. Everyone the police picks up must be regarded as innocent of the charge on which they were arrested. The burden now falls on the arresting officer to provide evidence of a kind that would stand up against a lawyer’s onslaught at a full-dress jury trial. If you want five years for the man who mugged Mrs. Gordon, then your case must be very convincing, and rightly so, if constitutional rights are to have meaning.

In the past, the police were seldom asked to build strong cases. The fact that they are now expected to do so makes them a weak link in the criminal justice system. Of course we need more judges and prosecutors, and a different prison system. Still the fact remains that most current arrests would result in acquittals under fire of cross-examination. On the matter of identification alone, any halfway decent legal aid lawyer can stir at least one juror to doubt a witness’s eyesight or memory. Hence the high incidence of plea-bargaining, with shorter sentences on lesser charges. (It will be impossible—constitutionally—to build cases against most of the 3,800 persons recently rounded up for looting in New York. Each suspect must be identified with reasonable certainty as a person who was observed carrying out a criminal act. Cases against Washington peace demonstrators who were arrested en masse were dismissed for the same reason. This helps to explain why many arrested were, in effect, punished by particularly barbarous confinement before they could be brought before judges.)

Hence, too, demands that the police turn to more sophisticated procedures. This is one objective of the federal Law Enforcement Assistance Administration and its research arm, the National Institute of Law Enforcement. Surely our age of “information explosions” should have some findings for controlling crime. This at least is LEAA’s program for the police: “a sound knowledge base must be built if management and operations are to be conducted on a more rational and scientific basis.”4 Academics and other consultants have reprogrammed their computers for crimerelated research. For example, a “Felony Investigation Decision Model” for assigning policemen to crack a case. Or an “Early Warning Robbery Reduction Project” which forecasts future thefts. From the LEAA’s Office of Technology Transfer come papers on “Gunshot Residue Detection Using Inorganic Luminescence” and “Persistence of Selected Genetic Markers in Dried Blood.” And for prosecutors, “Deductive Modelling to Determine an Optimum Jury Size and the Fraction Required to Convict.” Most of these papers are heavily mathematical. Not a few look a bit like models for bombing Vietnamese villages or for a transit system in Memphis.

So far as the police are concerned, research of this sort arrives as if from another planet. As with labor unions and the postal service, police departments promote entirely from within. When captains, commanders, and chiefs have continued their education beyond high school, they have usually taken evening courses that lean heavily on memorizing textbooks; often these are textbooks on urban sociology that must seem as remote from the streets as the LEAA studies I referred to. This should not surprise us. All institutions are affected by the origins of their members. The ethos of the public schools reflects the teachers’ lower-middle-class backgrounds, as the State Department’s recruits from the higher middle-class reflect theirs. None of these groups has a premium on intelligence or rationality. Corporate lawyers from the best families misjudge the realities of city life as readily as police chiefs whose education ended at high school.

Police administrators come to their responsibilities later in life, and in a milieu not all take to easily. As men who signed up for outdoor work, many are in their middle years when they first sit down at a desk. Thus the tendency to adhere to the rulebook. The apparent inflexibility of police management reflects the tendencies of men who have got where they are by following procedures. Perhaps the best instance of this comes from the examinations so critical to police careers. To enter the force, the weightiest requirement is high-school literacy. This roused the ire of one of Nicholas Alex’s respondents:

They stress vocabulary words, English grammar. I mean like adjectives and dangling participles. What bearing does this have on whether you are qualified or not? It shows you can speak English. I don’t think they want to test you. They want to say you have taken a test.

What bearing has it on police performance to know that “affable” is most nearly synonymous with 1) monotonous; 2) affected; 3) wealthy; 4) sociable; or 5) selfish? If departments want to reject applicants who do poorly on items like this, it is because achieving a court conviction can hinge on the original arrest report. (The effect is also to keep down the number of black and Hispanic police.) Every officer must expect to serve as a courtroom witness, where the war is one of words. A preliterate patrolman is an anachronism in modern jurisprudence: whatever his qualities on the street, he must be able to give testimony and fill out forms that will hold up on appeal. A study made a few years ago asked how far the examination for New York’s department predicted subsequent performance on the force. Did high scores correlate with a good record of arrests? Rapport with the community? Courage under fire? The answer was none of these. Only in one matter could a relationship be found: those scoring well at entry also scored well on later tests.5

Examinations for sergeant, lieutenant, and captain go beyond grammar and synonyms. Their multiple choice questions call for memorizing textbook information and hypothetical situations requiring action. By this time we should realize that most tests test your talent for test-taking. High scores usually go to those who can work out verbal and arithmetic puzzles, particularly under pressure, and in the case of the police, they must spot the differences among clichés such as the ones listed in the accompanying test. Whether this yields men and women who can effectively run a precinct is of course another matter. Promotion by tests is “fair” in that favoritism is presumably excluded. Even so, what began as a merit system has become an exercise in memorization.

Writing about the police always calls for much soul-searching. Even those who are highly critical of the police will point to acts of personal courage that occur in the line of duty. It is not easy to raise questions about people who take risks on your behalf. Criticism of the pay or pensions or malingering of the police should come only from those who can stand similar scrutiny. Thus it is hard to take issue with the claim that officers put their lives on the line, or with their wives when they are quoted as wondering if their husbands will be home for dinner.

“I have been to many police officer funerals—too many,” writes Pierce Brooks. Officer Down, Code Three was originally intended as a training manual, giving semifictional cases of officers losing their lives by ignoring telltale signs. Rejected suitors are especially dangerous, as are robbers fleeing from a bank. Families whose quarrels turn violent usually have a gun in the house. And you don’t relax when the sidewalks end. “Over 50 percent of all officers killed died in rural and suburban counties and cities with populations of less than 25,000.” The book is grim yet fascinating, and is selling well in a trade edition. What Brooks does not mention is that fatalities among policemen are relatively rare. In 1975, 185 officers were killed while on duty; 56 in accidents and 129 by acts of homicide. This works out to a ratio of about 35 per 100,000 policemen. Actuarial statistics indicate that miners, lumberjacks, and construction workers have higher rates of mortality than the police. And the rate for firemen is 108 per 100,000, three times that for patrolmen. As it happens, the frequency of death by homicide for all black men between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-four is six times the rate for police.

But numbers are obviously not the issue. Gunning down a patrolman can amount to a revolutionary act. The willingness of people to fire on an officer becomes a measure of insurrection in our midst. We expect even armed criminals to surrender when caught by the police. That is why legislatures seek to preserve the death penalty for this offense if for no other. Even those who speak of curing the causes of crime acknowledge that having the police present means more of us stay alive. However none of the books reviewed here is willing to assert that the police can do appreciably more than they are currently doing. One can favor having them ride one to a car, or live in the cities that employ them. One can hope that the residents of black slums, who suffer most from violent crime, would be safer if more of their police came from such places themselves. But that such reforms will make our streets safer is no more possible to show than the effectiveness of mathematical models or restoring capital punishment.

Answers to the Examination for Promotion to Police Lieutenant on p. 6.

1:D 2:B 3:A 4:E

This Issue

September 15, 1977