police reform

Good Cops, Bad Cops, and the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy of the Police Protest Movement

NYPD officers kneel down after answering a call for unity from protesters during a June 2 demonstration in New York City over the death of George Floyd. Photo: Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

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Of the million or so words written these past few weeks about the causes and effects of police brutality, of all the earnest observers who have weighed in with suggestions on how to reform or rebuild police departments, none highlighted the scope of the problem more succinctly than Lieutenant Robert Cattani of the New York Police Department. He felt compelled, on June 3, to email an anguished apology to his colleagues for taking a knee in solidarity with protesters demonstrating in the city over the killing of George Floyd.

“I thought maybe that one protester/rioter who saw it would later think twice about fighting or hurting a cop,” Cattani wrote as the protests intensified earlier this month. “I was wrong. At least that [sic] what I told myself when we made that bad decision. I know that it was wrong and something I will be shamed and humiliated about for the rest of my life.”

“I spent the first part of my career thriving to build a reputation of a good cop,” he continued. “I threw that all in the garbage on Sunday [May 31].”

That Cattani thinks he threw his good reputation “in the garbage” by making a token gesture of sympathy for protesters is the heart of the problem here. His email is a rare glimpse into the ground-view toxicity of the “us-versus-them” mentality within police departments in historic moments like this. It also flips on its head the hoary notion, repeated even now by tribunes of the Trump administration, about how policing in America is tarnished by a few rare “bad apples” mixed in with all the “good” ones.

Here’s a decent cop — a “good apple,” you might say — who did something while in uniform that harmed no one and that earned him respect, if not appreciation, from the people he is sworn to protect and serve. And for that he knew he would be treated as a pariah by his fellow officers — let’s call them “bad apples.” “Culture eats policy for breakfast,” one expert said of policing over the weekend. Indeed, how can anyone reasonably expect genuine accountability or transparency within a police department where such warped sensibilities prevail?

The cop who takes a knee on a street to acknowledge the existence of police misconduct — that is to say, the cop who takes a knee to acknowledge reality— is doing something to help solve the problem of police brutality. The cop who plans to retaliate against that officer — that is to say, the cop who plans to engage in unlawful retribution — is doing something to perpetuate the problem. Answering the questions of how and why police union officials won’t recognize that obvious distinction is answering the question of how we got into this mess to begin with.

The reaction by the NYPD cops who received Cattani’s email also helps explain the state of play as nationwide, popular demonstrations roll into their fourth week. “Police sources expressed relief that Cattani had apologized — but questioned what he was thinking,” the New York Post tells us. “I’m glad he took it back, because your officers are out here battling with these guys and that’s what you do to show appreciation? Never show your weakness,” one insider said. “You did it to appease these people who didn’t appreciate you anyway.”

That’s nonsense. The cop who takes a knee in solidarity with protesters isn’t doing it for the looter or the rioter or the criminal who is taking advantage of the protests. That cop is doing it instead for the majority of protesters, and millions of others who aren’t protesting publicly but who want to see sweeping police reform — and who don’t necessarily see the police as enemies of peace and justice. If police departments are trying to win the hearts and minds of the public, police union attacks on decent rank-and-file cops is a terrible strategy.

This is not a New York City problem, either. It’s a national problem and it warrants nationwide attention among justice reformers. Late last week in Chicago, for example, the city’s police union leader threatened to kick out of the union any cop who takes a knee during a protest. “If you kneel, you’ll be risking being brought up on charges and thrown out of the lodge,’” warned John Catanazana. “Specifically this weekend,” he argued, “this was about defunding and abolishing the police officers. And you’re going to take a knee for that? It’s ridiculous.”

Nowhere in these missives against conscientious objectors among police officers is there any acknowledgement by police union officials that the growing talk of “defunding” police departments is a direct result of the brutality with which some cops have attacked peaceful protesters. It’s not just a vicious cycle. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Protests against police misconduct over the past three weeks have engendered countless proven examples of more police misconduct. The police themselves, on our streets, are making the case for their own abolition.

This past weekend, for example, Michael DeBonis, an ex-NYPD detective and former police spokesman, posted withering criticism of the police work in the Eric Garner case. Garner, whose last words also included the now iconic phrase, “I can’t breathe,” was killed by NYPD cops after he was put into a chokehold during a dubious arrest on Staten Island in 2014. “We killed Eric Garner,’ DeBonis wrote, but then felt compelled to add that “In writing this post I’m fully aware that some of my cop friends may call me a traitor, a hypocrite or even un follow me.”

Police officers who tell the truth about police brutality are not “traitors,” they are heroes. They are also indispensable to the police reform movement. If police officers continue to be afraid to speak out about the misconduct they see, if police whistleblowers are punished instead of protected, the reform movement will continue to morph into a “defund” movement. By refusing to embrace reasonable reforms — or in other words, by drawing lines like the ones they’ve drawn around protesters — unions will continue to undermine their own political and moral support.

The kicker? On Sunday, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, the only black Republican in the Senate, said that changes to “qualified immunity” rules that would make the police more often liable for misconduct — a reform with broad support from conservatives and progressives alike — should be considered as a “poison pill” in pending federal legislation because of opposition from police unions. There can be no meaningful federal police reform legislation that does not take on the unions directly. Ask Lieutenant Cattani. He understands.

The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy of the Police Protest Movement