Tangled Up In Blue -- A Review

Very few books on policing actually deal with the “complex and paradoxical relationship between violence and law.” But “Tangled Up in Blue: Policing the American City” by Rosa Brooks does so with an appreciation for both the complexity and the paradox. More importantly, she provides both a social and statistical context that makes this book more than an anthropologist’s depiction of an unfamiliar culture. It is an important book that should be read both by those who say “defund the police” and those who say “back the blue.”


Brooks, who is named for Rosa Parks, was raised to be an activist, studied anthropology, became a lawyer dedicated to international human rights, travelled to and wrote about war and conflict in hot spots around the world. Then, in her 40’s, as a tenured professor at the Georgetown University Law Center, she decided to become a reserve police officer in Washington, DC.


Her account of the police training flows seamlessly into the routine of patrolling Washington’s 7th Police District, known as “7D.” It is here that she witnesses and participates in the daily life of one of the most poverty-ridden areas of DC. She portrays both her fellow officers and the residents of 7D with sympathy and respect. In doing so, she notes both the pathetic nature of most crimes and the anger of aggrieved victims.


Brooks writes that “Patrol has no plot,” it is a daily grind of petty crime and crisis intervention. But plot is not the point. The point is that Brooks took the time to learn about policing from the ground up before discussing police reforms. This book is valuable not for the plot but for the context that one hopes will foster an intelligent discussion of policing and police reform.


Ultimately, Brooks returned to Georgetown Law to start two programs based on her experience as a reserve officer: the “Police for Tomorrow” fellowship and the “Innovative Policing Program.” She described these programs as trying to bridge her two parallel lives – that of a part-time police officer and that of a law professor. I suspect that advocates of “defund the police” will appreciate this more that those who just “back the blue” but each will benefit by reading this excellent book about policing an American city.


If I have a complaint it is that the book wasn’t over when it seemed to end. It includes an Epilogue, Acknowledgements and then an Annex entitled “What Happened Next,” which provides updates on some of the more memorable arrestees. I almost missed all of this while reading an electronic copy of the book. Fortunately, I did read through to the end and even read the end notes, most of which were absolutely fascinating.


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