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Publisher's Summary

Named one of the best nonfiction books of the year by The Washington Post

Tangled Up in Blue is a wonderfully insightful book that provides a lens to critically analyze urban policing and a road map for how our most dispossessed citizens may better relate to those sworn to protect and serve.” (The Washington Post)

“Remarkable.... Brooks has produced an engaging page-turner that also outlines many broadly applicable lessons and sensible policy reforms.” (Foreign Affairs)

Journalist and law professor Rosa Brooks goes beyond the "blue wall of silence" in this radical inside examination of American policing

In her 40s, with two children, a spouse, a dog, a mortgage, and a full-time job as a tenured law professor at Georgetown University, Rosa Brooks decided to become a cop. A liberal academic and journalist with an enduring interest in law's troubled relationship with violence, Brooks wanted the kind of insider experience that would help her understand how police officers make sense of their world — and whether that world can be changed. In 2015, against the advice of everyone she knew, she applied to become a sworn, armed reserve police officer with the Washington, DC, Metropolitan Police Department.

Then as now, police violence was constantly in the news. The Black Lives Matter movement was gaining momentum, protests wracked America's cities, and each day brought more stories of cruel, corrupt cops, police violence, and the racial disparities that mar our criminal justice system. Lines were being drawn, and people were taking sides. But as Brooks made her way through the police academy and began work as a patrol officer in the poorest, most crime-ridden neighborhoods of the nation's capital, she found a reality far more complex than the headlines suggested.

In Tangled Up in Blue, Brooks recounts her experiences inside the usually closed world of policing. From street shootings and domestic violence calls to the behind-the-scenes police work during Donald Trump's 2016 presidential inauguration, Brooks presents a revelatory account of what it's like inside the "blue wall of silence." She issues an urgent call for new laws and institutions, and argues that in a nation increasingly divided by race, class, ethnicity, geography, and ideology, a truly transformative approach to policing requires us to move beyond sound bites, slogans, and stereotypes. An explosive and groundbreaking investigation, Tangled Up in Blue complicates matters rather than simplifies them, and gives pause both to those who think police can do no wrong — and those who think they can do no right.

©2021 Rosa Brooks (P)2021 Penguin Audio

Critic Reviews

“Brooks has an anthropologist’s ear for the language of policing, jumping from the reports full of passive-voice bureaucratese to the darkly humorous, profanity-laden shoptalk. She zips from hilarious descriptions...to bone-dry observations.... [Brooks’] style recalls the work of immersion journalists like George Plimpton, Ted Conover and Barbara Ehrenreich - who happens to be Brooks’s mother. Brooks makes this part of the story, nesting in a book on policing a beautifully written mini-memoir about growing up the daughter of a famous activist and writer, who disdains the police but also values a certain toughness.” (New York Times Book Review)

Tangled Up in Blue is a wonderfully insightful book that provides a lens to critically analyze urban policing and a road map for how our most dispossessed citizens may better relate to those sworn to protect and serve.” (The Washington Post)

“Rosa Brooks’ Tangled Up in Blue: Policing the American City promises without question to be the cop memoir for the late 2010s and early 2020s. An accomplished scholar, journalist, and author who has moved in the loftiest legal, nonprofit, and foreign policy circles, Brooks brings a distinctive perspective to the police memoir genre, which boasts few women’s voices to begin with.... But Brooks’ book is also about more than just policing as an institution, or even her own experiences as a cop: It is a deeply personal family memoir, and a meditation on questions of race, class, gender, and family inheritances.” (New Republic)

What listeners say about Tangled Up in Blue

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A liberal law professor becomes a police officer

What happens when a liberal law professor, who has also served as a journalist, and who was raised in a family built around the protest movement of the 60s and beyond, whose mother had told her all her life that the police were the enemy--what happens when that person decides to apply to the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department, go through the rigorous police academy training, and become a reserve police officer (a reserve police officer works part time, but has all the rights of a full-time officer). That’s exactly what Rosa Brooks did, beginning in 2015, with the continued opposition of her family, especially her mother.  And she chose to work in the district with the highest crime rate of any part of D.C. I remember reading, in college, a book written by George Plimpton who joined an NFL team and described what it was like. I loved the inside view, but Plimpton was a football fan. Brooks’ background could hardly be what you would think would make her a fan of the police.  

With that, You could at least assume that the book would certainly be interesting, no matter what side you are on, and it is. Most of the book is built around real stories and experiences and it doesn’t sound like the kind of writing you would expect from a lawyer. There is no legalese and no explanation of the law. It is all about what she did, saw, and felt as a police officer. It’s not about how terrible nor how good the police are. But, what it clearly does show is how difficult it is to be a police officer. It doesn’t paint in black and white, but shows the struggle that every officer faces every day, sometimes when they fail but, more often, when they make a difficult situation turn out fairly well. She doesn’t make a judgment about what’s wrong with the system (the whole societal system), but lets the reader judge. She shows how the rules sometimes force the police to do things when they would prefer to do something else, such as when they are forced to arrest a mother who was stealing food for her children because a routine check through the system showed that she had missed a court appearance in the past, an arrest that they knew would probably cost the mother her job (since she couldn’t post bail) and possibly have her children put in foster care. 

On the other hand, she also shows that the hard choices are not just made by the police, but also by those whom they police and how class and race can leave people in situations were most of the choices they need to make to survive are bad. Her stories show a complicated world, not a simplistic defense of either the police or the downtrodden. 

There is a section at the end where she proposes some solutions. She knows the legal system as a law professor and her time serving as a reserve officer gives her an insight into what policing is really like and what could be done to make it better. Throughout the book she continuously notes that part of the problem is a lack of funding, but she also sees ways to reimagine policing and police training to help better meet the needs on the street. In fact, she started a fellowship called Police for Tomorrow, bringing police officers and law professors together to inspire new recruits and reconsider how to make policing more effective and humane. 

The last few years have seen multiple instances of the use of excessive force and of deaths during arrest or within police custody that are questionable at the least. This book is a description of what it is like behind the badge. It is not judgmental and recognizes the difficulty of having to make split-second decisions and of the fear that every officer feels out on the beat. She notes that there was nothing in her training about race in policing, nor any discussion about possibilities for reform. There is a lot about the danger that they face in everyday situations and repeated exercises that show how fast responses and avoiding certain situations can help keep them alive (which are certainly important) but nothing about how to avoid or de-escalate confrontation before it gets to the point of the need for violence. She also notes that the police are often asked to do the job of other professionals (dispute resolution experts, counselors, medics, sociologists, family services, mental health professionals, and mentors) simply because our government is not willing to spend the money to provide those to the poorest levels of society. This and the lack of funding would make even the most committed officer become more and more cynical. 

Brooks’ book is far from the current calls for “defunding the police,” and in fact she calls for greater funding, especially in providing the police with more of the equipment that they need and making the equipment more practical for the real world, but also in providing better initial and ongoing training. She also calls for funding for the other professional services that could make the job of the police much more focused and easier to do. But, she avoids empty platitudes and a specific one-size-fits-all plan. Instead, it’s a story of her experiences followed by a thoughtful discussion of the issues and a call for each department not to just follow what was done in the past in this rapidly changing world but to consider how to better do their job and how the rest of us can better support them.  

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Factual on the ground reporting

Rosa Brooks takes on the training and work of urban policing to deliver a factual, insightful report. Sometimes the book delivers too many incidents and examples when fewer would have greater impact. The ending delivers terrific analyses, informed by the author’s legal expertise and her dedication to her police work. It was heartening to see that she was able to bring together police, the academic community, and other citizens to find consensus on what can be done to improve the system for those affected by it.

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Point of view that everyone should know

If you don’t know what it’s like to be in law enforcement this is a great help.

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Naive Writer Refuses Responsibility

I fought my way through the whole book, moving from boredom to anger to sadness. it's not about Brooks being a weak writer - though she is - but about her inability to understand her role in the disaster she describes.

I wrote in a sort of review on Medium, "But my real issue was her inability to dig deep enough — obsessed as she was with being genuine in her role — to understand that the problems she observed are not really the fault of the police officers, or — as she mostly imagines — the fault of police training, but the fault of those who hire cops and fund police departments. In other words, people like her." https://link.medium.com/Bi2wNFfhhhb

OK. I'm a former NYPD officer and so my understanding isn't the norm, but I think Brooks begins by being untruthful - I simply don't buy the idea that writing a book wasn't on her mind when I began, her elaborate notetaking indicates otherwise - and then moves to being blind to what she was actually observing.

Her last thoughts, that cops should value their own lives less, is a classic rant by someone with immense privilege. "She actually says that she wants police officers to prioritize their own lives less in order to make other community members safer, yet nowhere in her book does she suggest that if her friends prioritized their property and physical safety less — in order to focus more on the poor in their city, policing in Washington DC could look completely different."

Understanding urban policing is extraordinarily difficult. if you are truly interested, this book will not help.

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An untangling that made me less blue.

This is a seminal work. Rosa Brooks deconstructs the edifice of policing in clear, concise prose. It is a narrative that places herself in the center of the story
where she learns, experiences, and comes to understand the nature and challenges of policing. She recounts her experiences and assessments with empathy, sympathy and an activist’s zeal. Policing transformed her understanding of the tragedy, hope and possibilities of policing. And reading her work transformed my understanding too. Her intelligence, humility, and commitment to making the streets of America a better place made me feel fortunate to have found her work and her vision of a better policing future.

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I don’t like Cops….but I can be very reactionary:/

I found this listen lacking in addressing the inability or refusal for “Good Cops” to hold account to “bad cops”. I found the professor’s insight on policing Washington D.C. to be objective and convincing in some very important ways e.g. the overall pressure from different vectors (general, public, justice, and legislative institutions. I found it refreshing to hear the professor reiterate the reluctance of officers to escalate situations to arrest due to socioeconomic circumstances. I still have a general distrust for police, but I also realize that I have been caught-up in the over simplified “woke movement” and have had my general opinions formed from my lifelong white privilege. In the end murder is murderUntil all lives matter BLACK LIVES MATTER…..

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Accessible and challenging

I love this book! Ms. Brooks embeds deeply thought provoking (my thoughts are so provoked) justice concepts in a great human story. Bits of wonderful humor make it easier to hear the desperate reality of people who are policed.

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A winning blue ribbon

Have you ever wanted to stay awake all night just to listen to a story? I loved the story and especially as read by my favorite narrator. Huber makes Brooks a very satisfying dive into a world of empathy, love, and identification with Essential Workers whose shoes we rather not walk in.

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Good topic for discussion

I enjoyed reading this book because of my interest in police reform. I have also joined a similar program in San Francisco that does not permit the level of day-to-day policing but is aimed at suplimenting police for emergency situations like large earthquakes. I found the authors writing skills very good in telling the many stories in the book.

A good read.

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Excellent book for both education and entertainment

Tangled Up in Blue not only excellently illustrates Rosa Brooks’ experience as a reserve police officer, but also explains many of the issues, problems, and realities of American policing in a way that neither demonizes police nor places them on a godly status. Both personal and objective observations are made throughout the book. Additionally, it is an easy read for all who are educated and uneducated on policing in the criminal justice system.

Brooks writes in a way fairly similar to her mom (Barbra Erienreich), with a memoir type ethnographic style. Brooks has a talent for keeping the content interesting and engaging without spending too much time focusing on unimportant details or speeding through important topics.

The narrator for this audio book (Hillary Huber) has a pleasant voice and an active and engaging reading style, leaning into any sort of performance she can. I highly recommend this audio book.