Skip to main content

On Sunday’s edition of Last Week Tonight, discussing “">Police Accountability,” John Oliver eviscerates the oft-touted argument police brutality, violence, misconduct, and excessive force can be chalked up to a “few bad apples” — instead of the institution of policing, itself.

Sprinkling customary wit throughout, Oliver aptly explains why the ‘bad apple’ explanation not only dismisses the very real dearth of accountability amid increasingly inexplicable uses of excessive force, but presents — considering the entirety of the idiom — a glaring logical fallacy.

“The trust between police and the communities they serve is clearly a cornerstone of civilized society — unfortunately, that trust has been rocked following a series of controversial police shootings, from Alton Sterling to Philando Castile, to Tamir Rice to so many others I literally cannot mention them all.”

To emphasize plainly the subject of the segment, Oliver cuts to snippets of interviews in which people call for police to be held accountable for violent and egregious misconduct — most particularly, murder.

Police tend to counter with, if not endlessly whine about, the dangers of their occupation, and how critics can’t grasp that the immediacy of decision-making can be a life-or-death call — so officers should be granted leniency not given to the general public.

Cops displaying a pattern of misconduct, thus, should be disciplined appropriately — but, police frequently argue, as Oliver notes, “that what they have is less an institutional problem than an individual one.”

A series of clips from pro-police advocates and current and former officers blaming these “bad apples” for the whole of the police brutality epidemic shows how often that narrative is hammered into the American psyche.

However, Oliver explains, “that argument, ‘it’s just a few bad apples,’ has some real problems. For a start, it doesn’t address bad laws and policies that good officers are made to enforce [...]

“Also, you can’t claim there’s just a few bad apples when no one knows exactly how many there are. There are nearly 18,000 different police departments in America, and they are not great about reporting or sharing data. In fact, even some surprisingly basic questions are hard to answer, as the head of the FBI admits.”

FBI Director James Comey, the episode shows, previously said, “We can’t have an informed discussion because we don’t have data. People have data about who went to a movie last weekend or how many books were sold or how many cases of the flu walked into an emergency room, and I cannot tell you how many people were shot by police in the United States last month, last year, or anything about the demographics.”

Though not the crux of the issue, the lack of strict national requirements for reporting police killings and violent incidents undermines any attempt to effect meaningful reform — if you don’t know how many people were killed or brutalized, under what circumstances, and other details, it would be impossible to determine the efficacy of any solutions.

In response to absent national law enforcement data, a number of organizations, advocates, and media outlets —, the Guardian’s The Counted, and the Washington Post’s Fatal Force, for example — have tried to compile data or lists of victims through exhaustive research and voluntary public submissions. But their vastly different numbers only serve as rough guidelines, while highlighting further the enormity of the issue.

As an example of these unofficial data aggregators, Oliver discusses research undertaken by Philip Stinson, who, in 2005, set up 48 different Google searches to get a handle on killings by police in the United States. Stinson and researchers from Bowling Green State University indeed found, as The Free Thought Project reported in June, “on average, three law enforcement officers are arrested each dayaround 1,100 cops every year — and, more pointedly, this is not the case of a few rotten apples.”

“[P]olice crimes are not uncommon,” Stinson, lead author for “Police Integrity Lost: A Study of Law Enforcement Officers Arrested,” wrote. And “only a small number of officers will ever be arrested for a criminal offense … our data directly contradicts some of the prevailing assumptions and the proposition that only a small group of rotten apples perpetrate the vast majority of police crimes.”

Scroll to Continue

Recommended for You

That realization, in itself, turns upside down the notion officers of the law always also uphold the laws they enforce — a prejudicial bias to authority often held by the public, and thus present in grand and criminal court juries, as Oliver also notes of Stinson’s research.

“Out of thousands of fatal police shootings since 2005, only 77 officers have been charged with murder or manslaughter, and, to date, only 26 have been convicted. And while the truth is, many police shootings are justified, 26 seems suspiciously low.”

Police departments across the U.S. overwhelmingly investigate their own cases of misconduct, excessive force, and fatal shootings — a fact critics consider at best a gross conflict of interest — borne out in the conspicuously meager figures Oliver mentions. ‘We investigated ourselves and found we did nothing wrong’ is the tragic, tongue-in-cheek, knee-jerk response those weary of police impunity employ after the initial shock of yet another questionable death by law enforcement wears off.

“Unsurprisingly, the [Department of Justice] has consistently found flaws with internal investigations. In Cleveland, investigators admitted they intentionally cast an officer in the best light possible when investigating the officer’s use of deadly force. And in Miami, investigations took so long, that at ‘least two … officers shot and killed a suspect while under investigation for a previous [shooting],’ Oliver says, citing the studies.

Some people have decried the putative ‘good apple’ cops as nonexistent because, if there were such a breed, they would blow the whistle on bad cops — but there are a plethora of cases where cops attempting to do just that faced persecution and worse from the Thin Blue Line, known pejoratively as the Blue Wall of Silence.

So formidable is that Blue Wall, it also drives departmental policy favoring the supposed rights of officers to remain in the occupation over transparency which would otherwise prove detrimental to the careers of misbehaving, errant cops.

“Police accountability doesn’t just suffer from an unwritten code of silence,” he continues, “that code can be enshrined within state laws or union contracts as well. For instance, one reason it can be hard to spot problem officers is that, in many jurisdictions, policies allow disciplinary records to be destroyed.”

Officers subjected to investigations for excessive force and other misconduct often have the option of simply resigning from their department to avoid possible termination — which has led to the phenomenon known colloquially as “gypsy cops,” since these bad apples hop from city to city, avoiding accountability while still practicing bad behavior.

Trust in police has so evaporated, in fact, a study due to be published this month in the American Sociological Review, in part, found killings and other violence by police leads to significant drops in the volume of calls to 911 in black neighborhoods.

In other words, the sociologists found, as the Atlanticsummarized, the “whole-neighborhood effect that led to many people choosing not to call 911 reflects the idea that police lose authority and legitimacy as citizens associate their actions with lawlessness and violence.”

In some schools with large African-American populations, classes provide youth with tactics for interacting with law enforcement — in essence, how to increase their chances for surviving an encounter with a cop. And that just might be indicative police accountability would amount to a Band-aid on an inches-long, bleeding gash. 

Oliver concludes the Police Accountability edition by shredding the absolute logical fallacy in the ‘bad apples’ myth:

“Here’s the thing about that — the phrase isn’t, ‘it’s just a few bad apples, don’t worry about it. The phrase is, ‘a few bad apples spoil the barrel. And we currently have a system that is set up to ignore bad apples, destroy bad apples’ records, persecute good apples for speaking up, and shuffle dangerous, emotionally unstable apples around to the point that children have to attend fucking apple classes.

“You cannot look at our current situation and claim that anybody likes them apples.”