There was a time in this country when police misconduct was casually dismissed as “just a few bad apples.” It was widely believed that the police were professional people sworn to serve and protect the public. Communities of color, however, long knew the truth of police violence and abuse.
But mounting, credible evidence is beginning to show that there are far more bad apples in the barrel than the dominant narrative suggests. This reality was made crystal clear in the title of a November 16, 2021 opinion piece by the Editorial Board of the Washington Post: “Being pulled over for a broken taillight shouldn’t end in death. Too often it does.”
The Post opinion piece cited a recent New York Times investigation finding that police killed over 400 people during so-called “routine” traffic stops over the last five years. None of those killed were armed with a deadly weapon or involved in a high-speed pursuit following a violent crime. The Times investigation revealed these findings:
- More than 400 deaths were “avoidable;”
- Tactical mistakes made by the officers contributed significantly to the fatal outcomes;
- Police training teaches officers to be “hyper-vigilant” during traffic stops which can induce fear during the interactions between officer and citizen;
- That an officer’s chances of being killed in a traffic stop is less than 1 in 3.6 million;
- Of the roughly 280 officers killed since late 2016, 60 were killed during traffic stops;
- That the officer’s unrealistic fear during traffic stops leads them to become more aggressive and willing to draw their weapons too quickly;
- Virtually all traffic stop fatal shootings are officially deemed justifiable, resulting in few officers being charged and even less prosecuted; and
- That local governments have been forced to pay $125 million in taxpayer dollars to settle wrongful death lawsuits following lethal traffic stops.
The Post Editorial Board closed its opinion piece with these questions:
“It is time to ask some questions and reevaluate traffic stops. When are they needed? Do they advance public safety, or are they simply a way for cash-strapped localities to raise needed revenue? Are there alternatives to traffic enforcement that don’t involve stops by armed police officers? Surely there must be a way to better train officers so that lives are not needlessly lost because of a broken taillight.”
Police Violence Stems from More Than Fear
We accept all the findings of the Times investigation except one: we do not believe all police officers approach traffic stopped vehicles in fear. Far too many approach vehicles with an aggressive hand on the gun, more than willing to use it at the slightest perceived resistance, particularly if the driver and passengers are people of color and the officer is white.
Police unions and Blue Lives Matter advocates would have the nation believe that police misconduct is committed by just a few “bad apples” or is justified due to failure to comply.
That is an easy, simplistic justification to excuse the systemic racism rooted in policing across America. At least 29 law enforcement officers and government officials participated in the January 6, 2021 insurrection. 35 Capitol Police officers assigned to protect the building are under investigation for participating in or helping facilitate the uprising at the nation’s Capitol Building. These numbers suggest a problem in America that is deeply rooted and spreading under the divisiveness in politics and through propaganda spewed by far-right, authoritarian media.
Reforms Needed Now
The few “bad apples” excuse has worn thin. Those apples are spreading rot throughout the entire barrel. The number of police officers who are racist, militaristic, prefer a “police state,” and engage in anti-government activities are far greater than a few “bad apples” that the law enforcement community would have the public believe. Reforms must be enacted from the top down. This means executive leadership, legislative action, and zero tolerance from police departments and unions, the latter of which are encouraging an “us against them” mentality that is placing police officers and the communities they patrol on a razor’s edge of impending violence.