Tales of piss-headed police officers dominated the news in the week before New Years (at least, in my social circles, if we discount everything related to Star Wars). In West Virginia, the governor has finally recommended the firing of the full Hitler Heil-ing cadet class. In Kansas, another cop was (allegedly) terminated after writing "Fucking Pig" on his own McDonald's coffee cup and trying to blame it on the hard-working, underpaid workers whom he should be theoretically serving and protecting. (Some cops in Alabama also made a mocking "homeless quilt" that the department later apologized for, though the officers weren't actually reprimanded as far as I can tell.)
On the surface, this is largely a good thing. Although these are somewhat-minor acts in the grand scheme of police behaviors, the fact that there are actually repercussions for police misconduct already represents a sea change from the way things have been. Police departments across the country have kept secret lists of criminal crops who remain in their employ; typically, when cops are caught lying about things (even as dumb and small as a McDonald's coffee cup), the rest of their testimony is still given weight. Hell, the National Center for Women and Policing found that at least 40% of police officers self-reported domestic violence in the home … and still keep their jobs.
But these guys in West Virginia and Kansas? They might actually lose their jobs over a couple of pictures.
The public outrage towards unfair and overly aggressive policing has noticeably swelled alongside the raise of the Black Lives Matter movement, and particularly in the aftermath of that obscene military occupation in Ferguson. But these events also inspired a counter-backlash, inspiring more pro-authoritarian Blue Lives Matters-types to show their colors — or perhaps more accurately, a singular color, which is just a thin-blue line of fascism. We know that there's a shortage of new police hires, likely as a result of all of this; we also know that the "Ferguson Effect" doesn't actually make us any less safe, and more likely encourages more efficient policing.
So here's the catch. Those Neo-Nazi cadets in West Virginia were precisely that: cadets. And the McDonald's Framer in Kansas? He'd only been with the department for two months.
The cops who are being punished are all newer, younger cops — who likely came up in this era of extreme police opinions. Union laws might make a harder to clear out an old, tenured officer with ties to white supremacy. But a rookie cop who was inspired by alt-right rhetoric, and gleefully heils Hitler for a photo op? That's a piece of trash that's easier, and cleaner, to dispose of. It also might be a more obvious example of abhorrent behavior. It can be easy for anyone to excuse their buddy's "casual" racist comments — "He didn't mean it like that! He has a black friend!" — because it lets them excuse the unconscious biases in themselves. The same goes for forged evidence — maybe your buddy had good intentions, or a good reason, ya know?
But if a new kid shows up and bluntly heils Hitler, or fakes a police insult on a god damn cup of McDonald's coffee, because they're young and dumb and reckless and radicalized by 4chan lulz? That makes it easier to clean house. For better, and for worse. Maybe it represents a major shift in police accountability; or maybe it's just a good PR movie. Only time will tell.
In the meantime, there's still a pretty good chance that these terminated rookies will still get hired elsewhere, or at least that their disciplinary files will never be seen. Because that's the way police contracts work.