Sociology Prof. Andrew Papachristos disputes “bad apple” phenomenon, discusses Chicago police violence


Graphic by Carly Schulman

Andrew Papachristos. The professor spoke about his research on the reasons behind Chicago’s police violence.

Emma Rosenbaum, Reporter

Chicago’s police violence is a systemic issue, not the result of a small number of problematic officers, sociology Prof. Andrew Papachristos said at a One Book One Northwestern event Wednesday.

Papachristos said people often resort to the “bad apple” phenomenon which assumes a small number of police officers are responsible for the majority of malpractice. While he said this is somewhat true, he added it is too simplistic to explain the “epidemic” of police violence.

“We forget the rest of (the bad apple) analogy, which is (that) it spoils the bunch,” Papachristos said. “Oh yeah, and there might be a rotten tree.”

At the event, Papachristos presented his research, a network science analysis from data derived from the Invisible Institute’s Citizens Police Data Project, a database of police activities.

One Book One Northwestern director Nancy Cunniff said she reached out to Papachristos because his research complimented the themes in “Just Mercy,” the 2020 One Book selection.

There is usually one bad apple, Papachristos said, in a unit that has the highest number of complaints and use of force reports. However, these officers are surrounded by others just like them. When mapping out each officer’s career, he said he found that violent behavior of some officers spreads.

This network of officers expands when problematic officers are transferred to other units because of misconduct. Papachristos said these officers were found to be more likely to shoot at an unarmed civilian and have the potential to “contaminate” more officers.

Papachristos worked with the Invisible Institute to find 160 crews of officers in the Chicago Police Department. According to the data, these cliques of officers, which contain 480 individuals and make up 4 percent of all CPD officers, account for a quarter of all use of force complaints.

“These 4 percent of officers have been essentially creating levels of harm far exceeding what you would expect by any random distribution of bad apples,” he said.

Weinberg senior Isaac Sears, said he attended the event because it related to his racial politics class. He had heard the “bad apples” term before, but he had never heard the end of the phrase.

“One of the more shocking things to me was that a lot of the problems are driven by a few people who are kind of corrupting the whole force,” he said.

Ultimately, Papachristos said the bad apple argument is not only simplistic but it is “distracting.”

He said relying on this explanation means there is too much of a focus on reforming the most problematic officers rather than addressing the systemic issues in police departments. Focusing on the bad apples only offers short term relief, he said.

“If we do not attend to and elevate the systematic attention to the systematic problems, it will continue to create these massive disparities and inequities,” he said.

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Twitter: @EmmaCRosenbaum

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