The Police Won’t Fix The Police
On April 8th, officials in Windsor, Virginia released footage of a traffic stop tailor-made for the “abolish the police” era.
A brand-new SUV with tinted windows, just the type of vehicle that black people are disproportionately stopped for driving. A black man, or better yet, a black lieutenant, sat behind the wheel, the Stars and Stripes proudly displayed on the shoulder of his uniform. Two white police officers attended the scene, barking threats that were lifted verbatim from of a movie that was set in 1930s Louisiana.
Even though the driver, Lt. Caron Nazario, hadn’t committed any crime, the officers, Joe Guttierez and Daniel Crocker, approached the vehicle with their guns drawn. Guttierez then gave Nazario conflicting orders to put his hands out of the window and get out of the car, all while refusing to explain why they’d stopped him in the first place. When Nazario tried to deescalate the situation, repeatedly asking the officers to “please relax”, they pepper-sprayed him, forced him to the ground, and put him in handcuffs.
As the details rolled in, Trevor Noah asked a question that eloquently expressed what many of us have been wondering:
“… we’re told time and time again that these incidents that black Americans are experiencing are because of bad apples, right? There are bad apples in these police departments who are doing these things.
They use chokeholds that are not allowed. They use excessive force. They’re violent in their words and their actions to the people they’re meant to be protecting and serving. These are bad apples, we’ve got to root them out of the force.
My question though, is: ‘where are the good apples?’”
As Noah points out, this isn’t to say there are no good police officers. With over 800,000 police officers involved in millions of encounters every year (over 60 million in 2018 alone), it’s clear that the overwhelming majority of police officers handle these encounters with more grace than people like Joe Guttierez or Derek Chauvin or Daniel Pantaleo.
The problem is, every time that things go sideways, these good police officers do nothing to prevent that “bad apple” from abusing their power. In the video above, as the situation between Guttierez and Lt. Navarro escalates, Crocker is visibly uncomfortable. Yet rather than doing anything to intervene, he keeps his mouth shut and keeps his gun trained on an unarmed man.
So perhaps the question shouldn’t be, “where are the good apples?”, but rather, “why aren’t they protecting us from the bad ones?”.
Sadly, this is a question we can answer. In November 2006, Cariol Horne, at the time an officer with the Buffalo Police department, responded to a call for an officer in need of assistance. When she arrived on the scene, she found a white police officer, Gregory Kwiatkowski, beating a handcuffed black suspect as a group of other officers watched.
When Kwiatkowski put the suspect, Neal Mack, in a chokehold, Horne intervened. The two of them came to blows as Mack, still handcuffed, complained that he couldn’t breathe. He believes that she saved his life.
Horne did what she was supposed to, what we all would have wanted her to do, what any police department should expect her to do, and for that, she was placed under investigation, reassigned, and ultimately fired a few months before she was eligible for her pension (an injustice that’s taken the last fifteen years to correct).
Meanwhile, Kwiatkowski (who I kid you not, had the nerve to sue Horne and her lawyer for defamation) was promoted to lieutenant and remained on the force for another three years (that is, until he was jailed for beating the heads of four handcuffed black teenagers against a police car).
Thankfully, it doesn’t always turn out that way.
In June 2020, officer Steven Pohorence shoved a kneeling black protester without any provocation during a Black Lives Matter protest in Florida. A second officer, Krystal Smith, immediately came to the protester’s defence, physically removing Pohorence from the scene and publicly reprimanding him. Pohorence, who was fired after the incident, had come under review 79 times for excessive use of force in the three years since he became a police officer.
It’s almost as if an organisation whose defining purpose is to identify and prevent violent behaviour should have noticed a pattern sooner.
The problem with the police isn’t that they’re full of “bad apples”, or even that there are no “good apples”.
It’s that when good police officers try to prevent bad policing, they get punished. It’s that the police are allowed to carry out internal investigations when “one of their own” does something wrong. It’s that when cops are recorded abusing their power, even when they record themselves abusing their power, there’s every chance they’ll get away with it.
Minneapolis Police Department has had a policy requiring officers to intervene “when force is being inappropriately applied”, since 2016. But four years later, three Minneapolis police officers failed to intervene as Derek Chauvin applied inappropriate force to murder George Floyd.
A similar “duty to intervene” policy was adopted in Virginia in 2020, two months before officer Crocker watched Guttierez pepper-spray Lt. Navari for no good reason.
And while reports state that Guttierez was terminated following an internal investigation, this isn’t quite true. After an internal investigation that concluded on January 28th, Guttierez was subject only to undisclosed disciplinary action.
It wasn’t until April 11th, after the video went viral, that Windsor police chief, Rodney Riddle, spontaneously “lost faith in [Guttierez’s] ability to continue to serve the community to the standard that we [expect]”. To put it more plainly, if the video hadn’t been made public, Guttierez would still be on duty.
Confidence in the police is at an all-time low. And this is why. The police won’t fix themselves, and it’s crazy that anybody expects them to. It makes no more sense than expecting the criminals in society to solve their own crimes. Police reform isn’t about making the streets less safe by abolishing the police, or instituting policies that they’ll ignore. It’s about creating systems which actually hold the police accountable.
Sure, most police officers are good. Very few people would take on such a dangerous, challenging, and thankless job if they weren’t. But being good isn’t the police’s job. Their job is to uphold the law. Especially when they’re the ones tempted to break it.