'Dramatically Different' Training Needed to Curb Deadly Force, Says Policing Expert Rosa Brooks

Georgetown law professor and founder of its Innovative Policing Program Rosa Brooks wanted to learn from the inside what it was like to be a cop, and joined up as a reserve Washington, D.C., police officer. Her recent book Tangled Up in Blue (Penguin Press) is a frank discussion of her experiences in training and on the street, an analysis of the pressures on police today and her recommendations for how to improve the law enforcement system. In this Q&A, Brooks discusses the Chauvin verdict, suggestions for how to limit the use of deadly force in police encounters, whether there should be better vetting of police, the release of body camera footage and more.

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New members of the New York City Police Department take the Oath of Office at their police academy graduation ceremony at the Theater at Madison Square Garden, October 15, 2018 in New York City. Drew Angerer/Getty

What made you decide to become a reserve police officer? Why then?

I've spent much of my career researching and writing about the relationship between law, violence and the stories people tell themselves and one another about law and violence. Policing in the U.S. is a stunningly violent enterprise, and when I learned about the D.C. police reserve corps, it seemed to me that joining it would be a fascinating way to better understand why American policing is the way it is. If you want to change something, first you need to understand it.

How has your opinion of the police changed since you trained as a reserve officer?

I now have a very keen understanding of exactly how difficult it is to be a good police officer. Our society asks police to take on so many contradictory roles: warrior, protector, social worker, mediator, medic, you name it. It's hard to be good at any one of those things, and almost impossible to be good at all of them.

Police officers are rarely convicted after the use of deadly force. Do you think the Derek Chauvin conviction will change how suspects are treated during an arrest?

I wish I could say yes, but I'm not sure this will change anything in and of itself. No question, if officers stop to think about it, the Chauvin conviction should send them a powerful message that the world won't look the other way when someone dies in an interaction with police. But the problem is, most abuses are committed by officers who just aren't thinking. They're scared or they're angry, and those emotions can lead people to behave in irrational ways. Dramatically better and different training could help change this, but one trial probably won't.

Between George Floyd's death and Chauvin's conviction, at least 979 people were killed in encounters with law enforcement, according to data collected by Mapping Police Violence. What is the single most important thing necessary to decrease these numbers?

There's no magic solution here—no one single thing. I'm going to name three things, though:

1) Supreme Court decisions give police very broad latitude to stop people if they have a "reasonable suspicion" the person they want to stop is involved in criminal activity, and the Court has interpreted "reasonable suspicion" so broadly that it essentially gives police license to stop anyone they want to stop. Police authority to conduct stops should be greatly narrowed.

2) We should stop using police to enforce civil traffic regulations. Police should conduct vehicle stops only when there's an immediate threat to public safety—not just because someone made an improper right on red or has an air freshener hanging from their mirror.

3) Similarly, police should be prohibited from using lethal force except in situations where the use of lethal force is objectively necessary to protect the officer or others from an imminent threat of death or serious injury. Right now, the standard for the use of lethal force in many jurisdictions is whether lethal force is "reasonable" from an officer's perspective, which—like "reasonable suspicion"—is often interpreted so broadly that it doesn't pose any real constraint.

There is a great deal of mistrust between the police and the Black community in particular after cases like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many others. How can that trust be rebuilt and how can the community and the police better work together?

Police need to listen to people in the communities they police and take the concerns they hear seriously. But here too, there's no quick or simple solution. It's going to take many, many years and many, many changes to restore trust.

According to the Officer Down Memorial Page, at least 71 law enforcement personnel have been killed in the line of duty this year. What do citizens need to understand about how the dangers of the job affect police?

I think it's more a matter of how police officers' perception of danger affects them. Policing is more dangerous than most occupations, but statistically, policing isn't nearly as dangerous as most police officers think. Despite this, police training often gives officers an exaggerated sense of how dangerous their job is. When it's drummed into you that anyone you meet could try to kill you, it's easy to start thinking that everyone you meet is going to try to kill you—which makes a lot of cops scared and jumpy. And this makes many police-citizen contacts very fraught, because scared officers don't make good decisions.

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People sit on the street in front of a row of police officers during a rally in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on after the death of George Floyd. KEREM YUCEL/AFP/Getty

Police know their work is dangerous. Why do it? If that's a concern, why not choose less risky work? It's a choice, right?

Like members of the military, police officers are trained and paid to take risks. Protecting the communities they serve should be every officer's top priority. That doesn't mean officers shouldn't be able to use force in self defense, but the emphasis in police training should be on teaching officers how to avoid getting into needlessly risky situations in the first place. Smart tactics can do a lot to reduce risks both to police officers and to others.

How has the job of policing changed in recent years? Has the training changed to meet those changes?

Cell phone videos and social media have placed police behavior under a microscope. And that's entirely appropriate: when we give people badges, guns and the power to take away someone's liberty or life, it's absolutely appropriate for their behavior to be subjected to that kind of scrutiny. I don't think police training in most places has caught up to these realities.

Should police recruits be vetted more than they are? For a history of racism or white supremacy, for example?

Yes. Police departments should also make it a priority to recruit people who might not ordinarily go into policing: social workers, teachers, etc. as well as military veterans and graduates from criminal justice programs.

What do you think of body cam footage? Should it be released as public record? Is it generally an accurate reflection of the events?

Generally, yes—the default rule should be that body-worn camera footage should be released, provided that appropriate measures are taken to protect the privacy of witnesses, victims, etc. BWC footage is "accurate," but it's only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to understanding events. Reconstructing and understanding events shown in body-worn camera videos often requires investigators to look at multiple videos (from BWCs and from cell phones, security cameras, etc.) and to interview multiple witnesses, because BWC videos are often poor quality, often show only particular angles, don't show what's going on outside of the camera's direct view and so on.

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Author Rosa Brooks Jody McKitrick

What are you working on now?

I spend a lot of my time co-directing Georgetown's Innovative Policing Program. We have developed several programs that we hope will be part of transforming policing in the U.S., including the Police for Tomorrow Fellowship and the Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement Project.