Commentary: A Few Bad Apples, Or An Entire System In Need of Overhaul?

Police Blue

Police Blue

For a year and a half, this nation has engaged in an important debate over the treatment of racial minorities, mostly African-American, by the police. One of the arguments offered in defense of the police, as an institution, is that there are bad actors in every profession, but the vast majority of police officers are honest and hardworking public servants.

Sometimes there have been numbers placed to this claim – such as 95 percent of police officers are good, we are simply seeing the actions of a few bad actors. Perhaps that is true, but we also know throughout history that there have been problem departments like Rampart (a division of the LA Police Department) in Los Angeles in the 1990s, and the culture of corruption that Frank Serpico and the Knapp Commission helped to bring down in New York.

I work frequently with honest and hard-working police officers, but at the same time, I think there is a problem that is much larger than a few bad apples.

When Officer Michael Slager killed 50-year-old Walter Scott, he told investigators that he feared for his life, there was a struggle, the suspect took his Taser, and he fired eight times out of self-defense.

“Shots fired and the subject is down. He took my Taser,” Officer Slager told a dispatcher. But for a video that he did not even know was being filmed, he probably would have gotten away with it.

Right there, that should be a red flag that incidents of officers lying to cover up their missteps are more frequent than we know. In the last year, we have even seen cases where the officer has told lies even when he knows that the camera has recorded the encounter.

However, I think it’s easy to dismiss the actions of Officer Slager as sort of the lone wolf of policing. He, after all, was on his own, there were no witnesses, and therefore his lies were his own.

What happened in Chicago is much more serious and much more telling of a potential problem that exists systemwide. Yes, it’s easy to point the finger at corrupt Chicago – notorious for its machine politics and corruption – and say it’s an outlier. And perhaps it is.

This week, the head of the Independent Police Review Authority resigned. According to published reports, the authority investigated 409 cases of police-involved shootings in an eight-year period ending September 30, and found only two unjustified – both involving off-duty police.

The Washington Post editor notes that there are “legal protections enshrined in union contracts as well as a state law known as the law enforcement officers’ ‘bill of rights.’” California has similar protection. One protection they note, “Officers involved in a shooting are afforded a 24-hour grace period before they must speak to investigators — a privilege that may be used to ensure their accounts jibe with those of their colleagues.”

The Laquan McDonald killing is particularly concerning, not because Jason Van Dyke shot and killed Laquan McDonald. Not because he claimed that Mr. McDonald was menacing him with a knife when the video shows the man moving away from officers.

The biggest problem here is that Mr. Van Dyke was not acting alone. There were seven other officers on the scene and five of them corroborated the account of Mr. Van Dyke. But it is worse than that – police investigators, as we know, went into the Burger King that had video cameras that might have captured the incident on video and, as we saw earlier this week, they appeared to have deleted 86 minutes of the footage.

Jay Darshane, District Manager of Burger King said, “We had no idea they were going to sit there and delete the files.” He added, “I mean, we were just trying to help the police officers.”

The missing video gap in the footage ran from 9:13 pm to 10:39 pm. Jason Van Dyke fired his first shot at 9:57, according to the charges.

News 5 reports that Prosecutor Anita Alvarez said at her press conference “that no one in her judgment tampered with the Burger King video.” The broadcast shows her stating that “forensic testing was done on the Burger King surveillance to determine if anyone had tampered with the evidence and the testing did not reveal any such evidence.”

Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy claimed “technical difficulties” with the footage, but that in no way was anything tampered with. Two days after the News 5 broadcast, Mayor Rahm Emanuel fired Mr. McCarthy.

The Chicago Tribune does us the favor of going through the video frame by frame and matching it against officer police reports now released from the investigation into the shooting.

They write that these pages “are most striking for one simple reason: They are dramatically at odds with the dash-cam video…”

They continue, “The reports, released by the city late Friday, show that Officer Jason Van Dyke and at least five other officers claim that the 17-year-old McDonald moved or turned threateningly toward officers, even though the video of the October 2014 shooting shows McDonald walking away…”

“At least one patrol officer said McDonald was advancing on the officers in a menacing way and swung his knife at them in an ‘aggressive, exaggerated manner’ before he was shot and killed. Officers claimed, too, that even after McDonald had been shot by Van Dyke, the teen tried to lift himself off the ground with the knife pointed toward the officers, and though he had been mortally wounded, still presented a threat,” they write.

The most striking thing is not that Mr. Van Dyke lied, but that everyone involved here lied.

The Washington Post editorial – pointed as it is – suggests that these problems are limited to Chicago. They write, “The problems in Chicago are complex and decades in the making; cleaning up the police force will require investigators to use a wide aperture.”

This implies that the problem ends in Chicago, rather than in a system where police make mistakes, compound those mistakes with lies, and even the so-called good police officers are reluctant to come forward to tell the truth and call out their fellow officers.

The so-called blue code of silence casts aspersions on the entire institution and leads one to wonder just how deep these problems really go. We just don’t know about it because, until recently, so much of what police did occurred under the cover of night and under the color of law and the blue code of silence.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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23 Comments

  1. Biddlin

    “The so-called blue code of silence casts aspersions on the entire institution and leads one to wonder just how deep these problems really go and we just don’t know about it because until recently so much of what police did occurred under the cover of night and under color of law and the blue code of silence.”

    And because too many people in the news media and other public servants turned to look away, rather than face the glaring truth. The police have been out of hand since the late sixties and no one has done anything to curb their deadly rampage, so many of your readers are not shocked by these recent revelations of murder by cops.

    The apple is too rotten to save.

    “Today the combination of an excess of deadly force and near-total lack of accountability is more dangerous than ever: Most cops today can pull out their weapons and fire without fear that anything will happen to them, even if they shoot someone wrongfully. All a police officer has to say is that he believes his life was in danger, and he’s typically absolved.What do you think that does to their psychology as they patrol the streets—this sense of invulnerability? The famous old saying still applies: Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. (And we still don’t know how many of these incidents occur each year; even though Congress enacted the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act 20 years ago, requiring the Justice Department to produce an annual report on “the use of excessive force by law enforcement officers,” the reports were never issued.) It wasn’t any surprise to me that, after Michael Brown was shot dead in Ferguson, officers instinctively lined up behind Darren Wilson, the cop who allegedly killed Brown …”

    Frank Serpico, 2014

  2. Tia Will

    Yes, it’s easy to point the finger at corrupt Chicago – notorious for its machine politics and corruption – and say it’s an outlier. And perhaps it is.

    we also know throughout history that there have been problem departments like Rampart in Los Angeles in the 1990s, the culture of corruption that Frank Serpico and the Knapp Commission helped to bring down in New York.”

    The second quote would seem to indicate that Chicago is not the “outlier” that we would like to think it is. Los Angeles, New York, some might add San Francisco, would seem to indicate that Chicago is not alone.

    One protection they note, “Officers involved in a shooting are afforded a 24-hour grace period before they must speak to investigators — a privilege that may be used to ensure their accounts jibe with those of their colleagues.”

    Now this is something I was unaware of. To me, this is clearly placing police officers above the law since not everyone involved in a shooting is allowed a 24 hour “grace period” in which they are free to speak with associates of their choice. I doubt any of us would support this for bank robbers or gang members. So why do we allow this for police ? Do we simply assume that because they wear a blue uniform that they are honest when it has been demonstrated time and again that police officers, being human, will lie to protect their own interests ?

    I work frequently with honest and hard-working police officer, but at the same time, I think there is a problem that is much larger than a few bad apples.”

    I am in complete agreement with this statement. One major problem that I see is our tendency to dichotomize, pick a side, and then stick with our preferred position despite the accumulated evidence. I do not believe that this should be reduced to a “police – good or evil ?” question. The goal should be the establishment of processes for continuous improvement in all police departments over time. Some departments, like Davis, will have less work to do than others since they have already established good working relations with their communities. Some, like Chicago, have a very long road ahead. I do not believe that any police department makes significant improvement without transparency and the willingness to accept civilian input and in some cases supervision of their activities, but without the willingness to abandon inequalities under the law, and the code of silence, it is unlikely that significant improvement will occur.

     

    1. PhilColeman

      Tia: Quite possibly the reason you were unaware that peace officers were a 24-hour grace period before being compelled to answer questions is because there is no such provision in California. Yes, there is a specific reference to the California Peace Officer’s Bill of Rights, but as the saying goes, “The devil is in the details,” or in this case, writing structure.

      Note the opening sentence in the relevant paragraph is in quotes. Then the narrative steps out of quotation and says California has similar protections for its peace officers. Quoted statements then follow, allowing the reader, such as you, to reasonably believe California peace officers also have a 24-hour protective bubble. How this awkward literary construct was designed, and for what purpose, is left to individual judgment.

      1. Tia Will

        Phil

        Quite possibly the reason you were unaware that peace officers were a 24-hour grace period before being compelled to answer questions is because there is no such provision in California”

        That is kind of you and I appreciate the clarification. However, I think that it is much more likely that I should just own my ignorance of the fine points of police officer obligations. So a question for you. Do California police officers have “grace periods” or any other right that are not extended to private citizens under similar situations just because of their status as police officers ?

  3. Robert Canning

    Thanks for the Scerpico quote. Many people do not know his story and they should.

    It may be helpful to invoke the memory of Lenny Bruce. In a series of monologues, he discussed the role of the police in society. And he was very clear that the cops don’t act outside the context of the larger society. In his somewhat scatological terms, when people violate the boundaries of where we eat, sleep, or crap, then society has to enforce the boundaries and we create the police (and other regulators) to enforce the boundaries.

    I would only add that I believe that choosing to blame police departments misses a larger point. The policies and procedures for use of force and how the police operate is set within the larger framework of public policy that is a product of the political process and ultimately the voters who vote for them and the policies they put in place. A prime example is the rise of mandatory sentencing (“Use a Gun Go to Jail”), three strikes laws, etc. If the public wants the police to operate differently, we have to make it happen.

     

    1. Biddlin

      Laws regarding the violation , maiming and destruction of human life are pretty clear. The white public and politicians have chosen to ignore the long list of police violations of these laws, perhaps because they are afraid of bringing the monster’s focus upon themselves, rather than those at the fringes of their society and view.

    2. Tia Will

      RC

      Thanks for the Lenny Bruce reminder. While his riffs on the use of racial and other group pejoratives has been very timely in view of the issue of free speech vs non-offensive speech, I had forgotten about his riffs on, to say nothing of his conflicts with, the police.

    3. Biddlin

      “In the old days, they used to put a gun or a knife on somebody after a shooting. Now they don’t even bother. But today, we have cops crying wolf all the time. They testify “I was in fear of my life,” the grand jury buys it, the DA winks and nods, and there’s no indictment…But the police are becoming our enemy, and society is becoming the enemy of the police.”
      Frank Serpico-2014

  4. Davis Progressive

    for quite some time people argued, it’s just a few bad actors, but the problem is it isn’t a few bad actors, it is all the supposedly good ones who say nothing.  that creates a culture of corruption and probably a downward spiral where things get worse because as police officers notice misconduct and say nothing, others think it’s alright.

      1. Davis Progressive

        It was just about a year ago that a city whistleblower came to journalist Jamie Kalven and attorney Craig Futterman out of concern that Laquan McDonald’s shooting a few weeks earlier “wasn’t being vigorously investigated,” as Kalven recalls. The source told them “that there was a video and that it was horrific,” he said.

        Without that whistleblower—and without that video—it’s highly unlikely that Chicago Police officer Jason Van Dyke would be facing first-degree murder charges today.

        bp: your comment troubles me.  first, we don’t know that the whistleblower was a police officer.  second, even if he was the fact that he went to basically the chicago equivalent of the vanguard tells you something is rotten in the police culture.  there is no good here.

  5. Tia Will

    BP

    Do you realize that in the McDonald case it was his fellow officers that started sounding off that brought the case to where it is today?”

    One example of a desired behavior does not mean that this is what occurs the majority of the time, or even commonly. This is exactly why I dislike the “good guys vs bad guys” scenario that most seem to be satisfied with when posting. The truth is almost always more nuanced with some good behavior and some bad. For me, the point is ongoing improvement since there is always room for that.

  6. Tia Will

    DP

    it’s not even an example of desired behavior.  if it’s true that a cop came forward, he went to a journalist, not the authorities.”

    Fair enough, and this was not well spoken on my part. I wanted to emphasize the point that even if it were true exactly as written , it would not have made the point that BP was attempting to assert. I would also add that in the current climate, for a policeman to come forward to anyone, authority or journalist may in fact be an act of bravery and thus “desired behavior”.

    1. Davis Progressive

      the mayor needs to step down, but the prosecutor who is ‘independent’ of that city, is the real problem there.  she has a long and bad history.

    1. Davis Progressive

      they need to step down, especially alvarez horrible record.  emanuel is a political hack, but an ineffectual one, i sent money to his opponent earlier this year.

  7. Biddlin

    1114 civilians have been killed by police in 2015. There have been about 100 killed by police in Germany, since 1998, 30 in the UK/Wales. US cops kill citizens at 70 times the rate of other western nations. __________________

  8. Miwok

    Good topic, and as usual Vanguard commenters have covered many of the points I thought of commenting on.

    I work frequently with honest and hard-working police officers

    Part time job? Crime scenes? Or just the politics? I did not know you worked in LE.

    I learned a long time ago, that as much as Prosecutors and Sheriff/Police have problems, occasionally one is sacrificed job wise, when the problem is always the guys in charge, the politicians.

  9. Paul Thober

    Let’s look at the “bad apple” premise, as in officer Van Dyke was a “bad apple”, an outlier and his behavior doesn’t represent that of the vast majority of law enforcement officers who are honest, upstanding citizens. Officer Van Dyke opens fire on a clearly bizarre behaving, but also clearly nonthreatening individual and is not content to merely incapacitate that individual, but continues to fire eventually striking him 16 times. Seven of officer Van Dyke’s fellow employees are present and armed and see fit to neither intervene on Mr. McDonald’s behalf nor arrest their fellow employee after witnessing him commit homicide. Then they subsequently attempt to hide officer Van Dyke’s actions by destroying evidence of the crime and falsely reporting events. Further as the “investigation” proceeds over 13 months numerous other officers and the district attorney lie, obfuscate and delay in an attempt to cover up the initial crime and the various other crimes subsequently committed.

    I do not think that officer Van Dyke was the only “bad apple”. I am comfortable extrapolating from this and other incidents that escape systemic coverup that these are system-wide behaviors.

  10. Tia Will

    I learned a long time ago, that as much as Prosecutors and Sheriff/Police have problems, occasionally one is sacrificed job wise, when the problem is always the guys in charge, the politicians.”

    In view of Paul Thober’s comment, it seems a reach to me to say that the “problem is always the guys in charge, the politicians. It looks to me as though there is plenty of blame to be parceled out in this case from the shooter and his accomplices right up the chain of command.

     

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