Why “Bad Cops” Are Not The Real Issue


I’m hoping these comments will bring some analysis to 5 seemingly innocuous but misguided words: “Not all cops are bad” and “good cops versus bad cops”. If you’re in the company of someone who says this or posts this on social media, and if you have seen and heard this as much as I have lately, then perhaps it’s time to deconstruct these phrases and start calling them out.

I was in Texas during the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. And I watched the live news right after the Dallas shootings. I’ve talked with family and friends here, where I grew up, a Xicana outside of San Antonio in a small country town called Bulverde. The responses have shocked me. And it makes me wonder why so many, even people who are outraged at police brutality and police killings, are saying “Not all cops are bad”, and how the “bad cops are making a bad name for the good cops”, these are the “bad apples”, etc. This is only meant to provide some context as to why this phrase and phrases like “bad cops” are not helpful but incredibly detrimental to the conversation.

First, just on a psychological level, it feels dismissive. Black and Brown people are watching their loved ones get killed on camera, on social media, without justice by police almost daily. These comments are simply not constructive or helpful to the deeper questions that we need to be asking now. Who hires the police? Who absolves them? For what reason?

Saying “not all cops are bad” is like saying “not all soldiers are bad”. It’s not that the statement is or isn’t true, it simply does not matter. It doesn’t matter if your brother, your father, your cousin, best friend, aunt or uncle is a cop, and you grew up with them and know them, and maybe they’re even a Person of Color.IT DOESN’T MATTER. And the reason it doesn’t matter is because it doesn’t contextualize the situation and actually undermines any effort to have a deeper understanding of the issues being faced by People of Color, poor people and marginalized people on a day-to-day basis.

In 2010, Wikileaks released the Collateral Murder video, which showed footage from a US Apache helicopter in 2007 killing civilians, a war crime, in a public square in Baghdad. People were outraged. In 2004, images of torture and the raping of young boys in front of their mothers was released from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, and photos showed soldiers posing next to bodies being tortured, and other times deceased, giving a “thumbs up”. Did anyone respond, “Not all soldiers are bad”? No! Because it didn’t matter.

The cops of the world, our military, police other nations in the name of “Freedom”. But “freedom” is actually just a nice word to disguise words like “capitalism” and “imperialism”. The U.S. invades countries and engages in wars, killing civilians, dismissed as collateral damage, for political and monetary vested interests.

But the situation within the U.S. is not much different. We understand that “War is BAD” and “Imperialism is BAD”. The police, as well as the soldiers, are enforcers of a bigger and much more insidious beast.

Our nation was founded on the murder of millions of Indigenous people, and wealth was created by African slave labor for a white, patriarchal ruling class. Understanding the origins of the police is a start. Modern-day police departments stemmed from slave patrols. And the whole purpose of “policing” was, and is still, meant to protect some people, but not all people. In the 1800s slave owners, businessmen, bankers and emerging industrialists and their growing wealth needed to be protected. The police were created to serve and protect them, the propertied elites and their wealth, not POC, not poor people, not marginalized people.

The conditions have changed, but have they changed so much? We still enslave people, through prison labor and through our borders, which mean that we can pay people pennies on the dollar for what they would normally get paid.

The definition of “police” is literally to “control” a population and enforce government rule and order. The police “serve and protect” the government. They are government forces, and like the whole apparatus of government, they primarily serve and protect the interests of money and power, not primarily the interests of ordinary people.

It’s not about the individual cop (or soldier). Yes, some people are brutal and cruel. It’s about the mission police forces and the military are given. It’s about the absolution they are given for actions carried out to accomplish the mission. The phrases “good cop vs bad cop” or “not all cops are bad” hides this fundamental reality. History provides some understanding. But People of Color in the U.S. have an intense, personal experience of this reality every day of their lives. So, in response to amply documented incidences of violent police behavior, to say “not all cops are bad”, is greatly upsetting to POC and is counter-productive to the deeper conversations that are necessary now.

The fact is, for reasons that need to be explored more deeply, white people don’t have the same experience with the police forces as Black and Brown people in the U.S. Every time a Black or Brown person is killed by the police and these videos circulate on social media, Black and Brown people think of their family members, their loved ones. It can be traumatizing and seriously emotional. Every 28 hours, a Black person is killed by police, security guard or a vigilante.

Understand that Black and Brown people are policed and treated differently than most white people. Understand what “white privilege” means, and don’t be ashamed if you are white, but be aware. Understand that comments like “All Lives Matter”, “Blue Lives Matter”, and “Not all cops are bad”, are actually reinforcing racial divides and can be interpreted as racist rhetoric, even if they aren’t intended to be. Understand that for every “pro-police” post that is made, it undermines the Black and Brown community and fuels the War on Black people.

So the next time someone says, “my friend/family member is a cop, and not all cops are bad”, I think it is appropriate to say, “Great, do they and you speak out against the extrajudicial killings by police of Black and Brown folks?” Because if there’s any hesitation, or defensiveness, then there needs to be some personal, internal investigation as to why that is.

Black and Brown people, poor people, the LGBTQ community, marginalized people, need love and support now. But not in the form of BBQs and “Free Hugs” with cops, who will likely continue to surveil and brutalize communities after these photo ops. What people are asking for is real systemic change. What people want immediately is justice and for the police to be held accountable for their actions.

Abolition of the police, which deserves much deeper analysis than given here, will not and cannot happen in the current capitalist state. If we want to imagine a world without a police state, a world where police do not play the role of the oppressor, we need to organize and build a different system of production and social relationships that do not require it. That is a huge challenge but one that is worth the efforts of organizing and advocacy.

Rebecca Centeno is the Outreach and Distribution Manager of Deep Dish TV. She is an activist, freelance documentary filmmaker and is pursuing her MFA at Hunter College in the Integrated Media Arts Program. Email: [email protected]. This article was first published in Deep Dish TV

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