Just How Many Cops Are ‘Bad Apples’?

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Photo by zaigee via Flickr

We have long heard how the vast majority of police officers are doing a good job under extremely difficult circumstances. According to Fox News commentator Sean Hannity, the figure is over 99 percent.

If we could just weed out the bad apples, the argument goes, we would solve the problem of “police reform.” National Security Advisor Robert C. Obrien echoed the same theme: “…we got a few bad apples that have given law enforcement a bad name.” Ashiah Parker, a member of a commission created by the Maryland General Assembly to offer recommendations for police reform in Baltimore, observed: “The narrative is always: it’s only a few bad apples.”

But how do we know this is true?

A few have argued that problems run deeper, that there are cultural issues which must be addressed. As Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus put it, “The problem of policing isn’t bad apples. It’s a diseased tree.”

Baltimore’s Parker observed that “the police department has issues that need to be addressed.”

These voices argue for major reductions in the size of the police force and a re-orientation to police work. Still, the dominant narrative continues: The vast majority of the nation’s 800,000 cops are “good cops.”

But where is the evidence to support the bad apple narrative?

Are there any studies where scholars/investigators have systematically followed a random sample of police officers over a period of time and documented their behavior – both good and bad? Is there a dataset containing the number and percentage of officers who have had complaints against them upheld, which shows only a tiny percentage have had conflicts with the communities they serve?

gregory squires

Gregory Squires

Do we have surveys of various police departments and communities they serve that show no differences across cities in terms of police-community problems and where just a handful of officers are involved in those issues that have arisen?

The answer to these questions is simply “no.”

There has been scholarly research and investigations about the “blue code of silence,” “blue shield,” “blue flu,” and more recently about a “Ferguson effect”—where officers refuse to fulfill their sworn duties—which does suggest there is a dark culture at play.

Going back at least to the 1968 Kerner Commission report which examined police practices nationwide, Peter Maas’s biography and subsequent movie of New York police officer Frank Serpico’s attempt to root out police corruption in that city in the 1970s and, more recently, investigations into the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles, the Michael Brown shooting in St. Louis and many other incidents, the U.S. Department of Justice, among others, have called for wide-ranging reforms on hiring and training of police, de-escalation techniques, use of force, and more.

Charges of systemic racism have been levelled with increasing frequency in recent weeks, culminating in calls to defund and eliminate police forces as presently constituted. But countering those claims is the still-dominant “few bad apples” narrative.

Clearly, we need to find out how many bad apples there are.

We know the number is not zero. As noted in a recent New York Times article, communities are torn between the need for effective and humane police services and “rampant police misconduct.”

At a minimum, our local officials (mayors, city and county councils) should immediately and independently determine how many of their cops have been disciplined and/or terminated for misconduct in the past three years, what the level of misconduct was, and why these officers are allowed to stay on the force.

James Austin

James Austin

Independent audits of the very large police department budgets should be funded this year by mayors and county executives to determine just how many police officers are really needed.  Such audits would include analysis of how officers are deployed in various communities, observing police officers on their shifts to see how they spend their time, interact with the community, and respond to calls for service which is producing only one or two arrests a month per officer.

The records of misconduct and findings of these audits must be made public.

Implementation of meaningful community ride-along programs should be mandatory for each department, to better inform the public about policing practices.

It is time to get to the bottom of this, and not simply depend on talking heads about the assumed universal good behavior of police departments.

We are spending about $150 billion a year on 800,000 police officers to make about 10 million arrests (mostly misdemeanor crimes and traffic infractions) which comes to about $15,000 per arrest. Police departments are not going to disappear any time soon.

Now is the time to find out just how well that money is being spent.

Gregory D. Squires is a Professor of Sociology and Public Policy & Public Administration at George Washington University. James Austin is a Senior Associate with The JFA Institute. James Austin is a Senior Associate with The JFA Institute.