Policing the Police: Rotten Apples and Occupational Cultures

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We have somewhere around 500,000 sworn local law enforcement officers in this country. They have literally millions of encounters with citizens every day. So, when we see a North Charlotte officer kill a fleeing suspect who is no threat or we watch ten officers beat down a suspect who led them on a wild chase, we always hear the chorus of it was just the work of “a few rotten apples.”

We also hear cries that the media ignore all the good things police do and unfairly focus only on a few sensational circumstances of potential wrongdoing. The claim about the media’s willingness to devour stories of police misconduct is true. It also misses the point. The media will focus on anything sensational. They are equal opportunity voyeurs and panderers. Plane lands safely; it is not news. Plane crashes; it is news. Pilot safely lands disabled plane and saves passengers; it is news, too.

The media will always line up to cover any type of violence or extraordinary police action. Cop makes an uneventful traffic stop; it is not news. Cop exchanges gunfire with a criminal and stops a bad guy; it hits the news; cop kills a fleeing suspect; it hits the news.

What is different is the result of covering different types of events. Cop stops a bad guy; no one holds a demonstration. Cop, from a department that systematically mistreats men of color, kills a black man, then people may (not always though) hit the streets. If they hit the streets, then the news cameras roll. That is just the nature of things in our world. Bitching about this dynamic and calling it unfair is the rough equivalent of being angry about gravity.

The “rotten apple” argument is different. To say that almost all police interact peaceably with citizens everyday is true. Unfortunately, it is trivial. The real test of policing in our society is how police handle that small percentage of encounters that are not peaceable. 

Unfortunately, what we see of those encounters makes it hard to accept the “rotten apple” argument. Why? Think about the troublesome encounters that have been publicized recetnly. In none of those did we see officers try to intervene to protect citizens from other officers. Whether it was a beating on a New York street, in Detroit, or in the hills in California, we did not see an officer in any of those encounters intervene to protect the citizen.

Does that mean that all cops are brutal. No, what it means is that the police cultural norm of “us against the world” is bolted down firmly in place. It is fundamental axis around which the occupational world of policing in this country revolves. What does an individual officer get for bucking other officers’ bad judgment, over-reactions, or callousness? The simple answer is — nothing good.

That, for me, is the most horrifying aspect of all this. Whether an officer is rotten or not makes no difference. To other officers, she or he is a member of the tribe, and the tribe protects its own. If an officer behaves badly, viciously, or callously, others officers are more likely to join in than they are to save us from mistreatment.

The implications of this unsettling reality bring us to the real question. How does one intervene in this vicious circle? Only one alternative seems feasible, we must open it up. The only answer is outside observers and investigators. No restrictions on filming police and ubiquitous dashboard cameras and body cameras are the part of the answer. These will of course be supplemented by private citizen videos and CCTV footage. Outside investigators, special prosecutors, and grand juries must become the standard way in which charges of police of misconduct will be resolved.

Sadly, all the light that will illuminate and hopefully reform police practices in this country will be shined on the problem from outside the occupation. Cultural norms and bonds within the occupation make it virtually impossible for the police to shine their own flashlights into the darker corners of their tribal lands and heal their own problems.

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