There’s No Such Thing as ‘Good Police’

Jordan Edwards (Mesquite, Texas, Independent School District)
Jordan Edwards (Mesquite, Texas, Independent School District)

In the reality-adjacent, Baltimore-centered ecosystem of The Wire, “good police” stood as the single highest honor a character could receive. It was reserved for those who possessed the inherent qualities making someone a naturally gifted police officer and who also performed those duties with integrity and verve. You had to be born “good police,” but you also needed to earn it.

For the years during and directly following the HBO series, my man Brian and I incorporated that bestowing into our lexicon as a tongue-in-cheek way of describing any and everyone who surpassed any type of expectation. It even spread to acts and inanimate objects. If the lettuce on your Jimmy John’s sub was crispier than usual, both the sandwich artist and the lettuce could be “good police.” (We, like most Wire-philes, were annoying as fuck.)

It’s been almost a decade since The Wire’s final season. And while the policing of black communities has never not been a relevant and deadly pertinent issue, the nine years since The Wire’s finale have seen an unprecedented national focus on it, a phenomenon undoubtedly due to the dozens of high-profile and often fatal encounters between law enforcement and black citizens that have been captured on camera.

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In this context, the concept of “good police” as presented on the show would seem to be an especially cruel anachronism, since American law enforcement has proved to be too tribal and consistently antagonistic to be effective, let alone good. But perhaps the most brilliant part of The Wire is that even while “good police” stood as its standard, it did this while making a five-season-long case that institutions—including law enforcement—are inherently flawed, and that these flaws can make them weaponized devices of evil. “Good police” don’t and can’t exist.

It’s a concept I’ve thought about each time another dashcam or cellphone or audio recording of an unarmed person of color attacked, maimed and sometimes even killed by police becomes public—an act often immediately followed by some sort of laud of the officer’s professionalism and a repudiation of the victim’s character. Sometimes, before the footage is released, both the police department and the officer or officers involved will make some sort of statement about what actually transpired. And sometimes, when the footage is released, they will be proved to have been lying. And sometimes the police department gets ahead of the public and immediately suspends and charges the officer or officers involved, painting them as bad apples unworthy of the uniform.

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I thought about it again yesterday while reading that the initial account of what led to the killing of 15-year-old Jordan Edwards—that he was in a car that was backing up toward the police in an aggressive manner—was false.

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I should probably clarify what “thought about it” means in this context. I am not having any sort of internal debate or struggle about whether or not good police exist. I am pondering nothing. Instead, I’m reminding myself of what I already know to be true: “Good police” is an inherent oxymoron.

American law enforcement is such a foundational and institutional (and, arguably, intentional) clusterfuck that in order for good police to exist, we’d have to collectively redefine what “good” means. What we understand “good” to be just cannot exist while attached to a description of police officers. Perhaps they’re good at their jobs, but this describes a different type of good, a proficiency and functionality instead of an ethicality.

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There are, of course, good people who happen to be cops, who find a way to be good and decent despite the inherent occupational pressure to be amoral. But these are not good cops, because they cannot be. They’re good people in blue uniforms.

I hope that, if you happen to interact with a police officer in the future, you encounter one of these good and decent people. Jordan Edwards, unfortunately, did not. He was also not killed by a bad apple. Just an apple.

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Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on VSB.

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, and the author of What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker (Ecco/HarperCollins)

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DISCUSSION

udontknoandrew
TypicalBayAreaFan

I too was a Wire-phile (though never to the point of your “good police” reference, which is pure genius) and the one takeaway that hit me harder than anything as McNulty is walking that bridge in the final scene is that people of color are so, so fucked in this country.

I was like 18 or 19 when that show ended and my mind wasn’t able to fully comprehend it, but it just gave me a feeling that this show was a microcosm of what was actually going on. I remember watching behind the scenes stuff with producers and actors who explained how people from Baltimore would tell them how much they loved the show, but that it was a watered down version of what was ACTUALLY HAPPENING in the city at that time. That gave me chills.

I work with and around wypipo (I work in construction and tend bar in a wealthy Northern CA community on the weekends for extra cash) and the way in which they defend police is staggering. I remember posing this question to a woman who had been ranting about how people who get shot by police deserve it because they “had to have done SOMETHING”. I asked her: “What if it was your son? What if he got shot because he was at a party and the police arrived, someone shoots a gun into the air, the police open fire in the general direction and hit your son. What then?”

Her answer: “That would never happen to my son because he’s not stupid and would never go to a place like that, on top of that our community has good cops, they wouldn’t do that.”

Jordan Edwards mom probably thought the same. About both of those.