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To Understand Police Reform, Law Professor Volunteered To Join The Force

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.




This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Rosa Brooks, has written a new memoir about her experiences as a reserve police officer with the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department. As a reserve police officer, she had the same training as other cops at the police academy and was sent on patrol like other police. But this was a volunteer position in which she was required to work 24 hours a month. When she took on this work, she was in her 40s with two children, a spouse and a full-time job as a tenured law professor at Georgetown University. She wanted a firsthand understanding of policing because she was disturbed by the statistics on police shootings and by racial disparities in the justice system. Her husband thought she was insane to take on this work, and her mother, writer and left-wing activist Barbara Ehrenreich, was also wildly unenthusiastic.

While serving as a police officer from 2016 to 2020, Rosa Brooks founded the Program on Innovative Policing at Georgetown Law School, which launched the Police for Tomorrow Fellowship with Washington, D.C.'s Metropolitan Police Department. Brooks previously worked as a human rights advocate in the U.S. and abroad. During the Obama administration, she established an office on international humanitarian policy at the Defense Department. She studied and wrote about South African police culture during the transition from apartheid and about concentration camps in Bosnia, blood feuds in Kosovo and child soldiers in Uganda. Her new memoir is called "Tangled Up In Blue: Policing In The American City (ph)."

Rosa Brooks, welcome to FRESH AIR.

ROSA BROOKS: Thanks, Terry. It's great to be here.

GROSS: So tell us more about why you wanted to become a cop.

BROOKS: (Laughter) I don't have a good answer to that. I think I must have read too many detective novels during the course of my life. I have two answers to that question. One is one that sounds better, which is that throughout my career I've worked in, as you said, a human rights activist, et cetera. As a scholar, I've always been fascinated by the relationship between law and violence and in particular by the stories people tell to explain and justify different kinds of violence. And I've always been interested in policing from that perspective. That's one answer. And it's true. But I think the other answer is I was just curious when I discovered that D.C. had this program where anyone, even a law professor, could volunteer to be a police officer and go through the police academy and so on. It just - I thought, that is so strange. I can't believe they would give me a badge and a gun and let me be a cop. That's crazy. And I just thought I wanted to do it.

GROSS: I think when you joined, there were already protests against police departments around the country because of the killing of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray. So were you worried about what you were getting yourself into and whether you would be part of what is perceived as the bad guys?

BROOKS: I was. And absolutely, the year I applied and the - during the whole time I was at the police academy, you know, then as now, there were protests in American cities about police violence and race and policing. But I was worried. 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. And I do believe very deeply that if you want to change something, you have to understand it. And it's very hard to understand something from the outside - you know, that if you want to change policing, you need to understand at a really granular level what the incentives are that police face day to day, what kinds of stories they tell themselves and one another about why they do what they do - that that's part of figuring out what the what the levers for change are likely to be.

GROSS: You didn't exactly get a lot of support, initially, from your family. Your husband, who had been in the military special ops, thought you were insane. Your mother, Barbara Ehrenreich, a lifelong leftist, author of "Nickel And Dimed," about the difficulty of surviving on many low-paying jobs. As research for that book, she worked at Walmart. She became a waitress, a hotel maid. She cleaned homes just to see, what's it like to live on this kind of wage? And the answer was not easy. She thought you were crazy, too, and she really opposed it. Yeah, what kind of conversation did you have with her about that?

BROOKS: Oh, we had a lot of pretty tense conversations. She was - not only did she think it was not a good idea. She affirmatively (laughter) thought it was a bad idea. And she made - she had no hesitation about letting me know. I mean, she said, the police are the enemy. You're joining the enemy. And I was very - I was upset. You know, we had some real fights about it. And I said, you need - please trust me a little bit, Mom. I'm not going to go do something evil. But trust me. And I think that was a hard sell because I was not having an easy time articulating why I wanted to do this. And in a sense, I can't blame her from having some skepticism. The family I come from - if I had said from the get go, I'm infiltrating the police so that I can write an investigative piece revealing the brutality and racism of police, she wouldn't have had any objection. She would have said, be careful. But the idea that I was going in in a more open-ended way, and I didn't decide to write this book until after I was already out of the police academy - I think that really bothered her. And it did cause a lot of tensions between us.

GROSS: And your conclusions. A lot of your conclusions have to do with, it's complicated. It's not - there's a lot of grays. It's not all black and white.

BROOKS: Yeah, this made for the world's worst elevator pitch after I...


BROOKS: ...After I did decide to write a book about it. And so then it got much easier to explain to my colleagues what I was doing - right? - because everybody got that. What are you - why are you doing this? Oh, you're writing a book. Oh, I see. And people say that's so fascinating. You know, you're writing a book. Tell me what your argument is. And I would sort of shrug uncomfortably and say something like, well, you know, it's complicated. That's a terrible elevator pitch. But it's also - you know, it's also true on a deep level. I think that is my takeaway. It's complicated on multiple levels. You know, it's complicated why people go into policing. 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. 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. But it really is complicated.

GROSS: Let's talk about some of the contradictions that you were taught. You were taught any time you go out on a call, you might get killed. So you have to be really careful. You were also told you'd better not do the wrong thing because the police department will not stand by you. You'll get thrown under the bus. I mean, the police department didn't teach you that, but everybody else told you that. But the police department did teach you if you do the wrong thing, you're out. Why did that seem contradictory? Why was that hard to process?

BROOKS: I think there was - it just began to dawn on me at the police academy exactly how impossible the job police have is because, as you say, we're told, 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 I think 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. You know, 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.

And it's - to start with, 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. You know, it's - there's a built-in contradiction right there (laughter). And this sense of being constantly under scrutiny by two potentially hostile groups - one, I think police are very keenly aware at the moment that everything they do will be scrutinized by an unforgiving public. Everything - their body-worn camera videos will be out there if anything bad happens. Ordinary people are videotaping them with cellphone videos. And their own department - there was a very clear sense of, you know, if you pose a problem for the department, you will be out. You will be abandoned. I don't mean to say too much, you know, oh, poor, poor police officers because police officers nonetheless exercised tremendous power over people and sometimes abused that power egregiously.

GROSS: When you say you were constantly taught at the police academy that every call could lead to your death, so always be prepared, always be searching for weapons, for any way that somebody can kill you. And that was reinforced through a lot of videos that you saw of police being attacked. Can you describe some of the videos and the impact it had on you as an officer in training?

BROOKS: Yeah. This was one of the - part of the unofficial curriculum of the police academy was constantly watching videos that our instructors would refer to as officer safety videos. And essentially what you do is, you know, they'd find some YouTube videos of bad things happening to police officers, and we'd watch them. And the question for us would be, what did this officer do wrong? You know, how could this officer have avoided this? And so we'd watch these videos of, you know, officers walking up to cars at traffic stops and having somebody jump out of the car and shoot them. You know, we'd watch these videos of people going to a domestic violence call and just going blithely up to the door, and somebody opens the door and shoots them - you know, just - and on and on and on.

So you get this sort of saturation with these images of police officers getting killed. And the purpose of this was to say, you know, look. How could that officer have approached this vehicle differently? How could the officers have approached the - you know, maybe they shouldn't have stood right in front of the door. You know, they should have stood to the side so that if somebody burst out with a weapon, they wouldn't be right in the line of fire and so on.

And up to a point, that's obviously useful. But I think that the overall impact of just video after video of cops getting run over and shot and, you know, dying from inhaling noxious fumes at a traffic - you know, was this sense of constant threat, constant danger. And, you know, you sort of internalize that sense, and it makes a lot of police officers, I think, very jittery and, frankly, very trigger happy. And, you know, thank goodness I never saw, during my time with the D.C. police, anyone use force in a way that I thought was inappropriate.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Rosa Brooks. Her new memoir about studying American policing by becoming a cop for four years is called "Tangled Up In Blue." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Rosa Brooks. Her new memoir, "Tangled Up In Blue," is about her time as a volunteer reserve police officer in Washington, D.C.'s Metropolitan Police Department. While she was a reserve police officer, she founded Georgetown's Innovative Policing Program, which partnered with the Metropolitan Police Department to create the Police for Tomorrow Fellowship.

So an example that you give of a call in which things could have gone really badly was when you and your partner answered a call, a domestic violence call, and your partner was interviewing a teenage girl in that home. Tell us the story.

BROOKS: Yeah. So we get a call for a domestic violence situation. And we arrived, and it became clear that it was an altercation between a teenage girl and her mother. And I was interviewing the mother out in the stairwell of the apartment, and my partner was interviewing the girl in the living room. And eventually, we switched, which is sort of standard practice. You each interview each person. But I get into the living room, and the girl is extremely upset. And as I sort of tried to figure out what had happened, it became clear that the girl had reached into her pocketbook. And my partner had sort of flipped out and yelled at her and said, take your hand out of there; you know, get that away from you - and had really upset her.

And she was saying, I was just trying to reach for my phone so that I could show you that I was the person who called 911. And he said, well, I didn't know what you were going to do. I didn't know what you were going to pull out of there. And I thought, wow, boy, that could so easily have ended up with a dead girl. Right? When you get someone who's so primed to think that, you know, anybody could kill you - and thank God it didn't. You know, thank God all he did was yell at her. But even that is incredibly damaging. You know, here's a girl who's already traumatized and she's got this armed man, armed uniformed man, who's shouting at her.

GROSS: Yeah, and she called the police for help, and what she's getting is a police officer who thinks she's going to kill him.

BROOKS: Precisely.

GROSS: So contrast that to a situation that could have gone wrong but didn't, like the officer behaved in a very calm way.

BROOKS: Yeah, I remember another call where a different partner and I were called - there was a burglar alarm in an empty apartment. And we get to the apartment and the front door is ajar, which, you know, is an ominous sign that somebody is in the apartment. So we both drew our weapons and held them down at our sides. And we tiptoed inside and there's a dark living room. And then suddenly a light comes on at the end of the hallway and a silhouette just sort of pops out at us of a male silhouette. And that's exactly the kind of situation you train for at the firing range. You know, something pops out at you all of a sudden. You shoot it.

And luckily, the guy I was with, my partner, was a very calm guy and he kept his gun down and he just said, hey, there, it's the police. We got a call about a burglar alarm. And, you know, could you step out here so we can see you? And it turned out it was another kid. It was a teenage boy. And he said, I can't. I'm naked. I just got out of the shower. And my partner very calmly said, well, you know, how about you go put a towel on or something? And the kid says, OK, and he disappears and he comes back out and he's got a towel and he's dripping wet. And he's clearly terrified, you know. But in that situation, my partner and I said, you know, hey, don't worry, it's fine and everything. We got his dad on the phone. Dad hadn't realized he was going to go to the apartment and it was fine. It was a non-event. We didn't even have to file a report because nothing had happened. But that was just another situation where with a different officer, I thought, wow, you know, you get another dead kid.

GROSS: The gear that you had to wear attached to your belts - and I say multiple belts (laughter) - affected how you could walk and move and how you physically felt. Would you describe what you had to carry in those belts?

BROOKS: Oh, goodness. It's a long, long list. How much time do you have?

GROSS: (Laughter).

BROOKS: You know, yes, I had always thought of this sort of cop swagger, you know, you see these cops and they're kind of walking a little bowlegged and they're swaggering around. And 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 know, you need somewhere to put other junk. You may also have a leg pouch with your tactical emergency casualty care kit. You know, you have to - oh, you have to have pens. You have to have a certain number of the right kind of pen attached 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's not blasting to everybody in the world. You have your cellphone.

And in the case for most of the time I patrolled, you had to have two cellphones because you had to use your police department-issued phone to label body-worn camera videos. But the police department had decided not to pay for phone service on the phones it gave you. It only paid for sort of data, which meant that if you wanted to be able to make calls, you had to have a second phone, your own phone, for the purpose of making calls. So, yeah, I could go on, but it's quite a long list.

GROSS: That's a lot of stuff.

BROOKS: Yeah, 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.

GROSS: And as you point out, this is especially hard - because of the belts, it's especially hard for women when you have to pee.

BROOKS: (Laughter) Yes, yes, yes. This is a little-known fact and very well known to female police officers, you know, that because you've got all this stuff on your belt, men, if they need to pee, they just unzip their fly. But for women, you had to sort of take everything off and put it on again. And it'd take 10 minutes to do that, so you were constantly worrying that some vital, urgent call would come in while you were in the ladies room and you were carefully trying to do everything up. And I knew many female police officers who said I just try not to drink anything because I don't want to have to pee during my shift, which is crazy. And one of many small but important reasons it's so hard to attract women to law enforcement.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Rosa Brooks. Her new memoir about her four years as a reserve police officer with Washington, D.C.'s Metropolitan Police Department is called "Tangled Up In Blue." She's a law professor at Georgetown University, where she founded the Innovative Policing Program. We'll be right back after this short break. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Rosa Brooks, a law professor at Georgetown University who became a cop to see from the inside what police work was really like and better understand the racial disparities in the social justice system and why there's so much police violence. From 2016 to 2020, she served as a reserve police officer with Washington, D.C.'s Metropolitan Police Department. It's a volunteer position that requires you work 24 hours a month. You receive the same training and have to pass the same tests as any other MPD officer. While serving on the force, Rosa Brooks founded Georgetown's Innovative Policing Program, which partnered with the Metropolitan Police Department to create the Police for Tomorrow Fellowship. Would you describe the neighborhood that you patrolled once you became an officer?

BROOKS: Sure. I was in the seventh district of Washington, D.C., which is essentially the southern part of Anacostia. It's the area east of the Anacostia River, often also referred to in shorthand by D.C.ers (ph) as southeast. And it's the poorest part of D.C. It's largely African American. It's the neighborhood that when poor people get pushed out of the rest of the city they often land in. And it has historically been the most crime-ridden part of D.C. in terms of violent crimes. And every year, it typically has the lion's share of D.C. homicides.

GROSS: Had you been to the neighborhood before patrolling it?

BROOKS: I had. I had done volunteer work with a group called So Others Might Eat and was doing food delivery to homebound senior citizens in the neighborhood. And that was actually part of the reason that I volunteered to work in that neighborhood was that I felt that I did know it and had seen a very different side of it as well, a side of, you know, a lot of people who were really struggling and a lot of really decent people who had, you know, spent their lives being conductors on the city's buses or teachers in the city's schools and were just trying to sort of live their lives in peace and in dignity.

GROSS: What were some of the typical calls you'd get?

BROOKS: Lots and lots and lots of disorderly conduct calls, and those could mean anything from there are boys on the corner hassling girls who walk by to somebody's having a party and the music is too loud. We once got a call - there was an elderly man who had gotten sick of the smell of marijuana in the stairwell in his apartment building, so he decided to use pepper spray as an air freshener, which didn't endear him much to his neighbors. We got a lot of domestic violence calls and a lot of simple assault calls, lots and lots of sounds of gunshots where you'd go and sometimes it was nothing, sometimes it was fireworks, sometimes it was someone - clearly you'd find shell casings and there had been shooting, but there was nobody around, and no one would say what had happened. But there was also a lot of robbery, a lot of burglaries, a lot of violent crime, a lot of shootings and stabbings.

GROSS: There were violations that you assumed were a result of poverty. And I think you're pretty sensitive about this kind of thing. And you have a past as a human rights activist and humanitarian worker. And I'm thinking about violations like driving without a license. And you could assume that the person didn't have a license because they were too poor to afford the fee or stealing food because this person had no food at home, couldn't afford to buy food and had children. An example you give in the book, you were called in because somebody was shoplifting. You assumed that this was a crime resulting from poverty, that they needed the food and had no other way of getting it. You didn't want to arrest this person, but your partner had to call in the person's name to see if there were any priors or any warrants, and there was a warrant. Explain what happened.

BROOKS: Yeah, this was one of those situations just left me feeling sick and feeling like I just can't do this. We were parked in a parking lot. Our shift was almost over. We saw the security guard at a supermarket seem to be scuffling with somebody in a fight. And we ran over to see what was going on. And it turned out that he had caught a shoplifter trying to run out of the store. And it was a woman who looked like she was in her 60s. Although when I saw her ID, I discovered she was actually younger than I was. And she had a kind of wheely suitcase and inside of it was a sort of value pack of chicken thighs and a big container of laundry detergent. That's what she'd stolen. And she stopped struggling and she said, I'm sorry, I needed food for my grandbaby. We don't have no food. And, you know, my partner and I just looked at each other and we looked at the security guard and we were like, you're not going to you - don't want to arrest her - right? - because, you know, she stole food. Come on. And nobody wanted to arrest her.

But then my partner did what a good cop is supposed to do. He ran a warrant check. And the reason you run these warrant checks is it would be kind of embarrassing if you let somebody off with a warning and it turned out they were a serial killer - right? - who was wanted in 37 states. But that's almost never the case. And it turned out she had a warrant. The warrant was for failure to appear, which basically means that she had not shown up at a court hearing, probably for some similar trivial offense. And that then becomes a mandatory arrest. You can't just say, well, you've got an outstanding warrant but off you go now. So we had to arrest her.

And I just felt like this is - you know, even if you're trying to do the right thing as a police officer, the nature of the system you're working in is such that even, quote-unquote, "good policing" often is going to make things worse for people. You know, there is no - the store security guard didn't want her arrested. We didn't want her arrested. She didn't want to get arrested. She wanted to go home to her kid, you know, her grandson. And instead she was going to jail. And it made me feel pretty rotten about the job I was doing.

GROSS: Any suggestions for fixing a situation like that?

BROOKS: In that situation, it's almost impossible to fix because by the time you're - you get there, all of the choices are bad ones, you know? And I think to fix that, you have to kind of go beyond the immediate situation and figure out, you know, how do you fix a system in which we have criminalized so many trivial offenses? You know, 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? Those are the bigger problems. And the whole experience left me, on the one hand, with a long list of things that needed to be changed in policing that police departments can do and should do in terms of changing how they recruit, changing how they train, you know, changing how they operate day to day. But at the same time, the experience also 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.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Rosa Brooks. Her new memoir about studying American policing by becoming a cop for four years is called "Tangled Up In Blue." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Rosa Brooks. Her new memoir, "Tangled Up In Blue," is about her time as a volunteer reserve police officer in Washington, D.C.'s Metropolitan Police Department. Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University. During her period as a reserve police officer, she founded Georgetown's Innovative Policing Program, which partnered with the Metropolitan Police Department to create the Police for Tomorrow Fellowship.

What do you think about the calls to defund the police, and what do you think of the wording of defund the police?

BROOKS: 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. And, you know, surveys suggest that most members of the public don't like it and don't agree, including in communities of color. But I think - you know, and 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, oh, I'm cool with no cops, right? You know, the even worse slogan is abolish the police. So I think the rhetoric, the rhetoric has not been super helpful.

But I think that if you get beyond 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 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? And I think if you ask the average police officer - if you say to them, we want to defund you, they'll look at you like you're out of your mind, and they'll say, look at the car I drive. Look at the equipment I have. Look how much it's falling apart. Look how much I'm operating without adequate resources. And that's true - right? - that what we've asked them to do they already can't do with what they've got.

But if you ask them a different kind of question - if you say, 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. You know, 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? - they'll - 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.

GROSS: One of the things people are calling for who are saying defund the police is take some of the money for police and give it to, for instance, social workers and imagine what it would be like if a social worker went with a police officer to a domestic violence call. Are there times you can think of during your four years as a police officer in Washington where you think it would have been helpful to have a social worker with you?

BROOKS: Constantly, constantly, probably on three-quarter of the calls. You know, that so often the calls we came to, including many of the assaults, many of the domestic violence situations, disorderly conduct situations, you know, were - involved someone who was mentally ill or involved people who who were having some kind of breakdown in family relationships that didn't necessarily require police, that didn't involve somebody being violent but simply involve people not having the - partly not having the ability to figure out how to resolve conflicts. But also, sometimes, those conflicts were driven by need. You know, the conflicts would be over multiple people in the same house, all of whom were working multiple jobs to hold things together, which would mean that tensions would easily erupt over, well, who's using - who's taking too long of a shower when everybody needs to get ready?

You know, and so the only thing I'd say is that a social worker is not enough, right? Because - and this - I'll give you an example of something where in Washington, D.C., there's an emergency psychiatric clinic where police can take people who are sort of flagrantly crazy and a danger to themselves or others even involuntarily - you know, so let's say you've got someone who's mentally ill. And they're running around, and they're threatening people, but you don't think they should be arrested. So you take them off to the emergency psychiatric clinic, where the odds are they'll be given a dose of meds. And they'll be back out again in the morning.

So having a social worker, a psychiatrist who checks in doesn't get you far enough because the underlying problem there is that there's nowhere for them to go. They'll end up back out on the street the next day, threatening people, because we don't have an adequate mental health system. We don't have an adequate system of providing shelter for people who lack it. And so social workers who would go to some calls would be a good start. But it's not nearly enough.

GROSS: And this leads back to your conclusion about police and police reform. It's complicated.

BROOKS: It's simultaneously very, very complicated and really pretty simple, right? There are lots of pretty simple and straightforward changes. Let me give you one final example of that.

GROSS: Sure.

BROOKS: Many, many of the police shootings take place in the context of traffic stops, which are perceived by police and the public alike as really dangerous moments. But we don't need to have that many traffic stops. Part of the reason we have so many traffic stops is that, as a society, we have decided that we want armed uniformed people with badges to be the ones who enforce civil traffic law. So e.g., you know, your parking sticker is blocking your windshield too much, or your brake light is out, or you make a right turn on red when you're not supposed to. We've decided that we need an armed person to be the one to go up to you and say, hey, you shouldn't have done that. You know, here's your ticket for $30.

It's a choice to decide that we want armed people to enforce these civil infractions. We don't have to do it. We could simply say, you know, it's going to be traffic cameras, and it's going to be unarmed parking and traffic officials who are going to give you tickets. The only times police are going to stop a car is if you're shooting out the window or something similar. And by magic, we would snap our fingers and greatly reduce the number of dangerous encounters between police and ordinary people. And that's actually pretty easy.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Rosa Brooks. Her new memoir about studying American policing by becoming a cop for four years is called "Tangled Up In Blue." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Rosa Brooks. Her new memoir, "Tangled Up In Blue," is about her time as a volunteer reserve police officer in Washington, D.C.'s Metropolitan Police Department. Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University. After ending her period as a reserve police officer, she founded Georgetown's Innovative Policing Program, which partnered with the Metropolitan Police Department to create the Police for Tomorrow Fellowship.

I'm interested in hearing your perspective as a former Washington police officer, reserve police officer, on the Capitol Police and the storming of the Capitol, when a Trump-supporting mob hunted down leaders and members of Congress and Vice President Mike Pence. There was no backup for the Capitol Police. What's your take on how the Capitol Police handled it and what went wrong? It took a long time for the Washington - you know, for the Metropolitan Police Department of Washington to be called in.

BROOKS: Yeah. And there was backup, but they didn't call it in soon enough. The D.C. Police Department had pretty pre-staged civil defense units - those are officers trained to deal with First Amendment protests and so on. They've got - you know, they have riot gear. And they were staged all around the Capitol, and they were essentially just waiting to get the word - we need help - and that came kind of shockingly late. As I watched this unfold, I think, like everyone else, I was stunned to see the perimeter so lightly guarded, given the amount of evidence that we all had in advance that this was likely to be a mob that would be violent and would attack the Capitol. So it was kind of shocking.

That said, I know many Metropolitan Police officers who did end up at the Capitol that day. And my hope is - I have a hope and I have a fear about this. My hope is that it may help shift the national dialogue about policing and move it to a place where it accepts some of the complexities we've been talking about because I think that what Americans saw is that, you know, sometimes you actually do need police, you know, and police can play important and heroic roles. You know, maybe we don't want to just abolish them. But at the same time - that's my hope, is that it will complicate things in a good way.

My fear, though, is that the sort of juxtaposition of the heavily armed response that met peaceful racial justice protesters in the summer with the extraordinarily light, sort of kid-gloves response that initially met this enraged mob of Trump supporters, mostly white - you know, people obviously called out the racism in sort of assuming that a crowd full of Black people was going to be violent, but a crowd full of white people couldn't possibly be, when, in fact, it was the mob of white people that posed the sort of existential threat to American democracy, as well as a real urgent threat to the lives of many individuals.

I worry that the take-away from that is going to be, aha, we can solve that problem of racial disparities by greeting everybody with a militarized response and that it'll push us in the direction of - now we know the police need even more tanks, and we need to have a giant wall around the Capitol, and we need to have cops who look like soldiers stationed all over the place. And if that's where we get from this, that would be a tragedy and a lost opportunity.

GROSS: You left the reserve police in 2020 in Washington. I don't know if you were still working as a cop during the protests in Washington, D.C., against police violence, when, you know, the protesters were tear-gassed. They were dispersed with tear gas for President Trump's photo opportunity. Were you an officer then? And, you know, you express your gratitude in the book to the protesters against racial injustice and for better policing or, you know, defunding the police. You express your gratitude to those protesters. Were you a cop at the time during the protests? And from your perspective, how did all of that look to you? And if you weren't a police officer then, what position do you think you would have been had you been a police officer then and called in to disperse the protesters or fired tear gas or pepper spray against them?

BROOKS: Yeah. So I wasn't. I was on leave at that time, so I was not involved in any of that. And I should say, reserve officers are not typically part of those civil defense units that I was speaking about. What usually happens in situations like that is that reserve officers are asked to pick up the slack patrolling in the neighborhoods that have lost officers to those platoons. So - but that's not really your question. I think your question is, what would I have thought the right thing to do was? And clearly, the right thing was not to be tear-gassing peaceful protesters. That seems to me to be an easy one. I'm proud to say that the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department was not the agency that was doing that. The really egregious stuff was the Secret Service uniformed police and the Park Police, the U.S. Park Police.

That said, you know, I think ordinary people don't draw a distinction. They say, you know, cops in uniform are cops in uniform. And they're not really looking at the patches on their shoulders to see which agency they work for. But no, I thought the response to the racial justice protest was completely appalling. And we - it's been so interesting talking to the young officers in our fellowship program, as they have struggled to sort of reconcile that to - you know, many of them took a knee with the protesters in the summer and were also at the Capitol on January 6 and were just appalled themselves at the - at that disparity.

And I think it has - the combination of the summer's protests and the January 6 failed insurrection of the Capitol in the officers I talked to, I think it's really left a lot of them kind of reeling and asking themselves, can I be part of this? How do I be part of this in a way that feels good to me and feels right to me? And, you know, can I do that?

GROSS: As we mentioned earlier, your mother is Barbara Ehrenreich, who is basically a lifelong leftist who has spent much of her life protesting things and who has written books about the working poor and why people can't get out of being working poor. And she was appalled when you became a reserve police officer. Her idea of the police is, like, these are the people who tear-gas you; these are the people who harass you. And during the protests, she was proven right because these were the people who were tear-gassing people in many cities. What was it like for you growing up, being taken to protests, being taught that the police were the enemy, being in situations where you were being tear-gassed by police?

BROOKS: (Laughter) Well, I was only tear-gassed by police in utero, as my mother never tired of telling me. And she'd always say, well, that explains a lot.


BROOKS: So, yeah, no, I grew up on protest marches and picket lines. But for me, it always felt complicated. We lived in a blue-collar suburb, and I had many friends whose brothers and fathers were cops. Even then, I saw that these - you know, these weren't monsters. I think whenever we demonize anybody, we need to stop and say, whoa, hold on - how is this going to help? You know, whether we're doing what I saw police often do, you know, and demonize residents of the communities they served - you know, referring to them as - you know, they're just animals - you know, that's incredibly dangerous. But it's also incredibly dangerous when we say, you know, the police, they're just brutal pigs.

You know, whenever you find yourself reducing a group of human beings to a cruel soundbite, a cruel, dehumanizing soundbite, you're on the wrong track. So I think even as a child, I had a sense that it's not that simple. You know, humans operate within institutions. They often don't create the institutions they operate within. That doesn't mean that they have - are exempt from the responsibility to try to change those institutions. I think all of us share responsibility for the actions of the institutions that we're part of. But it does mean that just saying the police are bad, you know, abolish the police, the police are a bunch of thugs - that doesn't help us figure out how to fix this.

GROSS: Rosa Brooks, thank you so much for talking with us. And I'm really glad that you became a reserve police officer so that you could think through all of this and write a book about it.

BROOKS: Terry, thank you so much for having me on.

GROSS: Rosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and a former reserve police officer with the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department. Her new memoir is called "Tangled Up In Blue: Policing The American City."

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about the hidden costs of racism for everybody. Our guest will be Heather McGhee, former president of the progressive think tank Demos. She says racial discrimination in housing, employment and voting rights has harmed white people as well as African Americans. She's written a new book called "The Sum Of Us." I hope you'll join us. I'm Terry Gross.


KERMIT RUFFINS WITH THE REBIRTH BRASS BAND: (Singing) Oh, the big bass drum lead the big parade all on a Mardi Gras day. And all you could hear was the people say - (singing in non-English language).
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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