My View: The Problem with the Bad Apple Theory of Policing

Police Blue

The bad apple theory of policing argues that the vast majority of police officers are good and that it is a few bad cops (or bad apples) that cause the majority of the problems.  And there is some truth to that, but it is not the full picture, and the problem with that theory is it underestimates the need for systematic reform in policing.

In his book on wrongful convictions, Mark Godsey indicated that the majority of both prosecutors and police are in fact good, well-meaning individuals, and the problem that he sees from the standpoint of wrongful convictions are issues like confirmation bias and tunnel vision that end up creating errors in the system.

With regard to policing issues, I think the problem goes a step further – there probably is a small number of actually malicious police officers, but there is a broader subsection of them that, through confirmation bias and tunnel vision, make mistakes and fail to recognize them.  The policing system itself is problematic, with a large number of supposedly good officers becoming complicit through non-action, not reporting misconduct when they see it, or overtly lying to cover up for the police.

The case of Laquan McDonald illustrates the problem.  Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke shot Laquan McDonald 16 times in 2014.  Top brass watched the video at a meeting and, according to a published report, “everyone agreed” that the shooting was justified.

“There was never (a) question whether the shooting was justified,” Lt. Osvaldo Valdez told investigators with the city’s Office of Inspector General about the meeting of the top brass. “Everyone agreed that Officer Van Dyke used the force necessary to eliminate the threat, and that’s pretty much it.”

But independent investigations found huge gaps between the video and the accounts by officials – top officials as well as rank-and-file cops.  And when pressed, “top officials as well as rank-and-
file cops stood their ground, saying they had accurately described what happened the night McDonald was shot.”

As a result, the Inspector General recommended firing Chief of Detectives Eugene Roy and Deputy Chief David McNaughton, in addition to nine lower-ranking officers.  In fact, the Inspector General found that Mr. Roy, who had supervised the department’s investigation into Laquan McDonald’s shooting, was “incompetent in the performance of his duties.”

The Chicago Police Accountability Task Force in 2016 found, “CPD’s own data and other information strongly suggests that CPD’s response to the violence is not sufficiently imbued with Constitutional policing tactics and is also comparatively void of actual procedural and restorative justice in the day-to-day encounters between the police and citizens.”

The report concluded, “CPD’s own data gives validity to the widely held belief the police have no regard for the sanctity of life when it comes to people of color.”

They added, “Stopped without justification, verbally and physically abused, and in some instances arrested, and then detained without counsel—that is what we heard about over and over again.”

This isn’t a few bad apples, this is a systematic problem from the top down that fails to oversee misconduct and hold problem officers accountable.

The failure to hold accountable is the subject of Andrew Cohen’s scathing commentary this week in the Marshall Project.

Mr. Andrews writes, “It’s not just the ‘bad apples’ within police departments who cause citizens to lose confidence and trust in their local police. It’s not just the cops who engage in discrimination or other forms of misconduct.”

Instead, he argues, “It’s these ‘good apples,’ too, the ones who obey the law, and the rules, but who countenance, excuse, justify, or defend the bad behavior of their friends and colleagues. So many ‘good apples’ spend so much time defending the ‘bad apples’ that it becomes hard to tell which apples are which.”

The problem that Mr. Andrews sees is, “The ‘good cops’ who lament being painted with the same broad strokes as the ‘bad cops’ don’t do nearly enough to hold those ‘bad cops’ accountable. As long as that dynamic exists, police reform won’t come quickly or broadly enough for most.”

Last week the Heritage Foundation released a report, “Policing in America: Lessons from the Past, Opportunities for the Future,” which argued among other things that “the concept of broad ‘systemic racism’ in law enforcement is a damaging, false narrative that undermines public support for policing.”

As Mr. Andrews put it, “[W]hat struck me most about it was its lamentably predictable reliance on a police-as-victims narrative and the report’s strong suggestion that claims of systemic discrimination in policing are both ‘false and harmful’ to police.”

The report notes, “Some attendees were critical of the position taken by the Justice Department under past Administrations that police are ‘systemically racist’ for using data-driven policing.”

Mr. Andrews counters, “Those allegations are false only if you refuse to believe the mountains of evidence compiled by the Justice Department when it reviewed the sweeping police misconduct that has undermined policing and police reform in Ferguson, Cleveland, New Orleans, Baltimore, Chicago, Newark, Miami. And they are harmful only if you believe, as that Law Officer writer evidently believed, that the solution to real problems in policing is to hide those problems from public view, allowing them to persist and, perhaps, thrive.”

He argues further, “Every good cop in America—and of course there are far more of those than there are bad cops—should find that solution no solution at all.”

The problem with the few bad apples theory is not that defenders of the police are wrong to say there are far more good police officers than bad one, it is that this is not itself the end of the story so long as the good police officers either cannot or will not act to admonish the bad officers.

But I am a little encouraged this week as well.  This week the Rocklin Police Department announced that Officer Brad Alford was arrested on Tuesday “on charges that he assaulted a DUI suspect with his baton, causing great bodily injury.”

In a rare incident, officers, according to a news release, brought their concerns forward regarding the incident.

“After reviewing video footage the Rocklin Police Department immediately reached out and requested that the Placer County District Attorney’s Office conduct an independent review to determine if this level of force rose to a criminal level,” the news release said.

“After review, the Placer County District Attorney’s office determined they would be filing charges.”

That is the way it is supposed to work – unfortunately from what we have seen, the situation in Chicago involving the Laquan McDonald shooting is far more common.

Until good officers are willing to bear witness and hold bad officers accountable, the line between good and bad is much closer than we would like to believe.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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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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