Tangled Up in Blue – A Terrific Read

I just finished Rosa Brooks’s new book, Tangled Up in Blue: Policing the American City, and in a word, it is terrific.

I am not a policing scholar, but as Jennifer Carlson has highlighted, it’s hard to study American gun culture and avoid policing entirely. I’ve met many past and current LEOs in my journey and know more about the challenges of policing than I did 10 years ago.

By joining the Washington, DC Metropolitan Police Department as a reserve officer (sworn, armed, and on patrol), Parks gives a great first person perspective on the difficulty of policing an urban area afflicted by structural inequality and racism. But she also highlights the good work she and her fellow officers do there.

One of my big takeaways from the book is that we look to the police, much in the same way we look at schools, to address what are essentially social problems. Toward the end, Brooks lists some of these things police not only do, but are expected to do (pp. 327-8):

  • Give CPR and Narcan to addicts lying unconscious on the street
  • Help victims of domestic violence apply for restraining orders
  • Try to persuade the mentally ill to seek care
  • Drive homeless people to shelters
  • Comfort victims of robbery and assault
  • Mediate disputes between family members and neighbors

Police are also in a challenging situation because we outsource our violence to them, as when “they check for intruders when residents are too frightened to enter their homes” and “they wade into the middle of fights and put their own bodies between the combatants” (pp. 327-8)

In the end, she highlights that simplistic approaches to policing – the police are racist and should be defunded vs. it’s just a few bad apples – are both wrong.

On the one hand, she explains, “The widely publicized incidents of police violence and abuse often lead us to forget that the vast majority of police officers spend the vast majority of their time helping people who ask for their help. Americans call 911 both in genuine emergencies and for trivial reasons, and police officers don’t get to choose whether to respond” (p. 327).

On the other hand, her view that police officers should be even more judicious in their use of force, even at the cost of incurring more risk to themselves, is sure to be controversial. She reasons that taking on that risk is part of what they voluntarily signed up for when they took the job, and people they interact with have as much of a right to go home at the end of the day as they do.

There is much more to this book than these few brief notes. I am particularly hopeful that my LEO friends and readers will check it out and let me/us know how it fits with their experiences and understandings.

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  1. Based on a 4% sample of reading the book this should be one of the better books I have read for a long long time. Thanks for the post.


  2. Working through Latzer’s “The Roots of Violent Crime in America: From the Gilded Age through the Great Depression” and the list of “extra” services police are expected to provide hasn’t changed much in 150 years.

    And now I have a next book to read.

    Thank you.


      • Summarizing: lacking other formal agencies, police barracks were used to lodge and feed the homeless (150k a year, including 9k young men nightly in the Bowery district). The police cared for lost or abused children, were expected to clean the streets of their beat, inspect boilers(?!), as well as do the standard “order maintenance” actions of breaking up fights, quieting domestic rows, escorting drunks home, and dealing with the steadily increasing traffic snarls.

        “Professional policing” eliminated much of the non-law enforcement work (though other agencies didn’t necessarily immediately exist to replace them) and a lot of the “order maintenance” offenses became codified as crimes, requiring legal action be taken.

        Probably still a net good, given the graft and corruption, but not without social costs.


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