Few taboos in America are as brittle or severely enforced as the one against criticizing the police.
In rare circumstances, when truly egregious behavior has been exposed — and, usually, when a human being’s life has already been lost or ruined — you are allowed to speak ill of individual members of law enforcement. You can say this officer was a “bad apple”; or you can say that they just aren’t cut out for police work, even if they have the best intentions.
But in these moments, too, you’re constrained. You can’t rail against an individual cop — however villainous they may be — unless you also contrast their behavior against that of the “vast majority” of officers. And you can’t decry a cop’s recklessness without also noting how (allegedly) dangerous and difficult it is to do their job. It’s as if bad cops only exist to remind us that most cops are very, very good.
So when you see a story like this one from Gothamist, which concerns an NYPD officer whom activists caught posting racist and authoritarian memes on Instagram, you already know what the department, the politicians and the mainstream media is going to say. The officer hasn’t been firmly identified yet — Gothamist says his surname “appears to be Langone” and that he “appears” to work in the 103rd precinct — but the script is more or less already finished.
Despite it being far too late to make much of a difference, the officer has, according to Gothamist, deleted his Instagram account. But one of the activists who caught him, a supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement, had already taken some screen-shots and posted them on Twitter. If you’ve seen one trolly anti-protestor meme you’ve basically seen them all. But, for whatever it’s worth, here’s the kind of person that may have been walking around the 103rd precinct last week with a license to kill:
Following the usual script, a spokesperson for the NYPD responded to questions from Gothamist by pointing toward the department’s policy on social media. It’s a policy that was updated in 2013 — after multiple NYPD officers were caught referring to New Yorkers of color as “animals” and “savages” — and one that essentially urges New York’s cops not to treat social media like a depository for all the awful ideas they know they shouldn’t say:
Members of the service utilizing personal social media sites are to exercise good judgment and demonstrate the same degree of professionalism expected of them while performing their official duties. Members of the service should be aware that activities on personal social media sites may be used against them to undermine their credibility as members of the Department, interfere with official police business, compromise ongoing investigations and affect their employment status with the Department.
At this point, though, it is mind-numbingly obvious that this policy — which really boils down to “don’t embarrass the NYPD” rather than “don’t be terrible” — has not been effective. And as Keegan Stephan, the activist whose tweets you see above, told Gothamist, that’s not because the NYPD has a surplus of “bad apples.” It’s because the NYPD, as an institution, seems to care about purging itself of officers like this as much as the NFL cares about player safety. (Translation: Not very much.)
What do you do, then, if your orchard keeps producing rotten fruit? Do you blame the apples or the trees? To many (myself included), it seems rather obvious that the latter is the source of the problem. But if its actions — and not its rhetoric — are anything to go by, it looks like the NYPD disagrees. And considering how loath the American mainstream is to criticize police, I can't really blame them.