The Misplaced Hope of Understanding Police From the Inside

The Misplaced Hope of Understanding Police From the Inside

The Misplaced Hope of Understanding Police From the Inside

Law professor Rosa Brooks became a volunteer cop to show how policing might be fixed. But are the police beyond reform?


Next time, if you run out of food,’ I said, ‘call the police station and ask them to help you.’” That’s what Georgetown law professor turned volunteer cop Rosa Brooks told a woman under arrest over an outstanding warrant, caught shoplifting groceries. Brooks doesn’t want to arrest the woman—she wants to help, and worries that her advice is faulty. “I hoped this wasn’t a lie,” she thinks to herself. “I hoped that if she called the police station and asked for help, the phone would be answered by a decent officer willing to refer her to the right services, and not by some asshole who’d chew her out for wasting police time and then hang up.”

It’s not easy being a police officer—something Brooks knows from experience. Tangled Up in Blue chronicles the year-plus Brooks spent as a volunteer reserve police officer for Washington, D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department. It’s an endeavor Brooks says she embarked on to better understand the opaque world of policing, in order to help fight what ails it: racism, violence, and a lack of accountability and consequences. As a white woman in her 40s with a job as a tenured law professor, Brooks positions herself as an outsider—though she never claims her identity makes her a better police officer. Instead, the book’s conceit is that her professional background puts her in the best position to understand the work she does as a cop and explain it to the rest of us.

The book is built around three core assumptions: that there’s something we don’t know about policing, that learning that thing will help us fix the problems with policing, and that becoming a police officer is the best way to learn it. What follows is a narrative divided up into three sections: one about the genesis of her reserve officer journey, one about her time in the police academy, and one made up of a loosely chronological mix of anecdotes and wry observations about life on patrol. Through Brooks, the beat cop is decoded for those who view abolition as too radical to take seriously.

By claiming to illuminate policing through revealing its quotidian aspects, what Brooks accidentally reveals are the shortcomings of her approach. Though she wants to uncover something revelatory, she exposes nothing except the finer grain of an already dominant narrative. Finding out how a single police officer spends their day reveals nothing about the real problem: the impact policing has on the communities where cops are most present. The police just aren’t the right people to ask—the people being policed are.

Readers spend the book entirely inside Brooks’s head, learning while she learns, surveying the inner workings of Washington’s biggest law enforcement agency through her eyes alone. Admirably, she’s not afraid to make fun of herself—there’s an entire section detailing her struggle to use the bathroom while in uniform. She’s also not afraid to express her own ambivalence about policing. This point of view works best when applied to the six months Brooks spends in the police academy.

She winces at the nicknames her classmates receive from an instructor she dubs Lawsuit—“as in ‘this guy is a hostile environment civil rights lawsuit waiting to happen’”—and takes copious, critical notes during instruction periods. She even helps to place a different instructor on administrative leave after he threatens to “fucking kill” another female recruit during firearms training. Still, Brooks has trouble shaking academy talking points, and admits when and where her training altered her perspective, “It became natural to see the officer’s side of the story in the wake of controversial police shootings,” she writes. “Ordinary people might see a cop brutally murdering someone who hadn’t done anything wrong, but we could see an officer reacting as we had all been trained to react.”

Brooks’s time at the academy coincided with the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, as well as the outbreak of mass protests in Baltimore, just an hour away, after charges against the officers who killed Freddie Gray were dropped. Brooks knows what her academy instructors’ silence excuses: that policing in this country is rooted in racism and the maintenance of order for the ruling class. Still, in her eyes, this fails to disqualify them from being fundamentally decent public servants.

After leaving the academy, Brooks is assigned to Washington’s Seventh District, or 7D, the “poorest, saddest, most crime-ridden” portion of the city, with orders to train with whichever full-time cops will have her along for the ride until she banks enough hours to be certified to patrol alone. There, she finds herself responding to calls from a mostly Black populace that range from domestic disputes to shoplifting to fielding the occasional false report.

By analyzing her own training and observing her fellow officers, she does reach an astute conclusion about the cop mindset: Police officers are obsessed with the dangers posed by their work, and that obsession taints everything they do in uniform—even though it’s mostly a figment of their imaginations. “Being a cop isn’t nearly as dangerous as cops think it is,” she writes. “Certainly, it wasn’t more dangerous than traveling as an unarmed civilian in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, Uganda, Sierra Leone, Palestine, or many of the other places work had previously brought me.”

Ultimately, though, this isn’t new information. As Brooks notes, it’s been established that death is less of an occupational hazard for cops than it is for fishing and hunting workers, loggers, pilots, roofers, construction workers, and truck drivers. Research conducted through a Yale Law School–affiliated research collective even gave this complex a name: the “danger imperative.”

The shortcomings of Tangled Up in Blue are most apparent when it comes to analyzing the nature of racism and prejudice in policing. Brooks walks readers through the plotless stretch of time she spends working up to her patrol certification. While most of the people she encounters when responding to 911 calls or requests for backup are not explicitly identified as Black or brown, the sentiments her colleagues express make it clear that the residents of 7D are others. One conversation Brooks recalls between her Haitian American partner and a Black EMT finds the men describing the residents of 7D as “animals” who “keep having babies.”

Brooks also takes the time to introduce a few of the officers she works with to the conceit behind Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. The cops don’t buy it. “I don’t stop or arrest people because they’re black,” one indignant white officer tells Brooks. “When I arrest them it’s because they’re committing crimes. Crimes against other black people!” The Haitian American officer has a similar reaction: “My skin’s black too, but you don’t see me fucking people up for a few bucks…. Nobody makes these people act like they do. They don’t like it here, they should fix their neighborhoods, or leave.”

These experiences don’t leave Brooks with the sense that policing is an actively racist profession. Instead, she thinks the problem is that police can’t perceive or hope to alter the racism they perpetuate daily. “This is why racism seems like a nonissue to many street cops; it’s baked so deeply into the system that it’s invisible,” she writes. “For police officers, the racism that has shaped the system for so long means that even the most thoughtful and fair-minded police officers—even those who see and decry the structural impact of racism—often face nothing but bad choices.”

She’s right about the systemic nature of racism, but the idea that the majority of cops aren’t aware of racial dynamics in their work, or are simply powerless in the face of them, strains credulity given the established connections between US law enforcement and white supremacist groups and the numerous cases of cops whistleblowing on their peers for racist misconduct (and facing serious, institutionally backed retaliation for violating the “blue wall of silence”).

Brooks does devote long tracts of the book to dutifully listing statistics about whom Washington cops detain and incarcerate, observing who is disproportionately impacted by interactions with the criminal justice system across the United States, and dropping in studies about anti-Black racism. She does not, however, provide additional insight from her experience as the one who detains and incarcerates, beyond her thesis that police officers serve as a stand-in for social services in poor Black neighborhoods. While many of the interactions between these communities and cops are driven by racism, she writes, “the over-policing of poor Black urban communities is also fueled by high demand for police services from members of those same communities. When other social goods and services are absent or scarce, police become the default solution to an astonishingly wide range of problems.”

This argument is one of the central points made by Defund the Police activists across the United States, but defunding the police is not the solution Brooks arrives at. She believes reform, in the form of additional training or more funding, is still our best hope for fixing policing. Research clearly shows that residents in highly policed areas say cops don’t make them feel safe or secure. Scholars have pointed out the ways police reform initiatives have historically served to strengthen cop power by funneling more funding towards departments without actually halting violence. In 2017, a member of President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing even wrote in Boston Review that police officers themselves were the obstacles to the most basic and toothless reforms proposed by the administration.

Police officers have an impossible job,” Brooks writes. “We expect them to be warriors, disciplinarians, protectors, mediators, social workers, educators, medics, and mentors all at once, and we blame them for enforcing laws they didn’t make in a social context they have little power to alter.” Of course, this ignores the fact that the people who are subject to the most intensive policing have even less power to change that social context. Ironically, that’s something Barbara Ehrenreich, the author’s mother, unpacked with more nuance in Nickel and Dimed, her similar work from two decades ago.

Ehrenreich looms large in Tangled Up in Blue as a disapproving presence. Unlike her daughter, Ehrenreich hates the police, and this disagreement forms one of the book’s primary conflicts. In one chapter, Brooks responds to multiple incidents involving parents and children, with missing person reports prematurely filed and screaming matches turned physical. “All over Washington, it sometimes seemed, there were girls whose mothers wanted them arrested, and girls whose mothers wanted nothing to do with them,” Brooks writes. “I thought of my own mother, whose disapproval still rankled. But I was lucky…. The prison bars I chafed against as a teenager were constructed from my own emotions, not from cold, hard metal.”

Ehrenreich is painted as an obstacle to her daughter’s quest for cop knowledge, despite the fact that Brooks cites Nickel and Dimed as partial inspiration for her foray behind the thin blue line. In terms of incisive analysis, however, the two works diverge. In Nickel and Dimed, Ehrehreich’s immersion serves to elevate the struggles of the working-class people whom policy-makers and popular culture treat as an afterthought. One of the biggest misunderstandings in Tangled Up in Blue lies in the assumption that the same erasure affects police officers.

Police officers in most major cities are union members, backed across the country by police benevolent associations and Fraternal Order of Police chapters with undeniable power and political influence; as a result, they’re well compensated and insulated from the cost and consequences of “just doing their job.” More than that, our culture is saturated with pro-cop narratives in movies and television shows and woven into our societal consciousness. Unlike workers scraping by on minimum wage, cops have a career with a conclusion—and a pension. Retired police officers can go on to collect checks consulting; they can hold office, write their own memoirs about life on the job, or even teach alongside law professors like Brooks.

As a law professor and a Pentagon foreign policy official during the Obama years, Brooks is a member of the same carceral system as the police. As such, her concluding statements are rooted in a coziness with the institutions she is supposedly critiquing. Tangled Up in Blue ends with an epilogue concerning a project which serves as a through line from Brooks’s time at the academy to her quasi retirement from reserve officer life: a fellowship program for new recruits called Police for Tomorrow, a joint effort between the MPD and some of Brooks’s Georgetown Law colleagues. It consists of a series of monthly workshops on topics such as race and policing, gentrification, use of force, implicit bias, and mass incarceration, topped off with “a capstone community project related to one of these issues.” It’s the distillation of everything she learned from her time in uniform, which is to say, her misplaced hope in reform. A 2020 study from the NYPD itself found that implicit-bias training changed the way cops thought but had no demonstrable effect on their behavior.

We’re left with the text of a speech Brooks gives in celebration of a large Georgetown alumni gift to Georgetown Law, which she uses as an opportunity to shine the spotlight on the Police for Tomorrow Fellowship’s vision of reform. The crowd is composed of police recruits, high-ranking MPD officials, her colleagues at Georgetown Law, and her loved ones, Ehrenreich included. Standing before them, Brooks’s lecture—now also addressed to her readers—is about the future of policing and what must be done to fix its flaws. “It’s up to us—and particularly, up to those of you who are young—to find a better way forward,” she says. “I have a few ideas about how to do this—but I know that you will have better ones.” As Brooks’s final moment of audience outreach makes clear, this book is a failure of imagination on her part, in the same way all attempts to “fix” policing without imagining a police-free world are doomed to fail.

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