The ‘Bad Apples’ Are Coming From Rotten Trees
“One bad apple spoils the barrel” is how the old proverb goes — or something like that. Today, folks utter several variations of this hypothetical apple, whether it’s the inevitable “bad one in every bunch,” or the existence of “only a few bad ones, thankfully,” spread out here and there. “One bad apple” wisdom is issued innocently enough and means to convey that one “bad guy” (or “rogue cop”) doing heinous acts is in no way representative of the rest. That one evildoer among the brotherhood shouldn’t tarnish the group’s reputation as a whole.
It seems we’ve never heard this phrase deployed more often than lately towards the police, every time another unarmed Black American is killed by those same police. Especially when it’s said by those stepping forward to loudly defend the institution of “blue lives” in general. And certainly, it can ring true; for those of us with family members or close friends who wear the badge and don’t take lightly their duty to protect and serve, there’s no one more fitting for the profession — the cops we personally know are the shiniest, purest, most golden delicious apples.
But the common understanding of that old adage indicates a problematic mindset, one that is rooted in systemic racism.
Even though most who use the “bad apple” phrase don’t intend this, saying it implies a hint of denial, if not indifference or condescension. As if society should automatically expect evildoing by those who hold positions of public trust. And not only should we expect it, we should also accept it, get over it, and then quickly move past it.
Another problem with the “bad apple” myth is that this modern-day take is far different from the original proverb and its intended meaning.
In a 2011 episode of NPR’s “Fresh Air,” the brilliant UC Berkeley linguist Geoff Nunberg (1945–2020) explained how we’ve not only drifted away from the original proverb’s wording, but also, how its interpretation has completely “flipped” over time:
“In 19th century America, it was a staple of Sunday morning sermons: ‘As one bad apple spoils the others, so you must show no quarter to sin or sinners.’
Or it could suggest that finding one malefactor in a group should make you suspicious of everybody else. ‘A bad apple spoils the bin,’ one journalist wrote in 1898 of the Dreyfus Affair; if one officer is capable of forgery then why wouldn’t others be as well?
Back then, nobody ever talked about ‘just a few bad apples’ or ‘only a few rotten apples’ — the whole point was that even one was enough to taint the group.”
Nunberg also proposed, “the crucial historical flipping point for the proverb may have been in 1970 when The Osmond Brothers reversed its meaning in their first №1 hit, ‘One Bad Apple (Don’t Spoil the Whole Bunch, Girl).’” The implication again being that “bad apples” are simply isolated incidents that shouldn’t stain the rest. But considering its original intent, we can see the exact opposite to be true: that these things are never just isolated instances.
Police departments and, more broadly, the criminal justice system in America are absolutely infected with racial bias, while also, pretending (or erroneously believing) that they somehow are not. But how can we expect them to not be infected with racial bias, when these very systems and institutions were founded on — indeed, still thriving upon — systemic racism?
Systemic racism was designed to go unnoticed by those of us who aren’t on the receiving end of its specific disadvantages. Many of us White Americans fail to even recognize what racism actually means in our current culture. Or, we mistake it for implicit bias, prejudice, discrimination, or bigotry — which can be directed by any racial group, towards any other racial group. Still, those things aren’t the same as racism. Racism in America isn’t about doing mean, hurtful — even atrocious — things to Black, Brown, Indigenous, or other People of Color. Of course, racism may have elements of each of those things, but the key difference with racism is power.
Who, ultimately, holds the power? In America, it’s White people — regardless of economic status or any other social privileges or disadvantages we may have. In America, White people are the only racial group to have ever established and retained power at the highest levels, starting with the government. But that also includes maintaining the power over (and equal access to) survival resources, such as housing, education, health care, employment, food, legal representation, and so on.
Systemic racism, then, refers to the system that allows the racial group already in power to retain that power.
Just because we had a half-Black president that one time doesn’t mean we’ve obliterated the roots of systemic racism. Just because a White person has a Black best friend or a Black relative does not preclude them from having implicit bias, or, from reaping the benefits of their own White privilege.
This is a system in America that, for 250 years, has worked unfortunately well in the favor of White people. And all too often, we’ve remained unaware that our racial “leg up” has come at the expense of other racial groups.
The Minneapolis Police Department is notoriously ineffective at removing bad cops from its ranks — until it’s too late, as we saw on May 25, 2020. Derek Chauvin, who barbarically killed George Floyd in broad daylight (while knowingly being recorded) had at least twenty-two prior complaints of misconduct filed against him that merited discipline. The majority of those complaints are also marked “closed — no discipline.” Excessive force was nothing new for Chauvin, but being held accountable was.
The Minnesota Reformer, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to “keeping Minnesotans informed and unearthing stories other outlets can’t or won’t tell,” includes in-depth investigations, data and evidence with links, and testimony after testimony just like this:
“Discipline documents reveal that when Chauvin was still a recruit in 2002, he helped arrest three Black men suspected of burglary. One of the men started swearing at Chauvin, so the senior officer, Bill Palmer, hit the brakes, causing one suspect to slam his head into the back of the partition. The man was treated at the hospital and then released after they learned he wasn’t involved in the burglary. Palmer was sent to an anger management evaluation and told he would be suspended for 20 hours if he had any more violations.
This was Chauvin’s on-the-job training.”
Minneapolis began recording data on its police misconduct complaints in 2003. Since then, the number has steadily increased. In 2018 the department hit a record high, jumping 41.5% to 569 from 402 in 2017.
When yet another, Daunte Wright, was killed — just down the road from the Hennepin County Courthouse where Derek Chauvin was being tried at that moment, and ultimately found guilty on all three counts— many people grappled with the whys and hows of these officers, who were continuing to operate with impunity.
Minneapolis continues to have a high number of complaints year after year — hundreds of them not counted. Meaning, specifically, 1 in 5 people who tried to file complaints about Minneapolis police had their cases classified as ‘inquiries,’ which were subsequently not investigated. And more often than not, when these cases are investigated, the offending officers don’t get disciplined at all. If anything, they might receive a slap on the wrist: an oral reprimand or letter of reprimand (which was the case with Derek Chauvin). Moreover, these so-called “bad apples” are allowed to remain on the force despite their proven misconduct.
Maybe some police departments are slightly less problematic than others. Or maybe they’re just problematic in different ways. I believe it’s more like the whole damn apple tree is rotten from roots to stems to leaves, because it’s doing exactly what it was originally designed to do — control Black bodies.
Policing, as we know it now, is a practice rooted in American slavery (and not easily removed from those roots). According to “Unequal: a series on race and inequality in America” by the Harvard Gazette:
“…racial disparities in policing and police violence are sustained by systemic exclusion and discrimination, and fueled by implicit and explicit bias.”
I wager that if most of us looked more closely, we’d see immeasurable amounts of police misconduct, and not just on the outside. I can only imagine there are hundreds of thousands of internal affairs that get silenced, like the deeply entrenched departmental corruption that we all know goes on. Or the multitudes of cases that could detail sexual harassment, or manipulation, or retaliation, used against female officers in the overwhelmingly male dominated profession, especially at the higher ranks.
I wager that there are indeed some good officers who maybe tried to do the right thing in the face of injustice — once — but ended up becoming indifferent, poisoned by the toxic climate, if not pushed out of the tree altogether. Those officers who do try to speak up do so at their own peril; cross that thin blue line, and the stakes are high and permanent. Officers seem to know the drill: either adhere to the code of silence, or get forced out and blacklisted from ever working again.
I’d also wager that the thin blue line, which undoubtedly creates an unnecessary “us vs. them” mentality, is not just happening in Minneapolis. Or Boston. Or Baltimore. Or Chicago. Or San Francisco. Or NYC. Or even in Madison County, Mississippi.
But go ahead and try to tell me that the Minneapolis Police Department— and others like it — are simply isolated incidents in a noble profession that’s above being stereotyped. Try and convince me that the MPD is just one “bad apple” out of all the purely good, golden delicious departments across the nation. I’m not likely to be convinced, and you shouldn’t be either.