Yet another video, this one showing an Austin police officer violently throwing an unarmed black woman to the ground, and a second officer then explaining to her that black people have “violent tendencies.”
Too often, police chiefs stick to the same script when indefensible footage emerges—that this is a rare bad apple. But cellphone cameras are now capturing a seemingly endless stream of bad apples—a cop shooting the unarmed Walter Scott in the back, a cop shooting Alton Sterling while he’s pinned to the ground—and graphically exposing the cost of institutional denial in dead people of color.
For the record, I do not believe the majority of police officers are racists, or even bad people. Instead I believe something far more troubling: that the culture of American policing does nothing to encourage the good apples from policing the bad ones. In fact, it does the opposite and thus leaves all of us—particularly those from disempowered and disenfranchised populations—vulnerable to any bad apples with violent tendencies, badges, and firearms.
And women, too, pay a steep price when good cops don’t step up and speak out about bad ones. What police brutality and officers mistreating women—in incidents that are rarely captured on video— have in common is not only bad officers, but other officers who looked the other way as their colleagues shamed the badge.
I’m not only referring to the abuse of prostitutes, a number of whom have accused police officers of taking sexual advantage of them and their legally precarious status, or incarcerated women who have experienced countless cases of abuse at the hands of corrections officers, but the women police officers go home to at night.
While 10 percent of the general population will experience domestic violence, 40 percent of law enforcement families will, according to two studies of violence in American families. Yet study after study has found that female victims of domestic violence at the hands of a member of law enforcement are often afraid to contact the authorities, because their abuser is one of those authorities. Even when they do speak up, such complaints are often handled “informally” and in-house, with an officer encouraged to get counseling but unlikely to see the inside of a jail or courtroom.
Many women married to police officers have reason to fear them as much if not more than many black Americans do.
The conversation we should really be having is not just about how to change the attitudes that some police officers have about people of color, but how to change the attitudes of officers who believe they are doing the right thing by not outing their colleagues when they do the wrong thing.
Historically good officers who have tried to hold their brethren accountable have not been met with a lot of positive reinforcement. One of the most notorious examples is NYPD officer Frank Serpico, who revealed corruption involving his fellow officers. For breaking the blue wall of silence, he was left to die by colleagues after being shot in the face.
Who knows how many officers out there are afraid of becoming the next Frank Serpico if they speak out? After all, most of us don’t have jobs where we have to worry about our co-worker leaving us to die if we upset them. But the reputational damage being done to good cops by bad ones is also putting good officers in danger. Now more than ever good cops need to have the courage to call out the bad ones—and the institutional and cultural support to do so.
An acquaintance whose father is a former police officer said he and other officers knew that there were a couple of guys they worked with who were bullies in high school and simply chose the one profession that gave them the power and authority to be full-time bullies in adulthood. These bullies are the bad apples. And they really do spoil the barrel.
An exhaustive study of officer complaints in Chicago, which has been reeling from high-profile incidents of police brutality, found that less than one in 10 officers on the force of 12,000 had received multiple civilian complaints, and a fraction of that group was the subject of one in three total complaints. Similarly, New York’s Civilian Complaint Review Board found that of 35,000 officers in New York City 40 percent have never had a civilian complaint. Twenty percent have had one. But 1,000 officers have 10 or more.
So while on the upside these numbers seem to confirm that a majority of officers are not an active danger to civilians, they also confirm something else: that a majority of officers have not been doing a very good job protecting the rest of us from those who are.
The late Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel once said, “the opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” It’s time for more good officers, to stop being indifferent to the bad ones who are not only harming people of color, but harming every good man and woman who wears the uniform. It’s time for the good apples to oust the bad. It’s time for the blue wall of silence to come down.