A Progressive Perspective: Policing is Difficult and Very Complex Work (IRWIN STOOLMACHER COLUMN)

I recently completed Tangled up in Blue: Policing the American City, by Rosa Brooks. It is a thoughtful insider view of urban policing.  Brooks is a full-time tenured Georgetown University law professor, who served for five years (2016 to 2020) as an armed reserve police officer with the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department in one of the poorest, most crime-ridden neighborhoods in the nation’s capital.

Brooks explained she “decided to become a cop … to better understand the blurring line between warfighting and policing. I was dismayed by the statistics on police shootings and by the racial disparity in the criminal justice system, and wanted an insider experience that would enable me to become a credible and effective advocate for change”

In the book’s opening chapter, Brooks writes: “Many cities have unarmed volunteer auxiliary police, but the District of Columbia is one of a few major US cities in which unpaid reserve officers operate as sworn, armed police officers with full arrest powers…I would go through the same police academy training as the city’s thirty-eight hundred full-time career officers, take the same oath, wear the same uniform and badge, carry the same gun, and patrol the same streets- but as a volunteer. I would be required to offer the city only twenty-four hours of patrolling each month.”

I was struck by the number of police in D.C. It seemed like an extraordinarily large number for a city with a population of just under 700,000. I was correct. Washington, according to FBI data had the highest police presence of any city in the nation with 5.34 police officers per 1,000 people in 2021.  In the same ranking, Trenton ranks twentieth in the country with 3.07 police officers per 1,000 people – well above the average of 2.2 officers across U.S. cities and higher than Detroit, Cleveland and NYC.  My hometown of West Windsor, with 46 officers and around 28,000 people, has 1.7 officers per 1,000 residents.

The high police presence in D.C. and Trenton is due to the high level of criminal violence which is well above national averages. However, as Brooks points out “Having all those cops around doesn’t necessarily reduce crime, but it does ensure that lots of people get arrested…. The high DC arrest rate ensures a high incarceration rate. In 2018, for instance, 7,654 DC residents were in local and federal prisons, giving DC one of the highest per capita incarceration rates in the country, in a country, with the highest incarceration rate in the world.”

Brooks discusses the role that racism and poverty plays in who ends up in our overcrowded prisons. Violent crime in our cities is escalating and it is “not a right-wing myth dreamed up to justify the incarceration of minorities and the poor. Crime is real – and the misery, pain, and fear engendered by violent crime are visited most often on the very same demographic groups who are disproportionately likely to end up incarcerated.”

Brooks notes that “most of the people I arrested didn’t need to be in jail.  They were poor and sad; sometimes they were addicted, or mentally ill. And I didn’t want to keep locking them up.”

I don’t want to give the impression that Brooks is a bleeding-heart liberal who is reluctant, under any circumstances, to arrest and imprison poor people who were born into a world where the cards were stacked against them. That is not the case.  She recognizes, however, that constantly arresting people for trivial offenses is not gong to reduce violent crime. She is not, for example, a fan of POCAs – locking someone up for possession of an open container of alcohol.

Brooks explains how it is very easy for police officers to be cynical, “to think that everyone on your beat is nothing more than a criminal-in-waiting. This is not true, of course – even in the most dysfunctional crime-ridden neighborhood, the vast majority of people are simply trying to get by, often work two or three jobs jut to hold things together for their families.”  She points out that “many of people who commit violent crimes have been crime victims themselves, growing up with parental neglect or abuse and constant threat of robbery and assault. It’s no great surprise that some of the poor and abused end up committing crimes themselves.”

Brooks argues that there needs to be more discussion in policing circles about racial justice, over-criminalization, alternatives to arrest, whether arresting more people makes the streets safer or less safe and what “good policing” looks like.  How can we measure it and how should we foster it?

She points out that there is unfortunately a strong norm against asking too many questions in policing. I saw the same norm when I was receiving training in the military.  Good cops, like good soldiers, do what they are told and don’t ask questions.  Brooks writes, “Recruits come in wanting to ask questions, but they soon learn that there’s no percentage in it.  [They] aren’t going to pat you on the head or give you an A for highlighting contradictions and ambiguities. You’re evaluated based on your ability to shoot, cuff people, drive fast, fill out forms write, effective report, and stay out of trouble.”

To summarize, the vast majority of police officers that Brooks worked with were decent, well-intentioned men and women who did not employ unnecessary force or act in a racist manner. There are, however, abuses and systemic problems that plague policing that must be addressed.

In order to reform policing we need to get beyond sound bites, slogans and stereotypes and recognize that the police have an impossible job.  They deal on a daily basis with issues that nobody else has been able to deal with i.e., substance abuse, homelessness and mental health. “We expect them to be warriors, disciplinarians, protectors, mediators, social workers, educators, medics, and mentors all at once, and blame them for enforcing laws they didn’t make in a social context they have little power to alter,” Brooks observes. She is correct – that is why transformative change in policing is extremely difficult to achieve.

I truly hope that the Public Safety Advisory Committee recently formed by Mayor Gusciora is not reluctant to respectfully ask tough questions regarding current policing practices in the City of Trenton with the goal of bring about transformational change.

Irwin Stoolmacher is president of the Stoolmacher Consulting Group, a fundraising and strategic planning firm that works with nonprofit agencies that serve the truly needy among us.


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