Tuesday, June 22, 2021

A puzzle, sometimes deadly

Sadly, I found Rosa Brooks' book about her experience training to become, and serving as, a volunteer D.C. police officer, well, simply tangled. The book is a melange of themes that never quite come together.

There's the story of Brooks, an accomplished law professor, a social analyst, and a security policy advocate, trying to come to terms with her lefty mother (the writer Barbara Ehrenreich).
From the beginning, it was my mother's likely reaction that worried me most. I had always struggled with her expectations: I wanted to please her and make her proud, but at the same time I didn't want her choices and commitments to dictate my own.
Come on. Brooks is a successful, white, middle class, middle-aged mother of almost teenagers, not some lost 20-something. This is TMI and it doesn't advance the story, unless I assume that the mother is the actual audience for the project.

Not surprisingly, Brooks stint as a cop enables her to testify to the humanity and basic decency of many, even most, individuals who do the job. She recites the catechism of sympathetic liberal journalism:
Police officers have an impossible job: we expect them to be warriors, disciplinarians, protectors, mediators, social workers, educators, medics and mentors all at once, and we blame them for enforcing laws they didn't make in a social context they have little power to alter. The abuses and systemic problems that plague policing are very real, and readers will see them reflected in these pages, particularly in the flashes of cynicism and casual contempt I sometimes saw in officers with whom I worked. But the compassion, courage, and creativity I saw are real too.
So what did I get from this book? Various, somewhat disconnected, tidbits about policing.

There's the training which sets the stage, but probably doesn't much prepare beginning officers for their job.

They learn first and foremost that: "Anyone can kill you at any time." Officer "safety videos" drum in the scary message that some cops do fail to come home. Further, they imply that if you get hurt while doing your job, it's probably because you weren't tough and prepared enough to do battle with the bad guys. No wonder too many cops treat the communities they police as war zones. Nobody is reminding the budding recruits that for all the hype, police work isn't among the top 10 most dangerous jobs in this country.

They have an ethics lesson:
The instructor summed it up: "Basically, don't do shit that will look bad on the news. Because if you do, you are roadkill." 
Everyone laughed. 
"No," he said, "I'm not kidding. You do something stupid, do not think for one moment that the department is going to stand by you. You make the department look bad, you will be hung out to dry."
They learn -- or at least encounter -- the hundreds of laws, policies, and concomitant paper work that make up the life of a cop. Cops operate within a thicket of sometimes conflicting injunctions that are probably beyond the capacity of any individual to decipher. I'll give Brooks kudos for describing the morass well.

Despite having been issued a misaligned weapon, Brooks passed firearms training with difficulty. She comments:
Later, on patrol, I found I hardly ever thought about the gun in my holster. It might as well not have been there. To the extent that I thought about it, it was mostly because it was sometimes in my way, pinching my skin or banging into my elbow. Sometimes, when I was tired, I used it as an armrest.
But she does report one incident when she did draw her gun, following her defensive training when entering a dark apartment. If she and her partner had done what they had been taught to do, and what police culture supports, they might have shot and killed a naked unarmed teenager they found there -- but they overcame their training and defused a mistake.

In chocolate Washington, DC, the recruits got no training on issues of race.
The academy curriculum was as striking for what it didn't cover as what it did. For instance, we had eight units on vehicular offenses and one unit on use-of-force policies -- but nothing at all on race and policing.
About half her class was Black.

Something I found notable in Brooks' account of working as a cop was that she gave no account of the police union to which her employed colleagues presumably belonged. The only glancing mention of this formidable force in officers' lives was when a union rep assured her she didn't have to testify to internal affairs investigators about sexist behavior she had observed. There's no real sense in this book whether the union is a force for good or ill -- for officers and/or for the community.

Brooks' anecdotes about actual shifts on patrol are vivid, sometimes funny, more often tragic. Mostly this is story of people getting by in grinding inter-generational poverty. Suffering and deprivation drive some people mad; it seldom ennobles. Race doesn't come into it much, because in the district she patrols, pretty much everyone except Brooks is Black.
Like most poor minority neighborhoods, 7D was in many ways over-policed -- unlike in more affluent areas, police are a constant and visible presence. Activists critical of policing complain, with some justification, that police effectively become occupying forces in poor urban neighborhoods. ... But over-policing is driven in part by the law of supply and demand -- police go where people ask them to go. ... bias-driven calls are all too common, especially in demographically changing neighborhoods. ... But the over-policing of poor black urban communities is also fueled by high demand for police services from members of those same communities. When other social goods and services are absent or scarce, police become the default solution to an astonishingly wide range of problems.
A lesson -- which I am willing to take -- is that if we want to have less policing and police, we need to provide other answers for residents in under-served poor communities who need help. If we don't, the default is more cops.

One of the tasks our society delegates to cops is dealing with deaths outside hospitals and at home.
Within a year of graduating from the academy, even as a purely part-time, twenty-four-hours-a-month officer, I had seen at least six or seven dead bodies, including one homicide victim, and two overdose victims. Full time officers see ten times as many dead people. Like everything else, repetition makes it routine. People die all the time. There's nothing special about it.
No wonder cops are people who drift apart from a society in which we do our best to hide the fact of death.

Brooks raises up a statistic I found interesting:
... a typical full-time patrol officer will average well under one arrest each month.
And she contends that arrests usually make life worse for both the individual and the community -- but like her fellow officers, she can only ask, what are cops to do? In Washington, above all else her foray into law enforcement reinforces the truth that
... poverty and race are difficult to disentangle.
Eventually Brooks managed to combine her work as a law professor with her stint as a patrol officer, creating a program in which new officer recruits have a chance to think about the social implications of their new jobs. She's hopeful. I'm unconvinced, but glad to know people are working at this.

My mindset is to assume that solutions, if any, are more likely to emerge from communities that are both over-policed and under-safe than from outside. We'd don't yet know as a society how to do this better and what we currently do is not particularly good for any of the tangled people in the system -- except maybe for those police unions.

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