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Good cop/bad cop gets us nowhere

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

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.

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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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by lisa miller on 06/10/2020 - 09:57 am.

    One can also say other systems are well intentioned, but how have they allowed this to go on? Yes cops elected Kroll as head of the union, but who gave that union so much power and has been lax in checking it? The mayor, city council and state with court sign off took action to prohibit choke holds–they couldn’t have taken action until then?

  2. Submitted by Tim McCarthy on 06/10/2020 - 10:42 am.

    There are NO “good” cops. There are only bad cops and the cowards who cover for them.

  3. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 06/10/2020 - 12:46 pm.

    Professor of rhetoric. Purpose – to convert you to his point of view. And it shows. He suggests collective punishment for all police, independent of what they do. He suggests that the Minneapolis Department is representative of all departments – everywhere – and that all police systems are racist. And none of those arguments are supported by any evidence. Perhaps you should challenge your own thinking first?

    Collective punishment is one result of racism. Black men were lynched for non-crimes and the actions of others. Black neighborhoods were leveled and hundreds killed in Tulsa out of class envy. We focus on the evils of the Holocaust, but how many Native Americans died due to the “only good Indian is a dead Indian” belief system. There are hundreds of American examples of collective punishment. The most current is the Administration’s hatred of immigrants that produced children torn from the arms of their parents and caged.

    Punish people independent of actual crimes and due process. Blame unions for getting police off? How about blame juries with people who ignore the facts in making their determination. Frankly, if we would punish harshly criminal police officers, that is how this gets cleaned up.

    What is most concerning is that there is no attempt to look elsewhere. So, do you see racist behavior when police are a reflection of the community. Example one, Indian reservations. How many white people would look there? Is the police culture and actions better there? Do native cops use excessive force? How they police their own people isn’t going to be racist, and how would go if they used excessive force on white people? Not well.

    Example two – Scandinavia and much of Europe. Some places police don’t even carry weapons.

    To which, Americans would say – how can you do that with armed criminals? Response – they have chosen to regulate gun ownership. Millions of Americans carry lethal force, including many who aren’t entitled to have it.

    Police would love to take away guns from criminals, but conservatives do not allow that. As police know they could get shot and killed on any police call, we need to recruit police who are not trigger happy.

    Military are trained to kill the enemy. There is too much of that attitude in the police, when we need officers with restraint, emotional intelligence and knowledge of the cultures served. Hiring white officers who have never lived in an diverse community means a culturally ignorant work force. Men do not have the listening and negotiating skills of women, nor their emotional intelligence, not the restraint. Make half of all officers women and you change the culture. If an older black woman had been part of the team, I am convinced that the outcome woukd have been different. Men are on better behavior when strong women are there to hold them accountable.

    Call it the Mom model of policing which will product totally different outcomes in men in leadership positions let it happen.

  4. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 06/10/2020 - 01:49 pm.

    I agree with the Professor. As my brother reminded me the other day, people usually forget the whole proverb: “A few bad apples spoils the whole barrel.” There would not be a Bob Kroll as a Minneapolis Police Union leader elected by private ballot if the majority of police did not agree with and support him.

    But the death of George Floyd reveals a barrel of rotten apples outside of the Minneapolis Police Department and its police union. Minnesota has a very impressive (in appearance) regulatory system for licensure of police officers. The Board of Peace Officer Training and Standards has fairly comprehensive set of regulations and standards including complaint process for misconduct. But it has this all too revealing rule at Minnesota Rules part 6700.1500, subp. 3 that shows how hollow and meaningless this system of regulation has been and really is:

    “Subp. 3. Purpose.

    “The board believes that in order for the public to have confidence in the integrity and ability of law enforcement, it is paramount that peace officers demonstrate that they are capable of self-regulation.”

    If the Board of Peace Officer Standards and other police leaders and our leaders have not recognized that the police are not capable of “self-regulation” by this time, it’s time to get new leaders. Can anyone say “enabling”?

  5. Submitted by Joe Smith on 06/10/2020 - 05:16 pm.

    Defunding the police is the silliest idea (hard to call that an idea) I’ve ever heard. Identifying bad cops and getting rid of them is the answer. It would require cooperation between cities, police force, police administration and police union. Not being able to fire or get bad police off the force,due to union rules, has to go.
    Interesting to me that when unions get involved the Left gets its back up and fights for unions. Hopefully that will change this time around. After we clean up Police Union a few other Unions could use some scrubbing also.

    • Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 06/11/2020 - 10:33 am.

      I mostly agree with your comment especially about union rules that protect police misconduct. Unions should not stand in the way of ensuring equal protection of the law for all citizens regardless of the color of their skin.

      But to be clear, the “Left” is not a single person of a single mind about unions. I know many who consider themselves of “the Left” who do not support unions and who are anti-union. It seems to be an article of faith on the “Right” to lump all of those who support the right of workers to organize, collectively bargain and , if necessary, go on strike to enforce their bargaining power, as “Leftists.” If that were true, you would never have had any Supreme Court cases like the Janus decision last year. That case was brought by union members to cripple the ability of unions to collect fair share dues from their members.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 06/11/2020 - 11:42 am.

      Guess what – we have identified the bad cops. Its all of them. Every single one. Obviously some are worse that others – some cops will kill an unarmed man in the street, while others will simply watch it happen. But the whole department, the whole system is bad.

  6. Submitted by Jim Marshal on 06/11/2020 - 06:33 pm.

    Something I haven’t heard discussed yet is the fact that MPD’s union president Kroll is also a member of management since he’s a lieutenant. I have never heard of any unionized workplace where managers could collectivity bargain since the NLRA expressly forbids this. Such an arrangement would pose all sorts of problems for local governments, police chiefs as well as rank and file cops and the public.

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