One bad apple spoils the barrel

By: Oscar H. Blayton


There is currently a roiling debate in the United States over whether police departments should be disbanded and replaced with civic structures that better serve their communities.

This debate was sparked by the shocking videotape of George Floyd being casually murdered by a Minneapolis police officer. The obvious cruelty and disregard of George Floyd’s humanity by Officer Derek Chauvin appalled not only the nation, but people around the globe.

Chauvin had 17 complaints against him for misconduct during his 20-year career. Despite that record, he was allowed to remain on the Minneapolis police force and act in a supervisory role.

Nationwide protests arising from Chauvin’s killing of Mr. Floyd were met with the usual minimalist argument from the Minneapolis Police Department declaring that Chauvin was just “one bad apple.” The problem with using this adage when referencing police behavior is that no one ever quotes it fully. The saying is: “One bad apple spoils the barrel.”

No one disputes that Chauvin was a “bad” cop. And if we apply the adage to describe him, it logically follows that he spoiled many of the officers around him.

Rotten apples contaminate their environment and cause infection in the rest of their bunch.  Violent and overly aggressive cops contaminate their departments, resulting in abuse, denial of rights and innocent lives lost in the communities they are supposed to serve.

The truth of this is evidenced by the murder video where two rookie cops, following Chauvin’s lead, can be seen pressing Mr. Floyd into the ground, preventing his ability to breathe. Chauvin’s behavior triggered similar behavior by the cops around him.  The rookies have even said in their defense that they were following Chauvin’s lead.

The history of policing people of color is rife with such instances.  Take for example, Jon Graham Burge of the Chicago Police Department.  Burge was accused of torturing more than 200 criminal suspects between 1972 and 1991 to obtain forced confessions. But despite ample evidence of his wrongdoing, Burge was never convicted of these crimes. However, in 2010, he was convicted of obstruction of justice and perjury related to testimony he gave in a 1989 civil suit filed against him seeking damages for alleged torture.

During his career with the Chicago police, Burge rose to the rank of detective and was made an area detective commander before being suspended in 1991 and fired in 1993 for leading a team of officers in the violent abuse of citizens – most of whom were Black males.

When we are asked to believe that a campaign of terror led by a senior officer of one of the nation’s largest municipal law enforcement agencies went unnoticed for almost 20 years, the stench of a barrel of rotten apples assaults our noses.

In 1999, Amadou Diallo was murdered by four New York City police officers – Sean Carroll, Richard Murphy, Edward McMellon and Kenneth Boss. They fired 41 shots at Diallo, striking him 19 times, because he pulled his wallet from his pocket. These four officers belonged to the city’s notorious Street Crime Unit whose motto, tellingly, was “We Own the Night.”  None of these officers was convicted of a crime.

However, the unit, formed in 1971, was disbanded in 2002 after an FBI investigation revealed that it routinely engaged in racial profiling.

There are numerous examples of police units and whole departments coming under the influence of vicious officers who never should have been given a badge. And the failures of these law enforcement agencies fall heaviest upon people of color.

Being asked to trust these police after they have demonstrated their capacity to murder, torture and abuse citizens confirms that we are being asked to enter the realm of the absurd with this issue.

Police have responded to the current protests against abusive behavior by police acting like thugs. They have been recorded indiscriminately slashing the tires of cars in parking lots, pepper-spraying protesters, including young children, and driving vehicles into crowds of peaceful protesters.

It is time to admit that the barrel of apples has rotted, and it is time to clean it out. We must withhold dollars going into bad policing and use those funds to bring about a change in our communities that respects the rights of all citizens.


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