My View: No, It’s Not Just a Few Bad Apples – the Problem of Policing Is Pervasive

When George Floyd was killed on May 25 by Minneapolis police it launched yet again another national discussion on policing—the same one that began in 2015 when it was Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott and many others.

Almost no one could defend the actual conduct of the police in this case—so police and their defenders seek to minimize it. Hey, did you know there are millions of interactions between police and citizens each year, and 97 percent of them have no problem.

The other is the few bad apples theory. Derek Chauvin, the office who kneeled on the neck of Floyd for nearly nine minutes represents one of the few bad apples—yes he had 17 complaints over the years, but he was an exception rather than the rule.

The first point is on the surface problematic—after all, it usually takes one murder for an ordinary person to be incarcerated for life—and you could be a saint up until the time of that murder and it doesn’t change much.

But here, I will argue that the few bad apples theory is really misplaced.  On June 2, Sean Monterrosa was shot and killed by Officer Jarrett Tonn of the Vallejo Police Department. While the POA has attempted to destroy evidence and hide his name, we now know that Tonn had a record—he was named in an excessive force case and involved in three other officer-involved shootings.

Vallejo itself is a problem—Monterrosa follows the 2019 killing of Willie McCoy, also under questionable conditions.

Vallejo faces a California DOJ review after 18 fatal police shootings in the last decade. Vallejo is a city of just 122,000 people.

And it keeps getting worse. An investigation by independent journalists, Open Vallejo, found that of 51 current and former Vallejo officers who have been involved in fatal shootings since 2000, at least 14 had their badges bent by a colleague afterward.

The state was already investigating the possibility the president of the POA had destroyed evidence in the recent fatal shooting of Sean Monterrosa.

The police chief says he is “deeply disturbed” by the allegations. “If there is credible evidence found, I will expand the inquiry into an official investigation,” Chief Shawny Williams said in the statement.

However, shortly after Open Vallejo published its story, Lt. Michael Nichelini, the Vallejo police union president, called the story “beyond inflammatory”in a statement obtained by the Mercury News. He said that he was not aware of the alleged badge-bending practice. “Frankly, it’s a ridiculous notion,” he said.

Vallejo police announced it is launching a third-party investigation into the practice of badge bending first reported by Open Vallejo.

“We’ve received statements from two different sources within the Vallejo Police Department that badge bending has occurred,” said Chief Williams in a statement on Friday. “As a result of these very troubling and disturbing allegations, I’ve asked for an independent outside investigation to be completed by a third party.”

So right now you have a DOJ pattern and practice investigation into Vallejo, you have the AG’s office looking into the destruction of evidence, and now this.

What the AG has refused to do so far is investigate the shooting itself.

The key question how deep does this go into Vallejo Police.

Earlier this week, I calculated the extent to which the Monterrosa shooting had impacted the department. Remember there was not only the shooter, but several other officers on the scene, then you have the efforts of Nichelini with the POA to keep the name of the shooter from the public, and possibility obstruct justice through the obstruction of evidence.

And if the police chief really was informed that Monterrosa was on his knees rather than the ridiculous claims of the POA that he was taking an aggressive posture, armed only with a hammer, forcing the police to have no choice but to shoot him—then the chief himself may be complicit here.

Attorney John Burris told me, “I don’t want to believe that the chief deliberately destroyed evidence.”

But between the video and the destruction of evidence, the actions of the POA and the badge bending, this is a department deep in problems.

I reached out to someone familiar with the situation on the ground at Vallejo. She estimated that of the 110 sworn officers in the Vallejo Police Department, between 20 and 25 of them are bad officers.

But I think that is a low number. Because remember, in order for police officers to get away with use of force, shootings and other misconduct they have to be in a culture that allows them to. There are the people who have their badges bent. There are people who bend the badges. And the people who know about it and try to keep it quiet.

The question that we all must grapple with is whether Vallejo is exceptionally bad. I suspect the answer is yes.

But maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to exonerate police officers. Remember San Francisco—in 2012, federal agents were investigating corruption of plainclothes police officers and by 2015, when they were finally made public, they turned over thousands of text messages with fellow police officers, where they disparaged racial minorities, women and gays.

Some proclaimed “white power” and others disparaged Black and Brown police officers.

Our partners in San Francisco who have been studying police records there believe that the problem is maybe ten percent of all officers. But again, those officers can’t get away with bad conduct unless they have complicity of at least silence from many more.

When the Picnic Day incident happened in Davis in 2017, our examination at that time was that the number of problem officers in Davis was 10 to 15 percent.

Again, I think the problem of unconstitutional policing goes much further.

Most of this is simply based on use-of-force complaints. But what I have seen from being in court is that the amount of improper force is probably far higher than we know. I sat in a preliminary hearing where a man accused of shoplifting started walking away from police officers.

At this point he was not detained. They caught up to him, slammed him against a car and to the ground. And then he was charged with a PC section 69—resisting with force. The judge upheld the felony charge.

Three or four officers were involved. But this incident is probably more typical than not—no complaint, so it would not make use-of-force stats, it involved multiple officers, and there was no media coverage except for the fact that we happened to be in the courtroom.

We have not even gotten into other problems in the system beyond use of force. There is also the problem of “testilying” and other forms of police misconduct.

A 2018 article in the New York Times found that it was quite pervasive.

“Behind closed doors, we call it testilying,” said a New York City police officer, Pedro Serrano. “You take the truth and stretch it out a little bit.”

An investigation by the New York Times has found that on more than 25 occasions since January 2015, judges or prosecutors determined that a key aspect of a New York City police officer’s testimony was probably untrue.

The 2018 report echoed the more classic report from 1994 which found, “New York City police officers often make false arrests, tamper with evidence and commit perjury on the witness stand, according to a draft report of the mayoral commission investigating police corruption.”

That report found, “Perjury is perhaps the most widespread form of police wrongdoing facing today’s criminal justice system.”

The Times noted: “The report did not attempt to estimate what proportion of the department had engaged in such practices, but based its judgment on the commission’s two-year investigation and interviews with scores of officers.”

This gets to my point I have made over and over again—if you are basing your assessment of policing on officer-involved killings, you are missing far more commonplace problems with policing.

Perjury is far from benign.

The 2018 report concluded, “These cases are particularly troubling because erroneous identifications by witnesses have been a leading cause of wrongful convictions.”

Moreover, it is hard to catch.

“There’s no fear of being caught,” a Brooklyn officer who has been on the force for almost a decade told the Times. “You’re not going to go to trial and nobody is going to be cross-examined.”

While police officers can shoot and kill people, they can also lie and put innocent people away, often for decades.

The Times writes: “Police lying raises the likelihood that the innocent end up in jail – and that as juries and judges come to regard the police as less credible, or as cases are dismissed when the lies are discovered, the guilty will go free.”

But don’t worry, it’s just a few bad apples.

—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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42 Comments

    1. David Greenwald

      Good question. The officers involved in fatal shootings “marked those incidents with backyard barbecues and were initiated into a “secretive clique” that included curving one of the tips of their seven-point sterling silver badge.”

  1. Alan Miller

    OK, that’s really gross if true. (I’m not sure what you are quoting there.  Citation?)  Celebrating killings, and in some cases celebrating murder?  That would show an innate culture of violence.  I have long been wary of the Vallejo P.D.  Could be the worst P.D. in NorCal.

    As I’ve said before, it’s somewhere around 20% ‘bad’ cops and every other prefession – though the definition of bad is pretty squishy of course.  But the problem is, unlike my auto mechanic that just f*cks up my car, cops carry guns and trunchens and mace — oh my — so it’s pretty serious when a cop is bad.  And any bad cop makes other cops look bad.

    But the fraternal nature of some police department’s culture is a problem.  I believe many good cops get overtaken by the pressure to be part of the group and cover for mistakes.  It’s almost inevitable, and the public union doesn’t help this.  While we don’t want cops to be able to be run out over accusations or political pressure, we also don’t want bad cops to be overly protected by a corrupt system.

    I don’t believe it’s ‘just a few bad seeds’, nor do I believe that cops are inherently evil.  I’ve got three cops  in my phone contacts that I consider friends — not close friends, but friends — and I consider all of them good decent people.
  They are human beings with families.  Those I consider friends I would judge to be good people and good cops.

    I’ve seen the calls by some activists that black cops aren’t black anymore, and vile hatred against all cops.  The Moore Village Incident #scary-music# facebook page of the so-called victim is riddled with dozens upon dozens of postings of vile hatred against cops and white people — not his fault what others post, but he didn’t exactly do anything to try to shut those streams down.

    Once you dehumanize, you paint a target on people.  I certainly understand that anyone brought up in an inner-urban environment where they were continuous brutalized by cops would be angry – very angry.  But there’s a reason we are told “love your enemy”.  One of the hardest lessons on earth, one I have not perfected with my strongest enemies.

    Unfortunately, I believe the Vanguard promotes an atmosphere of enabling hatred of cops.  At the same time I believe the Vanguard has as its core mission trying to do right by people who have been victimized by the legal system.  I don’t criticize the intent, and I think you could do great things.  But at the moment its like watching the Vanguard Van screeching down the street in full throttle with the other foot unknowingly firmly pressing down on the brake pedal, arms flailing on the steering wheel.  Coming forward with a heart of forgiveness for the enemy could help.  Unfortunately, I’m not sure you are any more capable of this than I am of not being a sarcastic arse.  It may be our respective natures.  But I urge you to consider . . . if you start, it may take years.

    Locking horns over silly fights over “is it a few bad apples?”, “will the tall building effect neighbors or not?” get you nowhere, get us nowhere.  Of course both are true, of course the truth is both and neither and somewhere in the middle.  Of course bad people have good in them and good people have bad in them.  Of course if we shut people up, and tear people down, who we disagree with – we as a society are doomed.  If we don’t hear our enemy and try to understand them, we are doomed.  If we don’t talk without shouting, we are doomed.

    Actually, we are doomed.

    1. David Greenwald

      Open Vallejo deserves the credit for reporting this – the link should be in the article.

      On your other point, I actually have a lot of appreciation when you actually engage on an issue and find you to be perceptive and reflective.  Unfortunately while I think you are correct that we have taken on a negative view of policing, I think that policing is rotten to the core.  That doesn’t mean there aren’t good cops – there are plenty.  But the system rewards the bad ones and the system needs to be fundamentally changed.  I don’t know if that helps explain where I’m coming from, but I do appreciate your comment.

      1. Ron Oertel

        I think that policing is rotten to the core.

        An interesting comment.

        The problem is that the same might be said of many of those committing serious crimes against innocent people. Which seems to be forgotten about, by some.

         

        1. David Greenwald

          They are supposed to be.  But when they use excessive force, lie on the stand, or otherwise violate people’s constitutional rights, they contribute to rather than solve that problem.

        2. Ron Oertel

          But when they use excessive force, lie on the stand, or otherwise violate people’s constitutional rights, they contribute to rather than solve that problem.

          They do, at times.

          I’m not sure that refraining from doing so necessarily “solves that problem”.

          What problem are you referring to?  (I’m referring to crime committed by those other than the police.)

        3. Ron Oertel

          I wouldn’t necessarily make assumptions regarding reasons I may care (or not care, depending upon what we’re talking about). I don’t know of anyone who thinks that police should be above the law, or deny that there are negative consequences if that’s allowed to occur.

          But clearly, you have concerns beyond that.

          1. David Greenwald

            I don’t have to make assumptions – you’ve flat out said it – many times on here. As have I.

        4. Ron Oertel

          I don’t know what you’re referring to. What have I flat-out said?

          I’m trying to dig a little deeper, to see what your concerns actually are – beyond the issue that we seem to agree on.

          Maybe we agree on the broader issue/goal, as well.

        5. Tia Will

          Ron

          True as written. But misses an important point. We do not pay those committing serious crimes to commit them, We do pay police officers, both the good and the brutal.

        6. Ron Oertel

          Tia:  It can be a brutal line of work, especially in troubled communities.

          I wish they weren’t needed, or that there was a better way.

          (I’m referring to a larger issue.)

          Truth be told, those who can leave those communities often do – regardless of skin color. There is such a thing as “black flight”, as well as white flight.

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_flight

          No one wants to put up with crime – especially when raising families, etc.

          1. David Greenwald

            “there was a better way.”

            There is. That’s what this discussion is about. But you’re fighting the rear-guard.

  2. Ron Oertel

    I hadn’t really looked at Alan M.’s wide-ranging comment closely, until just now. Thought I’d highlight these statements.

    Unfortunately, I believe the Vanguard promotes an atmosphere of enabling hatred of cops.  At the same time I believe the Vanguard has as its core mission trying to do right by people who have been victimized by the legal system.

    Locking horns over silly fights over “is it a few bad apples?”, “will the tall building effect neighbors or not?” get you nowhere, get us nowhere.

    Of course if we shut people up, and tear people down, who we disagree with – we as a society are doomed. 

  3. John Hobbs

    The cops who lie, extort, intimidate, batter and  murder under color of authority are almost universally insulated by fellow officers, command officers and in most cases the criminal codes exempting them from prosecution for their acts. That barrel of apples is rotten to the core.

    1. Bill Marshall

      From my experience, with 3 PD’s, it is more than 1% “bad”, and 40-50% “enablers” in PD’s… they do ‘protect their own’, even if they loathe the behaviors… that is real…

      SM PD… mid 70’s… as called on to ‘take measurements’ at a murder/brutal assault crime scene… the perp was on PCP… the PD Lt/Detective, @ 12:30 P, was 2-3 sheets to the wind (you could even smell it)… 3 martini early lunch… the two sober engineering types figured out how the perp entered, likely path of entry… Lt. was never ‘written up’… a 2 year old murdered brutally in his crib (splatter on two walls)… mother was 8 mos pregnant, brutally stabbed, fetus died (but that just loss of ‘product of conception’, right… no big deal), the Mom survived after being hospitalized for 3 weeks…

      Yet, the officer in charge of the crime scene(following day) was ‘wasted’… no consequences for him…

      This memory is burned into my brain… it occurred 3 blocks from where I lived, grew up… 4 houses away from the house of a good friend of mine…  I just hope the Lt was sober when he testified @ the trial of the perp.  He was not publicly disciplined…  1975…

    2. David Greenwald

      Keith – I’m pretty sure you have no basis for that figure.  I showed in this article three departments where the numbers are far higher and there is no reason to believe they are outliers.  Moreover, how do you define good jobs – probably 10 to 20 percent problem officers on use of force, perhaps higher on testilying, and another problem is administratively looking the other way.  Again, your figure has no basis.

        1. Bill Marshall

          As, would I…

          I had many good friends in Davis PD… over the years… and then, there were ‘others’… not so much…  many with high integrity… and then, there were ‘others’… not so much…

  4. Ron Oertel

    Vallejo itself is a problem.

    That’s my impression, as well. As well as its neighbors – Richmond, parts of Oakland, Berkeley, . . .

    Davis? Not so much (at least not from its own residents).

      1. David Greenwald

        Maybe they should be focusing on that rather than creating a club for those who have fatally shot someone and destroying evidence in an officer involved shooting?

        1. Ron Oertel

          Maybe you should withhold judgement, at least until that’s verified.

          But the point being that crime rates are usually going to impact police interactions.

          Are there any high-crime communities that have a better relationship with their police department? (Or, at least having a reputation as such?)

          Overall, I think you may be misjudging what most people (even, or perhaps especially within those communities) are most concerned about, on a day-to-day basis.

          How many people have been shot or otherwise victimized so far this year, by someone other than police (e.g., in Chicago)?

        2. Ron Oertel

          Thought I’d look it up, myself:

          From Jan. 1 through the end of July, there were 440 homicides in Chicago and 2,240 people shot, including many of those who were killed, according to statistics released Saturday by the police department.

          https://www.nbcchicago.com/news/local/chicago-homicides-rose-by-139-percent-from-last-july-officials-say/2315318/

          We could probably look up a lot of other cities, as well – to provide perspective.

          I’ve noticed that those who essentially say that police should be defunded don’t have much of an answer, regarding this. Other than some vague statements regarding increasing community funding.

  5. Ron Oertel

    Me:   “there was a better way.”

    David:  “There is. That’s what this discussion is about. But you’re fighting the rear-guard.”

    I’m not fighting anything.  The people who live in high-crime communities are, and statistics show that it’s not (primarily) the police.

    The only “solution” I’ve heard so far is the same one I’ve been hearing for decades (vague comments regarding “community investment”).

     

    1. David Greenwald

      Don’t think that’s a good way to do that analysis, you end up lumping in the views of 18 year olds with 70 year olds.  The difference is not just racial, it’s also generational.

      There is also this… while Blacks are similar with respect to level of policing, they aren’t with respect to treatment by police.

       

        1. David Greenwald

          That’s a D-minus grade, Whites are giving police an A-minus grade, Hispanics a C. I’m surprised Asians are so low frankly. That’s extraordinarily bad. BTW, I’m not sure somewhat confident is really high praise. How confident are you that you will survive to tomorrow? If you’re only somewhat confident, that’s not good. I would probably prefer a thermometer to this – 0 to 100, how confident are you? I don’t know. FWIW, the language in the Gallup poll seems to suggest somewhat confident is not that good. “Fewer than one in five Black Americans feel very confident that the police in their area would treat them with courtesy and respect. “

        2. Bill Marshall

          How confident are you that you will survive to tomorrow? If you’re only somewhat confident, that’s not good. I would probably prefer a thermometer to this – 0 to 100, how confident are you?

          No hyperbole there… yeah, right… btw, 100 degrees is not a good sign… ~ 97-99 is…

        3. David Greenwald

          The point is if you’re only somewhat confident, that’s a sign of trouble.

          Maybe a better example: how confident are you that the police won’t shoot and kill you?  Obviously the expected answer would be “very confident” if you are only “somewhat confident,” that’s a sign of trouble.

          My point is, you are lumping very and somewhat confident into a single category when they probably shouldn’t be.

    2. David Greenwald

      This is pretty good analysis though…

      Notably, simply having an interaction with the police in the past year has no bearing on Black Americans’ preference for local police presence in their area:

      • Seventy-nine percent of those who have had an interaction with the police in the past 12 months say they want the police to spend more or the same amount of time in their neighborhood; 21% favor less time.
      • Eighty-two percent of those who have not had an interaction want the same or greater police presence; 18% want less.

      What does matter is the quality of the interaction:

      • Forty-five percent of Black Americans who report not being treated with courtesy or respect by the police within the past 12 months want less of a police presence in their neighborhood. Meanwhile, 55% want the same or more police presence.
      • By contrast, just 13% of those who did feel they were treated respectfully want the police to spend less time in their neighborhood; 87% want them there as much or more often.

      Bottom Line

      It’s not so much the volume of interactions Black Americans have with the police that troubles them or differentiates them from other racial groups, but rather the quality of those interactions.

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