Tangled Up in Blue by Rosa Brooks


Rosa Brooks is the daughter of Barbara Ehrenreich, the political activist who wrote Nickled and Dimed. Brooks was unable to explain to her mother, her fellow law professors at Georgetown University, and her friends why she became a part-time volunteer police officer in Washington. If she had told them she wanted to write a book about her experience, they would have understood, but that was not her original intention. She completed rigorous training that included firearms training and worked to take that world on its own terms.

There are so much in this book I want to remember, but the most important is her take on why police kill so many people. She says, “…everything in police training and culture tells them to expect danger from every quarter. Officers are trained to be hyper vigilant and respond to potential threats instantly. They’re told they have a right to go home safe. Too often they forget the other people have a right to go home safe too.” She contrasts this view with military service where soldiers put their own survival secondary to the nation’s needs.

Police are trained to watch people’s hands in case they reach into a pocket or purse for a gun, to never interview suspects in a kitchen (too many knives), and other rules nearly impossible to follow. The fear they are in constant mortal danger is central to police identity; statistically they are in less danger than most people think and police work doesn’t make it into the top ten most dangerous professions. Taxi and limousine drivers are twice as likely to be murdered on the job.

She tells of the contrast of her 24-hour a month volunteer work with the DC police and her work in academia and writing books. In the police world, “Don’t ever be such a fucking moron again” was considered appropriate workplace feedback. She occasionally slipped and spoke with the voice of the other world; once while doing police work, she made a casual comment about the social construction of crime and the otherization of the communities of color. A fellow officer reminded her that the person who prompted her comment was “a fucking animal and if he doesn’t want to go to jail, he can just stop selling crank.” Sitting in a frustrating meeting in Georgetown, “the academic niceties would slip away from me and I’d find myself telling my horrified faculty colleagues that the motherfuckers on the university budget committee needed to get their heads out of their asses.”

She notes that it’s normal to have armed police officers to enforce compliance with traffic regulations, even though most traffic violations do not constitute criminal offenses. This is the equivalent of routinely sending armed police to enforce IRS regulations or municipal building code regulations.

The D.C. police are part of the huge undertaking that the inauguration of any president involves. She tells about the preparation for Trump’s inauguration; they prepared for the same crowds that had been present for Obama’s inauguration and of course they didn’t materialize. A policeman in the section of visiting police from Cincinnati that she shepherded around had begun listening on his iPhone to Trump’s speech. When Trump said, “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now” and went on to say, “We all bleed the red blood of patriots,” one of the Cincinnati policemen said, “Blood? Fuck this shit. I’m turning this shit off.”

This is an informative and endlessly interesting book by a remarkable woman. I continue to wonder what moved her to do this work, but I am grateful to have read her book that came of it.

Rosa Brooks, Tangled Up in Blue, Penguin Press, 2021, 384 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available in the public library.

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