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Podcasts Norco '80
A Conversation about Policing
California Love
21:05
A Conversation about Policing
In 2016, Rosa Brooks, a full-time law professor at Georgetown University, became a reserve police officer. Rosa had previously studied and written about the role of violence in society, but always from a perspective outside of law enforcement. Now, she's written a book about her years of service and the insight she gained about identity, militarization, and what police actually think.

NORCO 80
Episode 10 Transcript: A Conversation about Policing
PART 1

THEME SONG

I’M ANTONIA CEREIJIDO AND THIS IS NORCO 80 - A PODCAST ABOUT GOD GUNS SURVIVALISM AND THE BANK ROBBERY THAT CHANGED POLICING FOREVER.

TODAY: A LOOK AT AMERICAN POLICING AND THE POSSIBILITY OF POLICE REFORM, FROM THE INSIDE.

IN A PREVIOUS EPISODE, WE HEARD FROM ROSA BROOKS ABOUT THE PATH WE CAN TRACE FROM THE NORCO BANK ROBBERY TO POLICING TODAY. IN THIS EPISODE, WE EXPLORE HER RESEARCH AS A SCHOLAR ON WAR AND VIOLENCE AND HER PERSONAL EXPERIENCE SERVING AS A POLICE OFFICER.

THEME MUSIC OUT

ROSA IS A LAW PROFESSOR AT GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY. SHE ALSO RECENTLY SPENT FOUR YEARS WORKING AS A RESERVE POLICE OFFICER IN WASHINGTON DC.

Musiquita

Rosa​: Police violence was very much in the news and somewhat accidentally, I learned that there was this reserve officer program.

ROSA FIRST STARTED THINKING ABOUT BECOMING A POLICE OFFICER IN 2011.

And I just from the minute I heard it, but I thought that is so fascinating. No kidding. They would let me be a cop.

A FEW YEARS LATER, SHE WOULD APPLY AND BE ACCEPTED TO THE ACADEMY. SHE SERVED IN THE DC METROPOLITAN POLICE DEPARTMENT FROM 2016 TO 2020.

I think I went in a little bit thinking to myself these 22 year old guys can do it how hard can’t it be? And it was so hard.

SHE BEGAN TRAINING NIGHTS AND WEEKENDS AT THE ACADEMY. THE POSITION WAS UNPAID - IT WAS LIKE DOING COMMUNITY SERVICE - BUT SHE WOULD END UP UNDERGOING THE SAME TRAINING AS THE FULL-TIME OFFICERS. CARRY THE SAME GUN AND PATROL THE SAME STREETS.

ASC: I​ t was very surprising for a Georgetown law professor to decide to become a full time and a reserve police officer. what led you to pursue that?

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Rosa:Y​ ouknow,I'vespentmywholecareerinonewayoranotherresearchingand writing about how people make sense of violence. What do we what do we justify, what do we condemn?

I worked for human rights groups. I worked for the US Department of State later for the US Department of Defense. M​ y last book was on war and the military. And thinking about sort of how we construct these stories, these narratives that in which we tell ourselves, oh, this is necessary, this is not necessary. This is justified.

I was just really really curious on top of that. it was really driven by that sense of curiosity, of know, here's this culture that from the outside seems so opaque and tends to get reduced to these very binary stereotypes. You know, police are heroes. No, police are racist brutes I just wanted to find out. So what is it like? What did cops learn about how did they get trained? What what do they talk about when the rest of us aren't there? So I guess it was just curiosity more than anything else.

ABOUT A YEAR AND A HALF INTO HER SERVICE, SHE DECIDED TO WRITE ABOUT HER EXPERIENCE.

IN HER BOOK, “TANGLED UP IN BLUE: POLICING THE AMERICAN CITY, ” SHE PONDERS THE WAY THAT POLICE JUSTIFY THE USE OF FORCE.

Rosa:​ I’ve always believed if you want to change a culture, you need to understand it. And understanding it means making means understanding how the people who are inside it make sense of their world.

Nobody ever thinks they are the bad guy. most people, even as they do things that are really just horrific, are telling themselves, I have to do this. You know, they deserve it. It's better this way. It's unpleasant. But this is vital to achieving this noble end or whatever. You know, that they have a story that they tell themselves and that for any of us to kind of sit back and say, well, I would never be one of those people who does X or Y, all the evidence of history and social science says almost all of us would do almost anything, no matter how horrific, given the right situational pressures.

And therefore, if you've got something, if you like policing, where you say how can it be possible that these police do these terrible things and they know that there's racism and that they shoot people in this terrible, terrible, terrible, that that's not enough to understand it or change it? You know, you have to be able to understand what are the stories that cops tell each other? What are the stories that they get told when they're being trained that lead them to think?[00:33:15] For the most part, we have to do it this way. This is the right thing to do, you know, and that you have to understand that. And the only way to understand that is to try to get inside that world as much as you can.

ASC:Y​ ouwriteaboutyourexperienceintrainingandbeingonpatrol-includingthese mundane details - one thing that really stuck with me was how you had to remove all your equipment to go to the bathroom and how challenging it was.

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Rosa​: the amount of physical discomfort it is. I mean, it's interesting. I mean, this, I'm sure would be equally true if you decided to become a landscaper or a park ranger.

I worked President Trump's inauguration but, you know, we were we went on duty at 2:00 in the morning and we didn't get off duty till about 8pm and about 12 hours that was standing up. And, you know, it made me also understand why just standing as a form of torture, you know, that literally like your legs would swell and stuff like that. And people were just standing there with your heavy equipment on. It hurts. It really did. It was very humbling and gave me a tremendous amount of respect for what we ask of police officers,.

You have to you have to know the criminal code so you know what the right charges are. And to put on your report, you have to know how to write the report. You have to know how to put handcuffs on somebody in the right way. You have to know the procedure for booking somebody.

MusicRosa:​ you know, all this kind of minutia. And at the same time, you have to be handling

people who are often really upset, really angry, really frightened, really hurt.

And I was just kind of in awe of them. And some of them were very young. And it just made me realize this is really hard to do. Well, you know, if I had stuck with for another 10 years, maybe I would have gotten good, as good as some of them. But I'm not actually even sure that I would have.

ROSA ON THE MILITARIZATION OF THE POLICE, WHEN WE RETURN. WE’LL BE RIGHT BACK.

PART 2 - MILITARIZATION

WE’RE BACK. ---

ROSA BROOKS IS A SCHOLAR OF WAR AND VIOLENCE AND HAS IN THE PAST STUDIED THE ROLE OF THE MILITARY IN UNEXPECTED PLACES IN SOCIETY.

SO I WANTED TO ASK HER ABOUT THE SPECIFIC WAY SHE SAW MILITARIZATION WOVEN INTO THE FABRIC OF AMERICAN POLICING, FROM HER PERSPECTIVE AS A SCHOLAR, AND AS A FORMER OFFICER.

ASC:​ In this story, I had a lot of officers. It's now 40 years later. Tell me if I I wish I could have killed those men.​ ​Or they would describe the scene as a fog of war. so I'm I'm

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really interested in this idea that it's not just the equipment yet, but there's like a culture of militarism, you know?

Rosa:​ there are all kinds of ways in which policing and police organizations are paramilitary from the fact that police academies have recruits, wear uniforms and do drill information and do push ups. There are a lot like military boot camps in certain respects, to the fact the the military rank structure and police departments, the emphasis on chain of command.

Here in D.C. it's routine for four a more senior police officers to if they're sending out an email or giving a talk to to address their remarks to troops and refer to police officers as troops. And that kind of military metaphor // it's a battle out there. It's a it's it's a war zone out there are constantly used.

And I do think that those metaphors have an effect on people in terms of even though you also as a police officer throughout your training and and afterwards, you constantly are told we're here to work with the community, to protect the community, to have good relationships with community. And that rhetoric and that commitment, which I think is honest, but it sits very uneasily with all of the rhetorical emphasis on war zone, which tends to push you away from a we work collaboratively with the community and towards, you know, the community or the bad guys, the community or the people committing crimes, community or other people trying to kill us.

And those those two ideas sit very uneasily together.

ASC:​ In your book, you include this chilling statistic that American law enforcement kills sixty four times more civilians than law enforcement in the UK adjusting for population. What do you what role do you think militarization plays in that statistic?

Rosa:Y​ ouknow,it'sreallyhardtoknow.AndI'malittlebitandI'malittlebitinclinedto think that on the one hand, the focus on military equipment can be a little bit of a red herring because it makes us sort of get fixated on the optics. And the optics are bad. No, no, no denying it. Right. Police officers and tanks facing down protesters, for instance. But but I think that most of the deeper causes of high levels of police violence in the US are deeper, much, much deeper than that,

That being said, there have been a couple of recent studies that do suggest that those police departments that have made greater use of the federal programs that provide surplus military equipment to police departments have had higher use of force rates in general. But it's even it's really squishy.

One thing I do think that gets lost in these discussions, the vast majority of police officers will never fire their weapon except on the range to practice or requalify

ACCORDING TO A SURVEY DONE BY THE PEW RESEARCH CENTER - ABOUT A QUARTER OF OFFICERS SAY THEY HAVE EVER FIRED THEIR WEAPON ON THE JOB.

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Rosa: T​ wo things are true at once. ne is that America has a shockingly high rate of police killings, and the other is that the overwhelming majority of police officers will never be involved in any shooting at all and will never fire their will, never even point their gun at someone.

And I think we we need to sort of acknowledge both that there is a culture that can lead a small minority of officers, but still too many to be a little trigger happy while acknowledging that the vast majority of cops don't do that.

ASC:​ So, as you point out, these situations in which officers fire their weapons are pretty rare. But it does feel like there’s a lot of fear from officers about needing to be ready for these kinds of scenarios.

Rosa:​ I think that it is it would be a fair statement to say that Americans in general are very bad at thinking about risk and statistical risk and probabilities and that we tend to overreact when something horrific happens. We tend to assume that it's going to be happening much more frequently than it necessarily will end up happening. And I and I think we see that in terms of school shootings, too.

For instance, you know, that there they happen much, much, much more often in this country than in any other country. They're absolutely horrific.

But at the same time, statistically, the odds that any given child or school will be involved in a school shooting are still extremely low. And yet American public schools are you know, it is now routine for them to have metal detectors and armed police officers at the doors.

Musiquita

----

Rosa: I​ f there's a school shooting at a school that doesn't have security and doesn't have metal detectors, everybody says, how could you leave that school so unprotected? On the other hand,

There are there are real costs in having our children go to schools that increasingly resemble armed encampments. That comes with costs, too. And I think the same is true for policing

WHEN WE RETURN THE CONVERSATIONS THAT POLICE ARE, OR AREN’T HAVING, ABOUT THE FUTURE OF POLICING. WE’LL BE RIGHT BACK.

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Part 3 - future / defund the police.

WE’RE BACK.

WHEN ROSA BEGAN SERVING AS A RESERVE OFFICER, SEVERAL HIGH PROFILE KILLINGS OF BLACK MEN WERE IN THE NEWS - INCLUDING ERIC GARNER, PHILANDO CASTILLE AND ALTON STERLING.

AT THE TIME, POLICE REFORM TALKING POINTS WEREN’T AS BIG A PART OF THE PUBLIC DISCOURSE AS THEY ARE NOW. THESE DAYS, ROSA SAYS SHE HAS NOTICED THAT TERMS LIKE DEFUND THE POLICE GET A KNEE JERK REACTION FROM COPS, EVEN IF THEY AGREE WITH THE BASIC PRINCIPLES OF THE IDEA.

Rosa:​ And I do think the term gets people's backs up. And that's part of the reason that most police officers go, oh, no, that's terrible. You know, our problem is that I can't look how junky our cars are. We need more money, not less.

But but I think police officers are usually among the first to say, you know, we're being asked to do things that we are not good at and we're being asked to do things that we are not trained for.

ASC:​ I’m curious, as someone who has been an officer and who has thought about the bigger picture regarding resources, how do you view funding shifts as a way to change policing?

Rosa:​ You know, I think actually with policing, as with the military, the Defense Department asking, is the defense budget too big or is there too much money for police? Is is sort of the wrong question in a way. I think it's. Well, what do you want the military to do? What do you want police to do?I think we get a little too fixated on​ ​this kind of aha there's just too much money.

here should be less rather than having that more complicated, more difficult, more nuanced discussion that says, all right, what can police and only police do

ASC: ​So I want to bring it back to the Norco Bank Robbery. Afterwards, officers were so fearful they carried their own weapons, even though the sheriff told them not to. One officer told the press - “better to be judged by 12 than carried by six.”

MEANING - BETTER TO STAND IN FRONT OF A JURY IN COURT, THAN TO BE KILLED.

Rosa:​ I have heard many police officers say that many times.

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ASC: ​What do you think it means to have a police force that is both trained to fear that every single encounter could turn deadly, while also trying to be a respectable symbol of authority?

Rosa: ​Oh, yeah. No, it's a really hard one. And I think part of it is would be police training. The police training should be giving police officers much more interaction with community members from day one at the police academy.

I think we I think the way we currently train police officers in all too many departments really gives them a very skewed perception of the degree of danger they're likely to face and a skewed perception of the nature of the people they're going to encounter. And that is just fixable. It is fixable. It is not that hard.

I think police academies should be demilitarize themselves. I think the paramilitary approach to police training is good at teaching young officers to say yes, sir, and to yell at people that it's not so good at teaching them to have thoughtful, compassionate interactions with people.

If anything, it's a kind of increasing the emphasis both on de-escalation and on being really fit and really well trained. So if something goes wrong, you can you can probably handle it without needing to pull out your weapon.

And I think that it's that kind of approach which we are seeing and an increasing number of academies and training programs is the kind of approach that we need. We're training you to be the people who protect others and we're training you to be the people who can tell the difference between the situations that are likely to go bad and those that won't. And if there's a mistake, the cost should be on us because we're the ones who are armed, paid and trained, not on ordinary people who are not armed or trained to take these risks.

Musiquita

WHILE ROSA CRITIQUES THE MILITARIZATION OF POLICE, SHE DOES SUGGESTS THAT POLICING ​COULD​ LEARN FROM SOME ASPECTS OF THE MILITARY - IN THE WAY THAT OFFICERS VIEW THE RISKS THAT COME WITH THE JOB.

Rosa:​ the military accepts that people are going to get hurt and some people are going to get killed within their own forces. There's a bit more of a culture of sacrifice of, you know, yes, we take risks with our lives, but that is what we are trained and paid to do. And we accept this as part of the job. Whereas in policing there's a little bit more of a culture of you've got a right to go home safe. Your goal is to go home safe.

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If a police officer goes into an encounter thinking the most important thing is for me to keep members of the community safe, including criminal suspects, even if that means some risk to me, I think you you maybe get a different approach to solving problems.

I need to be aware of the reality that there could be a threat. But my fundamental duty here is to keep the community safe.

ASC:​ OK, well thank you so much for joining us.

Rosa: ​You're very welcome. Thank you for having me.

ROSA BROOKS BOOK IS “TANGLED UP IN BLUE: POLICING THE AMERICAN CITY.” SHE IS A TENURED LAW PROFESSOR AT GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY, AND A SCHOLAR ON WAR AND VIOLENCE.

This episode of Norco 80 was written and produced by me, Antonia Cereijido and Sophia Paliza-Carre

The show is a production of LAist Studios in collaboration with Futuro Studios.

Leo G is the executive producer for LAist Studios. Marlon Bishop is the executive producer for Futuro Studios.

Audrey Quinn our editor

Joaquin Cotler is our Associate Producer. Juan Diego Ramirez is our Production Assistant.

Marialexa Kavanaugh is our intern.Fact checking by Amy Tardiff.Engineering by Stephanie Lebow and Elishiba Itoop. Original music by Zach Robinson.This podcast is based on the book Norco '80 by Peter Houlahan

Our website is designed by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at LAist Studios.

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