The Professor Who Became a CopBreaking News
tags: book reviews, Police, sociology
For as long as there have been police, there have been bestselling police biographies and autobiographies. In nineteenth-century Britain and France, bourgeois readers devoured police “memoirs” that peddled lurid glimpses into high-profile murders and tawdry street crimes alike. In the United States, readers thrilled to dime-novel sheriffs lassoing rustlers on the range and broadside exploits of Allan Pinkerton and his agents, women included, smashing conspiracies of anarchists, communists, and “Molly Maguires.” In the twentieth century, memoirs bylined by everyone from the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover to the LAPD’s Daryl F. Gates sold widely and netted their authors serious money in the process. (Hoover laundered his royalties through a nonprofit and became rich.)
The reading public looked to these stories for an understanding of their changing world. From the saloons of the lawless frontier, to the warrens of industrializing cities, to the vacant lots and housing projects of contemporary urban ghettos, cop memoirs have promised insight into their eras’ spaces of disorder, as well as vignettes—titillating, tragic, and comic—of the unruly persons who populate them. Cop memoirs also promise character studies of the people who patrol such dangerous zones, learn their ways, and presumably gain some portable wisdom about society and human nature in the process. The question “Who Watches the Watchers?” has an obvious answer insofar as everyone, it seems, wants to know what makes cops tick, and to see the world that they see.
Of course, whether in the first person or otherwise, not all or even most of these police narratives were actually written by police themselves. Many were ghostwritten by journalists, whose symbiotic relationship with the police has always been something of an open secret. Journalists can become “so coppish themselves,” H.L. Mencken remarked in 1931, that they function as “police buffs,” “police enthusiasts,” and “police fans,” largely dependent on information from the authorities for their stories. Today, as in Mencken’s time, a great deal of crime “reporting” merely reproduces police press releases—and many long-form cop memoirs reproduce not only the stories about cops that audiences want to read, but the stories cops want to tell about themselves.
Rosa Brooks’s Tangled Up in Blue: Policing the American City promises without question to be the cop memoir for the late 2010s and early 2020s. An accomplished scholar, journalist, and author who has moved in the loftiest legal, nonprofit, and foreign policy circles, Brooks brings a distinctive perspective to the police memoir genre, which boasts few women’s voices to begin with. Her narrative is pitched directly at contemporary anxieties over police violence, and begins with consciousness of a widespread sentiment that American policing is broken, and no one knows if it can be “repaired.”
As an account of what policing can be like for police themselves, Tangled Up in Blue is singularly frank, and its depictions of the civilians who encounter police possess a rare mixture of empathy, self-consciousness, and well-hedged appeals to context. But Brooks’s book is also about more than just policing as an institution, or even her own experiences as a cop: It is a deeply personal family memoir, and a meditation on questions of race, class, gender, and family inheritances. Some readers may find it enthralling; others may find it distasteful. Whatever the case, it is certainly revealing, sometimes painfully so.
“I joined the DC Metropolitan Police Department Reserve Corps because it was there,” writes Brooks. “It was there, and I was curious.”
This is Brooks’s story in a nutshell, at least on the surface, related with characteristic confidence and candor. When the idea of becoming a cop first strikes her in 2011, Brooks is in her forties, with a degree from Harvard, a master’s in social anthropology from Oxford, and a juris doctor degree from Yale. As a scholar with “a long-standing interest in law’s troubled relationship with violence,” Brooks has traveled the globe working with prominent nonprofit human rights groups, has published extensively about security and international law, has tenure at Georgetown, and has worked for the U.S. government, first at the State Department and then as an Obama administration appointee in the Defense Department. It is in her final days at this latter position, during a mandatory H.R. event, that Brooks encounters a woman in her sixties who discloses that, in addition to running implicit bias trainings, she serves as a reserve officer for the Washington Metropolitan Police Department (MPD). “People think I should be knitting,” says the trainer. “But let me tell you, putting them in cuffs dispels their stereotypes really fast.”
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