Collars for Dollars

How the drug war sacrifices real policing for easy arrests.

When I was a police officer in Baltimore, one sergeant would sometimes motivate his troops in the middle of a shift change by joyfully shouting, “All right, you maggots! Let’s lock people up! They don’t pay you to stand around. I want production! I want lockups!” He said this while standing in front of a small sign he most likely authored: “Unlike the citizens of the Eastern District, you are required to work for your government check.”

In the police world, there are good arrests and better arrests, but there is no such thing as a bad arrest. In recent years, measures of “productivity” have achieved an almost totemic significance. And because they are so easy to count, arrests have come to outweigh more important but harder-to-quantify variables such as crimes prevented, fights mitigated, or public fears assuaged.

There’s an argument that putting pressure on rank-and-file officers to make lots of arrests is a good thing. After all, we pay police to arrest criminals. But there’s a difference between quantity and quality. Quantity is easy to influence, and the rank and file can easily increase their output of discretionary arrests for minor offenses like loitering, disorderly conduct, and possession of marijuana. They are also influenced by what is known in New York as “collars for dollars”: Arrest numbers are influenced by the incentive of overtime pay for finishing up paperwork and appearing in court.

Police would love to arrest only “real” criminals, but that isn’t easy. It’s difficult to find a good criminal. There’s never a felon around when you need one. Fishing for low-level drug arrests is a far easier way to generate overtime.

When I worked in Baltimore, officers would pull up on a drug corner and stop the slowest addict walking away. While conducting a perfectly legal “Terry Frisk”—a cursory search nominally conducted for officer safety—cops would feel some drugs in a pocket. That easy arrest and lockup likely meant two hours of overtime pay.

In some cities, like New York, it’s trickier. Overtime for court testimony is harder to get, and the state’s highest court has ruled—precisely to prevent the Baltimore-style approach—that feeling drugs during a Terry Frisk does not allow an officer to search that pocket and remove those drugs. The court reasoned that the drugs are not a threat to the officer’s safety, and safety is the only justification for these sorts of frisks.

In New York state, small-scale possession of marijuana is virtually decriminalized. It’s not even an arrestable offense. But police in need of overtime are nothing if not wily. So a group of officers might approach a man in a high-crime neighborhood and, in no uncertain terms, “ask” him to empty his pockets. Fearful, resigned, or simply taking the path of least resistance, the suspect might do so, and in the process he might reveal a small “dime bag” of weed. While possessing that amount of marijuana is not an arrestable offense, it becomes one as soon as the drug is placed in “public view.”

Supporters sometimes say these small-scale drug arrests are part of a “broken windows” approach to preventing crime. This tactic comes from an influential 1982 Atlantic magazine article by George Kelling and James Q. Wilson that combined the 19th century police theories of Robert Peel with the 20th century urban philosophy of Jane Jacobs. The idea is that if you take care of the little things—disorder, quality-of-life issues, and public fear—then the big things like robbery and murder will take care of themselves.

Since Police Commissioner William Bratton implemented a broken windows policing strategy in the early 1990s, homicides in New York dropped more than 80 percent. But the crime didn’t drop because police were cracking down on drug users; overall, illegal drug use is as high as ever. When the murder rate was falling fastest in the 1990s, police never arrested more than a few thousand people per year for public-view marijuana. Only after the crime drop slowed did police turn to small-scale drug arrests to meet their “productivity goals.” It’s as if real criminals became too difficult to find, and the addiction to overtime pay remained strong as ever.

Last year in New York City, 50,300 people—mostly young black and Hispanic men—were arrested solely for misdemeanor “public-view” possession of marijuana. It’s true that some may have been up to no good. And some might have been walking down the street proudly smoking a spliff in front of the police. But nobody really believes this accounts for most of those 50,300 lockups. Many were people just going about their business, intending to smoke later, in private, in the very manner the law was intended to decriminalize.

“What is it with the drugs?” a man once asked me while I was policing a 7-11 for coffee, “When there’s shootin’ or fightin’, you don’t seem to care! But when there’s drugs, you come right away.” It’s a fair question to ask. Why do we do it? What do we gain? Especially when we know drug arrests are expensive and turn a lot of otherwise law-abiding citizens into cop-hating criminals?

The drug war, because it can’t be won, encourages outward signs of police effectiveness at the expense of good old-fashioned policing. Hard-working cops, especially those who ask for little more than a middle-class income in return for the dangerous work they do, turn to drug arrests to make ends meet. The Baltimore sergeant was right: Police officers do need to work for their government check. It’s a shame “collars for dollars” has become the easiest way to do it. 

Peter Moskos (moskos@gmail.com), a former Baltimore police officer, is an assistant professor of law and political science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, The City University of New York's Doctoral Program in Sociology, and LaGuardia Community College's Department of Social Science. He is the author of In Defense of Flogging (2011) and Cop in the Hood: My Year Policing Baltimore's Eastern District (2008).

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  • Almanian||

    I refuse to read this and have my day ruined.

    If that makes me willfully ignorant, well, then let me be among the willfully ignorant today.

    *anti-Balko shields OFF*

  • David E. Gallaher/Ruthless||

    General Westmoreland's insistence on "body count" won the Vietnam War, didn't it?

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Hard-working cops, especially those who ask for little more than a middle-class income in return for the dangerous work they do, turn to drug arrests to make ends meet.

    This lets off the hook those law enforcement officers who elect to target certain citizens for arrest for the sole aim of pocketing more tax dollars in OT. They should offer a little more good work to society if they want that income.

  • ||

    This started with DUI arrests. No one ever bothered to ask cops if all those DUI arrests actually reduced traffic fatalities.

    I blame the media for this. The only reason that number of arrests makes for good evaluation is because it makes for good publicity. And the only reason it makes for good publicity is the media doesn't bother to do any leg work to see if the arrests are accomplishing anything.

  • Appalachian Australian||

    There's quite a bit of blame to be laid with MADD, whose organisational mission is pretty much to corrupt every police department in America.

    They're currently working on a 0.00 zero-tolerance law and promoting some research that shows 0.01 results in impairment.

    (Disclaimer: I don't drink and drive with a 0.01.)

  • sarcasmic||

    MADD won't stop until it is illegal to drink. Period.

  • ||

    I don't drink, ever. No recreational drugs of any kind, unless I'm ill or injured and they're designed to treat or cure. I usually don't even take a full dose of OTC painkillers because usually one advil is enough to clear up whatever aches I have. I even completely quit drinking soda because I didn't like being addicted to caffeine. I don't need any of it to have fun, and I have reasons I don't want to use or abuse substances: My father died younger than he should have, primarily because he drank - a lot. I had a cousin killed in a head-on by a drunk driver who was speeding on the wrong side of the road. Other reasons I don't care to go into.

    I say all that to let you know that I carry no water for the vast majority of folks who indulge/imbibe/inhale. When people I care about throw away important parts of their lives because of drugs, it angers me a lot. I've got no personal stake or even interest in defending anyone's right to get drunk or high.

    But I do have a personal stake in keeping nannies out of all of our lives. I want to be able to swim without a life vest on. I want to be able to bike without a helmet (though I might well choose to wear one). I want to be able to rappel into a cave, or climb a sheer bluff. I don't want to be forced to wear a life vest in my kayak. I want to be able to ride in the back of a pickup truck. Some of these freedoms have already suffered setbacks.

    MADD has gone too far, and this is not a new development. The current BAC limit is too low. How do I know? Because the nannies say that talking on a cell phone can be 'as impairing' as driving with a BAC at the current limit. Impairing yourself with alcohol 'as much as' one impairs themselves by talking on the cell phone? That's 'not impaired' in my book. That's in the noise driving ability across the spectrum of drivers. Certainly not something that should be legislated.

    So MADD has gone too far. As someone who doesn't partake and thinks that doing so is stupid and dangerous, I should be their natural ally, but they've gone so far that they've managed to convinced even me that they're out of line. Despite that, they make progress, and freedom falls away. How can they be stopped?

  • ||

    2nd sentence got a little mangled in edit: scratch 'recreational', since I added that bit at the end.

  • ||

    lol, never really thought about it liek that before. Makes sense dude.

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  • PIRS||

    Amazing! Could you please enlighten us more with your deep insights on the topic at hand?

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  • ||

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  • Old Mexican||

    Last year in New York City, 50,300 people — mostly young black and Hispanic men — were arrested solely for misdemeanor "public-view" possession of marijuana.


    Leaving aside the social disruption that locking up 50 thousand people represents, what possible benefit could come from using scarce and very precious resources for such pitiful gains? What possible reward comes from locking up non-violent and otherwise productive individuals, if the purpose of a police force is to arrest violent criminals?

  • Walter||

    Public Terror

  • Old Mexican||

    It's as if real criminals became too difficult to find, and the addiction to overtime pay remained strong as ever.


    So much for "public servants." The police are acting like they were part of a mercenary force.

  • ||

    Thats because they ARE a mercenary force. They are deployed to generate revenue.

    From the public via absurd traffic violations and asset forfeiture.

    From the Feds though higher arrest numbers to justify deploying even MORE cops and paying the chiefs bigger salaries for their own increased workload.

  • Matrix||

    So a group of officers might approach a man in a high-crime neighborhood and, in no uncertain terms, “ask” him to empty his pockets. Fearful, resigned, or simply taking the path of least resistance, the suspect might do so, and in the process he might reveal a small “dime bag” of weed. While possessing that amount of marijuana is not an arrestable offense, it becomes one as soon as the drug is placed in “public view.”

    How is this NOT entrapment?

  • sarcasmic||

    If a man in a black uniform with a gun politely asks you to do something, you can legally refuse.

    So the emptying of the pockets is completely voluntary.

    In fact, the person may have emptied their pockets right there even if a man with a gun hadn't politely asked him to. He is on drugs, so who knows what he would have done?

  • ||

    I looked up "entrapment" in the Newspeak dictionary and that word doesn't exist.

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    He is on drugs, so who knows what he would have done

  • Old Bull Lee||

    "They want dope on the table."

  • ||

    The worst part is that most americans hold these people in "reverence", its just demonstrates how naive people are, and we all pay the price.Now that they have busted up most o the teachers unions the cops should be next !!

  • ||

    If you think the teacher's unions are putting up a fight over their inflated salaries and benefits, just wait till you see what the men with badges and guns will do.

  • ||

    The town where my aunt lives is awesome -- it's very small, but the cops there are pretty cool; they've never even commented on my gun (in open view when I drive and carry it, or in an open-carry holster), and they actually try to avoid giving tickets -- I've been let off the hook thrice there, by different cops. And they actually talk to you like you're a human being, WITHOUT being condescending. Fucking unbelievable. Why aren't all cops like that?

  • ||

    Cops in small towns tend to treat locals and their kin pretty well.
    Would they treat someone differently who has no ties to their little burg?

  • John Rambo||

    Probably.

  • ||

    I see what you did there.

  • ||

    Probably not. Why? Because small town, or small jurisdiction cops often have the idea that they are paid by the people they protect to do exactly that. Why cut a stranger from out of town a break when it makes much more sense to do that for the people who pay your salary and actually know who you are? I'm not being condescending because I am exactly like this. I'm paid to protect the people in my small jurisdiction (which is inside a much larger city jurisdiction). I'm not looking to get them in trouble, I'm trying to keep trouble from getting to them.

  • ||

    They don't know I've even got relatives there -- and it isn't quite small enough for the "everybody knows everybody" standard.

  • ||

    Because it's called "community policing" with a focus on crime PREVENTION, not after the fact arrest. This requires skills all police officers should strive to develop; observation, knowledge of human behavior analysis, interpersonal communications skills and analysis of collected data to discover patterns that may lead to criminal behavior. In so doing, the greater community is well served; also the concept works amazingly well. It also helps to understand that the badge is not a shield to protect you from abuse of a person's Constitutional rights, but rather a duty to protect them.

    Unfortunatley, some of the above gets lost in the trend toward a militaristic model of policing; which, by the way, is much easier to practice and feeds the ego of practioners in a gratifying way as well as gives the citizen fascist a real warm and fuzzy regarding their police force. Until the citizen fascist runs afoul of the militaristic police officer; that ususally leads to a quick change of opinion.

  • goober1223||

    Burrell was the worst chief/commissioner I could have ever imagined. All he knew was politics, and I was never convinced that he even knew that well. Maybe politics are just too effed up to understand...

  • ||

    One of the best tools in the fight against drug prohibition is an officer who has changed his view. God bless LEAP.

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  • Nightscoft Squire Maldunne||

    If you are in a poor area with lots of blacks and hispanics and are a waspy white in a nice car the police don't really bother you either.

  • ||

    Corrupticut just decriminalized Pot-I stated on a local forum that anyone imprisoned for something to do with that substance should be released.

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    There’s an argument that putting pressure on rank-and-file officers to make lots of arrests is a good thing. After all, we pay police to arrest criminals. But there’s a difference between quantity and quality. Quantity is easy to influence, and the rank and file can easily increase their output of discretionary arrests for minor offenses like loitering, disorderly conduct, and possession of marijuana. They are also influenced by what is known in New York as “collars for dollars”: http://www.toairmax.com/air-max-bw-homme-c-10.html Arrest numbers are influenced by the incentive of overtime pay for finishing up paperwork and appearing in court.

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