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Rotten Apple or Rotten Barrel? The Role of Civil Rights Lawyers in Ending the Culture of Police Violence

National Black Law Journal, Vol. 21, No. 2, p. 137, 2008

37 Pages Posted: 3 Aug 2010  

Judith A.M. Scully

Stetson University College of Law

Date Written: 2008


This article addresses the problem of police violence that is persistent in American society and argues, despite the prevalence of police misconduct in general and police violence in particular, the predominant belief is that police violence is a rare occurrence and that “good” policing is the rule and police violence and corruption is the exception. From this perspective police officers who engage in illegal and/or violent activities represent a “few bad apples” and therefore their violent and corrupt actions are viewed as an anomaly for which the police force cannot be held accountable. This article contends, contrary to the view that violence in policing is a matter of a “few bad apples,” that violence is part of the institutional culture of policing and is therefore a function of a “rotten barrel.”

Part I of the article argues that violence is not a phenomena engaged in by a “few bad apples” but rather it is a phenomena that is embraced as a valuable part of police culture. No longer do police officers primarily view themselves as those who “serve and protect,” but rather view themselves as warriors in a battle against crime. This mentality results in violent actions on the part of the police.

Part II of the article examines the major legal recourse for addressing police violence; specifically Section 1983 civil rights litigation. Section 1983 civil rights litigation provides a means of legal redress for victims of police violence, but the author argues this remedy is ineffective because lawyers file cases against individual officers and fail to recognize patterns of violence among groups of officers. Further, it is maintained that offending officers who violate individuals’ civil rights generally return to their jobs only to continue similar acts of violence and to train inexperienced officers that the behavior is accepted and condoned by the police administration. It is contended that this pattern of aggressive policing fosters a cycle of condoned violence, which further supports the “rotten barrel” of police culture.

Part III of the article explores this phenomena by using the case of Jon Burge, the author discusses one of the most infamous examples of police violence and torture and delineates the violent and inhumane actions of Commander Jon Burger and the Area 2 police detectives in the city of Chicago, which resulted in over 150 African American men having been tortured within twenty years. The Jon Burge case is used to urge civil rights attorneys to work with community organizers, elected officials, criminal defense attorney, prosecutors, cooperating, police officials, the media, and members of the international community to effectuate meaningful change to eliminate police violence.

In Part IV of the article the author contends that community and human rights activists and attorneys must pursue alternative means to address and alleviate police misconduct and violence, asserts that it is imperative that civil rights attorneys embrace and involve the community to fight police violence and misconduct, states that lawyers must generate constant dialogue within the community and community groups to educate them about the issues of police misconduct and violence and to empower the community to think of these issues in terms of human decency and human rights, and maintains that lawyers can also demand police accountability through international agencies such as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the United Nations Committee Against Torture, and the United Nations Human Rights Committee.

The article concludes with the argument that it is difficult to fight police violence through litigation alone. The author asserts that instead of litigation, lawyers and activists committed to social justice must fight their battles not only in the courtroom but in the community; and they must use their legal skills to empower members of the community to act on their own behalf. The author also contends that a consciousness of the limitations of U.S. law and a willingness to use legal skills outside the courtroom is necessary to effectuate permanent change in the policing culture and towards social justice.

Keywords: Police violence, police misconduct, civil rights, torture, Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, United Nations Committee Against Torture, United Nations Human Rights Committee, Jon Burge, Section 1983, race

JEL Classification: K1, K14, K30

Suggested Citation

Scully, Judith A.M., Rotten Apple or Rotten Barrel? The Role of Civil Rights Lawyers in Ending the Culture of Police Violence (2008). National Black Law Journal, Vol. 21, No. 2, p. 137, 2008. Available at SSRN:

Judith A. M. Scully (Contact Author)

Stetson University College of Law ( email )

1401 61st Street South
Gulfport, FL 33707
United States
727-562-7382 (Phone)

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