It Isn’t Just A Few ‘Bad Apples’

Will cellphone cameras do what years of eyewitness testimony couldn’t? 

As protests have swelled across the country, those who the late, great Molly Ivins memorably called “the chattering classes” have been debating similarities and differences between today’s demonstrations and those of the 60s. One of the clearest differences is the ubiquity of cellphone cameras–and the number of videos that have emerged capturing police–many in riot gear– brutalizing peaceful protestors.

As an article in The Guardian noted,

The nationwide anti-police brutality protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd in the US have been marked by widespread incidents of police violence, including punching, kicking, gassing, pepper-spraying and driving vehicles at often peaceful protesters in states across the country.

Many assaults were captured on video. Had the murder of George Floyd not been similarly captured, no doubt it would have been “explained” in a way that absolved the officers involved of blame–much as the Buffalo Police Department tried to evade responsibility for shoving and injuring an elderly man by issuing a press release that said he “tripped and fell.”

For more years than I can count, Americans have given police the benefit of the doubt when the facts were even slightly at issue. When facts haven’t been malleable, when the officer’s behavior was too clearly out of line to claim otherwise, the standard line has been “every profession has some bad apples.”  (We’re supposed to ignore the fact that police unions vigorously defend those “bad apples”and deploy their considerable resources to defeat mayors and prosecutors who try to hold police accountable.)

Are there lots of “good cops”? Sure. But in far too many police departments, the organizational culture works to silence them, and to incentivize a defensive “us versus them” mentality. A vivid example: when the evidence was too graphic to ignore, and the officers who shoved the elderly protestor were charged with battery, 57 members of the police force quit the unit to protest their suspension–and actually applauded them as they left the courthouse after being charged.

A few years ago, the Harvard Business Review had an article explaining organizational culture as “consistent, observable patterns of behavior” and quoted Aristotle for the observation, “We are what we repeatedly do.”

The culture of an organization is powerfully shaped by incentives — money, of course, but to an under-appreciated extent, intangible rewards such as status, recognition and approval, and sanctions.(It is not inconsequential that officers who connect with their community are far less likely to be recognized and applauded than those who make many arrests, especially ones involving force.) 

Ultimately, organizational culture is the “sum of values and rituals which serve as ‘glue’ to integrate the members of the organization.”

People who study policing concede that the culture of many American police departments is toxic. Last November, The Brookings Institution convened a panel discussion focusing on the challenge of changing the “values and rituals” that–according to one panelist, formerly a police captain– too often pit police against the people they are supposed to be protecting.

Another panelist noted that training often encouraged a “warrior mentality” that is attractive to a subset of individuals who “may not always be the best fit” for police work. Panelists also noted a lack of transparency and accountability–and the frequent use of internal cover-ups to protect officers who habitually use excessive force.

When bad behavior isn’t punished, it breeds impunity.

Five Thirty Eight recently posted an article about that impunity, and the reasons police officers are so rarely held criminally accountable. 

Many major cities continue to pay out millions of dollars each year to settle lawsuits against police officers, too often without firing officers who have been repeatedly sued. So even though police misconduct has drawn greater national attention, it’s still really difficult to hold police officers legally accountable for any kind of misconduct — including fatal violence.

According to the article, only 110 law enforcement officers nationwide have been charged with murder or manslaughter in an on-duty shooting — despite the fact that around 1,000 people are fatally shot by police annually. Of that 110, only 42 were convicted. (Fifty were not and 18 cases are still pending.) Many of the convictions ended up being for a lesser offense. Only five were convicted of murder and failed to have that conviction overturned.

Part of the problem is understandable. Judges and juries are inclined to believe law enforcement officers.


When I worked in City Hall, I became convinced that, other than the police union, the most significant barrier to accountability was prosecutors’ reliance on, and close working relationship with, local police. At the time, I lobbied–unsuccessfully–for a law requiring appointment of special prosecutors in such cases, to eliminate the unavoidable conflict of interest. 

Policing is a difficult job. It often requires split-second decision-making. We can be cognizant of that fact without giving bad cops permission to act like animals. Cellphone cameras can help.


Loss of Trust

In 2009, I wrote a book titled Distrust, American Style in which I argued that a loss of trust in our social institutions–and especially in our government–has had significant negative consequences for our ability to function as a productive society.

Things haven’t improved since 2009. If anything, our levels of distrust have continued to grow, and for good reason.

A couple of days ago, major news outlets reported the emergence of a legal memorandum generated during the George W. Bush Administration. There was evidence that the Administration had attempted to destroy all copies, for obvious reasons: the memorandum opined that the “enhanced interrogation” techniques being employed and defended by the Bush Administration were war crimes. Whether one agrees with that assessment or with the more accommodating analysis provided by John Yoo, it is clear that the White House was aware that their actions raised significant legal and constitutional issues, and that it was prepared to ignore both those issues and the rule of law.

It would be comforting to conclude that such actions were confined to one rogue Administration, or at least to the federal level, but evidence suggests otherwise; in fact, there has been a rash of disclosures of local-level prosecutorial misconduct recently.  In Illinois, a recent investigation of the criminal justice system uncovered evidence that–among other improprieties–prosecutors had failed to turn over documents in their possession proving that a man convicted of double murder in 1992 could not possibly have committed the crime he was accused of — because he was in police custody at the time. (But the police managed to get him to sign a confession. It is estimated that some 25% of criminal confessions are extracted from people who are actually innocent of the crime to which they confess–another rather disturbing bit of data.)

Add to such unsettling disclosures the constant drum-beat reporting corporate misdeeds, and the pervasive belief that wealthy individuals are able to “game the system” in their favor–able to buy favorable tax treatment, able to escape regulation, able to evade the consequences of predatory behaviors, able to elect public officials that will do their bidding–and you get a level of cynicism that undermines social cohesiveness and our ability to come together to address the issues that face us.

When people no longer trust our governing institutions, it is easy to sell them conspiracy theories. It is easy to turn groups against each other. (Want evidence? Look at the recent disclosures about the tactics employed by the National Organization for Marriage!)

We can’t rebuild trust by wishing it back. It will take a national effort to insure that our institutions are trustworthy–beginning with government. Because if we don’t trust our common institutions–government, yes, but also the church, major league sports, businesses and financial institutions, none of which have exactly covered themselves with glory lately–we certainly aren’t going to trust each other.