Rosa Brooks was a fortysomething Georgetown Law School professor in 2015 when she applied to join the reserves of the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department. Being “white, female, over-educated, brought up on the political left,” as she puts it, she did not fit the stereotype of a cop (even a part-time volunteer one). But her new book Tangled Up in Blue: Policing the American City sets out to bust exactly that stereotype.
Documenting the five years she spent with the MPD — one of the law enforcement branches deployed at the Capitol on January 6 — the book challenges the “us versus them” rhetoric Brooks heard so often in her academic circles, including from her mother, journalist, and activist Barbara Ehrenreich. She wanted an insider’s view of policing, to see clearly the structures, pressures, and attitudes that led America to become one of the most overpoliced countries in the world, especially in communities of color.
GEN caught up with Brooks to talk about how cops are trained to be defensive, whether police should have more autonomy to make decisions, and what she wishes her academic counterparts would see about the realities of policing.
GEN: Many people associate police with the use of force, often violent — but what is the reality of day-to-day policing?
Brooks: They’re intervening in family disputes, helping people who’ve been mugged, responding to burglary reports, to reports of an abandoned car, etc. Most of that involves paperwork, listening to people. Or trying to refer people to other city services.
Almost all police officers, almost all the time, are not being violent or abusive or even making all that many arrests. Yet the small percentage of police officers who are behaving in a hostile, disrespectful, bullying fashion can just have an incredibly outsized and devastating impact on community trust and well-being.
During training, police internalize the idea that they will be put in danger. What are the implications?
They’re acculturated to the belief that everybody could potentially kill you at any moment. There’s a level at which that’s true. When you look at the deaths of law enforcement officers, many do arise out of minor interactions — a traffic stop, a domestic violence call. But even though any situation could go bad, most don’t. One in 1,000 people may be reaching for a weapon, but the vast majority of people who reach into their pocket are reaching for a wallet or a phone or a tissue. If you err on the side of thinking every reach into a pocket is a weapon, you’re going to end up drawing a weapon and shooting. That is exactly what happens in this country.
What that does is transfer the costs of the mistakes onto the general population and away from officers. There’s a possibility of error in both directions. If the person is reaching for a weapon, the police officer could get killed. If the police officer makes a mistake, the innocent subject gets killed. As a society, who do we want to bear the risks of these mistakes? Regular people or trained, armed officers? I think it should be trained, armed officers.
Officers always overestimate how many police are killed each year — sometimes by 10 times or so. They assume the most dangerous job is a cop. But being a roofer or a logger is more dangerous. The job where you’re most likely to be a homicide victim is a taxi or Uber driver. But we don’t arm all taxi drivers.
You write that “careful, lawful policing can end up compounding devastating social inequalities.” How so?
Looking at the protests against policing in the last year or so, the simplistic version is “the police are doing bad things.” But police do what they’re told. They enforce laws that they don’t make in a social context that they didn’t create and can’t do much to change. Even when really horrific things happen — police shootings resulting in the deaths of innocent people — it’s so rare that police are either prosecuted or convicted because the legal framework, both constitutionally and locally, is both exceptionally permissive of police violence, and police can often demonstrate that they were doing exactly what they have been trained and told to do.
What happened with the Breonna Taylor case [and other high-profile cases] is that most of those cops didn’t violate the rules. It’s just that the rules are horrific. If you want to change the horrific results, then you need to change what they’re trained and told to do — which means changing both organizational culture and training but also the legal framework.
Should police officers be given more autonomy to make decisions?
The guidelines need to be changed. You need to do several things simultaneously. One is to make sure that the guidelines and the law are good. And make sure you’re recruiting the right people and giving them the training to make the right decisions. Discretion used wisely and carefully is a good thing. Discretion used badly can be carte blanche for people to commit abuses and for bias to creep in.
In D.C., I hear all the time, “they tell us to use discretion, but no one ever got in trouble for making a lawful arrest.” Whereas you might get in trouble for not making an arrest. If you don’t make it, and that person murders someone the next day, you got the department in hot water.
We’ve been urging the department to make a policy about the use of discretion and document it. So if you choose not to make an arrest, you document the reasons. “The person had no prior offenses. Was cooperative. Was apologetic,” etc. To combine discretion with accountability and training. Discretion should not mean that there’s no accountability.
You’ve said you don’t feel good about the arrests you’ve made. Why?
Some had to be made. We arrested a drunk driver with open containers of alcohol, where he was posing an immediate risk to other people. A domestic violence arrest where the abusive man was shrieking threats to everybody. But arresting a woman who had shoplifted food or arresting a woman who had slapped her sister in a dispute about the laundry … it’s just almost impossible to think that those arrests made things better for anyone at all. As opposed to making things worse for everybody.
What is “overpolicing,” and is it a problem?
It’s a complicated issue. When people talk about it, sometimes they mean that police are a visible and overly heavy-handed presence, particularly in low-income communities of color. That creates an intimidating atmosphere. The other thing is overly draconian policing and arrests for trivial offenses. Young African American men feel like they are treated like criminals unless they prove otherwise. It’s offensive. You don’t see cops walking around in white neighborhoods asking businessmen to lift up their shirts to see if they have a gun. Even though Black people were stopped disproportionally in New York [during its stop-and-frisk days, which were judged unconstitutional in 2013], they were less likely to be found with guns than whites. So it’s not just policing itself but discriminatory policing — uneven.
The thing that makes it complicated is that communities are not homogeneous any more than police departments are, and for everyone in a low-income community of color who says “get the police out of my neighborhood,” you also have someone who wants the police around because there’s high crime. People want better and different policing that feels protective of communities rather than policing that’s focused on cruising around and telling teenage boys to lift their waistband, which can only alienate and distress people.
You describe yourself as straddling two worlds: academic and police. What do you wish your academic circles would understand about the realities of policing?
Before I did this, I worked on really horrific abuses — civil wars and genocides and torture. One thing that everyone should remind themselves of is that any time you find yourself saying “those other people are terrible,” actually, everything we know about history and human psychology tells us that almost all people, in certain circumstances, would do horrifically awful things. And almost all people would do incredibly altruistic things.
There are some bad people and good people who resist situational pressures, but 95% of humans will respond to situational pressures. If you don’t like what police do, you need to recognize that they’re doing what we as a society have told them to do. We have created a world with certain training structures, funding, and the outcomes we have are the inevitable product of the legal and budgetary environment we have created.
We must recognize that police officers are no better or worse than anybody else. They’re ordinary people trying to do their job. And most people who commit crimes are no better or worse — they’re caught up in a situation they didn’t create.
You entered the MPD to learn about the police officers. What were they like?
Like any other professional or occupational group, police are not homogeneous. And certainly, in a city like Washington, D.C., the police force is very diverse. It’s about half African American, about 10% Hispanic, 10% miscellaneous/other, and then about 30% White. And it’s heavily male, about 80% male, a little more than that actually, 82–83% male, which is actually a little bit better than the national average for women but still pretty pathetic. The majority of new recruits to the D.C. Metropolitan Police have college degrees, and that would not have been true 20 years ago. And my experience is that they come in for a pretty wide range of reasons.
There’s a little bit of a stereotype that police want to be bullies or they are attracted to the idea of carrying a gun. And there are people like that, no question. But that’s not most people. I would always ask my career partners, “What made you decide to do this?” Very often, you hear things like, “Well, my sister was stabbed,” “My mother was a victim of domestic abuse,” “My best friend was killed in a drive-by shooting.” You very often get these answers that involved, “And I wanted to make sure that this wouldn’t happen to other people. I want to protect people from having this kind of thing happen to them.” It’s very, very common.
I don’t think that that idealism necessarily stays with people. And in fact, there are all kinds of things about police training and policing that knock it out of people. But I do think that it’s one of the many reasons that I think that change is not hopeless and that it’s really important to involve police officers in thinking about how to transform policing.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.