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How Many Bad Apples Are We Really Talking About?

June 1, 2020
How Many Bad Apples Are We Really Talking About?
(Shutterstock)

1. Simplicity Is the Enemy

What’s happening in America right now is large and complicated. We have a series of problems, some of which overlap, some of which do not. And attempts to solve them have, historically, been stymied by conflating them and believing that they are simple and connected.

If we were going to white board what happened in America over the last week or so, we’d come up with a list of problems that would look something like this:

  • Some percentage of police officers are very bad at their jobs.
    • Some are bad because they’re racists.
    • Some are bad because they’re violent psychopaths.
    • Some are bad because they’re incompetent.
  • We have systemic problem with holding bad police accountable for their job performance.
    • Partly because of a professional culture in which good police officers don’t turn in bad ones.
    • Partly because of the power of police unions.
    • Partly because prosecutors work closely with police every day, and rely on them, and so are generally less than enthusiastic about prosecuting them.
  • We have a problem with rioting and looting in many American cities.
    • There is a difference between protest and committing assault while mindlessly smashing and stealing, even from nuns.
  • We have a problem with the way much of law enforcement handles protests by citizens.
  • We have a problem with the current president of the United States.

There are lots of other problems, too: Structural racism, a pandemic, a real jobless rate closing in on 25 percent, income inequality, rapid technological change, social dislocation. You get the picture. But let’s put those things in a bucket off to the side for the moment and focus on the five bullet points.

Because while these five problems are all bumping around in the same box right now, they are distinct. And they all have different potential solutions.

So here is the single most important thing to keep in mind whenever we talk about how to “fix” what’s going on right now:

There is no single solution because there is no single problem.

So, in every conversation, we need to start by disentangling the distinct issues from one another and take them one at a time.

There is no way to fix what we saw in America this weekend. You can’t fix “the police” or “racism” or “looting.” But there are ways to tackle individual aspects of the tragedies we saw on display, so long as we narrow our focus and try to pick out one strand at a time.

After a weekend like this, it’s easy to be depressed. People are awful. Patterns recur. The systems are too large and change resistant.

But there are ways to attack every one of those five problems we listed at the top. And even though some people are terrible, most people aren’t.

We’re all in this together.

2. A Few Bad Apples?

But some of those problems are going to be harder than others.

For instance: De-militarizing local law enforcement is relatively simple. You pass laws at the federal level on what the U.S. military can do with surplus equipment (translation: not sell it to American police) and at the state level on what type of equipment law enforcement may use.

The hardest problem to tackle is changing the culture of law enforcement.

There’s an old joke that goes like this: Tough guys who want to help people become firemen. Tough guys who want to boss people around become police.

That’s not fair to the good cops and it’s not universally true. But it’s true enough to sting.

If you want to get the clearest possible picture yet of what happened to George Floyd, go watch this New York Times video, which carefully puts together all of the available evidence and explains the event step-by-step.

From the 30,000 foot view, the most alarming part isn’t that one police officer killed an unarmed man who was fully restrained and under control.

No, the really bad part is that there are three other officers standing around watching it happen.

Bad apples happen. There are always going to be bad cops. Literally the first urban police force—London’s Metropolitan Police—was a revolving door between criminals and law officers. As Michael Crichton noted during his potted history of the Metropolitan Police in the course of his (wildly underrated) The Great Train Robbery:

Almost immediately the new force began to form relationships with its avowed enemy, the criminal class. These relationships were much debated in the nineteenth century, and they continue to be debated to the present day. The similarity in methods of police and criminals, as well as the fact that many policemen were former criminals—and the reverse—were features not overlooked by thinkers of the day.

So it is not the case that we are not looking to return to some glorious past when all police were good apples. But even so, we would like to have a rough sense of the percentages the bad apples exist in today.

The Minneapolis police department has 800 officers. If you can randomly select four cops out of that group and have all of them be bad, then the overall percentage of bad cops as part of the whole isn’t trivial. For a sense of scale, imagine the odds of picking four red marbles out of a bag of 800 marbles when 5 percent of the marbles are red. It’s 1-in-160,000.

This all fits within our varying definitions of “bad” police, because every one of the four cops involved in the Floyd death is acting, at best, in what should be regarded as a criminally unprofessional manner.

Floyd is put face-down on the ground and three of the cops place their knees on him—one on his neck, one on his back, one on his legs.

As they are kneeling on him, one of the cops starts telling Floyd—repeatedly—to get up. This officer tells Floyd to “get up, get in the car” even as another cop is kneeling on Floyd’s neck. So here you have one officer killing a man while another gives the man orders that he cannot possibly comply with.

As the incident goes on, bystanders attempt to draw the officers’ attention to the fact that they are killing Floyd. At this point, the officers can no longer claim that they did not realize what was happening—they are literally informed of what their actions are doing by a witness.

The police response to this information is that Chauvin—the officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck—draws his mace to threaten the bystanders who are informing the police of the consequences of their actions.

And all of this takes place with the fourth officer stands roughly four feet away, facing the bystanders, his back to the murder of Floyd.

The number of failures here is staggering.

  • Officer Chauvin is applying a hold which is specifically forbidden by his department except in cases where a suspect is actively resisting.
  • One of the other officers is exhorting Floyd to “get up” even as Chauvin pins him down.
  • And neither of the other two officers correct these men.
  • Even after the EMTs take Floyd to the hospital, the officers continue to fail. Medical support from the fire department arrives to help Floyd and the officers claim to have no idea where the ambulance carrying Floyd has gone.

You can see ways to mitigate the powers of the police unions. You can see ways to establish civilian oversight bodies to force district attorneys to prosecute bad cops. You can see how to change the leadership at the top of law enforcement organizations.

But how do you change the professional culture of line police who are either this malicious, this incompetent, or this unwilling to stop the rogue behavior of their fellow officers?

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.