The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Time to toss the ‘bad apples’ excuse

National security adviser Robert C. O'Brien at the White House on May 24. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Tasked with the unenviable job of defending a president stoking division during a crisis, national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien took to the nation’s airwaves Sunday morning ready to deploy a key phrase. “We have got great law enforcement officers, not — not the few bad apples, like the officer [Derek Chauvin] that killed George Floyd. But we got a few bad apples that have given — given law enforcement a bad name,” he told CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Lest anyone miss that phrase the first two times, he repeated shortly thereafter: “There are some bad apples in there. And there — there are some bad cops that are racist. And there are cops that are — maybe don’t have the right training. And there are some that are just bad cops. And they need to be rooted out, because there’s a few bad apples that are giving law enforcement a terrible name.”

And when CNN’s Jake Tapper asked O’Brien directly, “Do you think systemic racism is a problem in law enforcement agencies in the United States?,” the national security adviser was clear. “No, I don’t think there’s systemic racism.”

Anyone who’s followed debates over criminal justice and race in the United States is familiar with the “bad apples” dodge. Law-and-order conservatives lean on this excuse to explain away police abuse and shield American policing as a whole. It’s an unintentionally revealing choice of words, since the full idiom goes, “a few bad apples spoil the bunch.” And the argument has been debunked repeatedly over the years: There is ample evidence of systemic racism in American law enforcement.

Live updates on George Floyd protests

But there’s a difference between conservatives in general resorting to the “bad apples” argument and the national security adviser of the United States making it, so it’s worth rebutting once again.

To start with, O’Brien himself — unintentionally, it seems — made the case for systemic racism just after trotting out the bad apples. “By the way, where were the local prosecutors and where was the police commissioner?” he asked Tapper. “That guy, apparently — I’m told he had a long record of this sort of conduct. … Why was he still on the force?” The obvious answer to those questions is that Chauvin remained a police officer, despite 18 prior complaints against him, because that’s how the system works. Neither police nor prosecutorial leaders did anything because under this model of policing, Chauvin was no “bad apple” to be “rooted out,” but just another officer.

My colleague Radley Balko has compiled more than 100 studies, surveys and investigations detailing the scope of systemic racism in America’s criminal-justice system. Again and again, those reports show that blacks are more likely to be searched during traffic stops and targeted in drug raids — even though those searches are less likely to find illegal items. At the same time, unarmed blacks are 3.5 times more likely to be shot by police than unarmed whites. And a 2018 Post investigation found a strong correlation between majority-black/low-income jurisdictions and those with the lowest clearance rates for homicides.

Beyond all those papers and news articles, contrast police responses to the lockdown protests at the beginning of May with their behavior at this past week’s protests. When mostly white protesters openly carrying assault rifles tried to shut down the Michigan state legislature, police didn’t fire rubber bullets or drive cars into demonstrators. But when mostly nonwhite protesters marched, that restraint was nowhere to be seen.

Systemic racism in policing is not a problem easily dealt with. It crosses party lines and ideologies, as evidenced by the heavy-handed police tactics in deep blue cities around the country. It often persists even in jurisdictions where police officers and leadership are majority-minority. But clinging to excuses for systemic racism only lengthens its life span. The sooner we toss out the “few bad apples” excuse, the better.

Trump's tweets telling minority congresswomen to “go back” to their countries follows a history of racism and nativism. Voters will decide if this is effective. (Video: The Washington Post)

Read more:

Val Demings: My fellow brothers and sisters in blue, what the hell are you doing?

Donna Edwards: George Floyd’s death is sickeningly familiar

Art Acevedo: As a police chief, I see Minneapolis as a crucial test of our profession. Here’s how we can avoid failing.

Samuel G. Freedman: The problem with Minneapolis’s police has decades-deep roots

David Von Drehle: Want to stop these riots? Reform the police.

Christy E. Lopez: The killing of George Floyd underscores why we need a police culture of peer intervention