For generations, police officers have murdered people of color. Over the last decade or so, some of those police officers have gotten caught murdering people of color on video. Whenever one of those horrific videos gets released, a chorus of people call for significant reforms to policing in the United States. Recently, some people in that chorus have been calling for the abolition or defunding of the police.
And, in response to those calls, whether they are for reform or abolition, there is always a chorus of white people saying, “But it’s just a few bad apples.” Somehow, those white people always forget the second half of the saying. It’s “One bad apple spoils the bunch.”
So, three things about bad apples.
Again, the saying goes like this: “One bad apple spoils the bunch.” And that’s true. As apples ripen, they produce a ripening agent called ethylene. As apples ripen, they produce and emit more and more ethylene. So an apple that is ripening will spread ethylene to other apples, causing them to ripen in turn. And an apple that is overripe will emit even more ethylene, cause other apples to ripen faster, and, eventually, to rot. This is why it’s important to identity and remove bad apples: just one bad apple can start a domino effect that will ruin all of the apples around it.
(Of course, the same sort of thing can happen with apples that are bad for other reasons. One moldy or diseased apple can easily spread that mold or disease to the other apples that are around it. Again, that’s why it’s important to identify and remove bad apples.)
It’s a bit more complicated with people. One bad apple doesn’t necessarily spoil the whole bad apple, and good apples can influence the bad apples and make them better. But when we’re talking about police, it’s important to remember the whole phrase. Each of the bad apples in a police department can spoil other police. So it’s important that we identify them. And it’s important that we remove, retrain, or rehabilitate them before they spoil the whole bunch.
It turns out that’s hard. Police are protected by laws like qualified immunity; by unions who often seem more concerned with protecting their members from the consequences of their actions than equipping their members with what they need to do their jobs effectively; and by a political regime that is often apathetic at best. Derek Chauvin, the officer who murdered George Floyd, had eighteen prior complaints against him. Two of those complaints resulted in disciplinary action: each of those two earned him a letter of reprimand. And while we don’t know the exact content of the complaints, it seems like that pattern would be addressed in some way. Apparently, it wasn’t. Or, if it was, it was addressed in a way that was deeply inadequate.
One bad apple spoils the bunch. And we need to do a much better job of identifying and addressing bad apples among the police.
I don’t really interact with the police; most white people don’t. And on the rare occasions when I do—again, like most white people—I see the best side of whatever officer I encounter. Whether I call the police to report a crime (which I have never done), or I am stopped by the police for suspicion of committing a crime (which is rare and always involves speeding), or I meet a police officer socially (which is the most likely situation), they treat me professionally and respectfully.
Many people have radically different experiences of the police. People of color and other marginalized communities are much more likely to interact with the police as the police, and are much more likely to encounter the police when they’re at their worst. To give just a few examples, Black drivers are significantly more likely to be pulled over than white drivers, to be searched by police, to be arrested by police, to have force used against them by police, and to be shot (and killed) by police. In fact, in almost any area that you measure, marginalized people are far more likely to have negative encounters with the police than non-marginalized people. And that’s true even when they are the ones who called the police for protection in the first place!
To start over-stretching the metaphor, white people are like supervisors in the orchard. We might occasionally take a look at the apples. And we might sometimes see a bad apple like Derek Chauvin. But we are not looking closely at the apples every day. Meanwhile, people of color are actually picking the apples and are being forced to examine them closely. We would do well to listen to them when they tell us that there are a lot of bad apples.
But focusing on bad apples misses a bigger and more important point: the problem with policing isn’t that there are a few bad apples who are spoiling the bunch; it’s that we have grown an orchard that produces bad apples.
Formal police are a fairly modern invention, and, in America, come from three intertwined sources: strike-breaking forces in the industrializing northeast, slave patrols in the south, and colonial expansion in the west. All of these sources were concerned with the social control of some group (workers, slaves, or indigenous populations) and the protection of others (industrialists, slave-holders, and colonizers).
Even as police forces became more common and more professionalized, the idea of social control remained at the core. The police have no legal obligation to respond to cries for help or to investigate (let alone solve) crimes. To put it plainly: the police—and, in fact, the whole criminal justice system—exist to maintain a certain social order. And that social order is one that is based on capitalism, white supremacy, and colonialism.
Here’s the thing: that social order is bad for everyone. It’s especially bad for people of color and other marginalized people, but it’s also bad for middle- and upper-class white cis-gendered men. And a police force that is grounded in maintaining that social order is bad for the good apples that become police officers because they want to protect and serve their communities.
Again, to put it plainly: the orchard is in trouble, and if we want to protect the good apples that we have, then we need to fix the whole orchard.
Despite the fact that police are a recent invention, it’s hard for a lot of people to imagine a world without the police-as-we-know-them. But the truth is that if we want a society where everyone is protected, where the good police apples can thrive, and where the bad police apples are actually dealt with in some way, we are going to need to radically reimagine what public safety and law enforcement—including police officers, our understanding of criminality, court systems, and prison systems—look like.
It doesn’t really matter whether we call that reform, abolition, defunding, or disaggregation. Whatever we call it, it’s going to have to be big and bold. It’s also going to be long overdue.
Bad apples are spoiling the bunch. It’s time to fix the whole orchard.