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Do military-style police academies instill a mean streak in some officers?

Law professor attends police training and finds in some cases it empowers the worst and disempowers the best

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Georgetown University law professor Rosa Brooks on duty this year as a volunteer reserve officer for the Washington, D.C., Police Deptartment.

Rosa Brooks

SALT LAKE CITY — As a 45-year-old Georgetown University law professor, mother, wife and former Pentagon policy adviser, Rosa Brooks was not your typical police academy recruit.

But she didn’t sign up in 2016 just for training as a reserve officer on the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department. Brooks thought being inside the closed culture of law enforcement would provide valuable insight for her forthcoming book, “Tangled Up in Blue: Policing the American City.”

Her instincts proved correct and surprising. The first unexpected takeaway was the indistinguishable difference between a paramilitary organization and a police force. Class time was taken up with drill and formation, standing at attention, tactical training and — yes — boot polishing, she wrote of her experience in The Atlantic.

“We had instructors who rolled their eyes at this sort of thing, but we also had instructors who seemed to be channeling the Marine drill sergeant in ‘Full Metal Jacket,’ bawling insults and punishing minor infractions with sets of pushups,” she wrote, recalling high school gym class was the last time she had been yelled at like that.

Her training took place in 2016, during the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement that followed the killing of a black man by police in Ferguson, Missouri, and shortly after the deadly ambush-style attacks of police in Dallas and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, that claimed seven officers. But Brooks said conversations about those events took place the hallway among recruits and not in the classroom.

“I, maybe stupidly, was expecting it to be a little bit more like a college classroom,” she told the Deseret News this week about her police training.

Brooks’ experience prompted her to launch Georgetown Law’s Police for Tomorrow Fellowship, offered through the university’s Innovative Policing Program, where new officers can discuss with their superiors tough questions about racial discrimination, alternatives to arrest, poverty and addiction.

In an interview with the Deseret News, Brooks talked about her policing experiences and said rooting out the long-standing military culture of law enforcement is key to addressing problems that have sparked protests around the globe. She also talked about what policymakers can do restore public confidence in policing in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Deseret News: You had previously worked at the Pentagon, what spurred your interest in policing and why did you decide to actually enter the academy to write this book?

Rosa Brooks: I’ve been interested in writing about the blurry boundaries between the military and police, between war and crime.

And then, as now, we were at a moment where there was a lot of really intense debate about policing and race and violence. It just seemed like an interesting moment to learn about policing. It’s such an opaque culture, similar to the military, and I think a lot of people just have no idea what it is: How is this institution actually organized? Who’s in it? What does it do? How does it work? How is it structured? It seemed like an amazingly strange opportunity to be a bit on the inside of normally a very closed culture.

DN: What was most surprising or unexpected at the academy?

RB: It often felt like the whole country was talking about race, policing and violence and the one place we weren’t having those conversations was at the police academy, where the focus is very tactical. It was here’s a list of vehicular offenses, memorize it. Here are the five steps for applying handcuffs, memorize them. What really struck me is that the focus was so overwhelmingly tactical, rather than what is policing for? What does it mean to be a good police officer? How do we know if we’re being effective?

DN: Who would new officers ask for answers about the broader and underlying questions around policing?

RB: As part of the paramilitary culture, there is a huge emphasis on chain of command. If you’re a junior patrol officer, you don’t just send the chief a note by email saying, ‘Hey, sir, just had a thought.’ You speak to your peers or to the sergeant. And maybe if you’re lucky, the lieutenant. And so to create this more informal space, the fellowship program brings together young officers with more senior command staff. There have been moments where the command staff would say, ‘Oh, we didn’t know that this was your experience. We didn’t know that this is how this policy was being perceived in this completely different way.’ And some of the changes that have been ushered in at the academy (civilian teachers now help with training and policies are debated and discussed) stem pretty directly from a comments made by some of our fellows.

DN: What are some of the issues new recruits struggle with during training?

RB: We give cops these totally contradictory instructions. We’re basically saying, ‘Be warriors, be mentors, be medics, be teachers, be social workers, be tough, be nice.’ That’s pretty confusing for young officers who are 20-24 years old and they’re not really getting a lot of opportunities to talk that through. And I actually think it’s exciting now for both them more broadly for the nation to be having those conversations about what do we want people with guns to do versus what things are better done by people without guns. I don’t know that there’s always a right answer. But those are conversations that we should be having, like, ‘Why do we have armed people enforcing civil traffic infractions?’ We don’t have armed people giving you parking tickets. When you choose to have the police be the people who do it that’s got a certain set of consequences. And are those consequences we want?


Rosa Brooks

Jody McKitrick

DN: Have you ever found any members on the force who say, ‘I didn’t sign up for this. I signed up to solve the crime of the century and bust some heads now and then’?

RB: Sometimes, especially young men who can be kind of bitter they’re not having high-speed car chases all the time. But overall I have a huge amount of respect for the majority of the officers I worked with, who in very difficult conditions with not much pay and not much thanks from the city, handle these really messy, tough situations and most of them make really earnest efforts to be respectful. Not all of them are equally good at it. Not all of them try equally hard, but overall you see a lot of good things. I came in as someone very skeptical about and critical of policing, and I still am. But I think the problems are largely structural.

DN: What was the mindset and attitude of recruits you trained and worked with?

RB: It’s been my experience that the vast majority of police officers are really decent people who go into policing for good and idealistic reasons. They want to protect people. Often they were a crime victim or someone close to them was a crime victim. But the experience for many in the academy is it kind of beats that out of you, and it’s hard for them to hold on to that sense of idealism.

DN: What role does a military-style of training you experienced play in that change?

RB: It’s a kind of training that empowers the worst in recruits, and disempowers the best in a lot of ways. It’s a little bit like the research on abused children who are more likely, statistically, to grow up to be abusive. If what is modeled for us at moments when we’re particularly impressionable — you’re young, it’s your first experience in this profession and you’re being kind of inculcated into its norms — is people with more power treat those with less power in a language of force and orders, that’s what you take away and you’re going to apply those lessons when you’re out on the street dealing with the general public. Whereas, if what’s modeled for you is we resolve conflicts by listening, by looking for compromises, by looking for ways to get everybody out of here feeling like they’ve been heard and their concerns have been taken seriously, you’re going to bring those skills into the community, too.

DN: With a military culture entrenched in U.S. law enforcement for nearly two centuries, from training to the armored vehicles and weaponry now being used, is it possible to eliminate it?

RB: I think it is. Changing the nature of police training would make a difference. And there’s a piece of it that has to do with recruiting. A lot of departments recruit at military job fairs and from college criminology departments, but not from the women’s studies department. And, you get who you recruit. One of my pet peeves is that young women currently make up only about 15% of all law enforcement officers nationwide. And I think balancing recruiting out on gender would also make a huge cultural difference. There are a number of studies that suggest that women police officers, regardless of their job descriptions, have far fewer complaints of excessive force than male officers. Who knows if it’s culture or biology, but clearly women police officers are more likely to try the de-escalate approach. So, I think that gender is a piece of this, that policing might look really different if it was 50% women.

DN: Based on your experience as a reserve officer what value does sorting through those larger questions have for new officers who see their job as solving crimes, locking up bad guys and making communities safer?

RB: You’re right there in the middle of people’s really messy lives, and they very rarely involve the crime of the century or dealing with bank robberies and serial killers and global terrorist masterminds. They are a woman who got into a fight with her sister over whether she dried the clothes in the laundry. It’s a guy who’s upset because there’s always a smell of marijuana in the hallway or a mother who’s angry because her daughter didn’t come home when she told her to. There is violent crime, and that takes a terrible toll on communities, but 90% of your time as a police officer goes into these sad situations where kind of messed up people are struggling and often failing to resolve disputes that never should have gotten as far as they did.

DN: In response to the current public outcry for change, police agencies, local government, state legislatures and Congress are looking at ways to root out racism and curtail police brutality. What do you think are realistic solutions in the short and long term?

RB: Get rid of qualified immunity (a legal doctrine that makes it difficult to hold police accountable for unlawful conduct). The Supreme Court has set an absurdly low bar for police behavior, but there’s no reason on the congressional and state levels, rules can’t be tightened up in terms of use of force and police accountability. Congress can also create incentives for police agencies to open up more and make changes. Congress can’t force it, but it can sure dangle a bunch of carrots and say, ‘If you start a program to recruit more women, if you just demilitarize the academy or start a program to make all of this information available on the city’s website you’re going to get some cash grants that will let you do other good things.’