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Good cop/bad cop gets us nowhere

The problem is not bad apples. The problem is the barrel and the systems that produce it. Police culture is fundamentally warped.

A demonstrator holding a placard during a Black Lives Matter protest in Station Square, in Milton Keynes, Britain, on June 6.
A demonstrator holding a placard during a Black Lives Matter protest in Station Square, in Milton Keynes, Britain, on June 6.
REUTERS/Andrew Boyers

And so the story goes: good cops and bad cops. The good cops kneel and march with protesters, support justice for George Floyd, and condemn the actions of their brethren who killed him. The bad cops are the aberration, the bad apples that spoil the rest of the barrel. This narrative gets us nowhere.

Many cops have noble intentions. But when we focus on the behavior of individual officers — and in this country, with its master myth of personal initiative and meritocracy, that is our wont — we miss a more important point. The problem is not bad apples. The problem is the barrel and the systems that produce it. Police culture is fundamentally warped. I won’t say it’s broken, because it works the way it’s designed to work and because to say it’s broken implies it can be fixed. It needs not repair but replacement. If we continue to reproduce the same despoiled barrel, the quality of the apples we put into it won’t matter.

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It props up a system of white supremacy

The good cop/bad cop language persists because it props up a system of white supremacy. You can see it in the words of the president, for whom good cops are those who squelch dissent and “dominate” protesters, while “dirty cops” or “crooked cops” are those who challenge his authority and investigate his administration. But you can see it equally in the words of officers who condemn George Floyd’s killer: “On behalf of every good cop out there … we apologize. If you have ever been mistreated by the police … we are sorry. Please accept this apology and know that those officers do not speak for the majority of us.” As hopeful and well-intentioned as these words are, they serve the status quo because they intimate that if we eliminate the few bad apples we will have solved the problem.

Jeffery Bineham
Jeffery Bineham
The past two weeks have provided numerous examples that illustrate the malevolence of police culture. The film of George Floyd’s last moments documents not just the actions of one, but the complicity of several. Only one cop uttered a frail and quickly rebuffed suggestion that perhaps they should stop; other than that, they all went along. Their only physical actions were to protect Chauvin, to keep concerned bystanders away from him so he could continue the asphyxiation. To watch him do that with such indifference is to recognize that this is typical behavior.

A second incident was filmed in the Whittier neighborhood, when police and the national guard flooded what seemed to be a relatively quiet street to enforce curfew. Some residents filmed the advance from their front porch (a legal place to be, under conditions of the curfew) and as officers ran by screaming at the residents to get inside, one cop yelled, “light em up!” Several turned and, in a terrifying display, fired paint canisters at the residents. Not one officer urged calm or restraint. It was a display of military power enacted enthusiastically by a force concerned not with the creation of safety, but with the imposition of fear and control.

The problem is the police culture

The rarity of one officer taking action against another, the numerous accounts of officers covering up for their colleagues (see Laquan McDonald), and the recognition that if not for bystander videos cops would not face consequences for their actions, all indicate that the problem is not a few bad apples. The problem is the police culture, the barrel that slimes everyone in it. Numerous studies demonstrate the power of systems and situations to influence human action. To put supposed “good cops” into a bad system may yield some positive outcomes, but it’s much more likely that the individuals will be shaped by the system and act according to its norms and expectations. That Bob Kroll is in his third term as the elected president of the Minneapolis Police Union is further testament to this cultural influence, as is the report that Minneapolis police use force against black people seven times more often than against white people.

It’s not a few bad apples. We need to stop talking about good cops and bad cops and how to provide better training and how to reform the current system. We need to start talking about how to dismantle the culture of policing and replace it with something other than the warrior mindset that currently prevails.

Jeffery L. Bineham lives in St. Paul and is a professor of rhetoric in the Department of Communication Studies at St. Cloud State University.


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