Rotten Apples or Bad Barrels?

On June 18, 2020, Richard Goerling, my friend and mentor, was interviewed by Mindful Magazine. Listed below is an excerpt from the article:

Maybe it’s The Barrel: Mindful Policing Gets Real

Founding Editor Barry Boyce speaks with mindfulness trainer and former police lieutenant Richard Goerling on how mindfulness can ground policing in humanity rather than tactics that often result in severe injury and death.

A Few Bad Apples, Or an Entire Rotten Barrel? 

A common refrain following acts of police brutality appeals to the idea of a “few bad apples” on a police force, insisting not all police officers act that way. But is that really the case?

In answer to that question, Goerling points to research from Philip Zimbardo, who conducted the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment.

“We say, ‘Oh, it’s that there’s a bad apple in the barrel and the bad apple is toxic,’” Goerling says. “And Phil flips that argument upside down. He says maybe…the model we should consider is not that there’s bad apples. It’s that the barrel itself is bad.”

That barrel is a metaphor for the police force. It means that even when there are good officers, they are unable to act independently to do good. The recent video of an elderly man cracking his head on the sidewalk after being pushed to the ground by police is a clear example, Goerling says.

The model we should consider is not that there’s bad apples. It’s that the barrel itself is bad.

“The way they’re trained and the way they’re thinking, because they’re not guided by an ethos that allows critical thinking, they just roll right over a 75-year-old man,” he says. “If you isolate any one of those individuals, they’d probably tell you that they wanted to do something different. But the forces of the barrel are powerful.”

In order to improve policing, Goerling says, we need to create a new “barrel,” one that encourages critical thinking and places humanitarianism at the forefront. So how can we make that happen?

My view: I agree with the “bad barrel” analogy, however, I do not believe that every department / every officer should be put into one-barrel.  I believe there are bad barrels spread throughout the country and that theory explains why some may believe that the entire “police system” needs to be reformed. The bad barrels could include departments and/or units within a department.

The average person does not realize that many of the nation’s police departments (1,148 as of 2019) are “accredited” by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA). The Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, Inc. (CALEA®), was created in 1979 as a credentialing authority through the joint efforts of law enforcement’s major executive associations:

  • International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP)
  • National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE)
  • National Sheriffs’ Association (NSA)
  • Police Executive Research Forum (PERF)

Although 1,148 agencies are accredited, that accounts for only 6% of all agencies (approximately 18,000) in the U.S. What would happen if ALL agencies were required to be accredited? I believe that having nationwide accreditation standards would be helpful, but it would not be the panacea that many believe might emerge. According to a Washington Post Fatal Force 2019 Shootings Database article, officers had more than 50 million contacts with citizens in 2015 and 995 of those contacts led to officers shooting and killing a subject, which equates to 0.00002%. Of those killed by police in 2019, 45% were white men, 23% were black men, and 16% were Hispanic men. Women accounted for approximately 5%.

Defunding the Police: If you believe all agencies should be accredited, keep in mind, that requires funding/training and if you believe that body cameras should be mandated for ALL officers, the departments need the funding to store the massive amounts of video footage.

Closing thoughts: Can we lessen the number of “bad barrels” in policing? Absolutely! However, there are NO policies, procedures, mandates, etc., that will eliminate ALL police shootings.

50 million contacts + violent crime + officer error + mental illness + substance abuse + access to deadly weapons = police shootings.

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