In May 2020, three words rang out in Minneapolis that would become the mantra of a revolution: “I can’t breathe.”
George Floyd uttered the phrase with the simple hope that the police officer kneeling on his neck would let him live, but the words resonated through communities that understood what it meant to be suffocated by those entrusted to protect them. Millions took to the streets around the world, and cops responded with the same violence that was being protested. As Brooks Laughlin watched from a prison cell in Washington state, he was sure he could help the protesters and the police understand each other. He thought he knew from experience exactly what was toxic with police culture and how it could be overcome.
In December, I sat with him on the gymnasium floor of the Monroe Correctional Complex. He leaned back against a brick wall—his wide, muscular build a testament to his love of powerlifting. Laughlin always seems tough and collected, and seldom shows any emotion.
In 2006, he graduated from Washington state’s police academy with top honors, and then at 21, became the Bellingham Police Department’s youngest hire in decades. For the next 13 years, he worked as a drug detective; a range master, charged with training and qualifying officers with guns; a member of the National Tactical Officers’ Association; and an undercover operative in federal organized crime investigations. He literally wrote the test given to all new officers in his department. He planned and executed drug raids, was involved in shoot-outs, and trained SWAT teams. He was the type of cop about which movies are made.
But all the while a secret haunted him that would eventually help land him in prison: “Since I was young, I knew I had Bipolar Disorder Type I. My mum recognized a lot of it, because growing up her dad was bipolar, and he went to prison and mental institutions for robbing his bank.”
By the time Laughlin was 13, he said he also knew that he would grow up to become a cop. At 14, he joined the Police Explorers, where he got to do ride-alongs and participate in training simulations with the SWAT team. For him, he said, “there was this picture of law enforcement that was a false picture of perfection.”
His assimilation into police culture started early. “As an Explorer, I learned there are slangs for everything. Four-eighty-one was the clearing code for someone who was crazy. That was my first glimpse into the dehumanization,” he told me. “They didn’t call it someone who is having a crisis. No, this is a four-eighty-one. I was like I can’t be a four-eighty-one, so I didn’t go get a diagnosis.”
At the Academy, he was indoctrinated into an “us versus the world” mentality and learned just how deep such dehumanization ran. He said he learned the “colloquial terms for people you encounter, such as ‘doper,’ ‘skell’ [short for skeleton], ‘mope,’ and ‘thug.’” He said he understands now how they carry “clear racial undertones,” but explained that “it doesn’t take long for a recruit to be totally enmeshed into their new cop identity.”
As a young officer, he embraced police culture, which he now describes as cult-like. He married a girl with whom he had been an Explorer and whose father was on the force. They bought a home in suburbia, and had their first child when he was 26. To onlookers, he was a poster child for the aforementioned picture of police perfection, but at work, very different images were being seared into his memory. “I responded to dead bodies, ranging from suicides, drug overdoses, car accidents, to natural causes. I was in a shoot-out before my training was even over. Less than a month off, I was the first on the scene of a drug homicide, where I had to hold someone’s brains in with a towel. He didn’t make it. That was just the tip of the iceberg of the horrors I would see and experience over the next dozen years.”
He told me that witnessing the carnage and suffering—often the result of the War on Drugs—drove even the most callous of cops into self-imposed isolation: “It becomes hard to relate to outsiders. The only people you can relate to are those in your tribe. Your identity becomes fused to that of a cop. This extreme tribalism is the root of toxic police culture. Those that don’t face the isolation are ostracized and usually don’t make probationary officer status.”
The hiring practices, he explained, also play a role. The typical recruit is a white male in his mid-20s with at least some college education. Combine this with a screening for mental illness and a criminal background, and you end up with officers without the experiences of hardship that can help them relate to those they meet in the field.
Before long, the Laughlins brought another child into the world. During the birth, Brook Laughlin’s mother was rushed to a hospital in Seattle for an emergency operation related to a softball-sized tumor in her brain. “I couldn’t be there because my daughter was being born. It triggered me being manic, because everything was about me or my mum. That’s when I stopped giving a shit,” he said.
She survived the surgery and got to meet her second granddaughter, but missed the birth of her third by two weeks. In 2015, Laughlin received a call on his birthday from his father telling him he needed to go see his mum. In February, he lost the person who had kept him grounded since he was a child.
Within months, Laughlin’s marriage unraveled. He began drinking heavily and soon eloped with a woman from the force with whom he’d been having an affair. Fully immersed in a macho workplace, he ignored his declining mental health and normalized his own violent behavior. In 2018, Laughlin was arrested for second degree assault/domestic violence against his wife and sentenced to 96 months in prison. He told me, “What I did to my ex-wife is inexcusable… The fact is I hurt the person, other than my kids, I loved the most.”
He said being in prison challenged everything he had been trained to believe about the criminal justice system. “During my trial, they said I had attended something like 3,800 hours of training, not including the ones I spent teaching. The thing that struck me was that in all those hundreds of hours, none of it told me anything about what life in prison and convict culture is really like. I had no idea what psychosocial factors from prison led to behaviors on the streets.”
Laughlin said that it was the people he met in county jail and prison that led to his realization about the police: “It was people that led me to see and understand that mass incarceration and aggressive policing is doing no good for this country. We are systemically setting up generations of disenfranchised people for state-sponsored slavery.”
In an era where the idea of police reform has become popular, Laughlin said he feels a responsibility to use his experience on both sides of the system to offer practical solutions: “Our nation’s drug strategies have done a lot to shape modern policing. Drug enforcement is mostly done where it’s most visible: the urban street level in poor communities, primarily of color. Drug arrests are easy to self-initiate, which makes them very appealing for cops wishing to generate stats. I believe shifting the drug strategy away from a law enforcement issue to a public health one would improve police’s relationships with the communities they serve. Mental health also needs to be handled differently. Not only does law enforcement need to change how they view mental health in the community, but also among their own ranks.”
Laughlin is set for release in 2023, and he said he wants to use his expertise to fight for social justice. He spends his days in prison strumming an acoustic guitar and developing a consulting program that will work with police departments to hold meetings with the formerly incarcerated to further what he believes might be the most important conversation in the country. Recognizing the transformative power of getting to know the people he once viewed as enemies, he said he believes that it’s crucial for officers to experience these encounters as well. “I want to use my experience to help bridge gaps with police agencies and those they serve. I have a plan for classes for law enforcement, where I would bring in convicts to help facilitate learning. Not to lecture or share trade secrets by either side, but in collaborative groups, to work towards solutions.”
He also pointed out that police performance is typically measured in arrests, tickets, warrants, and other enforcement means. “Reviews and statistics for arrests are used when officers try out for special units and promotions,” he told me. “There’s no measure of ‘What good did you do in people’s lives?’ Drug crimes, which are predominantly enforced in communities of color, are the easiest target for a stat-hungry officer. The way we allow agencies to use enforcement statistics as a metric of performance is, in itself a testament to systemic racism within the force, and needs to be eliminated.”
Lastly, he said his time as a convict has changed his views about outside oversight. The Department of Corrections, much like the police force, handles all complaints in-house. He said that this means they’re likely handled by friends of those in power and thrown out, which provides police and prison guards with almost complete impunity.
Laughlin knows the underlying system needs to be changed, but he urged individual officers to not lose themselves in the uniform, and wanted to make a plea to every cop reading this: “Ignore the stigma our police culture has created about mental health. The most manly thing you can do is ask for help. If your anger is getting out of control, your work life is perfect, but marriage is a mess, or you think of harming yourself, deal with it now, so you don’t end up as the next cop making headlines.”