Defund the Police? Good Cops, Bad Cops…


The individual tells you nothing about the system. The system tells you nothing about the individual.

The issue isn’t whether you respect Black Lives Matter. It isn’t whether you respect the Police. It’s whether the Police believe all are equal under the law. Recent weeks and months (and years) have set before our eyes a wealth of evidence answering that question.

By “Police” – upper case – I don’t mean Officer Joe, the good cop you know. We all know good cops. Instead, I mean the institution of local law enforcement in the US. Not a police officer – lower case. The Police.

The argument isn’t that an individual officer is bad or that all officers are bad. It’s that our society has chosen to structure law enforcement agencies in a way that reproduces our worst characteristics, our inequalities and prejudices and oppressions.

As a result, Police departments have become fertile environments for a certain kind of person. Ignorant. Hateful. Insecure. Weak. Bullying. And that person inevitably becomes what we know as a “bad cop.” This system attracts, tolerates, succors, rewards, and shields these people in much the same way the Catholic priesthood historically attracts, tolerates, succors, rewards, and shields pedophiles.

In other words, bad cops aren’t a rare, inevitable exception. They’re a logical product of a specific type of system. They’re features, not bugs. And when you say the problem is limited to a “few bad apples,” you’re either signaling dishonesty or a profound ignorance of what’s been happening in America for, well, forever. When we see video every day of racially-inflected Police violence, it’s beyond arguing that the problem is a “few” anything. The cases we have actual footage of just from 2020 adds up to more than a few.

Yes, there are good cops. But we’re methodically producing a huge number of bad ones, and it doesn’t appear the good ones can be counted on to do anything about it.

That is, by any reasonable measure, the definition of a broken system.

“Defund the police” is a regrettable turn of phrase. At a minimum it’s bad PR because it suggests anarchy. It seems to indicate that the solution to everything is to dispense with all law enforcement. That’s ludicrous, and it isn’t what is intended. A few people might believe it literally, but not many.

The actual argument is that law enforcement needs changing. “Reform the Police” is closer, although that, too, isn’t quite right because “reform” is an incremental word and what needs doing isn’t “fix A,” it’s “replace A with B.” Higher recruitment standards. More stringent training that replaces militarization with an intense focus on community engagement. Federal, state, and local civilian review and oversight. De-escalation and non-violent outcomes. A collaborative ethos instead of an adversarial one.

Of course, this isn’t just on the police – our crime problems and our race tensions are features of the bigger system, which structures and perpetuates inequity and desperation by establishing that some citizens are less than others. So we have a lot more work to do than just law enforcement. But law enforcement isn’t a bad place to start.

Many people out there have pretty human responses to issues as they see them, but they confuse the individual and the systemic. That doesn’t work. Ever.

The individual tells you literally nothing about the system and the system is useless at predicting the individual. This is why we have terms like “sample size.” When n=1 you have literally zero way of knowing if you’re looking at a rule or an exception.

Back to Officer Joe. He’s a model policeman who’s being unfairly judged by the public due to the actions of others (actions he vehemently disapproves of, by the way). But “Joe is a good cop” tells us nothing about the officers he works with, or the officers a town over, or officers in the next state, or officers on the other side of the country. Joe’s goodness is completely meaningless in a discussion about Police.

Here’s the bad part if you’re Joe. When people dismiss legitimate concerns about systemic Police brutality because Joe is good, they help insure that the problem never gets fixed. Which means Joe will continue to be unfairly tarred. Every time the latest Derek Chauvin commits an atrocity, Joe’s reputation takes a bit of a hit. Guilt by association. People are a tad less likely to trust him.

He’ll never get the respect he has earned as long as other officers are casually murdering people in the streets and politicians, backed by millions of voters, defend the broken system.

Father Fred may be the soul of piety, but that’s no excuse not to deal with the problem of pedophilia in the priesthood. The same goes for the Police.

Instead of supporting a process that systematically and predictably attracts and empowers thuggish, racist bullies, we need to objectively analyze that system and overhaul it so that it doesn’t produce “bad apples.” If we need to see an example of what this new approach might look like, we might start by examining Camden, NJ. Or, for that matter, most any advanced democracy on the planet.

This is how we transform our society into one where people everywhere see a blue uniform and their instinctive reaction is to smile, not run.

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