The Snakehead 

Local Police Really Do Get Annoyed When the Feds Show Up
New books dissected over email.
July 23 2009 6:50 AM

The Snakehead 

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Patrick,

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I think a fitting place to end our exchange is by discussing law enforcement. I won't give away the details, but The Snakehead opens with a riveting minute-by-minute chronicle of a sea rescue, in which New York City's emergency personnel take the lead when a smuggling ship, and its human cargo, runs aground off the coast of the city. From that point on, as the investigation into the disaster gets underway, the reader is given a rare peek behind the curtain of policing. You show in great detail the enormous challenge of fighting a practice like human smuggling, which cuts across borders and involves authorities working in different social, political, and linguistic contexts.

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As a fieldworker in Chicago, I was privy to a very small slice of the world of street cops. It forever changed my view of how policing functions in a large city. I grew up in the suburbs, where the local officer was largely out of view, so going in, my understanding of Chicago was based largely on the media and popular entertainment: Simply put, I believed that residents and cops were from two separate worlds and were forever enemies. But when I arrived in the Southside Chicago ghettos, I immediately saw that relationships were more complicated—as cooperative as they were hostile. I also learned that the urban police officer had one of the most dangerous jobs in America: The local criminals were often better armed and more willing to use deadly force.

The officers I spoke with made several statements that surprised me. First, they were adamant that inner-city police cannot prevent crime. This was an unachievable task, so instead, they focused on ensuring that criminal acts didn't veer out of control. For example, they stopped youth fights before they turned into gang drive-by shootings; they held angry husbands in jail for brief periods to prevent escalated spousal abuse; they separated drug dealers from rival factions to different areas of a park, accepting illegal activity in order to prevent violence. In a few instances, they did try to eradicate gangs, prevent abuse, and stop drug selling in public places. But frankly, not often.

Chicago police also were quick to voice their displeasure with outsiders—namely, federal law-enforcement agencies. There were the expected "turf battles" wherein local and federal officials tried to claim authority over an investigation. But as important, the local cops felt that the arrival of the FBI, ATF, and other federal bodies actually increased the likelihood of local violence. The out-of-towners had no connection to residents, they had no confidential informants, they could not understand that, on occasion, you wanted the local gangs to remain in place because "the devil you know is always better than …" So, when the feds arrived, the relationships that beat cops had forged were disrupted, resident trust of police was lowered, and the job of local law enforcement was made more difficult. At least according to the Chicago police—I'm sure the federal agencies had their own equally justifiable perspective.

The Snakehead riveted me because, throughout the book, you managed to lay out the terrain of modern law enforcement in great detail. We learn about the challenges of local cops in Chinatown who must deal with federal agents who travel thousands of miles to find a perpetrator. And about the challenges American officials face when trying to persuade their counterparts around the world to cooperate with an investigation. Global policing seems to be an unworkable proposition, yet you show how capture, arrest, and indictment do occur on occasion.

What surprised you about law enforcement, both in the context of a tightly knit neighborhood like New York's Chinatown, as well as in a larger, international context? Did you have to change any of your beliefs or stereotypes of police (or criminals!) along the way? And when you walk along city streets, do you now find yourself noticing aspects of social behavior that once you ignored or had no reason to observe?

Thanks for a spirited set of exchanges. I'm sure readers will enjoy The Snakehead as much as I have.

Sudhir

Sudhir Venkatesh is a sociology professor at Columbia University and author of Gang Leader for a Day.

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