The trial of Derek Chauvin, accused of killing George Floyd, has compelled us to think anew about reconfiguring police power in the United States. Last year, police killed over one thousand US citizens. Yet the vast majority of police officers never point a gun at anyone.
Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown University Law professor and former State and Defense department official — and author of Tangled Up in Blue: Policing the American City — went inside the DC Metropolitan police as a sworn officer to get a better look at police culture. She acknowledges that giving a law professor a gun and a badge — as part of a special community program — sounds crazy. But what she learned, and what she shares with us in this WhoWhatWhy podcast, offers a unique perspective on the Chauvin trial unfolding this week.
Practicing the best of participatory journalism, Brooks came to a deeper understanding of the culture of violence in policing.
In talking about her own police training, Brooks details much of the mundane work that police actually do (she points out that driving a taxi in Washington is twice as dangerous as being a police officer).
Yet police recruits are reminded every day that they should see themselves as constantly under lethal threat, and that anybody might kill them at any time.
In explaining why she thinks we are asking too much of the police, she talks about the nexus between police and military culture, and argues that our cities are both under- and over-policed.
If we are ever to change police culture, she says, we need to take a hard look at those who choose to become police officers and what kind of training we provide them. It’s a conversation that’s essential to understanding — and ultimately preventing — tragic events like the death of George Floyd on a Minneapolis street last May.
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. One of our most distinguished journalists once told me that the key to writing or understanding any story is first and foremost, go there. In this time of confusion and debate about facts, writers also need to reach into our history of full-throated muscular participatory journalism, the kind practiced by the likes of George Plimpton, Truman Capote, Hunter Thompson, and David Foster Wallace. This is exactly what my guest Georgetown University Professor Rosa Brooks did, except it wasn’t really her plan. She was working with the Pentagon when she heard about the DC Metropolitan Police Corp Program.
Intrigued at first, suddenly she had a badge, a gun, and a uniform, and a whole lot of academic ideas about cops, criminal justice, law enforcement, and what it means to protect and to serve. Suddenly, she was over and inside the blue world. It was as if she was going into another country. She had to learn a new culture, a new language, new attitudes. Even her family feared not only for her safety, but that she would somehow go native on the journey.
We’re going to talk about all of this today with Rosa Brooks. She’s currently a Law Professor at Georgetown University and founder of Georgetown’s Innovative Policing Program. She has worked previously at the defense department, the state department, and for several international human rights organizations. Her new book about her experiences with the Metropolitan DC Police is entitled, Tangled Up in Blue: Policing the American City. It is my pleasure to welcome Rosa Brooks here to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. Rosa, thanks so much for joining us.
Rosa Brooks: Jeff, thanks for having me on.
Jeff: It’s great to have you here. First of all, let’s begin by telling our listeners a little bit about how you came to this position with the DC Metropolitan Police Squad.
Rosa: [laughs] Insanity, or at least that’s what my family and my colleagues and friends all told me, a moment of total insanity. You know I’ve always been fascinated as an academic, as a writer, as a journalist, human rights advocate by the relationship between law and violence. And I’ve worked over the course of my career in places ranging from Kosovo and Iraq and Sierra Leone, Afghanistan. I’ve always just been really fascinated by the way different groups talk about violence, their own, the violence of others, and how they try to tell stories to make sense of their own roles and other people’s roles.
When I discovered that the DC Police had this fantastically crazy program– It’s a crazy program, you can volunteer and apply to the DC Police Department. If you’re accepted, you go through the Police Academy, same training as regular full-time cops, and you come out as a sworn, armed, unpaid officer. I thought, “Whoa, you’d give a law professor a gun? Are you nuts?” As soon as I heard about this program, I thought, “Wow, that would be so fascinating to go into this world that often seems so closed and so opaque to outsiders and get a chance to see how police officers themselves make sense of their role and their world, what stories they tell themselves and others.”
Jeff: Did you see this as an exercise in something that you knew you wanted to write about and understand in a participatory journalism kind of way or something that you thought would give you greater insight into the work you do as a law professor?
Rosa: More the latter than the former. I didn’t know what I was going to do with this. It just seemed fascinating to me. Maybe I read too many detective novels or something, but it seemed fascinating. I was sure it would somehow be grist for the mill, but I didn’t really know how. It was only when I was about a year into it that I started thinking, maybe I should write about this. Maybe that’s one of the things that should come out of this. The two big things that did come out of it, one was the book that we’re talking about today, Tangled Up in Blue, and the other was a program I started at Georgetown called the Innovative Policing Program. When I went into it, I didn’t know that either of those things would come out of it.
Jeff: I want to come back to something you said a few moments ago in terms of the violence that’s inherent in policing today, particularly in our cities, and that the idea of, to protect and to serve has really morphed into much more of a violent exercise.
Rosa: That’s both profoundly true and also misleading. It’s profoundly true in the sense that American police kill about 1,000 people a year which is quite stunning when you compare American policing to policing in other countries, for instance, European countries. In the UK, most police officers aren’t even armed. On the one hand, yes, it’s a breathtaking level of violence. On the other hand, in terms of the experience of the average officer, the overwhelming majority of police officers will go their entire career never even pointing their weapons at someone, much less using them against anyone.
Trying to unpack that seeming contradiction, where we both have this incredibly high level of violence compared to policing elsewhere, lethal violence, about a 1,000 dead people a year killed by police in the United States with the fact that almost all police officers almost all the time are not using lethal force, or even for that matter, any force that they’re– They’re doing a whole lot of stuff that is frankly much more mundane.
Jeff: Given that how much does the violent aspect of it infuse the culture because the danger is certainly there all the time. To what degree is it part of police culture? What did you come to understand about that?
Rosa: It’s very much part of police culture and it’s part of how police define themselves. They define themselves as, “We have a dangerous job. We run towards the sound of gunfire when everybody else is running away.” That’s true. It is a dangerous job and cops do constantly and willingly put themselves into incredibly fraught situations, which can become violent.
Even if you go to a domestic violence call and partners are fighting and you’re physically putting your body in between them sometimes. It’s such a huge part of how cops think of themselves. It’s also a really distorting part. One of the things that struck me when I was a recruit at the DC Police Academy was how much the unofficial lesson of the Academy was, anybody could kill you at any time.
We were constantly watching videos of police officers getting killed. They’d do a traffic stop and somebody would jump out of the car and shoot them. They’d go to a domestic violence call and the door would open and somebody come out and shoot them. We would be asked by our instructors to analyze these and talk about what could they have done differently, how could they have approached the scene differently so they wouldn’t get killed, and constantly told there’s no such thing as a routine call.
Any encounter could turn lethal in a millisecond, you always have to be vigilant. Again, that’s both absolutely true, but it really distorts how officers think about their work and respond because policing is dangerous, but it is not nearly as dangerous as people think. In fact, only a relatively small number of police officers are killed on the job each year.
You’re more likely to be murdered on the job, if you’re a taxi driver than a cop, for instance, about twice as likely to be murdered, but nobody says, “My God, we’ve got to arm taxi drivers and train them to shoot first and ask questions later.” If you’re a cop and you’ve had it drilled into you from your first day at the Police Academy, that anyone you meet could pose a lethal threat, you start seeing everybody you meet as potentially a lethal threat. Some cops inevitably are going to shoot first and ask questions later. That’s part of the reason we end up with a big pile of dead bodies at the end of every year.
Jeff: Is that cognitive dissidence that’s at the heart of this, this sense of danger, the sense of being trained, and precisely the way you’re talking about it, does it make it impossible to try and create any different culture within police work?
Rosa: No, I don’t think it does at all. I think one of the hardest conversations I’ve had with police officers is when I say, “You know what, guys? We’re always congratulating ourselves on running towards gunfire and how we do this dangerous job. It’s not as dangerous as you think. People really don’t like hearing that because they want to think of ourselves as brave and– It feels like people are saying, when they say that like, ‘You’re not as tough as you think you are. You’re not as brave.’“ I think when you start having those more serious conversations about how much of what police are trained to do and primed to do is focusing on the hypothetical one time out of 10,000 that somebody is going to be trying to kill you and that’s at the expense of the 9,999 times that the person you encounter, even if you’re arresting them, even if they’re a violent criminal, is not going to be trying to hurt you.
It means that you’re not investing enough time in de-escalation skills, in learning how tactically to slow things down to give everybody the time, the space, the distance to calm down and make decisions in a relaxed way rather than in an adrenaline-fueled way.
Once you get cops to have those conversations, a lot of officers start agreeing that nobody likes feeling like they’re scared all the time and when you can say, “You don’t have to be scared all the time.” In fact, if you’re not scared all the time because you realize most people aren’t trying to kill you, it opens up a whole range of other options for how you interact.
Jeff: You worked at The Pentagon for a while. Is there a nexus between police training and attitude and military training and attitude? If there is, is that a good or a bad thing?
Rosa: That’s a complicated question. One of the things that drove my interest in this is I had written previously about how in many parts of the world American warfighting looks a lot like urban policing. I was interested in the ways in which increasingly, in this country policing can look like warfighting. Looking at that blurring and merging of these roles is part of what I was really interested in doing, but I think the military itself is not homogeneous.
The experience of being a naval intelligence officer or an Air Force pilot is really different than being a Marine Corps grunt or an army mechanic who fixes vehicles at the base. There’s been a lot of talk in US about the militarization of policing. Most of that has focused on these very surface things like rural police departments. They think they need Humvees and assault weapons, but if you think about military culture, military training, military doctrine, there are both terrible things that have been imported by police from the military into policing.
Frankly, there are some things that policing will probably improve a great deal if they imported from the military. I actually think it’s a more complicated issue than people often realize because we focus so narrowly on the cops with Humvees as opposed to thinking of militarization of all these other dimensions.
Jeff: Which really goes to this issue of how police departments and police are perceived today in that a large percentage of the people think cities are overpoliced and an equally large percentage think that they’re underpoliced. Talk about that from the point of view of what you hear from police officers themselves.
Rosa: They’re both right. American cities are simultaneously under and overpoliced. Often I think the cops are very defensive about that. They say, “People say we’re an occupying force in these poor communities and communities of color, but we don’t go there because we’re trying to oppress people. We’re there because people are calling 911 and they’re asking for police services.”
That’s true. I think there are two things that both true at once. One is that we live in a society that has criminalized all sorts of forms of extremely trivialist behavior. We then tell the police to enforce the law, which means that police go into low-income communities and they arrest people for ridiculously trivial offenses. Those arrests virtually never make anybody better off, not the victim, not the perpetrator, not the communities, but police don’t create those laws.
We do through our elected representatives. We have created a system in which we have radically overcriminalized various minor misdeeds and we have excessively long sentence. We have a criminal justice system that is just horrible and that sends police out to arrest way too many people for way too many trivial things with terrible consequences for communities, but it is also true, at the same time, that violent crime is real.
It’s not a plot invented by the far-right to justify police occupation of American cities. People get robbed at gunpoint, they get carjacked, they get raped, they get stabbed, they get beaten up, they get murdered. That’s real and causes tremendous suffering too and people call the police.
For every person you meet, and you will meet lots of them who says, “I don’t want the police in my community. Get them out of my community. They make me feel scared. They don’t make me feel safe.” You get another resident of the same community who says, “No, I want more policing. We have a right to the protection of the police. I feel safer with the police car on my corner.”
I think what those groups have in common is that everybody says, “Hey, we want policing that feels like respectful protection not that feels like a new street gang, just this one wears uniforms that the state gives them. We want better policing, we want fair policing, we want just policing. We want a better criminal justice system,” but most people don’t want no policing at all.
Jeff: Given the complexity and the nuance of all this as you’ve learned, as you’re talking about, as you write about in the book, are we asking too much of essentially a self-selecting population that decides to become police officers?
Rosa: Oh, that’s an interesting question because I think there are couple different pieces to that question. One is, are we asking too much of police? The answer to that I think is yes, we are. We want cops to be all these contradictory things at once. Warriors, protectors, mediators, social workers, medics, and it’s really hard to do any one of those things well, and it’s impossible to do all of them well, but we want cops–
We structured our society in such a way that we’re demanding that police do all of those things in a single shift. No wonder they can’t do it most of the time. I think the other part of your question goes to, right now, sort of a self-selecting group. I do believe very deeply that if you want to change policing, we also need to change who we recruit and who becomes police officers and we should–
I sometimes drive my law students nuts when I say this. I say, “You’re critical of the police? Go become a cop and figure out how to change the system from within,” because we need to have outside agitators waving signs and saying, “Defund the police.” That’s actually really important, that kind of external pressure, but we also need people that will work to understand how things are playing or understand the incentives they take on a really granular level. This can change police culture from the inside.
Jeff: How difficult was it for you to gain trust and to gain acceptance from other police officers?
Rosa: None of us are as special as we think we are. I think I went into it thinking, “Oh my goodness, this police officer is going to be really suspicious of me because I’m a law professor and I’m a journalist and I’m older.” In fact, the vast majority of the cops I met they didn’t care, they didn’t know. Very few people asked me much about my background.
When they did, I would usually say something like– They’d say, “Oh, you’re a reserve officer. What do you do?” Rest of the time I’d say something boring like I’m a lawyer and then they would lose interest–
Rosa: –or I’d say, “I teach,” and they would assume I taught elementary school or something and they would lose interest. Basically, I think to most of my partners I was just another cop who depending on their point of view and where I was in my training cycle and in some cases, somebody they had to show the ropes to or somebody they could look at as an equal partner when I was further along. Most people weren’t actually that curious, [chuckles] which was also humbling.
Jeff: All right. What’s the most surprising or important thing you think you came away with from this experience?
Rosa: I don’t know if it’s surprising or it shouldn’t be surprising but just this really deep sense that in our society, we love these binary oppositions and soundbites. It’s either cops are underappreciated heroes or they’re brutal racist thugs. It’s just really very powerfully, was borne in on me that the reality is much, much more complicated, that there’s a lot that is wrong with policing in America and some of those things are things that police themselves can change.
We could change how we train and we should change how we train. We can change how police departments recruit and who they recruit. We can change how they operate and that would help. That would make a difference, but at the same time, quite a lot of what is wrong with policing, as I said earlier, is stuff that cops can’t change because they’re working in a system they didn’t create. They’re enforcing laws they didn’t make in a social context. They often can’t do much to change.
This is something I tell my law students all the time, “You don’t like policing? Instead of complaining about cops, think about your own role as future lawyers. Some of you are going to run for City Council or for Congress or whatever. Some of you are going to be prosecutors or judges or defense attorneys. All of you are going to be citizens who have some responsibility to make your communities better. If you don’t like what people are arrested for by the police, focus on getting rid of these stupid laws that turn minor misbehavior into crime. If you don’t like how many traffic stops and with arrests or violence, why are we sending armed uniformed people to enforce civil traffic law?”
What a bizarre thing when you actually stop and think about it. Imagine if we sent armed uniformed cops to your door, because you missed an IRS filing deadlines or you violated some minor provision of your city’s residential zoning code. We would think that was insane. Yet we have decided that we need uniformed, armed people to stop your car when you make a red turn on, right. When there’s a sign that says, no red on right. Surprise. A lot of those encounters don’t go well and people hate them, but we don’t need to do that.
We, as a society, decided that that’s how we want to handle this and we don’t have to do it that way. I think that those two twin lessons, it’s complicated. Police can’t change everything on their own. The rest of us need to look in the mirror too. We actually can choose to do this very, very differently, really, were driven home for me.
Jeff: Rosa Brooks’ book is Tangled Up in Blue: Policing the American City. Rosa, I thank you so much for spending time with us.
Rosa: My pleasure. Thank you so much for having me, Jeff.
Jeff: Thank you and thank you for listening and for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to www.WhoWhatWhy.org/donate
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