The world of police detectives
Robert Jackall, a professor of sociology and public affairs at Williams College, spent years in the early 1990s—when violent crime in New York was still at its all-time height—hanging out with homicide detectives, following them in their rounds, and essentially becoming a part of their team and their world. Street Stories: The World of Police Detectives (Harvard University Press, 2005) is the result, an absorbing, very well-written account of numerous homicide cases that Mr. Jackall heard about from detectives or was personally involved in as an on-scene observer. Reading his book, you get a feel for detectives’ work, which is unlike any other field of human endeavor: their absorption in the low-life universe of Manhattan’s criminals; the incredible plodding patience that is needed; the slow extraction of revelations from witnesses and suspects (and the detectives never know from whom the revelation is going to come or what it will consist of, but it does eventually come) that slowly leads to the identification of the murderer. There is also the deception that is part of the detective’s job, gaining the trust of witnesses and suspects so that they will be more forthcoming. To solve homicides, detectives must exercise some dishonesty and must go around some of the formal regulations under which they operate. Jackall emphasizes that there is no escape from this necessity. Detectives are men of action, not moral philosophers, yet every day of their lives they are functioning within a complex moral universe in which they are seeking the best possible outcome, while recognizing the compromises that are needed in order to get to that outcome. This is the reality of detectives’ work, but it is one that will not be found in any detectives’ manual.
Street Stories is written in an almost New Yorker-ish, superficially non-judgmental style, but, unlike The New Yorker, the author makes judgments on all kinds of matters. Though he avoids any explicit reference to the race of the suspects and murderers in the cases he recounts, it is implicitly understood (and Mr. Jackall has explicitly confirmed this to me) that all of them are black and Hispanic. He also says that notwithstanding his avoidance of racial descriptions, some internal reviewers at Harvard University Press felt the book was anti-minority because of its focus on homicides by nonwhites. Mr. Jackall won the argument by demonstrating to them that this was simply the fact, not something he had made up.
It is an injustice that this high-quality book did not get reviewed in mainstream publications.