The Bulwark Presents
The Triad by JVL

How Many Bad Apples Are We Really Talking About?

June 1, 2020
Featured Image

1. Simplicity Is the Enemy

What’s happening in America right now is large and complicated. We have a series of problems, some of which overlap, some of which do not. And attempts to solve them have, historically, been stymied by conflating them and believing that they are simple and connected.

If we were going to white board what happened in America over the last week or so, we’d come up with a list of problems that would look something like this:

  • Some percentage of police officers are very bad at their jobs.
    • Some are bad because they’re racists.
    • Some are bad because they’re violent psychopaths.
    • Some are bad because they’re incompetent.
  • We have systemic problem with holding bad police accountable for their job performance.
    • Partly because of a professional culture in which good police officers don’t turn in bad ones.
    • Partly because of the power of police unions.
    • Partly because prosecutors work closely with police every day, and rely on them, and so are generally less than enthusiastic about prosecuting them.
  • We have a problem with rioting and looting in many American cities.
    • There is a difference between protest and committing assault while mindlessly smashing and stealing, even from nuns.
  • We have a problem with the way much of law enforcement handles protests by citizens.
  • We have a problem with the current president of the United States.

There are lots of other problems, too: Structural racism, a pandemic, a real jobless rate closing in on 25 percent, income inequality, rapid technological change, social dislocation. You get the picture. But let’s put those things in a bucket off to the side for the moment and focus on the five bullet points.

Because while these five problems are all bumping around in the same box right now, they are distinct. And they all have different potential solutions.

So here is the single most important thing to keep in mind whenever we talk about how to “fix” what’s going on right now:

There is no single solution because there is no single problem.

So, in every conversation, we need to start by disentangling the distinct issues from one another and take them one at a time.

There is no way to fix what we saw in America this weekend. You can’t fix “the police” or “racism” or “looting.” But there are ways to tackle individual aspects of the tragedies we saw on display, so long as we narrow our focus and try to pick out one strand at a time.

After a weekend like this, it’s easy to be depressed. People are awful. Patterns recur. The systems are too large and change resistant.

But there are ways to attack every one of those five problems we listed at the top. And even though some people are terrible, most people aren’t.

We’re all in this together.

2. A Few Bad Apples?

But some of those problems are going to be harder than others.

For instance: De-militarizing local law enforcement is relatively simple. You pass laws at the federal level on what the U.S. military can do with surplus equipment (translation: not sell it to American police) and at the state level on what type of equipment law enforcement may use.

The hardest problem to tackle is changing the culture of law enforcement.