On October 20, 2014, Laquan McDonald, a 17-year-old boy, was shot dead by Chicago police. Police claim that he was approaching them with a knife.
On November 26, 2015, more than a year later, the video for the incident was released. Police reports were proven false, as Laquan was gratuitously shot 16 times — twice while walking away, and 14 more times while lying on the ground in a fetal position — by officer Jason Van Dyke, who is now being charged with first-degree murder.
It is a depressingly familiar story.
And now, there are reports out painting Van Dyke as a bad cop with a long history of misconduct, which has also become a common theme when it comes to instances of police violence — the offending officer is often characterized as a “bad cop,” the bad apple of the pack, the one who should have never been hired to begin with.
And of course, it’s all warranted: Nobody would disagree with the fact that Van Dyke was a bad cop, given what he did to Laquan and his spotty record of complaints, or the proposition that he should have been sanctioned earlier for his behavior. But this also misaligns the debate over police brutality in a potentially detrimental way. Because when we talk about “bad cops”, we also necessarily establish the concept of a “good cop” — an officer who serves in his role to protect and serve and uphold justice. And once this differentiation is made, it then becomes easy for us to focus on a particular “bad cop” in cases of police brutality while being distracted from the institutional problems that plague police departments around the country.
What makes a “good cop”? Consider this: What would a “good cop” do in this situation if they were Officer Van Dyke’s partner?
If any average Joe had shot someone 16 times for no cause right in front of an officer, the proper response for that officer would be to either arrest or — more probable yet given the apparent low bar for use of force — shoot the perpetrator.
“But that’s ridiculous!” — I can already hear people say — “you obviously can’t have a police force where officers are shooting at each other! The police is supposed to act as a single unit!”
And those people would be exactly right. You can’t expect the good cop to shoot a fellow officer, no matter how blatantly at fault that fellow officer might be, simply because of the very nature of any uniformed service.
But it is perhaps equally ridiculous to suggest, then, that “good cops” somehow make a difference in how our police forces function. Sure, a “good cop” might not have shot Laquan McDonald 16 times, but so what? In a few months, there will certainly be another case of police brutality, and another, and another, as there had been before this case. In fact, 885 have already died at the hands of police this year alone (as of this writing).
And at some point, we’ve got to get beyond talking about the Officer Van Dykes of the world and focus on the larger problems that loom over our troubled law-enforcement system.
Officer Van Dyke worked for the Chicago Police Department. It is known, among other things, for “disappearing” more than 7,000 people to a secret detention center called Homan Square for extrajudicial interrogation (which is now being alleged as torture) without going through normal booking procedures, disclosing the locations of the detainees, or allowing them any access to lawyers or the outside world in general. We could also talk about the well-known fact that people of color are disproportionately targeted, arrested, and jailed by law enforcement in this country. Take Chicago, for example, 55% of African-American men are labeled felons for life, and 93% of Homan Square’s detainees are either Black or Latino…
Sure, we can get rid of Officer Van Dyke and replace him with the best police officer in the entire world, but what is the use of having better enforcers for a broken system?
Contact Terence Zhao at zhaoy ‘at’ stanford.edu.