Every time the country has confronted a case of police brutality or excessive force by officers, police agencies have responded with the same defense and explanation for the intolerable behavior: it was only a few “bad apples” and not a systemic problem.
There are roughly 700,000 full-time police officers in the United States today between all local, county, state, and federal agencies that employ sworn peace officers. These are men and women trained and allowed to carry weapons, make arrests, and patrol our streets in an effort to keep our communities safe.
They are heavily outnumbered since the national average officer to resident ratio is about 2.5 officers per 1,000 residents, and the City of San Diego only has 1.4 officers per 1,000 residents. That leaves each officer responsible for large areas and huge populations to cover with little more than their badge, guns, and reputation to project both authority and strength. It is a tough job and we all should appreciate the risks police officers take every time they put on their uniform.
But given the incredible responsibility and authority our society places in these law enforcement officers, they have an even greater responsibility to uphold their sworn duty to serve and protect, and to discharge their duties in the most professional and competent manner.
That means they should be held to the highest standards. Not just average standards of performance. Not just acceptable. Extraordinary. As if lives depend on it, because, of course, they do.
Police officers carry a higher sense of credibility, of veracity, of honesty than regular citizens. Their word is given more weight in court, in lawsuits, and on the streets. Their word is so elevated that they can attest to a crime without more evidence than their testimony. In short, they are treated as special, so they must act in special ways.
When we have heard of, and more recently watch videos of, cases where police officers have abused that power and shoot unarmed suspects, use excessive force to subdue individuals, and even lie about events that are later disproven, the reaction from the community is rightfully shock and anger. That violation of trust between police and residents feels personal because we have placed such confidence in them that we feel betrayed.
Every time we hear of such betrayal by police officers we also hear them described as “bad apples” and asked not to paint all officers with the same brush. We are asked to forgive those trespasses as isolated incidents of individual officers but not to condemn the whole lot.
It is difficult to accept that defense for two reasons.
First, the system didn’t prevent those bad actors from violating the public trust. Peace officers don’t operate in a vacuum by themselves. They have field training officers, partners, sergeants, lieutenants, captains, and chiefs. They have state standards, agency policies, and countless regulations that govern their conduct. They now have body cameras to monitor their actions. And in today’s society, someone with a cellphone will most surely record their interactions in public.
Yet still, officers commit inexcusable violations against suspects that seem to reflect a sense of empowerment, entitlement, and protection that allows officers to shoot an unarmed suspect, shot someone in the back, or choke someone to death in cases where the officer’s life was not in danger. It seems like the officers resented a suspect’s resistance to arrest or failing to obey their commands as a challenge to their authority that was met with recessive or deadly force. Sure, disobeying an officer’s lawful commands is illegal, but it shouldn’t mean an immediate death sentence.
In most cases of excessive force or unjustified shootings, other police officers were present and they didn’t seem to stop the rogue officers from acting. In the recent case of George Floyd, two other officers helped detain Floyd and several others stood nearby as Officer Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd for over eight minutes. Even when several witnesses recorded the standoff and yelled for officers to help Floyd. Not one other officer stepped in to help defuse a situation that turned deadly. The system failed to police the police.
But the defense of “bad apples” can’t be tolerated among police because it is one of the critical professionals where we cannot accept any “bad apples” due to the incredible responsibility we place in their hands.
If there are 700,000 police officers in the US, what percentage of them should we tolerate as bad? If 99% of them are good apples, then one percent would be 7,000 “bad apples”. Are we okay with 7,000 armed sworn officers patrolling the streets in our communities? Or 99.9%? That would be 700 “bad apples”. How safe would we feel?
Would we accept that level of risk in airline pilots? The FAA currently licenses about 170,000 professional airline pilots. We place our lives in their hands every time we board an airplane. What if 0.1% of those were “bad apples”? Would we board an airplane knowing that 170 pilots were likely to kill us? Each year, more than 16 million flights are taken within the US, totaling over 1 billion miles, yet the US has never had a case of a “bad apple” crashing a plane on purpose. Not one.
One of the criticisms of police is that training may not be sufficient to prepare officers for the realities of the streets.
In California, for example, police academies require 664 hours of training to become an officer. Police agencies then require differing terms of on-the-job training, which could be up to 14 weeks or about 500 additional hours. That could be up to 1164 total hours of training before an officer is left alone on patrol.
In comparison, California required 1,600 hours for a cosmetology license and 1,500 hours for a barber’s license.
Let that sink in for a minute.
Police officers command (and demand) a higher level of respect, trust, and authority than just about any other profession in our society. They are the ones we rely on to protect us, to rescue us, and to comfort us. They should not only make us safe, but they should make us feel safe.
But when the social contract between the protectors and the protected breaks down because we begin to fear the police more than revere them, they diminish the standing of all cops.
We will never know which are the good apples or the bad ones until it’s too late. We cannot live in fear of those that should be protecting us. We need to trust 100% of them.
When a person chooses to become a police officer and chooses to wear the badge, they give up the option to be a bad apple.
Because a bad apple isn’t just rotten, it spoils the whole barrel.