Dan Young's Book Reviews

Connie Fletcher
What Cops Know
1990, Simon & Schuster. ISBN: 0671750402

The full title of Fletcher's book is What Cops Know: Today's Police Tell the Inside Story of Their Work on America's Streets. It consists of verbatim excerpts of interviews with police officers from various units of the Chicago PD: beat patrol, sex crimes, narcotics, property crimes, and organized crime. Fletcher's second book, Pure Cop, interviews officers from CPD's bomb squad, arson unit, HRT, prostitution, and major accidents units.

Within each unit, she interviews at least ten officers, packing her chapters full of war stories, observations, advice, and profiles of different kinds of crimes. Names have been withheld in favor of biographical paragraphs at the end of the chapter--a convention that almost works in anonymizing the interviews. She presents herself as a clear window through which police can tell their stories, and they do, talking to Fletcher in an informal, conversational tone--the same voice you'd imagine they'd use when showing a new officer around the precinct, showing them the ropes. Cops love to tell cop stories.

The book's big draw, though, are the crimes. Cops often perceive bourgeois citizens as sheltered, and when given the chance will regale them with stories of atrocities and mayhem. Most of the space in the book is given over to either stories of crimes or cop's profiles of criminals, and the result is a consistently grim picture of inner-city violence. The chapter on sex crimes (rape and pedophilia) is both horrifying and well-informed. It may leave you feeling like everyone you know ought to be carrying a gun. The lack of journalistic perspective comes to be a felt absence as the crimes become more grim and officers' perspectives become more hostile and authoritarian. Since there is no information provided on how often these things happen (the story is simply told, like you'd see it on the news, but as graphically and sensationalistically as possible), there is no sense of how pervasive the crimes are. From the officers' perspectives, these kinds of things are happening all the time, indiscriminately. Society is defined in terms of the crimes it commits. It's difficult not to feel more at risk having read this book than not.

What little journalistic commentary there is, though, is aimed toward heroizing the cops, even when documenting civil rights abuses by officers. The book leaves me wishing for a little more acknowledgement that issues of authority are more complex than her interview subjects tend to admit. You can certainly see where the impetus for broader powers of surveillance, property siezures, no-knock warrants, field interrogations, curfews, and gang intelligence come from. Law enforcement has only one tool, and in this book it is vindicated no matter what the context.

A book which documents some of the same aspects of police sociology while being more concerned with civil rights is LAPD Detective Mike Rothmiller's L.A. Secret Police. It's a tabloid exposé, in the same genre as Fletcher's books, but taking an opposite angle. It's also interesting to read Fletcher's more recent book, Breaking and Entering, on the rampant institutional sexism female officers face on the job.

Bottom line: What Cops Know is absorbing reading. Each little vignette is powerful, organized into small sound-bites, avoiding taxing the attention span of any reader. This is the book I would recommend to any fiction writer looking to get the "institutional voice" of cops. And I'd recommend it to anyone looking to expand their understanding of what crime is, how and why it is committed. This is not the book I would recommend to anyone considering a career in law enforcement--the picture it paints is far too one-sided.

Lt. Col. Dave Grossman
On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society
1995, Little Brown & Company. ISBN: 0316330000

On Killing is an ambitious interdisciplinary look at the ways in which the military's facilitation of soldiers' killing in war has changed over this century, and what the results have been. Grossman starts with the premise that the fundamental problem facing wartime infantry commanders is that soldiers are unenthusiastic about their job--they are reluctant to fire on their fellow man. He documents this reluctance to fire from the Civil War forward, and uses that research to build a psychological model of military killing--identifying some of the the social, personal, situational, and training structures that distinguish firers from non-firers. He then uses this model to analyze the differences between military training for Vietnam (which had a very high firing rate), and previous actions like WWII (in which many infantrymen withheld fire, or fired ineffectively, rather than kill the enemy). It ends with a brief look at similar "training structures" in modern media and argues that they are largely responsible for an increased predisposition to violence in the American population.

The book also spends time analyzing the factors that make it possible for soldiers to reenter society after war, and notes how many of these factors were absent in Vietnam, with a concomitantly high incidence of post-war psychological problems. There were fewer cases of psychological disability during action in Vietnam than in WWII, but a much greater incidence of psychological disability after the war. Grossman spends a whole chapter analyzing the aftermath of wars, pointing out how differences in the way society represses, accepts, or denies war will have a tremendous effect on how well soldiers are able to regain psychological health after coming home.

Though Grossman's book is a great read, it is not a study, and suffers from lack of statistical research. The anecdotal evidence is compelling, but I am wary of his use of "in most cases," and "usually" with no corroborating context. The connections between military training to kill and the media's graphic escalation of violence are thought-provoking, but unfortunately, the conclusion, which you'd hope would be the most meticulously researched portion of the book, turns out to be the most oversimplified and fact-free. I am personally not convinced that the psychological profiles of most American aggravated assaults or murders fit his impulsive-crime framework (videogames and media role models lower inhibitions toward violence). He doesn't even outline a study for determining whether the correlations he suggests actually exist among the criminal population. Much more work would need to be done to see if these theses will bear weight.

The most valuable aspect of the book for me was Grossman's presentation of war as a ritualistic social function, focused not on killing for the sake of killing, but on symbolic domination and intimidation leading to surrender. This is also his model for interpersonal violent conflicts--the violence and aggressive ritualism of war is part and parcel of society. His basic question is a fascinating one: what are the factors that turn what ninety years ago might have been a common fistfight into the all-out, lethal confrontations observed today? What turns intent to conquer into intent to murder? This book might not have all the answers, but it does a great job of getting into the questions, and much of the information (on non-firers, on atrocities, on surrenders that result in murders) is invaluable. This book is well worth reading.

Other recommended reading from Dan Young's bookshelf: M. Scott Peck People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil (section on the Mai Lai massacres); Peter Maass, Love Thy Neighbor, on murder and atrocity during the Bosnian war; and Robert Leonhard, The Art of Maneuver: Maneuver Warfare Theory and AirLand Battle, on the strategic difference between killing and defeating an enemy.

Other reviews: Amazon.com.

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Last modified August 10, 1997