JOEL ROSENTHAL: Welcome to our Carnegie Council Book Talk. Thanks for joining us.
Our guest today is Rosa Brooks. Rosa is the author of the new book, Tangled Up in Blue: Policing the American City.
Rosa's life and work are very much in alignment with the mission of the Carnegie Council. Her themes are power and justice, law and the use of force, and ethics as a set of principles derived from lived experience, not divorced from the reality of everyday life.
Rosa is best known for her work on national security, foreign policy, and international relations. In this book she extends her analysis to domestic policy, focusing on public security at home. In this case we are talking about policing the streets of Washington, D.C. This book tells the story of Rosa's enlistment as a sworn armed reserve police officer in the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, DC. The story takes us through training, on patrol, and into the lives of the people of the District, who interact with police daily and nightly. In doing so it prompts Rosa and us to rethink the role of policing in society.
This book is a truly amazing personal journey, complete with blood, sweat, and tears, and crucially there is a lot of life-affirming humor in the book, which I really appreciated. If I had one wish, it would be that all of those with the authority of badges and guns have Rosa's big heart, common sense, and can-do spirit.
I am going to turn it over to Rosa to tell us just a little bit about the book itself and how she came to write it, and then we are going to have some Q&A and conversation. We wanted to make the conversation as inclusive as possible, so those of you who are viewing please use the Chat function to submit your questions, and we will take those up towards the back end of this hour.
Rosa, thanks for joining us. Maybe I can turn it over to you for a little bit of an intro to the book.
ROSA BROOKS: Sure. Thank you so much, Joel. I really appreciate your hosting me. This is always a terrific group, and there are always such smart questions and comments from this group. I am really glad to be here.
I could lie to you and tell you that the reason I became a reserve police officer in DC was because I wanted to infiltrate the police department so that I could write a book about it revealing all the bad things about policing and so forth. It makes a nice, tidy story to say, "That's why I did this, so I could write a book."
But that's not quite the way it happened. I launched this crazy project—becoming a reserve police officer—before I had thought about writing a book. I was at the end of my time working at the Pentagon, where I worked for a couple of years during the beginning of the Obama administration. I found out totally coincidentally about this program, the DC Metropolitan Police Reserve Corps, and for whatever reason—and I talk a little bit in the book about what those reasons might be; I'm still struggling to make sense of them myself—I was just fascinated by it.
Partly it was the sheer weirdness of this program. I have heard of cities that have auxiliary police who help with traffic control at special events and things like that, but DC has this program where anyone—you have to be a citizen, you have to be over 21, and you have to not be a felon, and that's about it—can apply to be a reserve police officer, and if you are accepted, you go through the same police academy training as career officers—it lasts about six months, it is pretty intensive—and you come out on the other end, as you said, as a sworn, armed police officer with full police powers. You can arrest people. You have a gun that is given to you by the City of Washington, DC.
When I heard about this I just thought: Really? That's crazy. That's so strange. The City of DC is going to give a gun and a badge to a law professor and a journalist? That's a really bad idea, right?
It just seemed so fascinatingly weird to me. I thought: You would let me be a cop? I was seized by this instant desire to see what it was like. It was just so fascinatingly weird. In the book itself I quote George Mallory. Asked why he wanted to climb Mt. Everest, he supposedly said, "Because it's there." That is sort of the truth of it. I wanted to do this because "it was there" and it just seemed so strange.
As you noted, throughout my career I have worked as a human rights advocate, I have worked as a journalist, I have worked for the State Department and the Defense Department, and as an academic I have always been fascinated by the relationship between law and violence and the ways in which we construct narratives to make sense of that relationship and to define certain kinds of violence as good violence, acceptable violence, violence for a good cause, and other kinds of violence as unacceptable.
So I was curious to understand how police officers, who work within a system that is pretty breathtakingly violent in a global sense at least—about 1,000 people a year are killed by American police—as to how do cops make sense of that, how do they see their roles, and how they explain this to themselves. Probably I read too many detective novels too.
So I did this and only stepped down in November after about four-and-a-half years as a DC Police reserve officer, and about a year into the experience I started thinking: I should write about this. This is really fascinating. And that is what the book is about. The book, Tangled Up in Blue, is a mix of stories from that experience with some of my thoughts on policy issues.
When I started thinking I would write something, I think I envisioned myself writing a much more academic book, the "definitive work on what's wrong with policing in America and what should we do about it with thoughts on the blurry relationship between policing and war making and various other things."
As I got further and kept starting chapters and hating them and tearing them up—or deleting them rather, since we don't tear things up anymore—I gradually realized that lots of people have written books about policing and what's wrong with it and the criminal justice system and what's wrong with it, and I ended up feeling like I don't know that I have something so unique to say about that that it's worth a whole book, but what I maybe can do that is relatively unique is talk about the kind of experience, the dual vision that goes with being someone who had one foot, or actually probably more like eight toes, firmly planted in the policy world, the academic world, and the advocacy world, and another couple of toes in the policing world and could share that double vision and share some of the stories of what I saw while I was doing this.
That's what the book is, and I am happy to talk about it.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: That's a great intro. Thank you, Rosa.
First of all, thank you for service, for doing what you did.
ROSA BROOKS: I am not entirely convinced that it always made the community better, but that's another story.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Well, you certainly tried hard. That comes through in the book. The book is a service as well.
Let's talk a little bit about that relationship between law and violence that you mentioned. Among the distinct characteristics you have is that you have done work in national security and now in domestic and public security as well.
Speaking about that narrative of law and violence, several years ago, when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, we had General Martin Dempsey at Carnegie Council, and he used a phrase that stuck with me. He said, "My job is to manage violence on behalf of the state." That's his narrative as he thinks about the use of military force.
I am just curious how that maps onto your experience of the way police think about law and violence as they work to provide public security.
ROSA BROOKS: Obviously there are a lot of interesting similarities as well as some disjunctures between how we conceive of the military and how the military conceives of itself and how police conceive of themselves and we conceive of police. The prevailing myth of law is that it is supposed to reduce violence, the rule of law reduces violence, but obviously on some level it does no such thing. What law does is it structures and manages violence by saying: "Okay, here are the people who get to use violence. Here are the kinds of violence that we are going to define as a social good—violence in order to enforce the law and violence in order to create a particular kind of culture that we think is a better culture."
The law always has violence behind it. Somewhere behind the dictates of the law, the command of the sovereign, there are people with weapons and handcuffs to say: "Not kidding. Even if you don't feel like abiding by it, you have to." Police very much play that role in our society.
What has been fascinating in the last five or six years has been the growing chorus of voices asking: "Is the violence of policing the violence that is a social good? Is the violence of policing creating and maintaining the kind of social order that we want to have, or is it maintaining and sustaining a social order that we really should reject? Is it even the violence that the state is mandating, or is some of the violence of policing done by bad apples, done by a rotten barrel within the broader system," to pick your metaphor?
That's what cops do. They enforce the law, as the other term for police officer, "law enforcement," which we use much more often than the alternative term, which probably we should use, "peace" officer.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: That's great. From a military point of view, the military tends to see everything as war, and from a police approach, police tend to see everything as crime. One of the things I took away was that maybe we need to rethink that, as you are suggesting with the peace officer idea. Can we change those cultures? Should we try to change those cultures in some way?
ROSA BROOKS: I see there is a comment in the Chat from Will Kerr, the deputy chief constable of Police Scotland, commenting that the enabling statute in Scotland sets out the mission of police as "safety and well-being" and how the police in Scotland have tried to shift to a paradigm that is more of a public health approach to violence than an enforcement approach.
I certainly think that the framing language we use does matter, does shape—as part of the stories we tell, as part of the narrative we create, and when our narrative about what cops do is framed in terms of law enforcement as opposed to being framed in terms of public safety officers or peace officers, it does affect how officers make sense of their own role.
I guess the only thing I would say there is that it is not so much an issue of the police view everything as crime. I do think a lot of the way we talk about policing in this country makes it seem as though police are these independent actors. Police departments make their own independent decisions and they operate in a vacuum, and we should abolish police or we should fix policing or transform policing, and the problem is that the police need to be transformed.
But if police are seeing everything as crime, it is because we collectively, we, the citizens of Washington, DC, we, the citizens of Virginia, Maryland, or wherever, or we, the citizens of the United States, have elected people who have criminalized an astonishing array of behavior, much of it exceptionally trivial forms of misbehavior, very, very trivial offenses, and it is undoubtedly true that the criminalization—which has accelerated rapidly in the last 15 or 20 years; there has been an explosion in the number of things defined in the United States as crimes as opposed to civil infractions or they are not on the books at all. But the more you define it as criminal behavior, if you then say to the police, "Your job is to enforce the criminal law," and in fact we also ask police to enforce a lot of civil regulations in this country too, you are going to end up arresting people and ultimately imprisoning a lot of people.
But the police didn't write those laws. That's on us. That's on us as voters, it's on our elected officials.
We simultaneously need to keep police, police leaders, and police departments on the hook for change because there is quite a lot that can be changed by police departments on their own, but we also, by just saying, "Oh, the problem is the police," let the rest of us off the hook for the fact that we created a system in which police work, police enforce laws that they did not create in a social context that they cannot do much to change, and that's on us.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: That raises the inevitable question of the conversation that we are having now about "Defund the police." How does that sound to you, and how do you respond to that conversation?
ROSA BROOKS: As a former reserve police officer I absolutely understand why cops often don't like that phrase. I was assigned to Washington, DC's Seventh District, and the Seventh District police station—any of you who are in the area, go by sometime and take a look—is in shambles. It is a disaster. The paint is peeling. Things are falling apart. The toilets don't work. The bathroom doors don't latch. When I first got there the computers in the report-writing room, the keyboards all had the letters worn off them by so many hands typing on them that if you couldn't touch-type—and I am embarrassed that one of the great gaps in my education is that I never learned to touch-type—so I would be staring at the keyboard going: "Oh, where's the M? I can't find it."
You would look around and say: "Defund? What are you talking about? We can barely afford the kind of minimal equipment to do this job, and there are so many things that you need."
That said, I think when you change the conversation and instead of saying "Let's defund the police," if instead you say to cops it's not so much the question of do you have the resources you need to do what you're doing, but if instead you say to them: "What are the things that you are doing that you don't actually want to be doing, that you don't actually think you should be doing, that you don't think you are best equipped to be doing? What are the kinds of social services that you wish existed so that you had better solutions if you encounter someone who is mentally ill or you encounter someone who is homeless or you encounter a family that is unable to figure out how to resolve conflicts? What are the resources that you wish were there? And do you think we currently fund them enough?"
Then I think you get a different conversation, and you start seeing a tremendous amount of common ground between police and critics of policing. The question is just how you shift that conversation from enough to do what you do to, well, what should you be doing? Obviously, that shouldn't just be up to the police. That's up to all of us. What do we want police to do? What role do we want them to play? But I think when you actually start asking cops that same question they end up coming out in places very, very similar to even some pretty radical critics of policing.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: This will be the last time I use a military analogy, but I can't resist. In the military, they talk about "kinetic" and "non-kinetic" solutions and moving away from use of force to other ways of thinking about providing security. Is there an analogy here, or am I overplaying that a little bit?
ROSA BROOKS: Oh, absolutely. Counterinsurgency doctrine has fallen out of favor in recent years, and it is absolutely fair to say that whatever we thought it was, the United States never proved to be good at it.
What lies underneath counterinsurgency theory is the idea that ultimately security is not just a function of enough people with guns using sheer coercion to prevent people from doing what we don't want them to do. In fact it has to do with persuasion. It has to do with establishing a sense of the legitimacy of government actors, and how do you do that?
Well, you can't establish legitimacy if your government is predatory. You have to have a government that in fact is providing services, that in fact is protecting populations and so on. That is I think a framework, whatever terminology you want to use, again I think most police officers actually would tend to agree with, but that is not the direction the training pushes them in. It is not the direction that our current budgetary decisions push them in, to say: "Hey, if we want to think about security in a broader sense"—to use another term from the international domain "human security" in a holistic way—yes, armed people who can use coercive force have some role in that, but much more broadly we need to be looking at: What are the problems here? How do you address those problems? How do you meet people's needs? That is part of establishing a willingness on the part of ordinary people to go along with the law, the rules, whatever we decide they should be.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: There's a great scene in the book which helps to provide empathy for what it's like to be a uniformed armed police officer, where you describe in great detail I think the 30 pounds of equipment that you have to wear, your duty belt and all of that. As I was reading that, it made me think—you may have read at some point Tim O'Brien's book The Things They Carried, where at the beginning of that short story he enumerates in great detail all of the things that are in his knapsack and on his back and so on as he patrols in Vietnam. I think it is an interesting analogy, but it did make me think of this militarized—what we are asking officers on patrol to do, and maybe you could tell us a little bit about that scene in the book and why you wrote it and what you did carry and how that reflects on what you were asked to do as an officer on patrol.
ROSA BROOKS: I probably wrote about that just because I realized that before I embarked on this bizarre extracurricular activity I had not ever really thought one way or the other about what police officers carry or what they wear. I remember I went on a ride-along with some officers as I was going through the application process, and I noticed for the first time that they were wearing ballistic vests under their shirts. I saw the outline of the vests, and I was like: Oh, no kidding. That's what they do. Yes, it is a standard part of the uniform. It's mandatory for police officers in DC except if you're working inside headquarters or something. If you are out there, you are wearing a ballistic vest, and the vest is now external rather than internal, although a compromise between militarization and non-militarization is that DC police uniforms now have a vest which has fake buttons and fake pockets so it sort of kind of looks like a regular shirt, except it's not. It's clearly a ballistic vest.
I had never given it a millisecond's thought. I knew police officers had guns, and I knew that they had these big belts with stuff on them, but I never really thought about what that stuff is. So I thought, well, if this was fascinating to me to discover firsthand what that stuff is, it might be of interest to others.
So, yes, you've got a lot of stuff. You've got your firearm in a holster. You have a big, heavy flashlight. You have your handcuffs. Typically you have at least two pairs of handcuffs, because you put them on a prisoner, the prisoner is taken off, and you don't have handcuffs anymore. You may or may not find your handcuffs again, so everybody carries extras.
You have rubber gloves because you are always touching icky stuff—people vomited on themselves and there is urine all over them or whatever. You have your expandable baton that in theory you could whack people with. It is actually quite rare I am happy to say in ordinary policing. You have oleoresin capsicum (OC) spray, basically the police version of pepper spray.
You have a tourniquet that you carry. You have an entire tactical emergency casualty care kit that people usually wear on a leg holster. You have snacks. You have your cellphone. For a long time you had to carry both a personal cellphone and the department-issued cellphone because the department was too cheap to get phone service on their cellphones; they only had data. So you could use them—and in fact you were required to use them—for crime scene photography and to tag and upload your body-worn camera videos, but you couldn't make a call with them. So if you wanted to be able to make a call, you had to have a second cellphone, your own cellphone.
You have your radio. You have your body-worn camera. There's more. You had to have the specified number of pens with the specified color of ink in the specified position in your pockets. So there is a lot more.
At one time I just weighed myself before I put it all on and then again afterwards, and I realized it was 30 pounds or so of equipment. That is a lot less obviously than soldiers carry, but it's a lot.
I also realized that what I had always thought of as cop "swagger," the way cops walk, I thought was because they're arrogant or they're expressing dominance. I realized that, no, it's just that you have so much stuff on your vest and on your belt and sometimes on your legs that you cannot have a normal stance. You have this wide stance because there is just so much stuff. You can't have your arms down by your side. You have to walk more like a cowboy just to accommodate all that equipment.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: That's great. Thank you for sharing that.
I am curious how you think about this direction that you are suggesting of demilitarizing the police in some way, which would go along with deescalation, decriminalizing, and so on. There are 400 million guns in the United States, and we know that militias are active not only across the United States, but they have come recently to Washington, DC. How do you start to process these sorts of social forces that are coming together? You have this very strong point of view that I was getting from your book about the need to rethink in the direction of demilitarization while we have such a militarized society.
ROSA BROOKS: I don't think it is a simple question. I don't think I know the answer. No question about it. We live in a gun-saturated society. The rationale for American police being armed is that lots of ordinary people are armed too, which means that if you encounter someone while you are patrolling, the odds that they are armed are actually a lot higher than in many other societies.
I don't necessarily take the position that we should have unarmed cops. I would argue that many of the tasks that we currently assign to armed police officers are not ones that do require armed police.
Let me give an example. We have decided as a society that we want to have armed, uniformed police officers enforce civil traffic regulations. So, you turn right on red where there is a sign that says "no right on red," we have decided that we think that it's a good idea to have a uniformed, armed officer stop your car and give you a ticket. We are so used to that that we never question it. We're like: "Well, of course, that's what the police do. They stop your car if your brake light is out" or whatever.
But think about how you would react, how any of us would react, if you missed an Internal Revenue Service filing deadline and the cops came to your door with their weapons and demanded that you step outside and let them search you and so on because they wanted to let you know that you had missed the deadline for filing your estimated taxes, or if the city thought that your fence was too tall or your tree was hanging over your neighbor's yard too much, and the city residential zoning department sent armed police to order you to step outside while they told you you had to—it's crazy. We would be like: "That's nuts. That's overkill."
But it is the same with traffic violations. You can make the argument that obviously if someone is a fleeing felon or is firing out their window or is driving drunk that you need armed officers, but on the other hand, it's not particularly obvious that you couldn't either have unarmed traffic monitors or simply more speed cameras, although that raises its own issues, and just give people tickets.
There is a real question about how much violence creates violence, and how much, yes, we have lots of armed people in our society and traffic stops for police are one of the most dangerous things—traffic stops, domestic violence calls you are most at risk. The driver is most at risk, and the police officers are most at risk, which raises this question: Why do we have police stopping so many people because the very presence of an armed officer stopping your car increases the likelihood of violence, whereas if you were flagged down by the unarmed traffic cops who just gave you a ticket, maybe the armed driver would be a lot less likely to react with fear and anger, or simply you get a ticket in the mail from the speed camera, which DC does quite a lot of. My car is a felon. My car is constantly getting in trouble.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: It's the car and not you.
ROSA BROOKS: It's totally the car. I get pictures of the car. I'm like, "Oh, car, how could you?" Speeding through the 395 tunnel and so forth.
But you get the idea. These are choices that we as a society have made, and I don't know that it is so much an issue of the militarization of the police but rather an issue of what we as a society think requires the presence of armed uniformed people to enforce as opposed to, "Hey, we can handle that in some other way," or maybe we don't really care. Maybe we think most people abide by the no right on red, and the few who don't is not a big deal. Off they go. It's annoying.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: That's great. I have some more questions. I just wanted to encourage those who are watching that if you have questions or want to make a comment, you can use the Chat function, and we will be getting to those in the second half of the hour here.
Rosa, our friends in Scotland have given us a couple of comments, and it prompts a question from me. Have you given thought to other societies, other ways of policing? Have you looked into that at all? I'm just curious on your thoughts about that.
ROSA BROOKS: Not as much as I wish I had actually. I know a little bit. As I said, I ultimately made a decision in this book to stick mostly to, "Hey, this is what I saw." But I think the United States does have a great deal that we could learn from the experiments that other societies have made to see if they can change the nature of policing.
Going back to the militarization issue for a second, I think that people get way too fixated on the wrong thing when we talk about police militarization in this country, and this is related to one of the comments in the Chat. We get really fixated on the optics—cops in some small town driving around in Humvees and tanks and stuff like that. That's nuts. It's unnecessary. We could have a whole conversation about the provision of surplus military goods to police departments and why most of the time—it's one thing if it's a filing cabinet, it's another thing if it's a tank—that's kind of nuts.
But I think that is the most superficial aspect of militarization. The deeper aspect is cultural. One of the ways that you see it that I think is most toxic is in police training. Police academies in much of the country—there are some really innovative exceptions—by and large are still modeled on the 1980s parody version of a military boot camp with lots of, "Yes, sir!" and "Get down and give me 20!" kind of stuff going on.
That's a form of militarization as well that is less visible than cops driving around in a Humvee, but I think it is more harmful in many ways because here is what happens if you go through your police training being told to speak only when spoken to, being shouted at or physically punished through exercise, doing push-ups and so on, if you do the wrong thing. A lot of recruits are going to come out of that thinking, It's okay to yell at people who have less power and It's okay to inflict pain on people who disobey you. That is the very opposite of the kind of lesson that we should be trying to give to future police officers.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Rosa, I want to ask you for another personal reflection if you don't mind, because you write so well about your experience on duty in 2017 at the inauguration of President Trump. I really enjoyed that chapter.
Since you wrote that, we had the events of January 6, the insurrection at the Capitol, and I know you were not on duty and on patrol that day, but I can't resist asking you your thoughts and your reflections on January 6, having been a uniformed police officer at the inauguration in 2017. It probably was not hard for you to imagine what it was like for those on duty earlier this year.
ROSA BROOKS: Yes, and I know a lot of officers who were on duty and who were at the Capitol on January 6 and have had some powerful conversations with them.
I should back up and say that one of the things that came out of this experience for me was that together with some colleagues at Georgetown Law, where I teach, and some colleagues within the DC Police Department, we created a program called the Police for Tomorrow Fellowship—it is kind of a corny name. We are now in our third cohort of fellows. The program lasts a little over a year. We select young officers after they apply, and they come to Georgetown Law for pretty intensive workshops on what we think of as all the hardest issues about policing—policing and race, the role of poverty. What is the role of the police in a diverse and democratic society?
These are young officers, a self-selected group. They have to apply. They are people who really want to be talking about those issues and who really see themselves as potentially change agents from within policing.
We had a session for our fellows, just an informal debrief after January 6, and it was pretty emotional just watching them try to process this. One young officer was a former Marine. He said: "I saw people in that crowd wearing Marine Corps shirts, and I thought: I might have been fighting alongside you five years ago, and now you want to kill me?" The sense of betrayal: "I saw people with these Thin Blue Line flags, and they were trying to kill me."
Also many of the officers, especially the African American officers, said: "I can't understand. How do I live with the fact that in the summer, when heavily black crowds of peaceful racial justice protesters showed up, my department"—much less than the Secret Service Police and the Park Police, but to some extent—"we treated them like they were dangerous and scary, and now look, this mob of white nationalists just waltzed in, and we treated them like they weren't going to be a threat. How do I make sense of that?"
Even just these much more granular kinds of dilemmas: We had police officers here in DC who took a knee to show solidarity with racial justice protesters in the summer, and some of them were disciplined for doing that by the department, which said: "How is this different from fist-bumping a member of the Proud Boys? You're a cop. You don't get to show your personal beliefs on the job. You have a job to do. In your personal life if you want to say Black Lives Matter, go for it, but this is not something you can do on duty." We had really passionate debates about that. Are these the same thing, the fist bump to the Proud Boys and taking a knee? Are these different? How do you articulate the differences?
But January 6 is so interesting because I think it really displayed for all Americans policing at its best and its worst in the very same day and in the very same incident. We saw tremendous courage and self-sacrifice on the part of police officers literally defending democracy. We also saw what looked like indifference or agreement with an angry anti-democratic mob.
I hope it will open up more space for a more nuanced conversation about cops. This goes back to your question about guns and the blurring between warfighting and policing. We may want policing to be much less violent most of the time, but we also want police officers who can fend off an angry mob of armed, violent people. How do you square those things? I think it sets up that conversation in a really interesting way.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: We have some excellent questions from our audience. I am going to turn to Alex Woodson, who is going to gather them together and offer them to you, Rosa.
ALEX WOODSON: I will just ask two questions, and then we can take it from there.
This is from Jonathan Gage: "Do you see value in more/better nationwide standards, rules, and accountability in response to current concerns over, for example, excessive use of force against people of color, use of chokeholds generally, etc.?"
This is from Reed Bonadonna, a former Carnegie Council Senior Fellow: "Would a separate officer corps like in the military have benefits in the area of leadership and accountability?"
ROSA BROOKS: Those are good questions.
As you probably know, on the accountability issue, one of the enormous difficulties is that the United States does not have a national police force. This is unlike many other countries, where policing is a matter for the national government. Here it is primarily state and local.
We have roughly 18,000 different law enforcement agencies in the United States. The majority of those are municipal police departments—town police, local county sheriffs, city police. The rest of them are campus police or various sorts of special-duty police, like the U.S. Park Police or the Secret Service Armed Police. Every federal agency has its own police.
Those 18,000-ish law enforcement organizations don't report to one another, and they don't necessarily talk to one another, and that is something that is very different from the military. We have one military, we have one commander-in-chief, we have one secretary of defense, which in turn means—it is still hard in the military—the mechanisms for doing "lessons learned" exercises or saying, "Okay, we are now changing the policy," are relatively straightforward. The secretary of defense says we're ending "Don't ask, don't tell," and everybody says essentially, "Yes, sir," and there may be a little bit of foot-dragging, but we have a hierarchical entity, and everybody ends up getting changed, and the policy changes.
You can't do that in policing because it is so decentralized, and the only kind of common floor—and it is a really low floor—is the Supreme Court's jurisprudence on the Fourth Amendment in particular. But the Supreme Court's jurisprudence is extraordinarily permissive to police officers. It makes it very, very difficult to hold police accountable because essentially the standard boils down to: If you use lethal force, could a reasonable officer—without second-guessing them—have believed in the moment that they faced a lethal threat?
It is extraordinarily difficult to come up with constitutional violations because all an officer has to do is say: "Well, I may have been wrong, but for an officer it was not totally unreasonable for me to have thought that I faced a lethal threat and had to use force."
Obviously states are free to raise those standards and change those standards. Cities, through internal department regulations, are free to alter that floor and raise it, and many cities, including DC, have replaced this very permissive framework for the use of force with one that emphasizes the sanctity of human life rather than just whenever you feel threatened you can use lethal force, and that emphasizes force as an absolute last resort, etc.
But no. We have tremendous accountability gaps. The Supreme Court's doctrine of qualified immunity is also an enormous part of the problem. With both houses of Congress under the control of the Democrats for the time being, Congress cannot obviously mandate rules for state and local police, but they can create incentives to change those accountability structures, and they absolutely should because right now it is pretty much a disaster.
The other question about an officer corps is a really interesting one. I have mixed feelings about it. It's weird when you think about it, that the only way to become a senior officer in American policing is to start as the lowest level of patrol officer and work your way up. That does not necessarily make sense, and it probably keeps out of policing many people who would be terrific at other levels of the organization and also women and so on because they don't want to slog through rising up through the ranks and being a patrol officer. It makes it almost impossible for people to move laterally into policing from other professions. Conceivably some kind of officer corps could change those dynamics.
On the other hand, I do think there is something to be said for saying: "We don't want to have an artificial hierarchy as we have in the military between commissioned officers on the one hand and enlisted troops on the other with noncommissioned officers in between." I don't know. It's a great question. I don't feel like I have an informed opinion on it, but it's an interesting issue.
ALEX WOODSON: This is another question from Jonathan Gage: "How do you view the role and influence of U.S. police unions on efforts in the wake of George Floyd to moderate some police behavior and increase accountability?"
ROSA BROOKS: I think police unions have in many parts of the country not been a force for good, and I say that as someone who believes very strongly in unions and their importance. But I think police unions—and there are exceptions, and there are some efforts to create alternative police organizations—have been a regressive force that has focused much more on protecting job security and protecting the status quo than on being part of meaningful change and being part of that conversation. I think the Fraternal Order of Police, which endorsed Donald Trump for president, has played a particularly pernicious role in recent years and has been part of the radicalization and growth of extremism in American policing, which is a whole other topic.
It's interesting. This is something we were talking about with the officers in our fellowship program. The good thing about a union is that the union is made up of its members, and if you don't like it, maybe it's time for a new generation of police officers to be demanding unions that are more change-oriented. But I don't think police unions have by and large played a positive role.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Rosa, I am going to jump back in here. I wanted to use these last few minutes to talk about the Policing for Tomorrow program and maybe some of the ideas that have come from that. My first thoughts are things around perhaps recruitment and who becomes a police officer. Where is that going? You have said a little bit about training; maybe you could say more. Also, rethinking the function of policing as well, and accountability.
These are things that as a lay person from the outside would seem first-order questions if we are rethinking policing generally. It goes from recruitment to training to the function itself and then to accountability. Again, I am from the outside. I am curious how it looks from where you sit.
ROSA BROOKS: Police departments nationwide have struggled to recruit "enough" officers. I put that in air quotes because obviously whether you have enough officers is very much a function of what quantities of officers you think are needed to do the things that you happen to think police ought to do.
I do think that whenever there is an increase in crime, there is a public call. City councils and state legislatures say, "Oh, we need more police." Then you have to try to recruit enough people. It is easy to fall back on, "Well, we just need more cops."
Sometimes do you do need more cops, but there are also plenty of reasons to say: "Well, maybe we don't need more cops. Maybe we need fewer but different cops doing fewer, different, better things."
But that said, no question about it. Departments have struggled to meet their recruiting targets, in part because public perceptions of policing have been very negative, and a lot of people feel like: Oh, I don't want to be a cop. Everybody is just going to hate me. What that has meant for many departments is that they are screening out the psychopaths, but they are not picking and choosing the best people.
There was an abortive effort in the 1960s to create a kind of national police corps, like Teach for America, but government-sponsored with college tuition assistance and so on. I do think that we should be thinking about things like that, whether it is part of a broader national service scheme or whether it is a standalone scheme. One of the things we are hoping to do in the DC area is to use the Police for Tomorrow program and related programs as a recruiting tool because part of the way you change policing is you change who becomes police officers, and you bring in people with different sets of assumptions and attitudes who are critical of policing.
Policing also in this country is overwhelmingly male. Nationwide only about 12 percent of law enforcement officers are female. There is all kinds of evidence to suggest that greater gender diversity would make a very substantial difference in the day-to-day experience of policing, and recruiting more women would—this actually links up to training. If you have a very militaristic training system with a heavy emphasis on physical strength and fitness and toughness and doing more push-ups and surviving being yelled at and shooting a gun well, you are probably going to push away some groups of people more than others. In particular that is going to be alienating to a lot of women.
Which goes to why we need to rethink police training. If it is seen as this hazing ritual involving push-ups and getting yelled at, it is going to be very hard to recruit women in particular but also other groups.
If police training is seen as emphasizing not just physical fitness, which is important, but also deescalation skills and sound tactics and working within the community, working collaboratively with social services departments, working collaboratively with community groups, you have the ability both to recruit I think a wider range of people, and frankly I think you are doing much more to prepare officers to not just enforce laws but to be people who are actively working with community members to think about, What does make this community safer and more prosperous, how should we be prioritizing, and so on.
I will give a tremendous amount of credit to the Metropolitan Police Department here in DC for beginning to overhaul the police academy curriculum with a view to encouraging critical thinking, encouraging recruits to ask questions rather than discouraging them, and encouraging a kind of granular knowledge of communities: How do you talk to people in a way that is respectful and empathetic? That is the kind of thing obviously that we need to do much more.
For anybody who is interesting in a great example of a successful program to do that, I would draw their attention to the work of Sue Rahr, who is the former sheriff of King County, Washington. She now runs the Washington State Law Enforcement Training Academy and has pioneered an approach that emphasizes verbal skills, deescalation skills, critical thinking, and problem solving. They don't do less training in physical tactics; they do more because her argument is that a lot of the time when cops end up using excessive force or pulling their gun out, it's because they're scared, they don't think they can handle things without pulling their gun out, whereas if you give them the physical confidence to think, Oh, I can handle this, they are a lot less likely to pull their gun out.
So these things are not necessarily mutually exclusive. You can have police who are prepared to face physical threats but where the emphasis is much more heavily on the skills that you need to defuse situations instead of escalating them.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: That's great, Rosa.
Just as a very last question, can you leave us with some sense of optimism in the wake of the protests of 2020 and where we are now that there has been an awakening or a conversation that is actually constructive? I left the book feeling that way, but I wanted to give you the last word on that.
ROSA BROOKS: I am an optimist. I love working with these young officers. They are pretty amazing. We also sometimes through the same program bring guest speakers to the police academy to talk to all of the recruits. We have trained some of our law students at Georgetown to be discussion group facilitators.
As a teacher, among other things, it is pretty cool the kinds of conversations that happen. I think there is a real hunger on the part of young officers and recruits to be talking about these hard issues and to be talking about how to transform policing from within. It is kind of amazing the conversations that start taking place between people who start out thinking we don't have any common ground and end up each saying: "I never thought of it that way. This makes me think of some things I can do differently within my community and within my agency."
I do think both in terms of the national conversation about policing, a little more space to have that in a nuanced way has opened up in recent weeks and months, but I also think in terms of who goes into policing. It is my hope very much that we are going to see a rising generation of police leaders who think about policing in a very different way than people 30 or 40 years older than they are did.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Thank you, Rosa. We are at the end of the hour. Thank you for the book. Thank you for this conversation. And I want to thank everybody for joining us. I hope we will find ways to continue this conversation into the future.
ROSA BROOKS: Thank you so much, Joel. Thanks everybody for being here.