The Few Bad Apples Canard

Truthiness, that wonderful concept Stephen Colbert introduced to us. It’s when something has the feel of truth to it, even if it’s not quite true. Heck, it’s almost as if it is true. Almost.

So it is with police violence. It MUST be just “a few bad apples.” Or must it?

Call me obtuse, but I’m not buying it. If we’re so sure it’s just a few bad apples, why is systemic corruption in police departments so ingrained in our popular culture? How many dozen movie plots are based on one or a few good cops facing long odds in a fight against a corrupt police department? Funny, I’ve never heard anyone say about such a movie “Oh that’s ridiculous. Police departments can’t get corrupted like that.”

And those cop corruption movies are not entirely fictional. Remember Serpico, the circa 1973 thriller about an idealistic cop who wages a one man fight against corruption in the NYPD, and nearly pays with his life? That was based on the story of Frank Serpico, a real-life cop who was left by his fellow officers to die from a gunshot wound.

Sorry, but there’s a complete contradiction here. A society that readily accepts systemic police corruption as the premise for books, television shows and movies doesn’t really believe police violence is about just a few bad apples.

2015 is barely half over, but already over 600 have died at the hands of police in America.

Would you be willing to bet that when Joe Arpaio has been in hiring mode over the last 20+ years, he has stayed away from the bad apples? Not me. I’d bet that he’s stayed away from the good ones.

Why is it that all those good apples don’t do more about the bad apples? Or do they, and it’s just kept a secret from us? It’s funny, though, I’ve not heard of any cases where a good apple went after a bad one for a violent act against a Black kid. Or testified against one. Or lifted a finger to stop one in the act.

Another disconnect: I’m reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, Between the World and Me. Like his parents before him, he lives under the assumption that the police who are supposed to be there to ensure his son’s safety are far more likely to kill him. Every Black writer I’ve read and every Black acquaintance I’ve asked has the same outlook. That universal feeling could not develop if it’s just a few bad apples. So, are they all delusional? Are they all liars?

If it’s so clear that we’re only dealing with a few bad apples, why hasn’t anyone called BS on all the Black commentators for what would have to be a fiction? Here’s why: Because Black fear of police violence isn’t about truthiness, it’s about real, hard truth, and everyone gets that. We all know Black fear of police is both real and rational. So, even those who purport to believe in the few bad apples theory know better, consciously or sub-consciously, than to confront the direct contradiction between what’s become part of the fabric of Black America and a theory that falls apart once subjected to logical scrutiny.

The reality here is that the few bad apples theory is about political expedience and nothing more. Truthiness is a matter of convenience. If cop violence is just about a few bad apples, it’s not the same problem as it would be if it’s the face of institutional racism.

I asked a Black acquaintance about the “few bad apples” theory. In his mind, the police who are considered bad apples largely are acting out a policy desired by the greater community that hired them. He cites as an example the Texas pool incident from a month or so ago. In order to keep an undesired element (Blacks) out of high-income white neighborhoods, police use traffic stops for such things as broken tail lights aggressively. Thus, he rejected the bad apple theory entirely, instead attributing cop violence towards Blacks to the reality of longstanding inequality and officers hired to maintain a physical separation of races.

Is my acquaintance’s theory correct? I can’t say, but I can say this: It’s a heck of a lot more plausible than the few bad apples theory. But in a society dominated by whites who don’t want to see a racist when they look in the mirror, his theory utterly lacks truthiness.

Which may just mean he’s right.

12 responses to “The Few Bad Apples Canard

  1. “So, what is my point? The 600 figure you cite is not as dramatic as you are trying to make it sound.”

    Steve, the objective approach in evaluating the 600 figure would be to compare it to the number in other developed countries. Did you make any attempt to do so?

    • No, I did not attempt to make a comparison between the United States and any other industrialized nation because such a comparison would be meaningless. We have the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution which – correctly, in my opinion – makes firearms reasonably available to the non-Police population. No other Nation on earth has a similar trust in its people. However, as is the case with ALL freedom, there is a downside…when the Police and Civilians encounter one another, there is an increased likelihood that a civilian firearm may be involved, which, in turn, increases the likelihood that any violence encountered may become lethal.

      So when you tell me that a comparison between the United States and other industrialized nations is the only way to determine if the 600 figure is excessive, I have to say poppycock. It is comparing apples to oranges, which really isn’t helpful.

      • I guess I’m not following you. Are you saying the apples become bad because of the 2nd amendment? Or just that only the American bad apples kill because we have the 2d Amendment?

        • Niether one, Bob.

          I am saying that confrontations between Police and Civilians in the United States have a potentially greater risk of deadly violence occurring because Americans have the right to own firearms. When a civilian introduces a gun into a confrontation with a Police Officer, the likelihood that the confrontation will end in a fatality is almost certain.

          Among the rest of the industrialized nations of the world, firearms are so tightly controlled, if not banned outright, that the likelihood of a civilian having a firearm in his possession is almost zero. If the civilian cannot introduce a firearm into the confrontation, then the level of force needed to subdue him drops the likelihood of a fatal encounter to almost zero.

          So when you say I should compare the records of the United States with that of the other industrialized nations, I say the comparison cannot legitimately be made because there is a much greater risk of fatal encounters occurring in the United States as a result of firearms ownership. I do not for one instant think that United States Police Officers are “trigger happy”, but they are faced with a greater risk that the civilians with whom they deal may pull out a gun at any time and change the entire dynamic of the interaction. The Police of other industrialized nations don’t face that risk.

          I don’t know how to make it any clearer than that, Bob.

          • Okay, so what you’ve just said that is you don’t believe the crux of the problem is about there being a few bad apples. Which I think is the argument I was making. We may see things largely differently. We certainly don’t agree on why things are the way they are. You may see red where I see blue, but we’re both not seeing yellow.

          • LOL! Thanks for the chuckle, Bob. I needed it this morning. I hope you have a good day…

  2. Here is what I think. The job of police officer attracts people who have a desire to control ther people. Some of those will also be people who have racists and or nativist tendencies. The problem for police departments is how do you weed these people out? It would require an extremely understanding extremely sympathetic laedership to do that. And that leadership would have to have an iron hand on their department in order to chase out the bad apples. The more likely situation is that that kind of aggressive self-policing is the exception rather than the rule. All you need is to look at the sheer number of police who affect ‘skin-head’ appearance — an appearance designed to cause fear in non-whites. So yes, I agree there are more than just a few bad apples. However I think that it is the job that attracts those and it is nearly impossible to weed them out in hiring. And if you have a bad apple at the top of leadership there is no desire to weed those out. But as there are always bad apples, there are always good ones too. Not enough and they have a very difficult time of it as they canlose their jobs and their pensions by coming forward where leadership is not supportive. Very complicated.

    • Pretty good analysis. My anecdotal experience with pre-law enforcement types in college is consistent with it.

    • TS, I like your style of writing and your willingness to at least consider there are multiple points of view on a subject. Now, here comes the attack… ;o)

      Your view of the Police as favoring “skinhead” style haircut has two effects: (1) it leaves the impression that cops ARE “skinheads” at heart; and, (2) the “skinhead” haircut is the dominant hair style among among Police Officers (with the associated “skinhead” attitude).

      In the case of the first point, the Officers that do sport the “skinhead” haircut generally do so because they like the neat, easy to care for style, and because it does provide an intimidating demeanor to potential trouble makers when they are on the street. That partially validates what you stated, except you thought they did it to intimdate only minorities, when, in fact, they want the intimidation factor to apply across the board. Better a little mental intimidation than a physical confrontation, don’t you think?

      In the case of the second point, it is clear you have not visited a Police Department, nor have you had many contacts with Police Officers. If you do take the time to visit one, you will find that the haircuts tend to be neatly trimmed, combable and “normal”. It is unusual to find a “skinhead” style of haircut in their ranks. They ARE there to be found, of course, but they are not the norm.

      I agree with you that the attitude of senior officers set the standard for everyone in the Department. It does require positive efforts. Unlike you, though, I believe that positive guidance is there much more often than it is not. One thing that seems to be overlooked is the numbers of minorities that now comprise the “brass” and are running Police and Sheriff Departments across the country. Additionally, the rank and file Police and Deputies are comprised of significant numbers of minorities. Most Departments very much reflect the communities from which they draw their recruits.

      One of the biggest problems I think liberals have on this subject is they can’t seem to focus on today. They are stuck on events and circumstances from 10, 20, 30 years ago, and they act as if nothing has changed. The truth is that things have dramatically changed for the better. Part of the problem is they ignore the ease and speed of communication, coupled with millions of video-telephones recording events today and don’t understand that what would have been an obscure unheard of incident 10 years ago is now front page news within hours. The result is that it seems as if bad things are on the rise when the truth is they are on the decline.

      In any event, I enjoy reading what you post and look forward to reading what you have to say in the future.

  3. ”…why is systemic corruption in police departments so ingrained in our popular culture? How many dozen movie plots are based on one or a few good cops facing long odds in a fight against a corrupt police department? Funny, I’ve never heard anyone say about such a movie “Oh that’s ridiculous. Police departments can’t get corrupted like that.”

    When you write something, Bob, I take you seriously. So, I take this as a serious argument and will point out that movie plots often portray a variety of people in positions of power as corrupt (i.e. – politicians, presidents, business tycoons, the taxman, governors, the military, diplomats, etc.) and you don’t hear people say, “Oh that’s ridiculous. xxxxxxxx can’t get corrupted like that.” That is because it is entertainment, Bob, not because they are consciously thinking that the Police are inherently corrupt.

    ”And those cop corruption movies are not entirely fictional.”

    That is true. In a VERY limited number of cases, factions within Police Departments, or entire Police Departments in the case of tiny ones, haven proven to be corrupt. BUT they are notable because of their rarity…particularly in this age of instant communication coupled with the internet and activists and reporters. You went back to 1973 for Serpico, and even that fails to prove your point. Serpico discovered corruption in his Precinct, not the entire NYPD. He did the right thing, which happens more often than you want to give credit. In the end, it was the NYPD that weeded out the corruption. In the end, it was less than 50 Police Officers in a Department that was – at that time – about 25,000 members strong. There is no true definition of “a few bad apples”, but 50 out of 25,000 is not a significant percentage.

    ”A society that readily accepts systemic police corruption as the premise for books, television shows and movies doesn’t really believe police violence is about just a few bad apples.”

    That is a sweeping statement that I think qualifies as “truthiness” . To accept it, you have to start out with a bias against the Police.

    ”2015 is barely half over, but already over 600 have died at the hands of police in America.”

    The current U.S. population is approximately 316,000,000 people. There are approximately 475,000 uniformed Law Enforcement Officers (I am only counting what we call Police and Sheriffs, not agencies such as the FBI, the Marshals Service, BATF, ICE, the Border Patrol, etc.) on active service with cities, counties and states and other non-federal law enforcement agencies. Each day the Police and civilians come into contact an estimated 1,200,000 times, of which it is estimated 20% involve violence such as robbery, domestic violence, murder, assault, etc.

    So, what is my point? The 600 figure you cite is not as dramatic as you are trying to make it sound. It is sad such deaths occur, and likely some of those deaths are not justified (based strictly on my opinion without knowing any facts related to what actually happened), but to imply that the 600 deaths are the result of bad cops is wrong, Bob.

    ”Would you be willing to bet that when Joe Arpaio has been in hiring mode over the last 20+ years, he has stayed away from the bad apples? Not me. I’d bet that he’s stayed away from the good ones.

    That is a throw away emotional comment that reflects your disgust with Sheriff Arpaio. I really don’t want to think you were serious when you wrote that. Not that my opinion matters much, but I think better of you than to think you would seriously suggest the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office went out of it’s way to hire bad cops. ‘Nuff said.

    ”Why is it that all those good apples don’t do more about the bad apples? Or do they, and it’s just kept a secret from us? It’s funny, though, I’ve not heard of any cases where a good apple went after a bad one for a violent act against a Black kid. Or testified against one. Or lifted a finger to stop one in the act.

    They do step forward, Bob, and one did so fairly recently here in Phoenix. About 3-years ago, a Mother called asking for help with her teenage son who was out of control and threatening her. Two Policemen arrived on the scene, and one of them wound up killing the young Hispanic male. The other Police Officer, who came into the house just as the shooting took place, wrote his report and stated the shooting was unnecessary. He then reported it to the Shift Supervisor immediately and his Superiors the next day. About 18-months ago, that same Officer testified in court against the Officer that did the shooting and the shooter was found guilty and sentenced to prison. I can’t give you the names because it was a while back, but it did happen. Right here in the Phoenix PD.

    ”…he lives under the assumption that the police who are supposed to be there to ensure his son’s safety are far more likely to kill him. Every Black writer I’ve read and every Black acquaintance I’ve asked has the same outlook. That universal feeling could not develop if it’s just a few bad apples. So, are they all delusional? Are they all liars?
    If it’s so clear that we’re only dealing with a few bad apples, why hasn’t anyone called BS on all the Black commentators for what would have to be a fiction?”

    He states that if his son comes into contact with the police the odds are GREATER that will kill him than they will help? Seriously, Bob?!? And your “common sense” meter didn’t go off when you heard that? Of course it didn’t, Bob, because in this politically correct society no one ever questions anything stated or written by black commentators. You asked me about “white guilt” the other day and I told you I thought it made otherwise intelligent people do some really dumb things. Besides, it is assumed that, unless you are black, you have no idea what truth is and, more importantly, you have no right to speak out. Even when other blacks speak out – and it does happen – they are vilified and mocked and called “Oreos” or “Uncle Toms” and dismissed as “not genuine”.

    ”Here’s why: Because Black fear of police violence isn’t about truthiness, it’s about real, hard truth, and everyone gets that. We all know Black fear of police is both real and rational. So, even those who purport to believe in the few bad apples theory know better, consciously or sub-consciously, than to confront the direct contradiction between what’s become part of the fabric of Black America and a theory that falls apart once subjected to logical scrutiny.”

    Whenever someone says “we all know” or “everyone knows”, what usually follows is an opinion about which the speaker is making sweeping assumptions and does not want any contrary opinions. And there are several sweeping comments here…comments that refer back to my previous response about political correctness. You flat out state that anyone who thinks the few bad apples idea is either consciously lying to themselves and others, or they are so lacking in self awareness that they (my words here) must be emotional morons. I don’t think you are allowing yourself to see any other possibility because you already have the answer that makes you happy. I think you are a very smart man and a gifted writer, but I think you wear blinders on certain subjects.

    About three times a month, I participate in a program called “Ride Along” with Police Departments around the Valley. If you have the time and are interested in perhaps seeing another perspective of Police, I would recommend it. In this Program, you actually ride in a Police car with patrol Officers while they perform their duties. Before you say it, the Officers with whom you ride are regular beat Officers and they are not hand picked for public relations experience. Some of the Agencies will even allow you to pick the Officer(s) at random if you ask.

    Anyway, the Officers I have ridden with have been of all races, both sexes, from the mid-20’s to their 50’s, and from almost all of the Agencies in the Valley. I have done this hundreds of times over the years. Among my observations are: (1) I have never seen anyone stopped for “driving while black”, or hispanic, or blonde, or anything else other than some sort of violation or legitimate reason such as a BOLO; (2) I have witnessed a goodly number of times when an Officer had confrontations where physical force proved necessary. In every case – regardless of the race of the person being arrested – the Police acted with restraint and professionalism; and, (3) Young black males were more often confrontational with the Police Officers than any other group I observed, regardless of the reason they were in contact with the Police. This is anecdotal evidence which is all but useless in any rational discussion, to be sure, but it was what I saw.

    A few years ago, Chris Rock put out a humorous, but seriously intended, film on “How To Deal With The Police”. The key point he made in it was don’t get confrontational with the Police, and don’t let your passengers get confrontational, either. When interviewed about the film, he stated that it was good advice for anyone, but his life experience had shown him that young black males tended to get confrontational with the Police pretty regularly and he was hoping his humorous take on the issue might encourage some of them to not do so.

    I am sure you remember a few years ago when Jesse Jackson said that when he is walking down the street and he hears a group of young males behind hind, he was embarrassed to say that he felt a sense of relief when it turned out to be a group of young white males.

    The point I am getting at here is that you seem to believe: (1) ALL Police are guilty of either singling out blacks for harsh treatment without cause or covering up for those that do so, (2) that it ISN’T just a few bad Officers who cross the line and behave criminally, (3) that blacks are innocent victims who never do anything to incite or encourage confrontations with Police and (4) that black commentators complaining of these things are 100% truthful and cannot possibly be stretching the truth or have a biased interest in perpetuating the stereotype.

    I think you are wrong.

    • Steve, I responded to this, but it was posted as a separate comment above.

      I never said or implied that all police are complicit in the problem, as you suggest in your next to last paragraph. The fact that you could infer that from my post shows a lack of objectivity. My points here are simply that the problem is more than one of a few rogue cops and that those who are attempting to spin it as such are lacking in intellectual honesty.

      • I did infer from your writings that you held “the Police” accountable. “The Police” and only “the Police”. Period. I don’t recall you ever having made a positive statement about the Police. It may be that my memory is flawed and you did so, but I came away from all of your postings on the subject with the distinct impression that you see this as a problem with cops who are either bad cops committing heinous acts or bad cops who look the other way. Given that you never spoke of any other category of cops, it sounded to me as if your total opinion was that all cops are bad.

        Obviously, I was mistaken. I am sorry I made that assumption. To be honest, I am relieved that I was wrong. I have a high regard for you, Bob, and it troubled me greatly that you might paint all Police Officers with the same brush and consider them all corrupt. That is why I knew you were emotionally venting when you stated you thought the Sheriff’s Department went out of its way to hire bad Deputies. That just didn’t fit in with all the other things you write. It sounded more like AZBlueMeanie than Bob Lord. ;o)