As anti-police brutality protests continue across the United States and the world, handwringing observers have been quick to point to an old cliche. Police departments have just “a few bad apples,” the implication being that one must not judge an entire force based on the appalling behavior of select officers. The “bad apple” has long been the go-to metaphor for those willing to grapple with larger systemic problems–that there are individual officers who are responsible for wrongdoing but it is the culture of policing in America that is immoral, not simply a handful of shitty officers in police departments across the country.
But lost in this tired saying is the actual effect that bad apples have on the apples surrounding them: Their rot impacts the whole bunch. And cops across America have shown over and over again that they will happily display solidarity with the most rotten of the bunch, seeping in such ugliness until it’s ubiquitous.
See, Joeseph Bologna Jr., a Philadelphia Police Staff Inspector. Bologna was charged with a felony after a viral video showed him appearing to beat 21-year-old Temple University student Evan Gorski with a baton during a June 1 protest. Three days later, Bologna was relieved of both street patrol and his service weapon. On Monday morning, he turned himself in, and his solemn march from Lodge 5 of the Fraternal Order of Police was met with applause from his fellow officers.
“Coming out of Police Union HQs he first saluted the hundreds of fellow @PhillyPolice officers & supporters then Staff Inspector Joe Bologna looked emotional as the crowd loudly clapped&cheered him on @FOPLodge5 front lawn,” tweeted Steeve Keeley, a Fox Philadelphia morning news reporter who was at the scene. And indeed, with nary a mask in sight, swarms of officers sworn to protect and serve cheered a man who is charged with felony aggravated assault, reckless endangerment, and possession of an instrument of crime.
Even when Bologna entered the 15th precinct to get booked, a small cluster of cops decked out in day-off khaki and bootcut jeans were there to cheer him on.
The decision to charge Bologna has clearly not led to embarrassment, but rather defiance among many officers and the police union. As the Philadelphia Inquirer reported, Bologna’s colleagues were ready to go on a pseudo strike to protest his treatment:
The move has drawn sharp criticism from police union head John McNesby, who has defended Bologna as one of the department’s most dedicated officers. And fellow police have described the 31-year veteran of the force as a gregarious and widely respected officer — even as other videos began to emerge of Bologna using aggressive tactics in response to demonstrators, including one from Tuesday in which he threw his bicycle and lunged at a female protester after she appears to lightly tap a tire on his bike.
Several officers attempted to organize a “blue flu,” or mass move for officers to call in sick, in advance of Saturday demonstrations that drew thousands to Center City, prompting police commanders to send memos to staff warning such a move would only endanger the safety of fellow officers.
Police accountability has been the highlight of the protests that have emerged following the death of George Floyd, a black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis after a white officer placed him in a neck restraint for nearly nine minutes. Thanks to the daily protests that have gone on for nearly two weeks now, police officers have been placed under new scrutiny and calls to defund the police, not just retrain and reform, are becoming more mainstream. The Minneapolis City Council pledged to dismantle the police department and replace it with a new system of public safety, and New York City plans to reallocate portions of the New York Police Department budget towards youth and social services. Change is imminent, much to the chagrin of officers who are more dedicated to defending their brothers and sisters in blue than facing accountability.
For example, when Buffalo Police Department officers were suspended without pay after they pushed a 75-year-old protester to the ground and left him bleeding—a horrific scene that garnered national attention—all 57 members of the Buffalo Police Department’s Emergency Response Team resigned from the unit but are still employed at the department. Their resignations were not out of embarrassment, but rather a “show of support” for the suspended officers according to the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association.
While images of police officers kneeling and dancing with protesters are presented as heartwarming moments that challenge the increasingly unsavory reputation of the nation’s cops, this is what police officers around the country are poised to do at the drop of a hat: Close in ranks around their own. And this department-wide dedication is supported by institutions designed to protect officers: tyrannical police unions, Blue Lives Matter drones, and wannabe cops across the country. The Philadelphia Police Union is even selling shirts that read “Bologna Strong” for $20 a pop.
This is why modest reforms to the police apparatus are met with skepticism: How do you reform a group that often acts like a cult?
It isn’t a matter of simply removing bad apples. The trees themselves are infected, down to the root, and it’s impossible to imagine how they can be revived. Pruning doesn’t help. Different irrigation techniques are met with resistance or little change while spoiled apple after spoiled apple continues to get collected, thrown into barrels, and distributed to the public. And we’re told to nod, to smile, to say thank you as their rotting cores sicken us.
When there’s little worth salvaging, maybe it’s time to just burn down the whole orchard and start from scratch.