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 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 series, my man Brian and I incorporated that bestowing into our lexicon as a tongue-in-cheek way of describing any and every one 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 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 has 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” would seem to be an especially cruel anachronism, as American law enforcement has proven 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 these flaws can make them weaponized devices of evil. “Good police” doesn’t and can’t exist.
It’s a concept I’ve thought about each time another dashcam or cell phone 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 repudiation of the victim’s character. Sometimes, before the footage is released, both the police department and the officer(s) involved will make some sort of statement about what actually transpired. And sometimes, when the footage is released, they will be proven to be lying. And sometimes the police department gets ahead of the public, and immediately suspends and charges the officer(s) involved, painting them as bad apples unworthy of the uniform.
I thought about it again yesterday, when 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 towards the police in an aggressive manner — was false.
I should probably clarify what “thinking about it” means in this context. I am not having any sort of internal debate or struggle about whether good police exist or not. I am pondering nothing. Instead, I’m reminding myself of what I already believe 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 attached to a description of a police officer.
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 can not 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 also was not killed by a bad apple. Just an apple.