What Does It Mean to Be a “Good Cop”?

Reforms that target “bad apples” are missing the point.

Camo-clad National Guardsmen kneel with protesters.
Protesters and members of the Army National Guard kneel together during a demonstration over the death of George Floyd in Los Angeles on Tuesday. Agustin Paullier/AFP via Getty Images

On May 30, Genesee County Sheriff Chris Swanson put down his weapon and walked with protesters in Flint, Michigan, vowing that the police “love” them. The next day, Houston police Chief Art Acevedo removed his mask and appeared to be on the verge of crying as he offered a police escort to the funeral home for the body of George Floyd. The Houston Police Department also updated its profile picture on social media to display Floyd’s image. Louisiana Sheriff Sid Gautreaux issued a press release after Floyd’s death saying that he was “sickened and heartbroken to see such callous disregard for another human being.” NYPD officers were filmed kneeling with community leaders to show their support for protests. Some National Guardsmen even danced the “Macarena” with protesters in Atlanta.

These images of police officials spread on social media as an antidote to the many videos of officers in body armor shooting rubber bullets, launching gas grenades, spewing pepper spray, and swinging batons at protesters and journalists. Soon after, a flood of statements flowed from liberal politicians and establishment leaders praising these officers. They called for better police community relations, more training for all cops to learn how to be like these good cops, and peaceful protests that don’t threaten white-owned property.

As a white, male civil rights lawyer working with local communities to combat mass incarceration, I have studied police practices from a position of safety and privilege for 11 years. I have seen virtually the same cycle in every major city: police militarization, surveillance, incarceration, and unconstitutional abuses leading to a particularly high profile crime by police caught on video. Politicians respond to the fallout by pledging more recruitment and training of “good cops,” better “community policing” practices, and rewritten “use of force” policies. These pledges are then followed by increases in police budgets after the unrest subsides. The police bureaucracy keeps expanding, and police keep killing Black people.

This cycle is the result of the gulf between the image and the reality of the role that police serve in our society. In order to preserve the massive (and profitable) policing bureaucracy in this country, police must conceal what they actually do on a systemic level.

Take Swanson and Acevedo, for example. Swanson’s jail is filled with the poorest people in Flint, disproportionately Black. He confines most of them in jail cells only because they cannot afford to pay cash bail. Contract documents show that Swanson, who was the undersheriff for 16 years before taking charge of the office in December, helped negotiate a scheme with a large corporation that has removed in-person visiting for Flint children who have parents in his jail. Working with the company, Global Tel Link, the sheriff’s office signed a contract that charges families to make video calls to their loved ones in the jail and then pays the sheriff’s office from the money collected. Around the same time as the first of these contracts was signed several years ago with a different company, the sheriff’s office ended all in-person visits for children, spouses, friends, and relatives.

Acevedo has refused to release body camera footage in six fatal police shootings that occurred over a six week period—the latest shooting occurred on the same day Floyd was killed. Just last year, Acevedo’s police officers killed two people in a fraudulent search warrant execution and then tried to cover it up. Acevedo has also embarked on a media campaign to block cash bail reform and keep thousands of poor people locked up in the Harris County jail solely because they can’t pay. Acevedo controls a nearly $1 billion annual police budget for the city of Houston. (This is just a fraction of the total policing budget in the Houston metro area, which encompasses 60 different local police agencies.)

For several decades now, as Swanson and Acevedo rose through the ranks of elite police forces, the U.S. has jailed Black people at far higher rates than South Africa at the height of Apartheid. And now, under their guidance, both Flint and Houston have higher rates of incarceration than the U.S. average—with severe racial disparities, too.

Swanson and Acevedo are among dozens of police officials across the country engaged in one the most important narrative battles of this generation. Their strategy is to depict most officers as “good cops,” and, in times of unrest and crisis over visible police violence, to decry “bad apples” like Derek Chauvin as outliers. The narrative that police departments need help to root out the “bad apples” is then used to get more money for police forces for training and technology.

Across the country, the police bureaucracy has won almost every battle for more resources for 40 years. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey received praise for speaking out in the wake of Floyd’s killing, but just a few months ago he worked the local political process to secure more funding to hire more police officers even though years of reforms—bias and deescalation training, body cameras, even a mindfulness program—had failed. The D.C. mayor’s budget, unveiled this week, would boost funding for the police and cut community-based violence interruption programs. Philadelphia’s new budget proposal includes a $23 million increase for police while slashing housing aid and anti-violence programs. If police officials are serious about standing with protesters, they should redirect that money to public health, affordable housing, or educational, artistic, and athletic programs for children, all of which are crucial to public safety. Instead, police and city leaders are devoting their budgets to reinforce militarized equipment, technology, and personnel.

The federal government took the same approach to the Ferguson protests in 2014. According to a federal lawsuit in which my organization is counsel, when Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in August 2014, the city of Ferguson, Missouri, averaged 3.6 arrest warrants for every household. The vast majority of these warrants were for unpaid debts to the city, and almost all of them sought to jail a Black person. When a person was arrested, their family faced what can only be described as a formalized ransom process: pay arbitrary amounts of cash to the police or let their loved one sit in a cage. Jail guards negotiated and renegotiated for amounts like $100 or $300 with family members each day. People whose families had no money to spare, like my client Keilee Fant, were jailed for days or weeks with no access to a shower, sunlight, their children, or even toothpaste.

As public pressure mounted, many politicians turned to the Department of Justice, which also happens to be the largest incarcerating force in the U.S. The DOJ ultimately sued the city and fought, as part of its settlement, to get more money for police technology, training, and more officers for the Ferguson police. I wondered: What does it say when political leaders see a police force systemically targeting Black families in a city with twice as many arrest warrants than adult residents and conclude: “We need more police with more money”?

Ferguson is not unique. Like thousands of other American cities, it has converted its police force into an assembly-line bureaucracy of surveillance, brutality, profit, and family separation. Very little of this bureaucracy has anything to do with public safety. As of 2018, only about 5 percent of all police arrests in the U.S. are for serious offenses that the FBI calls “violent” crime. In many jurisdictions, the most common police charges are drug possession and driving on a suspended license, and 40 percent of all suspended licenses in the U.S. are suspended solely because the person owes court debts. In D.C., where I live, Black people use and sell drugs at lower rates than white people and make up less than half the population—yet from 2009 to 2011, they consistently made up more than 90 percent of those police arrests. One of my clients recently spent a year away from his wife in an overcrowded jail after being charged with driving on a suspended license, which was taken away because the family was too poor to pay old tickets. And the cages in which police confine these millions of human beings are places of squalor, barbaric medical care, rampant sexual assault, and violence.

This violence, disproportionately visited on Black bodies, is not as easy for white people to see as the image of George Floyd being strangled under the knee of a police officer. East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Sid Gautreaux can decry Chauvin’s “callous disregard” for Floyd’s life, but few know that more than 40 human beings have died in Gautreaux’s jail since 2012. And although every major police department that I have researched has had recent systemic scandals of abuse, lying under oath, and coordinated cover-up, all of that pervasive misconduct pales in comparison to the scope of the daily, largely invisible violence of the standard system that subjects poor communities to mass surveillance and harassment, takes billions of dollars in personal property through police forfeiture, traps people in abusive jails, coerces plea deals, imposes harsh sentences with no connection to empirical evidence, separates individuals from friends and family, and marks millions with a criminal record that closes off opportunities for employment, health care, and housing. This systemic destruction is what “good cops” do in modern America.

Police leaders do not want to talk about the everyday brutality of this punishment bureaucracy. Condemning Chauvin as a “bad apple” is a safer tactic. But it is not “bad apple” police officers who make 10.6 million arrests every year and who, since 1980, have quintupled the rate of incarceration in the U.S from its steady historical average. It was not “bad apple” police officers who purchased tanks and grenade launchers for themselves or who designed the cash bail system. It is not “bad apple” police officers who criminalize people in poverty for not having safe places to live or medical treatment for their addictions. And it is not “bad apple” police officers who have made the local jail the largest mental health services institution in almost every major American city.

The “good cop” rhetoric is designed to obscure massive investment in police. This is a major difference between the standard playbook deployed after police violence in recent years and the new demands being made by many of today’s protesters: Many mainstream politicians see an injustice in the world as “good” or “bad” individuals making “good” or “bad” choices. But today’s protesters see an injustice in the world and understand it as the result of political, economic, and racial structures that shape and constrain how all of us act.

This is why protesters are calling for systematic divestment from police and prisons and investment in the material things that communities need to flourish. These are not radical demands. It is hard to appreciate it now, but this bureaucracy was five times smaller per capita for the entirety of American history until 1980, and it is five to 10 times smaller in other countries with similar gross domestic products per capita.

In the coming weeks, we will be bombarded with proposals for police reform. The reforms proposed by politicians, police, and nonprofit groups with close ties to those in power are likely to maintain police budgets and focus on a new wave of “bad apple” reforms. Make no mistake: No politician serious about fixing these problems will support any package that does not involve divesting resources from police and investing them in Black communities. Whether we use this moment to demand those structural changes will determine whether the police keep killing and brutalizing Black people.

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