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