In January, New York City’s mayoral primary election looked as if it were going to sink into the pandemic fog. In March, rumors of the new ranked voting system and multiple candidates began to seep into the news. In April, the pandemic started to fade, and mailboxes began to fill with outsized postcards promoting someone you had never heard of. (Thirteen candidates had qualified for the Democratic primary; two for the Republican). What finally got headlines and seemed to galvanize the attention of voters, though, was a series of shootings, including one in Times Square. These were said to signal a “crime wave” in the city—and the election campaign finally took off.
There were calls to “defund the police,” still reverberating from last year’s George Floyd protests, but now there were also calls to get tougher on crime. New Yorkers who had seen their neighborhoods flooded by a wave of gun violence during the pandemic had to recalculate the consequences of a reduced police presence. It should not have been a surprise, then, that the winning Democratic mayoral candidate was a former cop. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams had served for twenty-two years in the NYPD and retired as a police captain. During the primary campaign, Adams, an African American, described being beaten and arrested by police as a kid growing up in Queens. He said he joined the police force to change it from within. During the campaign, he called for reforming, but not defunding, the police.
Meanwhile, here on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, my book group had been reading Rosa Brooks’s Tangled Up in Blue: Policing the American City, about the Washington D.C. police force. When we finally met on Zoom after the election, we were primed to see the way that New York’s policing debate mirrored the story Brooks tells about her stint in the D.C. Metropolitan Police Force (MPF). Someone in my group called the book “a page-turner”; someone else described policing as “an impossible job,” and another called it “a thankless task.” I had no idea how the people in my book group had voted in our deeply blue district, but Brooks’s account of the complex and contradictory nature of policing had raised questions not only about defunding but also what it might take to actually reform the police.
Brooks, a law professor, has worked at the Pentagon, advised the State Department, and done work in the field of human rights. She has long been interested in violence and the rule of law. In 2015, while on sabbatical from Georgetown Law School, she decided to study the militarization of policing and applied to join D.C.’s reserve (voluntary) police force. Tangled Up in Blue is an account of that experience, interwoven with the story of her decision to join the police, her social-activist mother’s strong opposition, and ultimately her attempt to help change the way policing is done in D.C.
D.C. reserve officers, unlike reserve officers elsewhere, receive the same training and are subject to the same standards and rules as the regulars. They have the same authority to investigate, charge, and arrest. Brooks carries a gun, wears a bulletproof vest, lugs around thirty pounds of equipment, and writes arrest reports, along with doing other administrative tasks. In 2016, after six months of classroom instruction, role-playing, firearms practice, and physical training, Brooks was sworn in and required to serve four hundred and eighty hours of patrolling in order to be certified as a member of the reserves.