One of the most common defenses for instances of police misconduct or brutality is that the few bad officers don’t represent everyone. As the phrase goes, there are just “a few bad apples,” and most cops simply try to serve and protect their communities.
But as Last Week Tonight host John Oliver explained on Sunday, this misses the point.
“Snow White wasn’t afraid of apples before she took a bite out of that one really bad one,” Oliver said. “But I’m telling you, the next time an old lady comes at her with a piece of fruit, Snow is going to get the fuck out of there.”
Oliver pointed to the systemic problems that skew the system against accountability:
The phrase isn’t, “It’s just a few bad apples. Don’t worry about it.” The phrase is, “A few bad apples spoil the barrel.” And we currently have a system which is set up to ignore bad apples, destroy bad apples’ records, persecute good apples for speaking up, and shuffle dangerous, emotionally unstable apples around to the point that children have to attend fucking apple classes. You cannot look at our current situation and claim that anybody likes them apples.
Over the past few years, this much has become apparent about the criminal justice system and policing: Maybe most officers do mean well. But even if that’s true, the system is set up to let a few bad apples flourish.
Take the sad state of police data. We don’t even know how many people police kill every year in the US. The FBI offers a tally that misses as many as half of all police killings in the US, according to a 2015 study by RTI International. The Bureau of Justice Statistics provides another tally that similarly misses nearly half of killings. Combined, both agencies’ counts miss more than a quarter of all people killed by US police.
If we don’t even know how many police shootings happen every year, how can we analyze these events to see which ones are justified and to see what some of the broad patterns behind the unjustified shootings are to show what needs to be fixed? (That’s why some organizations, like the Washington Post, the Guardian, and Fatal Encounters, are now tracking police shootings themselves — confirming the 2015 study’s findings that the official federal counts are seriously flawed.)
Or take efforts within police departments to hold bad officers accountable. As several investigations have found, these accountability efforts are often sidelined by a broad culture of police protecting each other no matter what. After an investigation into the Baltimore Police Department, for example, the US Department of Justice concluded:
BPD lacks meaningful accountability systems to deter misconduct. The Department does not consistently classify, investigate, adjudicate, and document complaints of misconduct according to its own policies and accepted law enforcement standards. Instead, we found that BPD personnel discourage complaints from being filed, misclassify complaints to minimize their apparent severity, and conduct little or no investigation. As a result, a resistance to accountability persists throughout much of BPD, and many officers are reluctant to report misconduct for fear that doing so is fruitless and may provoke retaliation. The Department also lacks adequate civilian oversight — its Civilian Review Board is hampered by inadequate resources, and the agency’s internal affairs and disciplinary process lacks transparency.
The Baltimore Police Department isn’t alone here. This is something that the Justice Department has found again and again, whether it’s looking at police in Los Angeles, New Orleans, Cleveland, or Baltimore.
This is, essentially, the current problem with holding police accountable: Maybe it is just a few really bad apples that end up grabbing headlines when they take part in yet another shooting of an unarmed black man. But as it stands, the system lets these bad apples flourish.
“As the police will tell you, they have a difficult, dangerous, challenging job,” Oliver said. “No reasonable person would disagree with that. But that’s all the more reason for insuring that it’s done to the highest standard.”