clock menu more-arrow no yes

The problem with painting Derek Chauvin as a “bad apple”

The officers who testified against Chauvin are simply protecting their legacies.

Minneapolis City Council Announces Support For Dismantling Police Department After Death Of George Floyd
Members of the Minneapolis Police Department monitor a protest on June 11, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The MPD has been under scrutiny from residents and local city officials after the death of George Floyd in police custody on May 25.
Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

On Monday, prosecutor Steve Schleicher led a line of questioning that perhaps stands as his team’s strongest case against former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin so far — not because the witness’s testimony was especially riveting but because it was coming from Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo.

That the department’s highest-ranking officer was testifying against a team member immediately set the trial apart. In fact, nine other officers from the Minneapolis Police Department have testified against Chauvin in the past week. While Arradondo, the department’s first Black chief, has testified against an officer before (as assistant chief in a highly publicized 2019 case that involved the shooting of an unarmed woman), it’s rare for so many officers to take the stand against a onetime colleague.

During his testimony, Arradondo was asked about the nature of the trainings that MPD officers receive, with specific attention paid to MPD policies and protocol like use of force, deescalation, procedural justice, and crisis intervention. And Arradondo did not hold back.

When asked whether the force that Chauvin used against George Floyd was consistent the MPD policy that authorizes use of reasonable force, he responded, “It is not,” and went on to say of Chauvin’s behavior: “That is not what we teach and that should be condoned.” To a similar question, Arradondo said that he “absolutely” agreed that Chauvin’s restraint violated policy since Chauvin did not apply “light to moderate pressure” on Floyd’s neck. “That in no way, shape, or form is anything that is by policy. It is not part of our training. It is certainly not part of our ethics or our values.”

The moment represented a triumph for the prosecution, bolstered by other police testimony so far. The previous day, three officers — including Chauvin’s former supervisor, retired Sgt. David Ploeger; the longest-serving officer at MPD, Lt. Richard Zimmerman; and Inspector Katie Blackwell, who ran the department’s training program when Floyd was killed — all testified against Chauvin’s neck restraint of Floyd, saying it was “uncalled for” and “totally unnecessary.” And in the days after the police chief took the stand, additional officers testified for the prosecution.

The rare testimony from several officers has led viewers to question whether the “blue wall of silence” — an unwritten gag rule among officers to band together and stay silent when one of their own is under fire for misconduct — was beginning to crumble, a moment of hope that signals a shift that more officers may now be willing to intervene when they observe their colleagues engaging in wrongdoing.

But a different reality is likely at play. While the officers’ testimony can be interpreted as a changing tide in an opaque culture, it’s likelier that the high-profile nature of the trial is forcing them to cast Chauvin as the bad apple — the one officer who doesn’t represent the broader department and system of policing, the one they need to throw out — as a way to avoid greater examination of police.

“They’re throwing Chauvin under the bus because that keeps the bus intact,” Howard University law professor Justin Hansford told Vox. “For each officer who has come forward, this case will determine their legacy.”

The “blue wall” isn’t about friendly camaraderie — it’s about covering up misdeeds

One of the most respected pillars of policing is loyalty, wrote political science scholar Roberta Ann Johnson in “Whistleblowing and the Police.” “Loyalty is exacted with a code of honor that requires officers not to ‘snitch on,’ ‘rat out’ or turn in other officers. The police officers’ respect for and loyalty toward their peer group encourages them to abide by the code of honor and to heed the obligation of silence,” she wrote.

Being silent when a colleague engages in wrongful practices like use of excessive force is a norm in policing, one that has prevented reform. In the wake of the brutal Los Angeles Rodney King beating in 1991 that was caught on camera, for example, the city formed the Christopher Commission to investigate the Los Angeles Police Department, including the department’s training practices and cases involving excessive force. The commission’s critical findings, released in a report, highlighted how the code of silence among officers was “perhaps the greatest single barrier to the effective investigation and adjudication of complaints.”

The commission noted the duty of police to be transparent with the public: “Officers are given special powers, unique in our society, to use force, even deadly force, in the furtherance of their duties. Along with that power, however, must come the responsibility of loyalty first to the public the officers serve. That requires that the code of silence not be used as a shield to hide misconduct.”

Officers are reluctant to break that code because there are consequences for speaking out. For example, in 2012, Baltimore detective Joe Crystal reported two fellow officers whom he witnessed assault a drug suspect, though his sergeant warned him not to. After Crystal stepped forward, his colleagues taunted and harassed him, ignored his requests for backup, threatened him with perjury prosecution in the criminal case against the officers he reported, and left a dead rat on the windshield of his vehicle. There are many documented cases such as this.

So it’s no surprise that it’s rare for officers to testify against a peer. A 2015 Washington Post analysis found that since 2005, 54 police officers nationwide had been criminally charged with murder or manslaughter for shooting and killing someone in the line of duty. The study found that a fellow police officer gave statements or testified against the shooter in just 12 of those cases.

And even when officers do testify for the prosecution, it’s not always certain they’ll act with integrity. Officers may engage in “testilying” — a specific term for officers providing false testimony in court. In the 2016 trial of Ray Tensing, the former officer charged with murder and manslaughter for fatally shooting Samuel DuBose during a July 2015 traffic stop, some experts concluded that two officers who testified against Tensing were untruthful on the stand in an effort to abide by the code of silence. In their testimony, the officers maintained that they did not see the fatal encounter, though they were present at the scene. After two mistrials, the prosecutors dismissed the murder indictment against Tensing.

That’s why it may feel refreshing that Chauvin’s colleagues are testifying against him, saying he did not follow procedure. “It’s true that we don’t have many examples of police testifying, especially the police chief testifying against one of their own, because there’s the blue wall and police unions that create an atmosphere where you’re not supposed to ever speak out,” Hansford told Vox. “We often think of the blue wall of silence as a sort of solidarity move or a loyalty pact but often it’s really just a CYA move — cover your own ‘tail.’”

The collection of officers coming forward to testify has less to do with the egregiousness of Floyd’s killing and more to do with the high-profile nature of the case, Hansford said. “These officers have seen people killed before,” he said. “This is about how big this case is. The Mike Brown case, for example, was big, but it didn’t create this level of response. These officers don’t want to be associated with those pictures of Chauvin on Floyd’s neck.”

Christopher Brown, principal attorney at the Brown Firm, which has sued police officers in excessive force cases, agrees. “We’re seeing such a heavy reliance upon other officers in the prosecution because of the infamous nature of the death of George Floyd. When you have international protests over the death of a man in the hands of an officer, we have a unique scenario, unfortunately, where officers really want to distance themselves from that behavior,” he said. “No one wants to go down in history as being associated with or trying to defend or stand up for Chauvin. They’re taking the opportunity to protect their own legacies.”

Hansford recognizes the media’s instinct to say this is an unprecedented display of officers turning on their own, yet we will not see the three former officers directly involved with the May 25 killing testify in this trial.

Tou Thao, J. Alexander Kueng, and Thomas K. Lane, who were all fired after Floyd’s death, face their own charges, and have each presented a different version of events in court documents. They are in disagreement over who was in charge of Floyd’s arrest, furthering the idea that each former officer is trying to save himself.

“I can’t really say that this is the piercing of the wall until we hear from the people who were right there, until we hear from the people close to Chauvin in the department,” Hansford told Vox. “I don’t know what the officers who were on the scene have to say and the officers who were there in that moment as part of the response.”

Chauvin’s exoneration would be disastrous for police departments

Hansford and Brown see the officers’ testimony against Chauvin as an effort to cling to the toxic “one bad apple” belief — that it’s not the entire system of policing that’s corrupt but just a few officers who are lone actors.

“This is certainly the idea that the Minneapolis Police Department is trying to paint — that ‘this is not what our department does’ and ‘this is not how our department trains its officers,’ ‘this is not behavior we condone,’” Brown said.

And though the officer testimony might seem to be creating an opening for greater accountability when it comes to speaking out against a peer, this might not play out on a broader scale outside of this trial.

“Regrettably, I don’t expect to see officers lining up to testify against other officers, but I do expect to see a greater focus on addressing, reevaluating, and updating policies and procedures within departments,” Brown told Vox.

And even when the code of silence is challenged, the culture remains. The brutal police killing of Black 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in 2014 and the subsequent years of an alleged cover-up on the part of the Chicago Police Department (a judge found officers not guilty of covering up the shooting) rocked the department’s code of silence by bringing to light the city’s and officers’ coordinated effort to withhold the video that shows officers shot McDonald 16 times. Despite this and other challenges over the years, Chicago’s police department remains plagued by systemic use of excessive force. A 2017 Justice Department investigation found that Chicago had received more than 30,000 complaints of police misconduct from 2011 to 2016, but there was no discipline for police officers in 98 percent of the cases.

To Hansford, Chauvin’s acquittal would be damaging for police officers since that would mean more protests and more pressure to change. “It would be cataclysmic. We don’t know if it’ll be another Rodney King situation. And if he’s exonerated, a lot of people will say this is something that’s allowed in the rules. They’re going to have more pressure to change the rules, and police don’t want those rules changed.”