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Tobias WinrightSeptember 09, 2022

More than eight years have passed since Michael Brown, an 18-year-old Black man, was shot and killed on Aug. 9, 2014, by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo., not far from where I lived and worked for many years in Saint Louis. It has been a little over two years since the killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, by the police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis, Minn., on May 25, 2020. More recently there have been the fatal shooting of Patrick Lyoya, a 26-year-old refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, by a Grand Rapids, Mich., police officer on April 4, and the death of Jayland Walker, a 25-year-old Black man, who was hit by 60 bullets fired by eight Akron, Ohio, police officers on June 27. In the United States, around 1,000 people are killed each year by police.

Tangled Up in Blueby Rosa Brooks

Penguin Press
384p $28

In response, the police are under serious scrutiny, and rightly so. After all, as part of their job, police are authorized to use force, including deadly force. In a modern liberal democracy, such power comes with great responsibility, as well as an attendant accountability to the citizens that police have pledged to serve and protect. It also presumes that those who accept this role within society assume the risks thereof, including to their own lives. Indeed, this readiness to expose oneself to such danger is akin to a sacred trust.

However, in this (unfortunately) timely book, Tangled Up in Blue: Policing the American City, Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown law professor who has volunteered as a reserve officer for the Washington Metropolitan Police Department, worries that police instead are instilled with an “exaggerated sense of risk” and the “belief that you’re in constant danger,” which makes them “more likely to perceive situations as threatening.” For her, this is the reason why U.S. police “end up killing so many people"—in fact, 64 times more often than U.K. police.

As a former reserve police officer and instructor of ethics at a police academy, I would submit that this may also account, at least in part, for why police officer Kimberly Potter apparently mistook her firearm for a Taser and fatally shot Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man, last year in Minneapolis.

Brooks shares nuanced stories and reflections about her and others’ experiences wearing a blue uniform.

Brooks observes that “police training tends to encourage a fixation on the one time in a thousand that someone is reaching for a weapon, making cops prone to overreact whenever anyone reaches into a pocket (or a glove compartment, or a purse), and inevitably making some cops decide it’s safer to just pull the trigger.” Police become hypervigilant about possible dangers everywhere. Decades later, that “situational awareness” influences my decision, for example, of where I sit in a restaurant or movie theater, with an eye to the entrance and any exits.

When this attitude is coupled with an emphasis on having “a right to go home safe,” rather than an expectation that other people, too, have a right to go home safe, then it is the public, especially the poor and minorities, who bear the cost of any mistakes. Indeed, I recall a police sergeant who, much to my dismay during an ethics workshop I was conducting, announced he would be willing to shoot directly through a hostage (being used as a human shield) to kill an armed suspect, just so he could go home at the end of his shift.

I would add that this mentality is exhibited not only in such acts of commission but also of omission, which likewise end up with others’ deaths, as evident with the 77 minutes of inaction by Uvalde School District Police Chief Pete Arredondo and numerous other officers on scene during the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Texas.

Brooks claims—rightly, I think—that the main problem with U.S. policing is “training and culture.” But for Brooks and myself, what the police do and what we are to do about the police problem, are complicated. The inspiration for her book’s title immediately surfaces in an epigraph within the front matter. There we find a couple of lines from Bob Dylan’s 1975 song of the same title:

We always did feel the same
We just saw it from a different point of view
Tangled up in blue.

Much like Dylan’s oblique recollections about life and love, Brooks shares nuanced stories and reflections about her and others’ experiences wearing a blue uniform.

With a successful academic career, married with two children and in her 40s, Brooks attended the police academy and served as a reserve officer from 2014 to 2020, patrolling the Seventh District, one of the poorest, most crime-ridden neighborhoods in the nation’s capital. Similar to her late mother Barbara Ehrenreich’s oeuvre of publications, especially the 2001 Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, this book is an empathetic, engaging piece of immersion journalism. In it, Brooks is not only an acute observer, but also a caring, though often discomfited, participant.

Brooks served as a reserve officer from 2014 to 2020, patrolling the Seventh District, one of the poorest, most crime-ridden neighborhoods in the nation’s capital.

Like her mother and many activists and protesters, Brooks is “dismayed by the statistics on police shootings and by racial disparities in the criminal justice system,” but through her experience as a reserve officer, she comes to see these interrelated problems from a different point of view. Yes, Brooks acknowledges and provides evidence from both her experience and relevant scholarship that “the US criminal justice system is harsh, unjust and biased, and the police are assuredly part of that system.” However, unlike her mother, who initially expressed strong disapproval of her decision, asserting that “police are the enemy” and are “not on our side,” Brooks thinks “the world is complicated, and people aren’t all one thing or all another,” while assuring her mother that she also hasn’t “become blind to any realities or abandoned any values.”

Accordingly, Brooks bypasses the impasse between those who adamantly defend the police and those who intransigently insist on defunding or abolishing them. It is her hope that her account “will give pause both to those who think police can do no wrong and to those who think they can do no right.” With similar experiences in uniform and on the streets, as well as with family, friends and colleagues who tend to take one oversimplified side or the other, I share her hope.

Much of what Brooks writes is a trip down memory lane for me, including her experiences in the police academy and on the job. I appreciate her humor regarding the difficulties in memorizing numerous acronyms and numerical radio codes (there are many more than just 10-4), as well as the “time-honored police academy ritual of getting a face full of pepper spray,” which put me out of commission for several hours.

On a more critical note, Brooks rightly highlights the problematic military aspects of academy training, as well as the lack of attention in the curriculum to race. She realizes that the academy classroom and the roll call room are not a university classroom where big questions are welcome. No attention is devoted to theories of policing, the history of redlining and segregation in city neighborhoods, over-criminalization and over-incarceration: “A strong norm against asking too many questions has long been part of police culture.”

It is her hope that her account “will give pause both to those who think police can do no wrong and to those who think they can do no right.”

As for my own academic area of expertise, Brooks observes, “The ethics lesson was slightly less detailed than the guidance on the proper wearing of uniforms.” Even that boiled down to remembering not to do anything “that will look bad on the news” because if you “make the department look bad, you will be hung out to dry.”

After graduation, Brooks comes to see that most of policing is rather mundane, responding to “fairly minor problems,” mostly about disorderly conduct. She recognizes, however, that police have an “impossible job.” They are overextended, expected to serve as protectors, mediators, medics and social workers. They perform C.P.R. on a heart attack victim; they find a missing child; they inform someone of the death of a loved one. Of course, in many cities now, adjustments are being made, so that others who are more qualified can respond, for instance, to a call to help a person experiencing a mental health crisis, like the 30-year-long collaboration between police and social workers in Eugene, Ore., called Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS).

Although policing is less dangerous than what most people, including the police, believe (Brooks notes that taxi and limo drivers are twice as likely to be murdered, and that in most years suicide kills more police officers than on-duty incidents), she must respond, as I did, to “shots fired” calls, and she comes close, unlike me, to shooting a possible intruder in an apartment (who turns out to be a family member that left the door open and set off an alarm). Brooks knows the likelihood she would shoot someone is low, but she realizes “it was now a genuine possibility.”

Brooks recognizes that police have an “impossible job.” They are overextended, expected to serve as protectors, mediators, medics and social workers.

As a Christian, I especially relate to what she writes about the use of force, and I, too, wrestled with the question she raises here: “I didn’t plan to use violence, and I didn’t want 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?”

Brooks listens to her fellow police officers on their thoughts about the violence of their profession as well as their views on the prospects for change. Although a few “like the idea of having a badge, a gun and a license to order people around,” most “rate the opportunity to help people as the single largest factor in choosing their job.” Over time, however, cynicism sets in and becomes the primary occupational hazard. Because police get called only “when things go wrong,” they see a lot of bad things that most other people don’t.

Brooks also listens to the residents of “7D.” She learns that there is a “high demand for police services from members of those same communities” where social goods and other services are absent, that most criminals are “just ordinary people who never had many good options, and who stumbled into the worst of them.” She confesses that one of her “worst moments as a police officer” is when she handcuffs a young girl who is more of “a victim, not a criminal.” From the start of her stint in law enforcement, Brooks feels torn about handcuffing someone and putting them behind bars, because “statistically, that ‘someone’ was likely to be poor and black.” She is brutally honest about how the criminal justice system functions “to prevent black people from ever gaining access to the same privileges white people take for granted,” but she also comes to recognize that crime “is real—and the misery, pain and fear engendered by violent crime are visited most often on the very same demographic groups who are disproportionately likely to end up incarcerated.” She learns that people who are hurt by the effects of the history of white racism, by their abusive parents or spouses, by drug and alcohol addiction, by economic deprivation and more, can sometimes “hurt other people, often badly.”

In the Christian tradition, an important source of moral wisdom is experience, especially that of persons on the margins: the poor, vulnerable and oppressed. Although she does not write as a theologian or ethicist, Brooks ends up learning from these neglected voices in 7D even as she also listens to her fellow police officers, many of whom lack the opportunities that Brooks’s colleague (and my former colleagues) may take for granted. Like our academic peers, to refer back to Dylan’s lyrics, we “feel the same” about unjust policing, but through our experiences as officers, we see “it from a different point of view.”

Brooks’ accessible, engaging and humorous book deserves a wide audience, one that includes my fellow theologians and ethicists. In my first article on the police, published in 1995, I observed that the topic was a curious lacuna in Christian ethics, especially given that many officers are Christians, and that excessive force and racism should be serious concerns for us. As more of my colleagues rightly turn their attention to the police, I recommend including this book to their reading list, alongside works by other key authors on the subject, including Michelle Alexander, Alex S. Vitale and Brooks’s Georgetown University School of Law colleague Paul Butler.

Additionally, short of becoming a reserve police officer, I suggest that theologians and ethicists contact their local police department, meet with the chief or sheriff, offer to teach an in-service training module and ask to ride along with and accompany patrol officers. Brooks has started a fellowship program at Georgetown University creating time and space for police officers to reflect on race, poverty, mental illness, excessive force, alternatives to arrest, the use of force and the “role of police in a diverse, democratic society.” It is being replicated elsewhere. It, too, is worth considering.

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