Rotten apples

I have said many times over the years that good cops hate bad cops more than the public does. Bad apples don’t necessarily spoil the whole bunch, but they certainly can taint it.

I remember quite clearly how, when I was an investigator, a couple of younger police officers on my department were busted in a hush-hush sting operation for stealing confiscated drugs. Both were eventually prosecuted and sent to prison, but the general feeling among departmental personnel was that we’d been betrayed by two of our own: How could we in all good conscious arrest people for possessing and using drugs when some of our own were doing it, too?

Over the years I saw plenty of bad cop behavior. My partner and I encountered a high-ranking officer who believed that it was fine to arrest someone for a crime he didn’t commit if the perpetrator was guilty of other crimes; in other words, he believed the end justified the means.

We disagreed. Wholeheartedly. If we didn’t apply high professional standards to our own work, how could we engage in a profession that often deprived people of their liberty and, sometimes, their lives?

We also saw employees from many departments who were heavy-handed, prone to lying and dishonest. But the percentage of police who brought dishonor to the profession was comparatively small. For every bad apple we found, there were dozens of good ones who took pride in what they did and believed that the integrity of the profession was dependent on the individual integrity of officers in general.

The media didn’t help. Chasing sensationalism and quick headlines, many news organizations today choose to highlight the bad cops and ignore the good things police do, often stirring up anti-cop sentiment in the process. But that’s understandable because news organizations don’t make money from positive stories, and it’s both fashionable and socially acceptable to dislike and publicly ridicule the police.

With enormous public relations issues to deal with on a 24/7 basis, police have so many challenges before them that it’s amazing to me when I see organizations making boneheaded moves that destroy their credibility, bringing to them “bad karma.” One example of this can be found in a recent incident involving a Massachusetts city police department.

That small town department drew national attention to itself in January when its officers began paying visits to their town’s residents in order to help the local library collect overdue books and fines. In one case that received wide publicity, police paid a visit to a 5-year-old girl who had two books—“How to Tie My Shoes” and “Eloise’s Birthday”—out since April. The child’s father also had about $100 in overdue book fines for unreturned audio books.

There’s no doubt that not returning books on time drains public resources and is unfair to the individuals who want to read those books. As a long-time reader and local library supporter, I believe libraries should have some muscle when it comes to getting their property back. Should that muscle come with a badge? Absolutely not.

As difficult as it is for police agencies to maintain a good public image while still getting their jobs done, why would any organization go out of its way to make itself even more reviled by the people it serves? That department should rethink this unfortunate idea.

While I’m well aware that the duties of organizations may vary with size and demand, the need for good relations between a police agency and the people it serves is constant. Police should never put themselves (or allow someone else to put them) in a position where they’re perceived as anything but the professionals that they are.