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Tangled Up in Blue: Policing the American City
By Rosa Brooks
“As a reserve police officer in Washington, DC, I had seen first-hand the pressure on police officers to be all things to all people, playing multiple and often contradictory roles. American society asks police officers to use violence when needed to enforce the law, but we also ask them to serve as mediators, protectors, social workers, mentors, and medics. But it’s very difficult to play any one of these roles well – and it’s almost impossible to be good at them all”. -Rosa Brooks
In her forties, with two children, a spouse, a dog, a mortgage, and a full-time job as a tenured law professor at Georgetown University, Rosa Brooks decided to become a cop. A liberal academic and journalist with an enduring interest in law’s troubled relationship with violence, Brooks wanted the kind of insider experience that would help her understand how police officers make sense of their world and whether that world can be changed. In 2015, against the advice of everyone she knew, she applied to become a sworn, armed reserve police officer with the Washington DC, Metropolitan Police Department.
Then as now, police violence was constantly in the news. The Black Lives Matter movement was gaining momentum, protests wracked America’s cities, and each day brought more stories of cruel, corrupt cops, police violence, and the racial disparities that mar our criminal justice system. Lines were being drawn, and people were taking sides. But as Brooks made her way through the police academy and began work as a patrol officer in the poorest, most crime-ridden neighborhoods of the nation’s capital, she found a reality far more complex than the headlines suggested.
“Before we graduated (from the Police Academy), I was someone with a scholarly interest in how other people justified their willingness to use violence. Now I was someone who had to justify my own willingness to do so. I didn’t plan to use violence. But pinning on that badge and going on patrol meant that I was willing to accept it as a potential option, even a potential duty. Was that who I was?”- Rosa Brooks
In Tangled Up in Blue, Brooks recounts her experiences inside the usually closed world of policing. From street shootings and domestic violence calls to the behind-the-scenes police work during Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential inauguration, Brooks presents a revelatory account of what it’s like inside the “blue wall of silence.” She realizes why cops walk and stand as they do – it’s the thirty pounds of equipment they have on that force their arms out and their legs apart; she experiences why there are thousands of books and movies about detectives but not many about patrol officers – there is no plot line in patrol since every patrol starts with a squad card, a full tank of gas and a blank run sheet; and she finds that the explosion of over-criminalization and over-incarceration happening in the US primarily targets the poorest and darkest Americans. Here you will read about a few bad cops but primarily you will see that most officers take their role as public servants seriously. The widely published accounts of police violence and abuse often lead us to forget that the vast majority of police spend the vast majority of their time helping people who ask for their help.
“It’s so rare for such a smart, thoughtful person to put on a police uniform, patrol American’s streets, and relate what it feels like with insight and authenticity. Getting American policing right requires understanding how it’s experienced, and Rosa Brooks brings readers as close as they can get without taking the oath themselves.” – Brandon Del Pozo, chief of police (ret.), Burlington, Vermont and former New York City police officer.
Brooks has delivered an urgent call for new laws and institutions; and argues that in a nation increasingly divided by race, class, ethnicity, geography, and ideology, a truly transformative approach to policing requires us to move beyond sound bites, slogans, and stereotypes. An explosive and groundbreaking investigation, Tangled Up in Blue complicates matters rather than simplifies them, and gives pause both to those who think police can do no wrong – and those who think they can do no right. This is a brilliant, important, timely book and a gobble-up read.
Issuing from her experiences in the police academy, Brooks wrote a proposal for a fellowship program designed to encourage young officers to confront what she thought of as “the hard questions.” The Police for Tomorrow initiative that she co-created in cooperation with the Metropolitan Police Department and Georgetown University has become a model program for other city police departments around the country.
Rosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and founder of Georgetown’s Innovative Policing Program. From 2016 to 2020, she served as a reserve police officer with the Washington, DC, Metropolitan Police Department. She has worked previously at the Defense Department, the State Department, and for several international human rights organizations. Her articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and The Wall Street Journal. Her most recent book, How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything, was a New York Times Notable Book of 2016. It was named one of the five best books of the year by the Council on Foreign Relations.