Law professor and human rights activist Rosa Brooks wanted to better understand police violence and the racial disparities in America’s criminal justice system, so she decided to join the police force as a volunteer.
As a reserve officer with the Washington, D.C. police department, Brooks received the same training as officers at the police academy and was sent on patrol like other police. From 2016 until 2020, she carried a badge and a gun and worked a minimum of 24 hours a month — all on a voluntary basis.
Brooks says her family — including her mother, writer and left-wing activist Barbara Ehrenreich — was not supportive of the endeavor.
“Not only did [my mother] think it was not a good idea, she affirmatively thought it was a bad idea,” Brooks says. “She said, ‘The police are the enemy. You’re joining the enemy.'”
Brooks agreed that the police system needed reform, but she argued that joining the force was the first step in that process. “If you want to change something, you have to understand it,” she says. “It’s very hard to understand something from the outside.”
During her time on the force, Brooks responded to calls for a variety of serious issues, including domestic violence, robbery and shots fired. She also saw firsthand how trivial offenses sometimes resulted in arrest. The experience left her with a long list of ideas about how police departments could reform. But Brooks is quick to note that it’s not just the police who need to change.
“How do you fix a system in which we have criminalized so many trivial offenses? How do you fix a system in which existing racial disparities and racial inequities end up being at best mirrored and at worst exacerbated and amplified by ordinary policing?” Brooks asks. “The experience … left me with a really clear sense that the deepest problems in policing can’t be changed by police — they have to be changed by the rest of us.”
Brooks writes about her experiences in the new memoir, Tangled Up in Blue: Policing The American City.
On becoming an officer after the killings of unarmed Black people and large-scale Black Lives Matter protests
The year I applied [for the reserve force] and during the whole time I was at the police academy, then as now, there were protests in American cities about police violence and race and policing. But I was worried about what people would think of it. I was worried that people would think I was becoming a bad guy, because certainly in the communities that I’m part of, there weren’t a lot of people saying, “oh, well, it’s more complicated than that,” or “well, the police do good things too.” I think my curiosity was stronger than those concerns.
On trying to be compassionate while also vigilant
It just began to dawn on me at the police academy exactly how impossible the job police have is, because … we’re told to treat everyone with respect, show empathy, de-escalate situations, stay calm, show compassion. You’re also told anybody could kill you at any time. And that, in many ways, was the single most powerful message that recruits at the police academy absorbed. And what that meant was you have to constantly be looking at people’s hands. You can’t let people sit down on the sofa, because it’s too easy to hide a weapon between the sofa cushions and they could pull it out. You shouldn’t interview suspects in the kitchen, because there are too many knives available to them. Don’t look them in the eye. Look at their hands all the time. Be constantly alert for these sudden motions where somebody is reaching for something. … It’s kind of hard to show respect, empathy and compassion while you’re staring at somebody’s hands fixedly and refusing to let them sit on their sofa.
On watching videos of police officers hurt or killed on duty as part of her unofficial training
I think that the overall impact of just video after video of cops getting run over and shot and dying … was this sense of constant threat, constant danger. And you sort of internalize that sense and it makes a lot of police officers, I think, very jittery and frankly, very trigger happy. And thank goodness I never saw, during my time with the D.C. police, anyone use force in a way that I thought was inappropriate.
On all the gear police officers carry on their belt
You see these cops and they’re kind of walking a little bowlegged and they’re swaggering around. I always thought that was sort of related to being arrogant or wanting to be intimidating. But I realized that it’s mostly just that you have so much stuff on your belt and your vest that you can’t walk normally. You’ve got stuff in your way.
So you wear an inner belt and then you wear an outer belt that attaches to the inner belt. And on that belt, at a bare minimum, you have your radio, you have an expandable baton, you have pepper spray, you have a tourniquet. You have your gun, you have a flashlight, you have your handcuffs, you have a little pouch containing rubber gloves. And often you have a whole lot more than that too. You need somewhere to put other junk. You may also have a leg pouch with your tactical emergency casualty care kit. You have to have pens. You have to have a certain number of the right kind of pen attached to you in the right kind of way. You have to have your body-worn camera attached in the right position and the right part of your shirt or your vest. You have to have your little Secret Service-style earphones or some other earphones so that your radio is not blasting to everybody in the world. You have your cell phone. …
I could go on, but it’s quite a long list. … It’s a lot of stuff. I weighed myself once before I put on my uniform and after, and it was about 30 pounds of stuff, all told.
On the wording of the slogan “defund the police”
I think the wording is unfortunate, but I think that the underlying call to rethink how we allocate resources is absolutely right. And I think the wording puts people off. … I think the reason for that is that people recognize that although police abuses are real and the systemic racism in the system is real, that crime is also real and not that many people want to say, “I’m cool with no cops.” The even worse slogan is “abolish the police.” So I think the rhetoric has not been super helpful. But I think that if you get beyond the the word, it’s actually something where there’s an enormous amount of common ground between police and critics of policing, because the the impetus really, I think, is to say, ‘Why do we have so much money for enforcement and not not very much money for social services? Why do we have so much money for enforcement and not enough money to focus on changing the structural injustices that lead to the racial disparities we see in policing?’
I think if you ask the average police officer … “Do you want to be the social workers, the mediators, the medics and so on?” They’ll be like, “No, no, no, I’m terrible at that. I don’t think we should be doing this. I really wish there were other people who could do this because I know we’re not doing it right and we shouldn’t be doing it at all.” That’s where there’s a lot of common ground. And indeed, if you say to them, “Do you want to be locking up all these poor people?,” most of them will say, “My God, no. Of course I don’t. But that’s what you told me to do.” And if you don’t want me to do that or you don’t want my colleagues to do that, then change the system so you’re not telling us to do that anymore.
On the importance of avoiding stereotypes when talking about the police and police reform
I think whenever we demonize anybody, we need to stop and say, “Whoa, hold on, how is this going to help?” Whether we’re doing what I saw police often do, and demoniz[ing] residents of the communities they serve … that’s incredibly dangerous. But it’s also incredibly dangerous when we say the police, “they’re just brutal pigs.” Whenever you find yourself reducing a group of human beings to a cruel soundbite, a cruel, dehumanizing sound bite, you’re on the wrong track. …
The day-to-day lived experience of police officers is quite different from the stereotypes. The complicated ways in which police training enables abuses are very real. The degree to which police themselves often feel trapped within the same system that they’re working in is very real, [so is] the degree to which police officers cannot change many of the worst aspects of policing. There are so many parts of policing the cops can’t change and didn’t create. There are also things that they did create and can change and should change.
Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.