America’s #NotAllCops mentality protects and serves absolutely no one

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And now, for some news about “good cops.” 

The Chicago Reader’s Steve Bogira published an interesting story last week examining police shootings specifically related to the fallout from the 2013 death of 17-year-old carjacker Cedrick Chartman. 

“Chatman is one of 118 people to have been shot fatally by Chicago police since 2008,” he writes. “Since 1986, more than 1,600 people have been struck by bullets fired by Chicago police officers—an average of more than one person a week. It’s hard to know how those figures compare nationally, because law enforcement agencies aren’t required to report data to the FBI on their use of deadly force.”

According to IRPA’s former chief administrator, Ilana Rosenzweig, these shootings qualify as the “lawful but awful” variety; this means that officers in question didn’t necessarily act appropriately, they didn’t break the law wither.

What is required, however, is an investigation by Chicago’s Independent Police Review Authority, or IRPA. The organization replaced a previous department called the Office of Professional Standards, though neither have historically looked too closely into police shootings. IRPA closed 208 officer-involved shooting cases in 2013 and ’14 alone, and in every case, officer conduct was determined to be justified. The Chicago Police Department also formed a “Force Analysis Panel” in ’09 to work with IPRA in order to see if they could learn any further lessons from police shooting cases, but after the first few years, the CPD convened the panel just once in 2011 and once in ’12. Today, it no longer exists.

Chartman’s shooting is additionally complicated because one of the officers involved was tied to another police shooting which resulted in a lawsuit against the city in 2008. (Chartman’s mother has also filed a federal lawsuit against the police department.) What’s important to consider here is that both times around, the city has not found the officer in question at fault, despite being directly involved in the death of a suspect. According to IRPA’s former chief administrator, Ilana Rosenzweig, these shootings qualify as the “lawful but awful” variety; this means that officers in question didn’t necessarily act appropriately, they didn’t break the law wither.

The idea that there could be 208 police shootings in Chicago over the last few years, and not one of them has been ruled unjustified, is disturbing for a multitude of reasons. We often forget that just because an officer hasn’t been explicitly accused of a crime, that doesn’t mean they didn’t do anything wrong. This is the problem with the #NotAllCops mentality some want to employ when talking about police brutality. The fact is that police corruption is bigger than just a few rotten apples. There are plenty of “good” cops who aren’t entirely guilty but who aren’t entirely innocent either.

The idea that most cops are good at what they do is fundamentally a white notion, influenced by the experiences that white people tend to have with cops versus those that black people tend to have. Polls in reaction to Ferguson have made us more aware of this, but differences in the way police interact with white citizens as opposed to the way they react with black citizens are nothing new.

Because it’s not just that black people are treated more harshly—it’s also that white people too often get let off the hook, let off easy because of their race. In January of last year, MSNBC‘s Chris Hayes said of nearly being arrested for marijuana possession: “I can tell you as sure as I am sitting here before you that if I was a black kid with cornrows instead of a white kid with glasses, my ass would’ve been in a squad car faster than you can say George W. Bush.”

In an essay for Salon, Tim Donovan further noted that those who rushed to defend Michael Brown’s killer, Darren Wilson, were overwhelmingly white. Our historical interactions with police tell you a lot about how we view cops who kill unarmed black men.

There are clearly limits to the formulation that “not all cops are bad,” and almost everyone would agree that individual “goodness” can become irrelevant when an individual’s actions are in service of a corrupt institution… After all, some might find the abuses highlighted by the press in recent years to be not especially extreme or unacceptable given the difficulty of the profession and the enormous challenge of making snap judgments regarding lethal force … but surely, plenty of residents of Ferguson would disagree. Saying “not all cops are bad,” then, becomes dangerously close to saying “people like me get to determine when the conduct of police officers has become bad enough to merit our attention and concern, but people like you don’t.”

What makes police departments the “corrupt institutions” Donovan refers to surely has a lot to do with the way the police insulate themselves from criticism punishment, at least from anyone outside the department. In Chicago, the shooting of Cedrick Chartman is not the first time IRPA has drawn criticism for their potentially ineffective methods of policing the police. This is why so many have called for civilian review boards, not to mention more body cams and dash cams for police in the wake of Ferguson and similar incidents.  

The problem with institutions like IRPA is that the bar for being a “good cop” is set too low. In a fascinating discussion with Bill Maher, activist and rapper Michael Render (aka Killer Mike) discussed how police officers’ refusal to stand up when they see injustice in their department can make them complicit in corruption, even if they are not involved in any wrongdoing directly. On the subject of whether “most cops are good cops,” Render mused: 

I don’t know if I always believe that… When we say “good cop,” we just mean he hasn’t killed anyone this week. I think that “good cop” means, “I have to uphold the letter of the law, beyond the fraternity of brotherhood of policing. I have to uphold the law for the community.” And that may involve selling out bad cops.

Cops don’t start out intending to do harm, but just because you enter the force with good intentions doesn’t mean the environment around you will facilitate that.”“I hated the way cops treated me,” writes the NAACP’s Redditt Hudson for the Washington Post. “But I knew police weren’t all bad. One of my father’s closest friends was a cop. He became a mentor to me and encouraged me to join the force. He told me that I could use the police’s power and resources to help my community.”

What Hudson found when he entered the force, however, was a kind of systematic racism that made it hard for him to do his job, and a “shoot first, ask questions later” mentality that dragged him down even as he was trying to rise above it. “I, too, have faced mortal danger,” he continues. “I’ve been shot at and attacked. But I know it’s almost always possible to defuse a situation.” 

We often forget that just because an officer hasn’t been explicitly accused of a crime, that doesn’t mean they didn’t do anything wrong.

In the end, Hudson left the force because he recognized that the mechanisms in place to protect cops were stronger than the ones in place to discipline them, as well as the ones in place to protect U.S. citizens. When anyone else breaks the law, the law judges them based on their crimes. But when cops break the law, the law judges them based on their job. Hudson concludes, “The problem is that cops aren’t held accountable for their actions, and they know it. These officers violate rights with impunity. They know there’s a different criminal justice system for civilians and police.”

Many may point to non-white cops like Hudson and ask how it’s possible for police to be racist when they are minorities themselves. (Remember that three of the six police officers in Baltimore who were charged in conjunction with Freddie Gray’s death also were black men.) But racism isn’t just something for non-white police officers to fight against externally, but something many have to fight against internally, too. As Lopez goes on to suggest, “racial bias isn’t necessarily about how a person views himself in terms of race, but how he views others in terms of race, particularly in different roles throughout his everyday life.”  

Killer Mike, whose own father was a police officer, has echoed this. For him, the problem is that even police officers who are black aren’t necessarily connected to the environment and the experiences of the people they are policing. He states that many of these officers “don’t live near the community. They don’t live in the community. They aren’t active in the community.” For Render, this is final key difference in being a “good cop” and a “bad cop.” “That’s the cancer in policing,” he claims. “We need black policemen. We need you policing, and living in the community you police in. And knowing the people you’re policing.”

This isn’t smart advice for black cops alone. Police in this country have become so far removed from the citizens they are sworn to protect, in terms of both geography and privilege, it’s no wonder that they are as scared of their communities as their communities are scared of them. And when people get scared, they lash out and overreact in violent ways. 

The difference is that when police do it, their position of power prevents them from having to change their behavior. Cedrick Chartman’s death is empirical proof of this: The sad truth is that it’s hard to be a good cop when you work for an organization whose policies are inherently harmful. And as long as those policies include a culture of secrecy, racism, and detachment, then American police departments will remain inherently bad, too.

Instead of thinking in terms of “good cop, bad cop,” it’s time to start thinking in terms of “good police department, bad police department.” To kill the cancer in policing, we have to attack the whole body, rather than just the parts we know are sick. 

Chris Osterndorf is a graduate of DePaul University’s Digital Cinema program. He is a contributor at HeaveMedia.com, where he regularly writes about TV and pop culture.

Screengrab via superannotatedlps/DailyMotion

Chris Osterndorf

Chris Osterndorf

Chris Osterndorf is an entertainment reporter and movie critic based in Los Angeles. He holds a degree in cinema from Chicago’s DePaul University. His work has appeared on the Daily Dot, Mic, the Script Lab, Salon, the Week, xoJane, and more.