Everything Is Just Dandy!

What Policing Looks Like from the Inside

Current Affairs
Current Affairs
2022-09-22
https://www.currentaffairs.org/2022/09/what-policing-looks-like-from-the-inside/


Rosa Brooks is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center. She is the author of How Everything Became War and The Military Became Everything: Tales from The Pentagon and, most recently, Tangled Up in Blue: Policing the American City. Editor in chief Nathan J. Robinson recently interviewed her on the Current Affairs podcast. This interview has been lightly edited for grammar and clarity.

Robinson

Now, many people around the country become police officers every year. It’s not an unusual profession to enter into. But what our listeners and readers need to understand is that, for you, for many reasons, it was an extremely unusual profession to enter into. This book is about your experience becoming a reserve police officer with the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department. For you, this was a very odd thing to do. So, why did you decide to become a police officer?

Brooks

Do you want the short answer, the long answer, the true answer, or the lie? Or all of the above?

Robinson

A vast menu of options. I’d like a true one at a reasonable length.

Brooks

All right. I’ll do my best. So I’ve always been interested in the relationship between law and violence. It’s something that I’ve worked on in all kinds of different capacities over the course of my career starting as a human rights researcher for groups like Human Rights Watch back in the 1990s all the way through work at the State Department in the Clinton administration to writing about how we in the U.S. conceptualize war and the relationship between legal categories about conflict and narratives about it. So part of the answer is that given that policing in this country is a really violent enterprise, I was fascinated by the question of how police officers make sense of their own world. How do they make sense of their roles? What stories do they tell themselves about themselves? And when I found out about the reserve officer program in D.C, it seemed like an incredible opportunity to be on the inside of a profession that can seem so opaque from the outside. The other part of the answer is that I had a sabbatical. I had nothing to do and I was kind of bored, and it sounded fascinating. It was like, You’re kidding me. You’re gonna let me, a random volunteer, be a cop? You’re nuts. So I had to see if it was true.

Robinson

For people who don’t know, this is a kind of curious program that allows you to become a full police officer. How exactly does it work?

Brooks

It is a strange program in a sense. You can volunteer to become an unpaid police officer. And if you satisfy some rather minimal criteria, Washington D.C., will hire you for no money, give you a uniform, and send you to the police academy, where you’ll go through the same curriculum as the full-time regular paid officers. You’ll go through firearms training and emergency vehicle operations training and so forth. And at the end of approximately six months of training, you get a badge and a gun and are sent off to be a fully sworn police officer. And you’re assigned to a police district just like the full-time people. The difference, as you say, is, number one, you don’t get paid. But number two, the expectation is only that you will do a minimum of 24 patrol hours a month. You don’t have to do it full time.

Robinson

Now, going into it, did you feel any sense of deep moral conflict? In the U.S., the police are incredibly controversial. We have seen national protests erupt against the police. People even talk about the need to move away from policing entirely. It does come up in the book that you are from famous leftist stock. Your mother Barbara Ehrenreich has been a guest on this podcast before and, as I would have expected, was not terribly excited about the idea of having a raised police officer as a daughter. So can you talk about how you perceived the moral dilemma?

Brooks

Well, I’m always morally conflicted about pretty much everything. So that’s kind of par for the course here. We live in a complicated world. There are not a lot of things that are, forgive the phrase, black and white. I did feel conflicted. I think policing does a lot of harm in this country. I also think it does some good. And the goods and the harms are all tied up together. I had some brief training as an anthropologist, and I strongly believe in participant observation. I do feel very strongly that if you want to change something, you need to understand it first. And it’s very, very difficult to understand policing from the outside. I have found that there are things that wouldn’t have occurred to me about changes that might work and won’t work if I hadn’t had these experiences. The experience made me aware of some of the opportunities for change that I don’t think I would have thought of, and also made me realize some barriers to change that would not have been obvious to me.

Robinson

Well, I want to ask you about that. Let’s start by diving into your first observations of policing from the inside. Let’s start with the kind of training program and what essentially you found that police officers are taught to do. What is the sum total of the training that turns an ordinary person into a police officer?

Brooks

So there are three aspects to it. One is what the formal curriculum emphasizes. The second is what it admitted, which was just striking from my perspective. And the third was unofficial lessons that were really drummed into you. In terms of the formal curriculum: it was really striking to me. It was essentially operational and tactical completely—no discussion of anything other than, Here are the nine property forms, memorize them. Here is how you handcuff a prone person versus a kneeling person versus a standing person. Memorize it, because you’ll be given a multiple choice exam on these defensive tactics. So that was the curriculum. Here is the law in D.C. on this; here’s the procedure for writing a ticket; here is how you administer a field test for drugs. The admissions were in some ways even more striking. I went through the police academy in 2016. And then, as now, the whole country was talking about policing—talking about policing and violence, policing and race. And there were huge protests in major American cities—not on the scale of 2020—but pretty big and significant. And the one place where it felt like we weren’t talking about any of those issues was the Washington, D.C., Police Academy, which was pretty mind blowing. You think if there was any place where young officers in training would be encouraged to think about things like the role of policing in a diverse democratic society—policing and race—it would be there. Yet those topics were just not part of the curriculum at all. As I said, it was just tactical and operational. The final thing that struck me—and I talk about this a fair amount in the book—was the unofficial content of the academy curriculum. Over and over, the unofficial message we got was that anybody could kill you at any time. And if you’re a police officer, you have to engage with the world assuming that every single situation could turn lethal in a millisecond. There’s no such thing as a routine call. There’s no such thing as a routine traffic stop. You have to constantly be looking to see what people are doing with their hands. Are they reaching into their pockets or the glove compartment? They could kill you at any moment. And we watched all these videos about officers being killed and analyzed them to say, Well, what could those officers have done differently? But the message that really came across I think was that the people in the communities where one works are just constant, omnipresent sources of threat to you. And, needless to say, that has a really profound and pernicious impact on policing. On the one hand, in a literal sense, of course, it’s true: any situation could go haywire. Anybody could try to kill you. But statistically, it’s actually quite rare. It happens, but it’s rare. It’s much rarer than police officers think. But it really distorts the kinds of interactions they have with people.

Robinson

So they tell you not to interview anyone in the kitchen because they could grab a knife at any time and plunge it into you. You say that officers gather around YouTube clips of cops being killed in various ways and thousands of ways for officers to die. And it really inculcates—not paranoia, as these are real cases—but a debate about whether police shootings are racially biased. But there’s a separate question of whether—even if they weren’t police, because they operate in this kind of climate of fear, and the sense that anything could be a danger—they might be too quick to kill.

Brooks

Yeah. And it’s not just too quick to kill. At the extreme end of the continuum, that’s what happens: we get an officer who panics. And we’ve seen that over and over. In quite a lot of the highly publicized and controversial police shootings, what you see is an officer who panics, and they’ve been primed to panic. So it’s not particularly surprising that they panic. But I think its effect is pernicious as well. If you are primed to see everybody as a potential lethal threat to you, it affects what situations you will see as dangerous and that could justify, say, a stop, a frisk, or yelling at somebody. Things that actually don’t make the news. And if you add into it the fact that this is a racist country and almost everybody carries around some unconscious bias—and obviously some people carry around conscious bias—but even if it’s unconscious bias, it will impact who you perceive as a threat in those split-second moments in which you’re making threat assessments. In our society, we’re primed by the media and public discourse to view Black men in particular as threats. So there’s no question that, regardless of conscious intention, the effect of that bias is racially discriminatory. One story I tell in the book is about a domestic disturbance call my partner and I got. We get there, and there’s a 17-year-old girl, and she’s being interviewed by my partner. I was in the other room interviewing her mother. It was a dispute between the girl and her mother. And she was trying to explain to my partner that she was the person who called 911. And so she reached into her bag in the living room to pull out her phone to show him that, look, here’s the call log where I called 911. And he freaked out and he yelled at her. He didn’t pull a gun on her, much less shoot her, but he yelled at her. He said, “Get your hands where I can see them, sit back down!” And she said, “Why are you yelling at me, officer? I’m not doing anything.” And he gave her a whole lecture on the fact that, for all he knew, she could be reaching for a gun. And she said, “You’re the one who’s got the gun officer.” She’s quite right. But in a situation like that, you think: is she going to call 911 the next time? Maybe not. It’s things like this that don’t make the news, right? Nothing happened, in a sense. There was nothing to report. But you multiply interactions like that times thousands, and you get a lot of people who are angry and humiliated and frightened, and it has a huge impact on how they live their lives and whether they have any faith in the police and government authorities more generally.

Robinson

I think in that same account you talk about a call that you responded to where it was reported as a burglary. But it turned out it was some kid who was…

Brooks

That was a different officer. But yeah…

Robinson

It was a different officer. You talk about how this was a situation in which you found the kid coming out of the bathroom, but they came out of the dark. And you talk about how it would have been if it had been an officer who was jumpy, someone who was quick to respond and saw everything as a threat. It was the sort of situation that…

Brooks

A situation that could have ended in tragedy. Yeah. Absolutely. No question about it. And I don’t mean to let police officers off the hook and say, Oh, most police killings in the United States are just because an officer is scared. There is deliberate malfeasance, but in many of these situations—a substantial percentage—you have a scared officer who panics, who overreacts in part because they have had it drummed into them that they’re in constant danger.

Robinson

They have had it drummed into them and they’ve watched all these videos. Also, police are exposed to some of the worst things that human beings do to each other. You have lists in the book of all the horrible harms that people do to each other in the real world. Police officers see dead bodies, they see people suffering, they see victims, and they develop a very negative view of human nature. You open the book with fellow officers going out like, Even the little old ladies are out to kill you out here, that kind of attitude. That kind of attitude really warps your perception of the people you’re supposed to be protecting.

Brooks

You know, that’s the biggest occupational hazard of policing: cynicism. It can be a fatal cynicism. It’s not a coincidence that more cops die each year of suicide than of every other cause combined in a typical year. I think this is true for a lot of occupations that put you up in a situation where you’re going to see death and suffering and misery and rage. Often you feel very helpless to do anything about it. Sometimes you feel like you’re part of inflicting the problem whether you want to be doing that or not. And, you know, it’s profoundly difficult, especially for younger officers, especially within a police culture that really, until very recently, was quite hostile to anybody saying, Hey, can we talk about this? I am depressed; I am struggling. I think that is changing belatedly. But cops have an incredibly high incidence of alcohol abuse, domestic violence within their own families, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), often undiagnosed. And those things not only lead to suicide, but, if you put a person with PTSD, substance abuse issues, and huge domestic issues at home out on the streets with a gun and a badge, you’re asking for trouble.

Robinson

I wonder whether it should be a full-time profession or career or whether we should rely on a citizen program. Seeing other parts of humanity might be healthy.

Brooks

That’s right. I could walk away from it. I was only doing it part time. I was not dependent on it for my livelihood. And most of the officers I worked with couldn’t get away from it. They could eventually change jobs, and some did, but it was quite difficult. Another piece of this is that in communities with high crime rates, the people you’re encountering as a police officer are themselves often seriously traumatized. They’re living in a community where violence is a frequent occurrence, where they’re frightened and they have seen a lot of awful things. Even more dangerous than a person with a gun is a person also carrying around a lot of baggage or PTSD and it’s a flammable situation.

Robinson

I want to go back to the training you mentioned that was heavily focused on the technical aspects of policing. Here are the codes, the procedures and practices. Here’s how you handcuff a person and restrain a person. So is there much on how to exercise your judgment in a real world situation? A lot of what you do as a police officer is to deal with situations in which you have to handle two conflicting parties. Tensions are high. You have to work through a difficult situation in which it’s not clear who’s right. Is there much training on that?

Brooks

Some. Since I went through the academy five-and-a-half years ago, it’s actually gotten better. The department has worked pretty hard to improve it and to have more scenario-based training, for instance, with debriefs about what could have been done differently. This is actually an area where I feel that as a reserve officer in training, in some ways, we got better training than the full-time officers because many of our instructors were themselves reserve officer volunteers. They tended to be older, well educated, and have a different perspective because they were part-timers. We actually did probably more than the 20-to-23-year olds who were going through it full time in the day. We probably had more reflection on those issues. So this is a problem—this is not an excuse, by the way—but this is one of the reasons that I sometimes think that defunding the police is shortsighted. It’s really expensive to give people really good training because really good training is primarily scenario based. Really good training is very time intensive and labor intensive. It’s a lot easier to stick a bunch of people in front of a bunch of PowerPoint slides and tell them to memorize the nine property forms than it is to have the kind of scenario-based training and debriefs that would potentially be much better at helping officers in training to develop good judgment, de-escalation skills, and so forth. But nobody wants to pay for that kind of training.

Robinson

So when you got out of it and you became an actual police officer and were sent out into the street, what were the things that you felt totally unprepared for? What did you wish they had spent a little more time on at the academy?

Brooks

I was in my mid-40s and had knocked around a bit before this. So for me, the part that was actually easiest, in some ways, was the talking to people part of it—calming people down while trying to figure out what’s going on. That part for me was relatively easy. For me the hard part was using the mental muscle memory of which forms do you fill out and so forth. I was often rather bewildered and heavily reliant on my full-time colleagues to say, Wait a minute, is this one of those situations where you’re supposed to do this procedure or that procedure? And I’ll tell you, it was actually quite humbling in many ways for me. I mean, I’m a pretty smart and accomplished person. I’m a capable person. I went into this thinking, Okay, here’s this occupation that people who haven’t even been to college do. In D.C., you have to be 21, but in many places, you only have to be 18 years of age to do the job. And if these kids can do this, surely I can do this. And it really humbled me; it was so damn hard. As a society, we have piled on to cops so many different types of tasks. And we really are asking them, in a single shift, to be mediators and social workers and warriors and to get in between people who are wielding knives and run toward the gunfire and be medics and take people to the hospital and do CPR. You name it, we want cops to do it because we have underfunded every other type of social service. So they’re often the only people available. And being a social worker or a medic or any one of these things is really hard to do well. You take a bunch of people, and you put them in situations where they’re working long hours—exhausting shift work—with inadequate training, and you’re asking them to do all these things well, and to remember the nine property forms and the right procedures and which side of your belt you’re supposed to put this piece of equipment onto and turn on your body worn camera and write the report. It’s virtually an impossible task and nobody can do everything well. Inevitably, you get a lot of officers who decide that they are going to be bad at some things. In my case, I felt like I was an okay police officer on my best days. I wasn’t horrible. And I was good at talking to people. But I never felt like I was a terrific police officer. And the only thing that made me feel less bad about that was the realization that almost nobody is because it’s an impossible job.

Robinson

Some of the most amusing parts of your book come from just describing struggles with the uniform and equipment which sounds difficult enough on its own.

Brooks

Yes. By and large it was not designed with women in mind.

Robinson

What you’re describing sounds to me like a way of saying that the problems and dysfunctions of American policing are systemic. They’re not traceable back to the bad character of individual officers. They come from the way that we’ve designed this institution and given a set of goals and responsibilities to people with a certain set of tools and training to do it. And there’s a mismatch between what we want out of this institution and what anyone with the current resources is capable of delivering.

Brooks

I think that’s exactly right. It’s something I often emphasize when I’m talking to people about this. Policing does not exist in a vacuum. If police are arresting people for petty offenses, which lead to their lives being messed up, or to excessive incarceration—cops aren’t doing that on their own initiative. They’re doing that because we voted for people who passed laws that criminalized all sorts of trivial things. And that created an established set of procedures and a set of institutions to do that. And we asked them to do this, in a sense. I don’t mean you or I as an individual. We collectively put the police in a situation and said, Here’s what we want you to do. And so no surprise, they try to do what they’re told to do. If policing is racist, American society is racist. Racism is so deeply baked into every aspect of American society—from residential housing patterns, to public health, to education, to jobs, you name it—and policing is going to reflect all of those things. Because cops have guns and the power to lock people up and deprive people of their freedom, or even their lives, policing is sort of a magnifying mirror for everything that’s wrong in American society. Policing doesn’t create those wrongs, but it reflects them and can magnify them.

Robinson

Can you give us a sense of what being a police officer is like? What do police do all day? Is it mostly arresting people or filling out forms? Is it mostly going to respond to a call and then it turns out the call was bullshit and there was nothing actually going on?

Brooks

It’s so unpredictable. Every shift was different. There were shifts where very little happened and you spent a lot of time driving around and strolling around and stopping for a cup of coffee. And you didn’t have a lot to do because there weren’t a lot of calls coming over the radio. That was relatively rare. I worked the evening shifts, which, generally speaking, for D.C. essentially meant from mid-afternoon through one or two in the morning. And that’s the time of day when stuff happens, you know, more than any of the other shifts. But sometimes you were busy all the time and every single call was something that had nothing to do with crime. It was, Oh my god, I think my husband had a heart attack. My neighbor keeps throwing her trash in the hallways and I’m gonna kill her, you better come over here quick before I kill her and tell her that she can’t keep doing this. Some days were like that. And then other times it would be homicides and stabbings and armed robberies and serious domestic violence. And there was no pattern to it in particular. But I will say—and this is shown in studies that have been done in other places as well—that probably somewhere between 70-90% of what cops do on a given shift doesn’t involve crime prevention or response. It involves a wide range of other issues such as people behaving disruptively or people getting into arguments, but not necessarily criminal behavior.

Robinson

Yeah. And there’s a category of 911 calls that you describe that aren’t really even about crimes. You point out in the book that one of the reasons we have policing is that there’s a lot of demand for policing. People call the cops and they want the cops to come and intervene in a situation, so they call 911. They may ask for police officers to come out. But, of course, officers have limited tools at their disposal. And so there’s a lot of talk about having people who aren’t police officers, about having other types of services available. There are situations you went to in which you wish they could have called someone who wasn’t a police officer and in which you wished you were someone other than a police officer at that moment.

Brooks

Yeah. No question. Much of what the average patrol officer does really should not be done by somebody with a gun and a badge and a uniform. That being said, I sort of hate the defund the police discourse that essentially just says, Well, let’s just take this money away from the police and toss it at some other agency. The trouble is that we don’t have those other people. They’re not just sitting around in some other city agency waiting for a pile of money to be tossed at them—these wonderful, patient, empathetic social workers with lots of resources at their disposal who can help people. They mostly don’t exist in most cities. And in many cities, the civilian agencies are every bit as rife with corruption and abuse problems as police departments are. The child and family services in many places are just a disaster. Housing authorities are a disaster in many places. So if you give them more money to solve the problems, you’re going to get a different type of problem, yet that doesn’t mean we should give up on it. It does suggest, though, that the conversation should not be about budgets. The conversation should be about developing a strategy for where we want to be in five years, 15 years, 30 years. What kinds of people with what kinds of skills do we want to have in the future? Do we have them now? The answer is usually no. So what kinds of investments do we need to make now so that in 10 years, we’re going to have those very different kinds of people? And that conversation, I think, is still not going on enough in most places. You started out noting that people call 911. Poll after poll suggests that among African Americans living in high crime neighborhoods, the vast majority do not say they want fewer police. What they want is better police. They might want fewer police if they had other options. But right now they often don’t have other options. Taking the police out of the picture doesn’t necessarily solve problems. It may solve some problems and create others.

Robinson

Yeah. It seems not quite right to say that people just want less policing, because they don’t. But it also seems not quite right to just say that they want more policing, because what we’re really talking about is different police. Yeah. An alternative. I agree with you that just talking about reducing police budgets leaves out the other half of the conversation, which is the really, really difficult work of building new kinds of institutions from the ground up. We’re stuck in this false binary of more cops versus fewer cops, and the defund movement says fewer cops and everyone else says no, we need more cops.

Brooks

Absolutely. And that’s the way the pendulum swings in this country. With George Floyd’s death, everybody said, Oh my god, we got to get rid of the cops.

Robinson

Fewer cops. More cops.

Brooks

Right. Homicide rates are up and violent crime rates are up in many American cities. And people go, Oh my god, we need more cops. Where are the cops? It has very little to do with the sheer number of cops. It has much more to do with what we want police to be like, what we want them to do. What needs are out there, and who can best meet those needs? And that’s just a really different conversation. And that’s not to distract from the conversation about systemic racism, which is real and important. But in an everyday practical sense, in an immediate sense, breaking free of the more cops-fewer cops binary would be a really good thing.

Robinson

One point that you stress is in this chapter called “Cages.” It’s a very important observation to internalize in any discussion about how much policing we want, which is that, ultimately, it is true that the police are an instrument of state violence. You point out that, actually, the average police officer does fewer arrests than you might think. But you say we do have to acknowledge that when we are talking about responding to crime with arrests and imprisonment, we’re talking about cages. You said we have to be blunt: jails and prisons are cages. And when we’re asking police to arrest people, we’re asking them to put people in cages and you’re facing quite serious moral discomfort with the aspects of your job that involve having to put someone in a cage sometimes when you don’t even think it ought to be done. But it has to be done because of the way the law has been written.

Brooks

Yeah. If your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Police don’t have a whole lot of options at their disposal in the sense that, if things are bad, you know, they can arrest people and stick them in a cage. But every decent cop knows that that probably won’t solve any problem and may actually create even more problems. It may very well be that, among arrests, the problem could be solved in some other way. I shouldn’t say solved, but addressed, at least in the short term in some other way. Like two people fighting. Sometimes you just need to separate them long enough for them to calm down. And an arrest is one way of doing it. It’s the tool that cops have. And so it’s what they do. But there should probably be other ways, right? Get people into mediation, get people into therapy—but those things often just aren’t there. We have our cages and we use them. Don’t get me wrong. One of the things I really tried to emphasize in the book is that there is horrific, violent crime. Crime is real. It’s not some kind of right-wing invention to justify violence by the police. There really is horrific, violent crime out there. And there are some people who probably need to be in cages, at least as a way to just keep them away from everybody else in the near term. But that being said, at any given moment, the jail population in Washington, D.C., or any other city is full of people whose offenses were extremely minor: minor acts of violence that involved poor judgment, assaults, things like shoplifting, disorderly conduct, and so on. And in most cases, neither they nor the community is particularly well served by sticking the offender in a cage. In fact, often that just makes things even worse.

Robinson

You mention that hammer-nail saying with your work on the military, on how the military became everything. You talk about the militarization of police. And then you talk about using militarized institutions and state violence as a default response to social problems. You cite a speech you gave with a really powerful warning. You say that we live in a world where everything has become war and the military has become everything. Everything has become crime and the police are becoming everything. And war and policing are becoming more intertwined, both on the level of law and the level of institutions. And it’s up to us to find a better way forward to acknowledge the threats that we face and to develop new legal and institutional safeguards to keep America from becoming a society obsessed with security at the expense of both liberty and justice. So this goes beyond the fact of using arrest as a tool. There’s a wider threat of state violence being used as a default policy response.

Brooks

Absolutely. I did not actually go into this experience assuming I was going to write about it. When I’d been doing it for about a year, I started thinking, Well, maybe I should write a book. And, of course, my agent was saying, You should write a book. Originally, I thought it would be more of an academic book about that cluster of issues—because I think they’re all extremely important—-and the parallels between the story about policing and the story about the military, how what we label as war has an impact on the things we consider to be appropriate military tasks. As we label more and more things as crime in our societies, as we criminalize more and more activities, then more and more activities fall within the scope of the police. So it was going to be more of an academic book that talked about those issues. In the end, I think those are incredibly important. The reason I didn’t write that book was that I felt like I had a unique ability to do the ethnographic part. So I ended up leaving a lot of that for readers to—I hope—think about after they finished the book, but didn’t make it the central part. But it’s a fascinating and troubling story about how we think about the role of violence and about how the way we frame things in our cultural narratives and in our legal system has an impact on whether we end up addressing problems through violence as opposed to other means.

Robinson

Yes, it’s not an academic book. But that’s a good thing. It’s a highly readable book, and anyone can pick it up and enjoy it. Our readers and listeners should know that it’s funny, as well as very poignant.

Brooks

Violence and race—it’s hilarious!

Robinson

There are qualities of absurdity. You captured the absurdities of police bureaucracy as a fish out of water, someone wandering into this totally alien institution. The last thing I wanted to ask you was to return to what you said near the beginning, where we talked about how seeing this institution from the inside can challenge some of people’s preconceptions about it. What do you think people don’t know about the police that you saw from the inside that should inform our policy response and our discussion about it?

Brooks

Well, part of it is what I said earlier, that policing doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Police magnify and mirror society. I think that often gets lost in discussions about policing, which can degenerate into, Oh, the police are bad, let’s just get rid of the police. Getting rid of the police is not going to get rid of the deep societal injustices that we see today. It is not going to get rid of racism. It is not going to get rid of violence. Those would be good things to get rid of, but the police are a distorted reflection of the problems in our broader society. And there are two corollaries to that. First is that police can’t fix policing by themselves. Which is not to say that there aren’t changes that police departments should make urgently—there are lots of changes that they should make. But there’s only so much that can be changed from within policing. But the other piece of that is that it’s also going to be really hard to fix what’s wrong with policing without having police be part of that conversation. If we try to fix cops without talking to cops, and without accepting them as potential good faith interlocutors who might have something to contribute, we’re going to miss all kinds of stuff. One thing that really came through very clearly for me in doing this work was a more granular understanding of the everyday, minute-by-minute incentives and frustrations of officers and the reasons that certain kinds of well-intentioned top down changes wither on the vine. There’s not necessarily an act of resistance, but the organizational incentives are aligned in a very different way. And if you don’t know that, the changes you try to implement will be ineffective. You have to bring in people who can give you that more granular understanding in order to figure out what’s more likely to work.

Robinson

Well, I think any reader coming into this book, no matter what their existing stance, will find some of their preconceptions about police to be confirmed. As you know, I come from the left and you observe that some of the some cynical attitudes toward the police are correct: their attitudes toward the policed population, the blue wall of silence where there’s not necessarily accountability for officer abuses. You observe those things in practice. But everyone will find their preconceptions challenged in some way. You point to examples of officers who are earnestly and sincerely committed to doing their best to solve the problems that they’re asked to solve and in some ways their presence makes a situation better rather than worse. But it’s a book that deeply informs our conversation about policing. The book is Tangled Up in Blue: Policing the American City, by professor Rosa Brooks. Thank you so much for joining me.

Brooks

Thank you so much, Nathan.