Dear So-Called Good Cop,
I write this to you in the spirit of a shrug. Not a dismissive, Kanye-West-snatching-Taylor-Swift’s-moment shrug, but a shrug of resignation. It is an if-we-must shrug. You are, of course, under no obligation to read this missive, but I can no longer labor under the banner of productive activism if I do not write it. Your name gets brought up a lot though; I think we can both agree it’s not as much as it used to.
I want to make clear at the outset that this is not an olive branch. I’m not here on behalf of anyone to bridge a gap, or to start a conversation, or to have a beer summit. I’m here to establish a position. What you do with it is up to you. I have a suspicion about what that reaction might entail, but I’m trying to keep an open mind.
In all truth, I do not believe you exist. I don’t mean that in the way that I do not believe unicorns exist. I mean it in the way in which I do not think we agree on what the word “good” entails. And because I maintain that the word does not apply to you, I cannot believe you exist.
There are a couple of definitions of good that could apply to a discussion about police — like “having the qualities required for a particular role” — but only one definition seems actually relevant. Of the five possible definitions of good provided by Oxford Languages, the one that really fits here is “that which is morally right; righteousness.” So when people say you are a good cop, they mean that you stand up for certain principles, and those principles are virtuous. They mean you are a cop who does not set out to harm people, or instill terror, or abuse their authority, or otherwise undercut justice.
Arguably one can be a good person in an atrocious career, though I feel that designation has limits. This is technically the caveat of the soldier; we tell them that after the last bullet of a war has been shelved, that they are good people where it matters. (Well, we tell them that now. Not so much in the ’60s and ’70s.) The people who decide such things attach concepts like “honor” and “service” to the job description of soldiers, and so long as the actions they take fit under the preapproved standards of that particular war, they should, in turn, be considered good people. They are ultimately good people who have to do bad things to make life better for others. So if good means “improves the lives of others,” then I suppose we have to accept that argument at a certain level. It is not the level I use to straighten the bigger picture of good, but this isn’t about me. It’s about you, the good person who sometimes has to do horrible things.
Except that’s not anyone’s beef with cops. No one is calling for your employers to be defunded or for your profession be abolished because you sometimes have to do horrible things. Police are being taken to task because we do not agree on which horrors they are called to commit, or if they must commit horrors to effectively improve the lives of others. In the overwhelming instances in which you bother to report uses of force, you get to decide if force is necessary, and how much force a situation requires. We can debate the nature of force philosophically, but most applications of force start with a choice, and the choice is almost always yours. The fatal choking of Eric Garner was a choice. The knee on George Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes was a choice. Taking Sandra Bland to jail was a choice.
Two things that keep getting conflated in debates about your existence is the goodness of you as a person, and how safe you being around makes people feel. Honestly, that’s not much of a bar. You being the life of the party at a barbecue isn’t what I’m hoping will keep me alive when I get pulled over.
I change the routes to destinations because of the way certain neighborhoods are policed. I avoid a passing greeting to a police officer because I believe it’s in my interest not to be noticed at all.
Question: Are the cops who work protests against police violence good cops? Before you answer, let me bring up the matter of freedom.
Freedom has to constantly be redefined in this country because the nature of freedom changes over time. How we define freedom now meant something else entirely when slavery was legal, or when Jim Crow was the law of the land. I’m sure you understand that, so I won’t belabor the point. In any event, as a Black American citizen, I technically have as much freedom as any other citizen. I can do anything I want so long as I abide by the law. But that freedom evaporates when I am profiled because of my race and not my actions. You and I can likely agree that a cop — or a mall security guard, or a teacher, or a bank manager — who racially profiles random people is not doing a good job. When they do that in your field, they are not being a good cop.
But the freedom part goes deeper for me than profiling. The very sight of a police officer changes my behavior, not because I was considering committing a crime, but because I assume the officer thinks I am. I change the routes to destinations because of the way certain neighborhoods are policed. I avoid a passing greeting to a police officer because I believe it’s in my interest not to be noticed at all.
I once told an assembly of high school students in a discussion about policing that I mentally place a black hole where a cop is present, in effect acting as if they aren’t there so as not to respond to them in any subconscious ways that might look suspicious. This may sound like an overreaction, but there’s a long list of dead Black people who mistakenly thought knowing the law was enough. The law, as James Baldwin put it, “is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and murderer.” Do you see how your job makes the very concept of, not only freedom, but liberty untrue for millions of people?
Here is something I assume about your job: You see bad cops all of the time. If you don’t see bad behavior yourself, you certainly hear about it. You likely know which officers are the ones to avoid if you want to keep your nose clean. You can admit that there are bad apples. You don’t do much about them, but you know they’re out there.
Now here is something I know about your job: For you to do what would make you a good cop would almost assuredly do you personal or professional harm. If you report or interfere with the execution of any variety of problematic behaviors by fellow officers, there is every chance that you will face retaliation. It may be personal or professional, but the important part is that it is likely. All of which begs the question: If that is the general understanding of how accountability works in policing, how can policing ever be just? If you can’t stop bad cops because there’s a systemic understanding that cops don’t rat out other cops — that there is a blue code and that to break it is to invite repercussions — then how can you be good?
I’m sorry, officer, but that means you’re not one of the good guys.
Perhaps the previously mentioned alternate definition of good does apply here, “having the qualities required for a particular role.” Officers who make the news are rarely charged or tried for things that even you might agree should at least be legally considered beyond your union representative. The reasoning is that there’s a rule somewhere that says what those officers did wasn’t actually wrong or illegal. Given that range of protection — if cops are generally infallible regardless of what the public observes — then we are left to assume that almost anything police do is by design; that allowances for extreme policing aren’t really allowances at all, but part of the job description, mission statement, and action steps of policing all in one.
And if so, isn’t that even more terrifying?
A 90% free citizen of America