Kicking the Pigeon #15: “A Few Bad Apples”

“In a democracy, there is nothing as good as a good police officer, and nothing as bad as a bad one.” – Susan Herman

The universal defense offered by police departments charged with brutality, as by governments charged with torture, is that “there will always be a few bad apples in any barrel.” There is a measure of truth in this. It is generally agreed that the vast preponderance of abuse is committed by perhaps five percent of officers. This is not an insignificant number in a force of more than 13,000. And there is no reason to assume the five percent is evenly distributed; there may be sections of the police force, such as the public housing section, where the percentage is significantly higher. Yet the image of “a few bad apples” remains plausible. It is a way of talking about police abuse that keeps visible the large majority of officers who do not commit abuses and can be assumed to deplore such conduct. The image is, however, fatally flawed in two respects. It does not comprehend the scale of the harm a handful of violent agents, acting with impunity, can do. Nor does it convey the impact those few bad apples, if not removed, will have on the barrel.

We’re the real police.” Several Stateway residents have quoted this declaration by members of the skullcap crew. Also: “You know what we’re capable of.” Or alternatively: “You have no idea what we’re capable of.” The implication is clear: we are above the law. Residents have little reason to question that assertion, for despite numerous complaints against them, crew members have continued to prey at will on public housing communities.

Day after day, month after month, year after year, a rogue crew can do a staggering amount of damage. To individuals. To families. To communities. This is especially true in the setting of public housing where an arrest for “drug-related activity”—even if the case is dismissed or yields a verdict of “not guilty”—can result in the eviction of the entire family under HUD’s “One Strike” policy.

A rogue crew, operating with impunity, can also do profound, long-lasting damage to the legitimacy of government, alienating whole populations from civil authority and engendering the criminal and anti-social behaviors it is supposedly combating. This is a dynamic I have become familiar with during my years at Stateway.

According to the social scientific literature, children in inner city neighborhoods are drawn, in the absence of other models of constructive activity and effective agency, to the charismatic figure of the drug-dealing gangbanger. This analysis is widely accepted and largely unchallenged. It is refracted through journalistic accounts of inner city dysfunction. And it coheres tightly with a set of policy prescriptions that center on dismantling inner city neighborhoods. It is also a misleading half-truth. At any rate, in over a decade spent on the ground at Stateway, I have not observed it as a strong pattern. Yes, I have seen adolescents drift toward the drug trade, as they begin to explore the world beyond their households. The drug marketplace is a form of activity in public space in their immediate geography that carries the requisite transgressive charge for adolescent adventurers. And, yes, I have observed inner city teenagers who are every bit as caught up in media celebrations of thug life as white teenagers in suburbia or South Dakota, but I have seen little evidence that the bored men standing all day “up under the building” in every kind of weather are powerful role models.

What I have seen again and again (but not found much reflected in the social scientific literature or journalism) is the impact on these young people of being abused by the police and witnessing others being abused. A natural response to seeing your friends and neighbors beaten and humiliated—I have experienced it myself—is to think, “If this is the face of authority, then I’m going to stand with my guys.” If I feel this as a middle-aged white from outside the neighborhood, imagine what a fourteen-year-old boy trying to find his legs as a man feels. This dynamic produces outlaws not because people are ignorant of the wider world or somehow stunted in their development. It is a fundamentally healthy response: not necessarily healthy in where it leads—it can lead to some very dangerous places—but healthy in that it is animated by a sense of justice. Far more than the charisma of the drug dealer, it is, in my experience, the ugly face of civil authority that fuels the outlaw solidarity of the street.

Again, it is important to emphasize that most of the abuse is committed by a relatively small number of officers. It does not follow, however, that the competent, respectful conduct of the majority offsets the injuries inflicted by the abusive few. For one thing, we are talking here about the impact of violent crime—about the way the victim of an assault by a person with green hair thereafter responds with intense fear to green-haired people. That response is not a matter of choice. It is visceral—a reflex fired by the victim’s nerve endings—and it can be the work of a lifetime to undo its grip. Why do we imagine the dynamic is any different when the distinguishing feature of the threat is a police uniform (or the de facto uniforms of plainclothes officers)?

The violence inflicted by rogue officers has the added quality of being a betrayal of public trust: protectors reveal themselves to be predators. The impact of that betrayal is greatly compounded by the failure of the police department to discipline rogue officers. Precisely because the institution does not hold them accountable for their crimes, they come to embody the institution for their victims. Again, this is not corrected by the good police work of other officers. For the message conveyed by the institutional failure to hold abusive officers accountable is that they are indeed “the real police.”

Imagine what it would be like to live under such a cruel, arbitrary regime. To be vulnerable at any moment to having violent men invade your home, verbally and physically abuse you and your children, then deny it ever happened. To be subject to being falsely accused by them of crimes you did not commit and convicted on the basis of fabricated evidence. To live from day to day with the fear their presence—the mere sight of them—provokes. (“You know what we’re capable of.”) To know there is no meaningful avenue for redress open to you, no responsive authority to which you can appeal for relief.

The impunity of “a few bad apples” can create conditions of life on the ground in abandoned communities that resemble those in the most repressive police states.

For much of the last year, there was an exhibition at the Chicago Historical Society of photographs and postcards taken as souvenirs at lynchings. It evoked a world in which unspeakable violence committed by a relative handful was an effective tool for oppressing an entire population, because local government and the “good” people of the society acquiesced, thereby underwriting the impunity of the violent ones. The title of the exhibition was unexpected, profound, and on reflection, precise in naming the impact of such impunity on those subject to abuse. It was called Without Sanctuary.

To be continued…