A Georgetown professor trades her classroom for a police beat

Penguin Press, 357 pages, $28

A decade ago, Sudhir Venkatesh, a Columbia University professor of sociology, made quite a splash with his book Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets. His research consisted of shadowing a Chicago gang for 10 years, and it yielded valuable insights into the inner workings of the drug trade. Notwithstanding his book’s provocative title, however, Venkatesh never became a gang leader; rather, he closely observed gang life and culture by gaining unprecedented access.

Georgetown law professor Rosa Brooks took this a step further, as recounted in her fascinating book Tangled Up in Blue: Policing the American City. Brooks did not simply observe policing in America. This highly educated, tenured professor became the police. In her 40s, she successfully applied to Washington D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department, completed training at the police academy, and became a reserve police officer — a part-time position but one with all the rights of a full-time officer. She was assigned to 7-D, the D.C. police district with the highest concentration of Black residents, poverty, and reported crime.

The first two of the book’s three parts are framed around stories. Brooks recounts with vivid detail her experiences in the police academy and as an officer on patrol. She writes with the ease of a novelist rather than the characteristic precision of a legal scholar. To be clear, this is a good thing. Through her stories, Brooks paints word pictures of the tensions that bedevil urban policing. She allows the reader to reach conclusions about the state of policing, how race and class intersect with criminality, and whether the tools of policing address the needs of citizens. These stories — some of them “unremittingly sad,” others infuriating — let the reader see what Brooks calls “the secret city,” an entire ecosystem in the capital that is invisible to most.

Significantly, Tangled Up in Blue tells two broader stories. While the primary story is a descriptive account of policing in D.C., a secondary story explains how and why Brooks traded her academic cap and gown for an expandable baton and gun. She describes herself as “infiltrating” spaces her entire life. As a child, she infiltrated the boys-only games in her neighborhood. As a tween who preferred playing with boys, she infiltrated the girls’ clique to learn how to put on makeup. As a high school senior, no longer interested in academic pursuits, she infiltrated Harvard University for college. And so it was, as a law professor, that Brooks infiltrated the very different world of police officers.

The two stories work together to show that race and class conspire to create conditions that leave poor, Black citizens with mostly bad choices in order to survive. These choices include committing crimes. But these crimes have victims, who are mostly poor and Black. The victims of crime require and request more policing. But more policing results in the negative interactions between the police and Black citizens that have sparked deaths and many recent protests. This is what Harvard scholar Randall Kennedy calls a “negative good” in his groundbreaking work, Race, Crime, and the Law. It is a “good” for police to respond to neighborhoods with heightened crime, but a “negative” when over-policing harms the very community law enforcement purports to protect. Tangled Up in Blue puts this tension on full display.

Brooks presents stories of officers caught in the middle of this tension. They are bound by laws and rules that force them to arrest a mother stealing food for her children or a nurse who got into an inconsequential spat with her younger sister. In one passage, Brooks compares police officers to motorists, ensnared by the overinclusive reach of the motor vehicle code. In another, she explains that the profession does not tend to attract people who have “patience for ambiguity.”

While Tangled Up in Blue does not, by any means, operate as an apologia for police, it at times elides the responsibility of officers in creating a “Dickensian” narrative that Brooks abhors. She points out that both Black and White officers refer to Black citizens as “f—ing animals” and interact with them with a taught suspicion that the officer is almost always in mortal danger. Various officers nonchalantly use the descriptor “animals” in reference to 7-D. Yet it is not about race, they protest. To be sure, Brooks recognizes the “otherization” at play when officers peremptorily reject claims that racial bias insinuates itself into policing decisions by reducing 7-D residents to “animals.” Brooks acknowledges that we tend to “explain and justify our own biases,” and she allows for the claim that crime-fighting in D.C. “can even make the most well-intentioned officers cynical.” She reasons that racism is “baked so deeply into the system that it’s invisible” to the actors within that system. While that may be true, the ideal police department will endeavor to train its officers to consciously explore their own biases, since many of them — both Black and White — implicitly consider color to be a proxy for criminality.

Brooks’ book works to address this concern in its third section. There, she offers potential solutions. A byproduct of her time as a police officer is that it made her, in a sense, bilingual. She can understand and speak the language of the beat cop, as well as the argot of the legal scholar. And she used this newfound ability to bring police officers and law professors together by way of the Police for Tomorrow initiative, a creative fellowship that aims to inspire new recruits and thought leaders alike to make policing more humane, thoughtful, and effective.

Tangled Up in Blue is a wonderfully insightful book that provides a lens to critically analyze urban policing and a road map for how our most dispossessed citizens may better relate to those sworn to protect and serve.

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