The Obligatory Caveat

Over at Reason, Radley Balko posts about the fight over Chicago’s “thick blue wall,” and how cops strive to achieve less accountability for their conduct.  It’s an interesting post, well worth the read.

But in his final paragraph, Radley does what so many others do.  What I sometimes do.  What it seems like everybody does. 


I’m sure the bulk of the officers in the Chicago Police Department are professional, courteous public servants. But that doesn’t let the department or the city off in its failure to discipline those who aren’t.
Is he “sure”.  Does he believe it at all?  Or is this the hat tip to the widespread myth that every instance of police misconduct is an isolated incident (aka One Bad Apple)?  I mean, seriously, this is Radley Balko, David to the police industry’s Goliath.  Dog blogger.  Fearless libertarian.  Chronicler of police abuse and misconduct.  And he begins his conclusory paragraph with the obligatory exculpatory caveat that “the bulk” of cops are “professional, courteous public servants?”  Why?  Why, Radley, oh why?

The answer, at least from where I sit, is that there is a fear that we are fostering fear and hate-mongering.  To vilify all cops based upon a specific incidents seems wrong and overwrought.  It’s not the purpose of exposing any particular situation of abuse or misconduct, and it may well be extremely unfair to others when we know that there are people who will both read about abuse and extrapolate that into an all or nothing proposition.  Black and white is how most people see the world.  Cops are good or bad, rather than people.

So the obligatory caveat is inserted into a post, the purpose of which is to slam the crap out of Chicago’s pervasive problems with abuse and misconduct by police.  Of course, if the caveat is true, then there’s little point of the post, the impropriety being the isolated incident and the bulk being a good bunch of fellas, professional and courteous and all.

Still, it’s a problem in that trying to avoid one misimpression leads to another.  The obligatory caveat suggests that there are two groups of cops, a large “good cop” one and a small “bad cop” one.  This further leads to the mistaken belief that if we could just get rid of the small “bad cop” group, everything would be hunky dory.  Not so.

There aren’t two discrete groups.  There are cops and cop culture.  The same police officer who will risk his life one day to save that of another, and the next day beat a black man for disrespecting him.  So is he a hero or a villain?  It’s all according to which day the video camera is on him.  It’s all according to whether you are the person saved or the person beaten. 

The problem is vertical rather than horizontal.  Police officers are human beings, fraught with the same issues that confront everyone else.  Overlaid is their cultural expectations, that people must respect their authority, that people must obey their commands, that no one understands a cop except a cop. 

Sure, there are some bad apples, people who seek out the job to compensate for their low self-esteem and diminished manhood.  These are, without a doubt, the most dangerous people to have a sidearm, as they are looking for ways to assert their power and will abuse it at any opportunity.  If the obligatory caveat is about most cops not being “bad apples,” then I agree.

But even the good apples do bad things, whether it’s concealing the wrongdoing of their brethren, aiding a cop who’s abusing someone, and remaining silent when they know that others are committing crimes while hiding behind their shields.  The potential for impropriety in policing is enormous, and I would doubt that any police officer, anyone, retires without having done wrong.  They were just fortunate enough to have survived the job without being under the spotlight.

We need the police.  There are real criminals out there who will do real harm to real people, and the police, for better or worse, are our protectors.  They may fail at times, but they also succeed.  We cannot paint them all as evil or bad or abusive, and pigeonhole them as the scourge of society.  That would be unfair and, frankly, totally unhelpful.  However, that doesn’t lead us to the conclusion that the bulk are cartoon character good guys.  We need to smarten up and get beyond the obligatory caveat.  But we aren’t there yet.

9 comments on “The Obligatory Caveat

  1. mglickman

    That’s a universal truth if there ever was one. I haven’t sat and reasoned it all out, but I have a feeling that the same reasoning would apply across the board to any and every possible bifurcation.
    The problem is, and will remain, a mixture of ignorance and laziness – people not knowing the complicated truths and unwilling to put the effort into discovering them.

  2. Stephen

    I don’t think that last paragraph even fits with the rest of piece. The article is a dense litany of Chicago police abuses and that comes out of nowhere. It actually doesn’t sound like the bulk of Chicago are at all nice in any way.

  3. Jdog

    I guess I hang out with lawyers just about the right amount; usually, by the time anybody’s gotten to the percent sign in “99% of . . . ” I’m already asking — in my head; I try to be polite, most of the time — and what would your factual basis for that assertion be? There never is one. I know a fair number of cops, and from my soda-straw view into their work life, I think they’re good, service-oriented guys, but I’d be more than a little nervous about asserting that what I know even about them is the full story (“and what would your factual basis be for that assertion?”), and am pretty sure that the subset of cops who like to hang around with me is, pretty much by definition, not a random sample.

    Since I’m polite but disagreeable, I’ll argue that Balko’s disclaimer is worse than it appears. He’s not just talking about a random PD, but about Chicago, in an article where he documents how little accountability and transparency there is for police misbehavior, and how many have demonstrably gotten away with so much for so long.

  4. Gary Carson

    Your last paragraph begins with the assertion that we “need the police”.

    Do we really?

    I know we’re going to have them whether we need them or not but I’m not so sure that there isn’t a better way to organize law enforcement than with police. Maybe we’d be better off with court officers, marshals and bailiffs, and a system of Justice of the Peace who could respond to citizen complaints with warrants issued to those court officers.

    It would require a degree of social reorganization that isn’t going to happen, but I’m not so sure we actually need police.

  5. SHG

    Oh I dunno.  Some guy just whacks me across the back of the head with a bat, I would rather have a cop standing nearby than a justice of the peace with a warrant.  I’ve seen people slapped with warrants. It doesn’t have nearly the impact of a baton.

  6. Gary Carson

    Part of the social reorganization that would be needed would be an expanded right of self defense and an expansion of a social expectation that someone else might intervene.

    I’m not convinced that giving police a monopoly right to use violence is a good idea.

    I’ve been an assault victim twice in my life (I’m 60). Once the police didn’t think anything needed to be done until I went to the prosecutor’s office myself and found a prosecutor willing to talk to me. The prosecutor’s investigators put the case together, not the police(the police thought it was a domestic issue since the offender was an ex-boyfriend of a woman I knew).

    The other time the assault was by a police officer, witnessed by about a half dozen other cops.

    I guess my attitudes are a little colored by my experiences. But I still think it’s not an automatic given that we need the police.

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