Op-Ed: The problem with good guys vs. bad guys policing

Inmates are checked in by a Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputy at the L.A. County Jail in 2013.
Inmates are checked in by a Los Angeles County Sheriff‘s deputy at the L.A. County Jail in 2013.
(Los Angeles Times)

No sentence gets spoken more at Homeboy Industries than this one: “This is the longest I’ve ever been out.” It is a refrain uttered by formerly gang-involved and “serious and violent” felons, in government parlance. These are not the “nons,” the nonviolent and nonserious offenders, but those who are most likely to endanger public safety. Unless, of course, they can find a healing place of hope.

Violent crime is up 26% in Los Angeles, and property crime has increased 11%. Though homicides are down, shootings are up 24%. Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck has proposed sending 200 cops from the elite Metropolitan Division into South L.A., who, in the words of Mayor Eric Garcetti, “can immediately make a crime spike not become a crime wave.” The geographic deployment of these officers is data-driven, based on crime pattern algorithms. It is born of “predictive policing.”

Sending the specially trained Metro police into an area of elevated violence is reactive to crime. The day-to-day, very positive, community- and relationship-based policing of the LAPD is proactive. And the healing approach at Homeboy Industries is responsive.

All of which raises the question, what language is crime speaking? Everything is dependent on the answer.


If we think crime is the vocabulary of the bad guy, then we deploy special troops to round up a bunch of them. Our default assessment of Freddie Gray’s death in Baltimore, or the shooting of Walter Scott in South Carolina, is racism. But the deeper analysis is that these men may have been seen as bad guys, and their race may have had less to do with what happened to them than that perception.

Scott ran, so did Gray, thus showing contempt for an arresting officer. Fleeing validated their status as bad guys. In South Carolina, the officer’s narrative was initially believed (“He took my Taser”) because cops are the good guys and those who flee aren’t. And even when terrible things happen, the rationale will be, “He was unarmed, he hadn’t done anything, but think of all the times he did and got away.” A video in the Scott case obliterated that, but it remains the troubling mind-set behind these stories.

There is a well-worn training video for law enforcement that shows endless images of officers wounded, dead or beaten badly. The voice-over implores those viewing it “to get home safely to your families tonight.” This video doesn’t inculcate a racial bias, but it suggests strongly that there are bad guys out there who want to hurt you: Get them, before they get you. I suspect this explains the eight bullets in Scott’s back more than racism does.

Yet “Get the bad guy” is an essential untruth. Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa believes “there are monstrous and evil acts,” but he does not believe “those who commit such acts are monsters or evil.” It is a very important distinction. New York Police Commissioner William J. Bratton, eulogizing two officers slain in December, wondered why “we always lose the good ones.” It’s because, he said, “almost all of them” — meaning police — “are the good ones.” I would go one step further. There is no such thing as a bad cop, only disturbing and dominant cop thinking that will invariably lead to excessive force and tragic outcomes.


In Arizona, the acronym that stands for the state’s gang (and immigration) law enforcement effort is pronounced “git ‘em.” We can be certain that this approach will not end well. Demonizing is another untruth, and there are no exceptions to that. It’s the worst and least sophisticated analysis of crime.

People in my community, Boyle Heights (where recently there were three gang-related homicides in a week), don’t call gang members bad guys. This is not because they turn a blind eye to criminality or cosign on bad behavior, but because they know too much. They know that a kid who’s acting out has endured unspeakable violence and is an enormously complex human being. They are reverent in the face of what he has suffered. They are able to stand in awe at what he’s carried, rather than in judgment at how he’s carried it. They know what language violence is speaking.

And what then is the argot of crime? It is the language of the despondent, the damaged and the traumatized. It is the idiom of the mentally ill. The new sheriff in L.A. County, Jim McDonnell, cannot speak of crime without mentioning in the same breath compassion, empathy and an acknowledgment that cops encounter folks on the worst day of their lives, when they commit crimes. This does not make the sheriff a “hug-a-thug.” It makes him enlightened.

We can’t get at crime unless we know what language it speaks. Otherwise, we are just suppressing the cough, not curing the disease. Truly getting at crime would make excessive force and officer-involved shootings much rarer than they seem to be now.


Reactive and proactive policing are both necessary. Still, we need to lower expectations that such efforts can ever be responsive to crime. Metro police can’t infuse hope into those for whom hope is foreign. The algorithm does not exist that can heal the traumatized. Data-driven predictions won’t result in the delivery of mental health services.

It turns out that crime is not a law enforcement issue at all, although it certainly has law enforcement implications. Crime will always be a community health issue. Consequently, only the community can get at crime at its roots. Only the community can heal its damaged members and lead the serious and violent offenders to celebrate: “This is the longest I’ve ever been out.”

Gregory J. Boyle, a Jesuit priest, is executive director and founder of Homeboy Industries. He is the author of “Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion.”

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