7 Books to Understand Our Shaky Relationship With Law Enforcement

Detail from cover of From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime

The police have us surrounded. This is literally accurate in that the country has 1.1-million full-time law enforcement officers, but also metaphorically true in that popular culture is permanently awash in cops. It’s probably best to come out with our hands up, holding a book explaining the state of law enforcement in 21st-century America.

Twenty years after O.J. Simpson’s trial, two of the most talked-about television shows are the fictionalized “The People v. O.J. Simpson” and the documentary “O.J.: Made in America,” in which the LAPD is put on trial for the decades of systemic corruption that allowed a celebrity murderer to walk. Both of these shows came on the heels of last year’s Oscar-nominated “Straight Outta’ Compton, which brought N.W.A.’s 1988 anti-cop anthem “F**k tha Police” to a theater near you. As Ice Cube told Buzzfeed last year, “Nothing has changed with their behavior with our community. That’s why it’s so poignant, like the song was written yesterday.”

The connection between a nearly thirty-year-old rap album and what’s taken place in Ferguson, Baltimore, Chicago, Staten Island, and countless other communities is readily apparent, but it doesn’t mean things haven’t changed since the lows of the crack cocaine era. In both left and right wing circles, there is a movement afoot to finally reduce prison sentences for nonviolent offenders, and although there is undoubtedly an ugly racial component to the logic, it appears the opioid epidemic, which mostly affects young white men, is being treated as a health crisis and not a national call for more jail time. In small ways, rehab is taking the place of private prisons, which are coming under more scrutiny as — surprise, surprise — the profit motive hasn’t been great for inmates. The corruption and ineptitude of privatization is a main storyline in Season 4 of Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black.”

Policing is omnipresent, but the Thin Blue Line and their jacked-up swords are no match for the mighty pen or keyboard. To understand where America stands right now, look no further than the written word. There are countless avenues to explore: poverty, drugs, racism, brutality, corruption, history, and the daily grind of “the job,” as being a police officer can go from tedious to dangerous in a moment’s notice.

The New Jim CrowThe New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

The sad truth is, few nonfiction books ever leave their mark — especially those in the realm of social justice advocacy. This is not the case for The New Jim Crow, which is considered “the bible of the Black Lives Movement,” according to Phillip Atiba Goff, 38, president of the Center for Policing Equity and Franklin A. Thomas Professor of Policing Equity at John Jay College.

Alexander takes a long look at the War on Drugs and how it’s become a “racial caste system,” in which more African-American men are under correctional control than were enslaved a decade before the Civil War started. The research is thorough and impeccable and the results devastating. Start here.

Rise of the Warrior CopRise of the Warrior Cop by Radley Balko

At Ferguson, we saw police roll up on protesters in armored trucks with battlefield-ready weaponry suited for soldiers in the Iraq War. Which is where it may have come from, as part of a Defense Department program that moved military equipment to local and state agencies. Balko’s Rise of the Warrior Cop tracks the rise of the police-industrial-complex from the introduction of SWAT teams following the Watts riots through the “get tough on crime” era, the failed War on Drugs, and onto the post-9/11 surveillance state. Police forces became more like military troops with the hardware and firepower to win the battles, running operations where civil liberties go to die. Except the “enemies” are our fellow citizens who happen to be both minorities and overwhelming poor.

It’s an unsettling book on many levels because, like any professional in any industry, police are going to use whatever effective tools they’re given. Should the efficacy of rousting a couple of drunks fighting in the street come down to a “mine resistant ambush protected” tank (MRAP)? That’s what happened in small-town Indiana.

Where there is more firepower, there will be more bodies. These are weapons of war. Amazingly, the government doesn’t even track the number of people killed by cops, so there are even discrepancies among the death count. In a 2013 Wall Street Journal essay, Balko recounts multiple killings of innocent people by police, including an 11-year-old boy and a 92-year-old woman.

From the War on Poverty to the War on CrimeFrom the War on Poverty to the War on Crime by Elizabeth Hinton

Harvard historian Elizabeth Hinton’s new book comes highly recommended from fellow professor Goff: “From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime is already winning awards and is the best (only?) attempt to paint a national picture of how we ended up here,” says Goff. “It’s lacking in the specifics of policing culture and some of the more technical aspects, but…you have to read it.” Hinton steps back further than Michelle Alexander does in The New Jim Crow, laying much of the blame for mass incarceration on the liberal lion Lyndon Johnson.

His Great Society included the Law Enforcement Assistance Act, which put the federal government on local levels, which meant a lot more equipment to surveil young black men. LBJ’s War on Crime was based on faulty academic research steeped in baseless assumptions about African-American pathology. (This kind of thing is a constant: during the 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton has been forced to reckon with her own similar rhetoric over the 1995 “superpredator” myth, which also led to more black youths behind bars.) Hinton’s book even reveals that Jimmy Carter, the peanut farmer of peace, turned low-income housing projects into wards of the police state. The end result? More cops with big guns around young black men. You may sense a pattern here.

Cop in the HoodCop in the Hood by Peter Moskos

As with most political and social issues, American confidence in the nation’s police is basically split down the middle. If nothing else, Cop in the Hood gives the sense that a lot of police officers are conflicted too, as they’re caught up in a numbers game that trumps basic humanity. As a graduate sociology student in 1999, Moskos took his research from the tony halls of Harvard to the streets of Baltimore — the same neighborhood patrolled in David Simon’s “The Wire”  — and Goff calls it a “pretty spot on account of what it’s like to be one of those officers.”

Maintaining the status quo is often all police are expected to do. Moskos found poverty and misery, and the everyday futile effort of “clearing the corners” of young drug dealers who would inevitably be back the next night, if not the next hour. It’s a ground-level view of police work, and its conclusion, like the conclusion of so many modern books on law enforcement, is that the War on Drugs is a failure.


For additional reading, I suggest:

  • Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside, an amazing work that shows how over-policing drugs while under-policing murders in disadvantaged communities does irreparable harm
  • Alice Goffman’s controversial ethnography On the Run, which details what it’s like for those under constant police watch
  • And Matthew Desmond’s Evicted, which is an exceptional look at a root cause of poverty and its inevitable fallout.