Thursday, June 18, 2020

The good apples and the barrel

Six years ago I was the copy editor for "UNDUE FORCE," Mark Puente's account of how the city of Baltimore paid $5.7 million over three years to settle lawsuits brought by people who said police officers beat them up.

Mr. Puente assembled the information through his own research, because the city government kept no account of how much it was spending to settle these lawsuits. He further discovered that some officers had been involved in repeated settlements but that the police department kept no account of officers charged with brutality.

Inferences are inescapable: Baltimore's city officials and police department operated under a tacit policy that officers could beat people up, particularly African Americans, at will, and paying an occasional settlement was simply the cost of doing business to maintain order in the city.

The Sun's reporting was one element that contributed to a Department of Justice's finding that police officers in the city were repeatedly and freely violating citizens' rights, often brutally, and the police department is attempting to implement reforms under a consent decree overseen by a federal judge.

Subsequent reporting in The Sun on the department's elite Gun Trace Task Force detailed a disturbing pattern of lawbreaking: wanton attacks on individuals, robberies of drug trade suspects, involvement in selling drugs, lying in reports, falsifying overtime, and more. Members of the unit and some who were involved with them have been tried and sentenced to prison, and the unit has been disbanded.

Inferences are inescapable: It seems unlikely that all their fellow officers were unaware that something shady was going on for months. And the department, under a series of chiefs and a revolving roster of upper-level commanders, seems to have been disinclined to exercise even modest supervision.

Now there is a nationwide protest about police misconduct, fueled by the ubiquity of cellphone cameras and images of police officers beating people up and shooting unarmed people. These aren't accusations to be buried in internal investigation files; these are actions that everyone can see. Moreover, we see some officers, evidently unhappy that their actions are being recorded, attacking news photographers.

In reaction to the protests I see people posting on Facebook and Twitter that we should stand by and support the police, that there are many good police officers, that people are personally acquainted with some of those good police officers.

That's not the point. I, too, have known honest and responsible police officers. The point is that the good officers are not the officers establishing police culture. It's nice to know that there are good apples, but they are not defining the barrel. The point of the protests is to find a way to maintain order and protect people in our towns and cities without promiscuously beating people up and shooting the unarmed.

If your "Support the police" meme amounts to no more than "Let them do anything," then your personal acquaintance with a few good guys on the force is pretty much meaningless.


  1. Hear, hear. We have a similar situation here in Syracuse, including an incident of police vs. a news photographer (Dennis Nett of the Post-Standard). Huzzahs to Mr. Puente in particular and The Sun's coverage in general.

  2. To reinforce your point: it is not that if you remove the few obviously bad apples the barrel will be fine, but that if there are bad apples at the start, the apples will go bad, even if not each and every one of them.