What Cops Really Learn at Police Academy: 'Anyone Can Kill You at Any Time'

When Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown University tenured law professor, decided to become a reserve police officer with the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department in 2015, she explored the "blue wall of silence" from the inside. Through her experience, she discovered that today's hot-button issues about policing are far from black and white; in her recent book, Tangled up in Blue (Penguin Press), Brooks shares what she learned on the force, her recommendations for better laws and policing and her analysis of the complex issues surrounding race and policing that are increasingly timely in a world wracked by the use of deadly force by police and the resulting public protests. In this excerpt from her book, Brooks explores the indoctrination cops get as part of their training about their own vulnerability—both at the hands of the people they've sworn to protect and their own department—and how that affects their actions on the job.

PER_Tangled Up_Banner
A demonstrator is arrested by police officers during a protest April 29, 2015, at Union Square in New York, held in solidarity with demonstrators in Baltimore, Maryland, demanding justice for an African American man who died of severe spinal injuries sustained in police custody. EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/AFP via Getty

"Anyone can kill you at any time"

The chief lesson learned at the academy was this: Anyone can kill you at any time.

This topic wasn't listed on the formal lesson plan, but was implicit in the stories the instructors told and the videos the recruits obsessively watched both in class and during break time. Week after week, we watch footage of cops getting attacked, injured or killed. The world, it seemed, was a dangerous place for police officers; they were perpetually being stabbed, shot, punched, kicked, run over, drowned poisoned by fentanyl and bitten by savage dogs.

The instructors referred to these as "officer safety" videos. When we had breaks or "got ahead of the curriculum" and had nothing else to do, which happened a lot, we huddled around iPads and laptops and watched more videos. Like kids bonding over their favorite YouTube clips, recruits sat around in the lunchroom and swapped suggestions of cops-in-trouble videos to watch.

There were, we learned, a thousand ways for cops to be hurt or killed. On our screens, unwitting police officers conducted traffic stops, only to be gunned down by meth-heads previously invisible behind invisible tinted rear windows. Officers rushed heedlessly toward disabled trucks and inhaled fatal levels of anhydrous ammonia. They stopped to assist stranded motorists and were struck by passing cars. They responded to domestic violence calls and were hit over the head by poker-wielding husbands. They were pushed off bridges by fleeing felons and drowned in raging river currents. They were overpowered by combative suspects who grabbed their service weapons and shot them in the head. They were beaten to death by crazed PCP addicts who kept right on pummelling them despite being repeatedly Tasered. They were poisoned, strangled and pushed off the roofs of tall buildings.

The dead cops were all heroes. But, it was quietly intimated, they were also failures. Mostly, we were told, they died because they weren't prepared.

They let down their guard. They neglected to take appropriate tactical precautions. They decided their ballistic vest was hot and uncomfortable, so they left it at home when they went on patrol, and suffered the consequences when they were shot six times in the chest! They sat in their cars, too busy scrolling through personal text messages on their phones to notice the deranged drug addict lurching toward them—until it was too late and he shot them in the head! They interviewed domestic violence suspects in their kitchens, forgetting that kitchens are full of weapons—until the suspect grabbed a butcher knife from a drawer and stabbed them in the heart! They told the meek-looking elderly driver to go ahead and retrieve his registration and insurance, figuring he was harmless—until he shot them in the neck with the gun he pulled from the glove compartment!

"There's no such thing as a routine call," the instructors told us. Even the most seemingly quotidian and benign situations could turn lethal in an instant. You had to approach every situation "tactically," which meant you had to always be thinking about the numerous ways in which you could be killed, and act in a manner calibrated to keep you from becoming a dead hero.

"A good day is a day you go home safe," the instructors told us.

Accordingly, Saturdays at the academy were devoted to physical training and defensive tactics. Our PT instructor was Sergeant Flanagan, a short, well-muscled Irishman in his 50s. I liked Flanagan, despite the fact that he immediately announced that we should come in each Saturday wearing white T-shirts with our surnames written in black marker on the back, rendering obsolete all the gray T-shirts we had previously been told to acquire.

As spring turned to summer, Reserve Recruit Class 2016-01 progressed from learning how to walk ("You are never, ever going to turn your back on a suspect! You need to move away from a suspect, you're going to take a step sideways and back, never straight back, or you'll lose your balance and fall on your ass!") to learning to fight and use "control holds" and "pain compliance" measures. We practiced on punching bags, rubber dummies and one another, learning kicks, palm strikes and elbow strikes. We learned how to break someone's finger grip and how to twist an arm back painfully to force a bad guy into compliance.

Chokeholds were forbidden by Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department (MPD). Too many people placed in a chokehold ended up dead. "Like Eric Garner, in New York City. So no chokeholds. Prohibited, verboten," said Flanagan.

Wentz, the former NYPD copy, broke in. "That's idiotic. Properly used, chokeholds are perfectly safe. It's just a training issue. People don't just understand how to use them. Eric Garner didn't die because he was put in a chokehold. He died because of positional asphyxia."

Flanagan was unmoved. "Technically, yes. But what everybody and their cousin saw on TV was Eric Garner being choked. We'll talk about positional asphyxia in a minute, but for now, just remember, no chokeholds. The policy is what the policy is."

"Better to be judged by 12 than carried by six," countered Wentz.

PER_Tangled Up_02
The casket of U.S. Capitol Police Officer William Evans is carried by a joint service honor guard at the East Front of the Capitol after lying in honor in the Rotunda on April 13, 2021, in Washington, D.C. Jabin Botsford-Pool/Getty

Flanagan was getting impatient. "Look, Wentz, you find yourself in an actual life-or-death situation and you have to grab someone around the neck to keep him from killing you? I'm not going to tell you not to do that. If it's life or death, you do what you have to do. But the department's policy is, no chokeholds. So here in MPD, we don't use chokeholds just because someone's a pain in the ass and resists cuffing. Not chokeholds. Okay?"

We moved on to discuss positional asphyxia. Restraining a subject by putting your knee or foot on his back while he lay facedown was also prohibited by department policy, because being prone for an extended period, particularly with weight on the back could kill someone, especially if the subject happened to have a weak heart or other medical issues.

"You're struggling with a suspect, it's a fight, you end up on top of him and his face is in the dirt? It happens."

"But you don't stay in that position," Flanagan went on. "You get the guy under control and you get off him, fast, because the longer he's facedown, the more risk there is." Four years later, George Floyd's death became an infamous and tragic case in point.

PER_Tangled Up_01
Protesters kneel and hold up their hands in front of a row of police during a demonstration against the death of George Floyd at a park near the White House on June 1, 2020, in Washington, D.C. OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP/Getty

Wentz looked like he was about to argue.

"It's the same as chokeholds," said Flanagan. "Policy says no. You need to understand that. But if it's life or death? If you're all alone, and you can't get the cuffs onto his wrists, and the guy weighs 300 pounds, and the second you shift your weight off his back he's going to throttle you? Well, you have a right to go home at the end of the day."

Wentz nodded, satisfied by this concession.

"Just be aware," Flanagan added, "you're still going to have to explain why you violated department policy."

This tension was articulated over and over, in the academy and, later, out on the streets. Cops had two messages drilled into them.

On the one hand: You were in constant danger. Any situation, no matter how seemingly low risk, could turn deadly in an instant, and you had to always be ready to do whatever it took to protect yourself.

Tangled Up In Blue Book Jacket

On the other hand: You had to abide by MPD policies, because if you deviated from them in a way that made the department look bad, you would be hung out to dry. The department would not give you the benefit of the doubt. You'd be suspended, fired or prosecuted in a millisecond.

Even for us reserve recruits, this created a constant gnawing feeling of vulnerability. Soon, we'd be sent out to the streets, where, according to our instructors, we would find ourselves trapped between a hostile public, full of people eager to hurt or kill us, and a hostile departmental bureaucracy, eager to throw us to the wolves if required by PR considerations.

From TANGLED UP IN BLUE: Policing the American City by Rosa Brooks. Published by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright ©2021 by Rosa Brooks.