I started writing this blog a few years ago out of a sense that policing—the profession I love and spent 25 years serving—was losing its way. But, then, as I gained more perspective through time and distance of retirement, I realized we were always on shaky ground.
I entered the police academy in November of 1989 and hit the street three months later as a naïve, but energetic rookie, eager to save the world. Of course, I soon realized that idealism is difficult to maintain.
My first assignment was to a midnight squad that worked the largest public housing complex in the city. The housing projects on the east side got the most media attention, but we had our share of unrest. Almost every Friday and Saturday night in those days, our squad was met with angry crowds, and we’d gather beneath overhangs to keep the rocks and bottles from hitting our heads.
I had no idea why people were so angry. Later I learned that the squad prior to us had been disbanded for misconduct. Allegations included planting narcotics, false testimony, abusive behavior toward the residents of this community—mostly African Americans. It’s clear to me now that the behavior of those cops was why we were taking rocks and bottles every weekend.
In those first years, we didn’t have take-home cars, so we checked out a vehicle at the beginning of every shift. One morning, after my midnight shift, I forgot my new rechargeable flashlight when I unloaded the car. When I woke up, I realized. I called the station to ask if anyone had checked out the car. The desk officer couldn’t find a record. That night, when I got to work, it was clear someone had driven the car because it was parked in a different spot. My flashlight was gone. At first, I clung to the belief that the officer would find me and return it, but, as the days went by the truth was clear.
The realization hit me hard. Another cop stole my flashlight.
The next lesson was even worse. When I complained to other officers about the theft of my property, most weren’t angry or even surprised. It was normal to have items stolen if left around the police station or in a patrol car. That’s right. There was no shock, they shrugged. They told me to get over it and be more careful about my stuff.
Not one person I talked to thought it was a good idea or proper to write a theft report. I was told, you’ll never be able to prove who had the car. Even if you found out who had driven it, they’ll only deny it. It will only cause problems, and, wait for it…people will be mad at you for reporting it.
The lesson was clear: You say nothing about a cop being a thief. Put another way: We accept that there are thieves walking around with guns and badges arresting other people for theft.
I have never quite gotten over that ugly lesson.
Here’s where I’m supposed to stop and assure you that most of the cops I knew were good, honorable public servants and the issues with policing are all about a few bad apples.
And if we talk about the hard numbers of complaints vs. the total number of cops on the force, or the hundreds of thousands of (documented) police contacts vs. the number of shootings, or any other way we love to work the statistics to our advantage, you might think the bad apple argument is a good one.
But, if we look more closely at the bad apples excuse, we can understand how much it damages policing. Law enforcement is a small microcosm of our society, good and bad roam among us. That means cops who are liars, thieves, racists, wife beaters, child abusers, sex offenders, bigots, and just plain a-holes, just like the rest of society.
Yes, I know there are also kind, decent, brave, honorable, men and women who serve their communities every day. I worked with and still call many friends. Good cops should be the standard so there’s no point in continuing to say, “Yes, but there are more good cops than bad.” I should hope so. The bad apple distraction only deflects from the problem. Let’s move forward.
The lesson I learned in my rookie year about tolerating unethical cops is important. I bring up my experience because of those who point to police discipline as proof we clean our own house. While we might do a little surface cleaning, I submit that the time has come for a deep system cleanse. Not everyone meets the standard or is cut out for the job. Cops are held to a higher standard and should be. That’s the social contract. With great power comes great responsibility. That’s the job. There is no false equivalent to what “other people” do. We are the law enforcement professionals who swore an oath to uphold the law.
If a citizen called today and reported a theft, we would write it up, attempt to determine suspects, and do our best to find the thief. Why not the cop who was a thief? When I tell this story to fellow cops, before I even get to the end, they almost always say with a note of sadness, “I know. No one ever gets their shit back.” Every single one of us can probably come up with numerous examples of personal experiences or stories from peers about misdeeds around the precinct or the community. We’ve seen our fellow cops abuse their authority, degrade citizens, manufacture evidence, and commit other behaviors that tarnish our badges.
Why is this okay? Why do they get to hang around? Why get mad at me for saying this out loud, instead of the system tolerating such individuals in your profession? Can’t we all see that if Minneapolis would have rid themselves of Derick Chauvin several misconducts ago, they wouldn’t be in the mess they’re in now?
People are in the streets because of a system that has shielded misconduct far too long. You are currently enduring weeks of consistent civil unrest designed to force change because the entire criminal justice system has refused calls for actual justice. Citizens of color have been telling us about abuses for decades. We ignored their voices and pain. We dismissed their stories. We cared more about arrests and power than justice and fairness. The bill on our arrogance is now due and change will be forced.
The truth of the matter is this: the same cop that causes so much dissension might also run into a burning house to save a kid during the same shift. This reality blurs the lines. When your call goes to shit and you’re fighting for your life, you want to hear the sound of those police package V8’s, no matter who’s behind the wheel. I get it. I’ve been there, too.
But, my friends, we simply can not afford to allow unethical cops around us. The damage they do, left unchecked, is the most destructive to the credibility of policing. We owe it to ourselves to hold them accountable from day one. It doesn’t matter if they’re fun to go have a beer with, if they do not possess the character for the profession then they must go. Saying this should not be controversial.
Disgruntled, racist, incompetent, or criminal cops are cancers to our profession. The damage they inflict ripples through our agencies and our communities, widening ever outward. Allowing even a 5% rate of cancerous behaviors in an agency of say 1000, means 50 cops walking around with everything from a shitty attitude to a racist mindset to a criminal disposition. Imagine the ripple effect of 50 cops multiplied by dozens or more citizen interactions per day, multiplied by years or decades? That’s damage done by the tens of thousands, rippling throughout communities in this country.
Police integrity is the real challenge of our time. We must change the moral culture of policing once and for all. From top to bottom of our agencies. Public servants of high moral character shouldn’t need a law to tell them they should stop misconduct. It’s time to stop using the bad apple excuse as a way to minimize police misconduct and start living up to the code of conduct we swore to uphold. Eliminate the bad apples when we first notice the bruises, not wait until they have literally spoiled the entire profession.