Book Review by Frank Blechman
Rosa Brooks’ new book, Tangled Up in Blue: Policing the American City, does not have all the answers about how to improve policing or police. Maybe, it doesn’t have any. It is, however, an honest, straightforward account of how a Georgetown Law professor, an advocate for human rights and a critic of military operations, worked as a Reserve Police Officer in the District of Columbia, and what she learned from it.
Professor Brooks notes from the beginning that she was not sure why she was putting herself through the training and discipline as a new recruit, twice the age of most of the regulars at the police academy. She acknowledges that her colleagues in the law school and in the police were equally puzzled by her, while her activist liberal mother (progressive author Barbara Ehrenreich) openly challenged the move. And once on patrol in the 7th District (east of the Anacostia River, one of the District’s poorest and most crime-ridden areas), she was not sure if what she was experiencing was representative of policing elsewhere in the city, much less in America.
She can see and articulate the structural failures and injustices behind the tense interactions she experiences every shift.
Bit by bit, professor Brooks leads us through her own learning curve to her own conclusions. As a sworn police officer, she comes to understand why other officers get cynical about the communities they serve, seeing the sadness and misery, failure and desperation day after day and night after night. As a law professor and human rights advocate, she can understand why many folks fear and resent the high police presence in their midst, even while other residents demand it. Behind all that, she can see and articulate the structural failures and injustices behind the tense interactions she experiences every shift. She knows the statistics and makes the connections between over-criminalization, over-militarization, and poor results of present policing policy.
Her story takes me back nearly 30 years to a time when I got involved as a university professor in efforts to intervene in youth gangs here in Northern Virginia, trying to reduce both intergang violence and gang recruitment itself. Interacting with religious leaders, social workers, educators, and police, I came to understand their differing perspectives and roles. Getting to know the young gang members, mostly 14-17-year-old kids, I got to feel their yearning for family and safety, for the excitement and attraction of gang life. I saw up close the disconnect between youth and adults. I tried to help them find ways to work together better, but mostly remained an outsider, a well-intentioned do-gooder.
Brooks went farther than I ever considered. She threw herself into the problem, literally living in both the world of the streets and in academia for over three years. And because she built up enough credibility in both worlds, she was able to bring folks together to consider making change. And then, to actually make some changes for the better.
Her book is therefore a very valuable addition to the conversation about what “police reform” means. If you care about this issue, this book might not be the place to start. But it is certainly a must-read addition to your bookshelf.