Why Police Officers Lie So Often

Why Police Officers Lie So Often February 6, 2013

Over the years I have reported on dozens and dozens of situations where police officers lie in reports and during trials. Michelle Alexander, author of the amazing book The New Jim Crow, explains in a New York Times op-ed that this happens so often because of the many incentives to do so.

But are police officers necessarily more trustworthy than alleged criminals? I think not. Not just because the police have a special inclination toward confabulation, but because, disturbingly, they have an incentive to lie. In this era of mass incarceration, the police shouldn’t be trusted any more than any other witness, perhaps less so.

That may sound harsh, but numerous law enforcement officials have put the matter more bluntly. Peter Keane, a former San Francisco Police commissioner, wrote an article in The San Francisco Chronicle decrying a police culture that treats lying as the norm: “Police officer perjury in court to justify illegal dope searches is commonplace. One of the dirty little not-so-secret secrets of the criminal justice system is undercover narcotics officers intentionally lying under oath. It is a perversion of the American justice system that strikes directly at the rule of law. Yet it is the routine way of doing business in courtrooms everywhere in America.”

The New York City Police Department is not exempt from this critique. In 2011, hundreds of drug cases were dismissed after several police officers were accused of mishandling evidence. That year, Justice Gustin L. Reichbach of the State Supreme Court in Brooklyn condemned a widespread culture of lying and corruption in the department’s drug enforcement units. “I thought I was not naïve,” he said when announcing a guilty verdict involving a police detective who had planted crack cocaine on a pair of suspects. “But even this court was shocked, not only by the seeming pervasive scope of misconduct but even more distressingly by the seeming casualness by which such conduct is employed.”…

Mr. Keane, in his Chronicle article, offered two major reasons the police lie so much. First, because they can. Police officers “know that in a swearing match between a drug defendant and a police officer, the judge always rules in favor of the officer.” At worst, the case will be dismissed, but the officer is free to continue business as usual. Second, criminal defendants are typically poor and uneducated, often belong to a racial minority, and often have a criminal record. “Police know that no one cares about these people,” Mr. Keane explained.

All true, but there is more to the story than that.

Police departments have been rewarded in recent years for the sheer numbers of stops, searches and arrests. In the war on drugs, federal grant programs like the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program have encouraged state and local law enforcement agencies to boost drug arrests in order to compete for millions of dollars in funding. Agencies receive cash rewards for arresting high numbers of people for drug offenses, no matter how minor the offenses or how weak the evidence. Law enforcement has increasingly become a numbers game. And as it has, police officers’ tendency to regard procedural rules as optional and to lie and distort the facts has grown as well. Numerous scandals involving police officers lying or planting drugs — in Tulia, Tex. and Oakland, Calif., for example — have been linked to federally funded drug task forces eager to keep the cash rolling in.

And let’s not forget that they often lie to cover up their own misconduct, which is obviously a very powerful incentive.

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  • fastlane

    Also, they lie because there are most often no consequences. I’m finishing up a lawsuit involving a motor vehicle accident where the officer on the scene pretty much ignored my written statement entirely, and completely believed the other guy’s total fabrication. The kicker? The other guy was a fire fighter, part of the ‘community’……

    Luckily for me, the arbitrator saw through the lies, but it’s taken two years, and neither the officer, nor the other party, will be punished in any way.

  • busterggi

    Absolutely – I had a police captain commit perjury against me years ago and my lawyer never said boo – cops lie because they can and its a way to get ahead.

  • pianoman, Heathen & Torontophile

    I always liked watching “Cops” on TV. It hadn’t escaped my notice that there was a certain, very professional and by-the-book manner in which those officers conducted themselves on that program. The cynical response from me was that “the officers know the cameras are filming them, so they must be careful.”

    I have only dealt with police officers about 5 different times in my life, and I can tell you that almost every one of them was an utter prick, talking to me as though I was either stupid or just some low-life. They never seemed to conduct themselves as they did on TV. Too bad I didn’t have a camera somewhere.

  • glodson

    Great, we are giving bonuses for making a police state. Excellent idea, I see no faults with this line of thinking!

  • baal

    FWIW, if you want to limit some amount of these abuses, you should also be pro-privacy. It helps by reducing the scope of cops invasion of your personal space (read: opportunity to plant stuff or find what you may have when they have no reason to look).

    Closer to home for me, a cop lied against one of my sisters. She stood up to a bizarre deli owner (she was an employee) and the cop friend of the owner then arrested her for felony theft (of less than $100). Turns out that that cop had done the same to 5 prior woman who worked at that deli.

    Also, the Metro Gang Task Force in MN was shut down last year for extremely lose record keeping on the confiscations they took and other misconduct.

  • rowanvt

    There should be severe punishments for law enforcement officials who break the law. Above and beyond what we mere laypeople experience.

    Cops not only lie, but they’re perfectly willing to do nothing about a crime that occurred.

    I was stalked when I was 17. All the evidence pointed at the guy who registered me to vote. We got inappropriate phone calls directly from the registering agency starting the day after. Then we began getting calls in the middle of the night, and two weeks later some guy tried to break in. Later, after the cops failed to do anything, we had a lovely string of lies from the guy’s supervisor. First, he wasn’t in the state the day of the attempt. Then he was in the state, but not in the area. Then he was in the area, but totally wouldn’t do something like that.

    And the cop…. sexist piece of shit. I was so utterly terrified by what was happening that I hid in a closet with a bow and hunting arrows (the 4 sided razor-blade configuration) for four hours. I didn’t calm down until my dogs calmed down and then I called my family, and then I called the cops.

    The guy they sent down said that they couldn’t do anything, like dust for prints on the glass he was pounding on, because I had waited too long to call, and how were they to know it was an actual attempted break-in and stalking when it could just be I had had an argument with my boyfriend.

    I do not trust the cops.

  • Steve LaBonne

    It’s been so entrenched for so long that there’s a word for it: “testilying”.

  • frog

    My interactions with the police have always been decent. They’ve been courteous, polite, and believed me. The last three times I’ve been pulled over for speeding (span of about 12 years), I’ve been let off with a warning.

    I’m sure this had nothing to do with my being a highly educated, upper-middle-class, white person. Nothing at all.

    (Yes, that second paragraph should be read with heavy irony.)

    Though I do have to wonder how even those traits protect against the jackassery. Is there a notion among cops that they can’t be sure I won’t turn out to have friends in high places, so as long as I don’t do anything aggressive or stupid, they won’t give me grief?

  • magistramarla

    I actually met a policeman at a party last weekend who is an Atheist, a Liberal and a Progressive.

    As my husband and I chatted with him, we went from wary to delighted.

    Only in California, right? There is some hope.

  • freemage

    Frog@8: You and I are in the same boat, both demographically and in police interactions. I do, indeed, suspect that they assume that a white, middle-class dood is likely to be believed if he complains about mistreatment, far more than a poor black woman, anyway.

    Magistramarla@9: Unless he expressed a firm belief that police departments need better civilian monitoring and stronger punishments for offenders, that doesn’t hold out much hope for me. Most cops I’ve known have a remarkable ability (and, to be fair, a certain degree of psychological necessity) to compartmentalize their professional and personal lives and even opinions.

    One of the biggest temptations for cops to lie is in covering up the misdeeds of other cops. Most of them won’t even think of it as cover-up, either. Instead, they’ll hear a tale about a cop who is accused of something happening in private, and assume that the accused cop’s version is accurate, and thus be willing to lie to support it. Instead of being just a ‘character witness’, they say they actually observed the encounter, and that the accused cop’s actions were exactly as they appear in the report. After doing this multiple times in their rookie stage, they slowly migrate to bigger and more aggressive lies that they know are actual lies.

    And you know what? I don’t necessarily despise them for this reflexive psychological action. Cops ARE often placed in difficult and dangerous situations, dealing with a range of attitudes that start at ‘contempt’ and end up in the vicinity of ‘sadistically murderous’. The natural, herd-animal response is to close ranks and defend your own.

    Which is why observation, assessment and punishment MUST be put in the hands of civilians and automation. Cops should be required to have both four-way dash-cams and shoulder/cap-cams operating at all times while on duty; anyplace that a suspect or evidence can be stored should be under surveillance, and so on. Make it impossible to lie, and then they won’t. And the best part, in many ways, is that it protects the good cops, too–in every jurisdiction that’s increased automated surveillance, recorded interrogations and so on, the number of complaints against the police has plummeted–partly, sure, because the cops stopped stepping over the line, but also because frequently the complainants were quickly and efficiently shown to be lying.

  • Cops should be required to have both four-way dash-cams and shoulder/cap-cams operating at all times while on duty;

    I would add that any “loss” of data/video is statutorily presumed to be deliberate and the cops must show with clear and convincing evidence that it was unintentional. Also, ALL SWAT raids must be likewise recorded, and if they are not, anything found/seized is inadmissible.

  • plutosdad

    I think “Mistakes were made, but not by me” also points to how “good” cops get caught up in this. It starts out with situations that don’t seem so horrible: a dealer flushes his stash before he can be caught, but the officer knows it was there, so he plants a little just so the guy can’t get away. The officer thinks “I know the guy is guilty, so no one is getting hurt”.

    But once you start doing things like that you can’t stop. The officer finds himself lying more and more. And then, like all of us, is caught up in tribal politics where everyone is against them. And then the “good” cop not only justifies his own breaking of the law, but justifies “bad” cops as well, and covers for them, even when it comes to murder.

    I think that is probably accurate, and the only way I can really understand how lying and abusing citizens is so rampant, and at the same time I’ve worked with so many police (and have cousins who are police) that are good people, and you have to wonder how can they be both?

    I think, as others point out, IA cannot be part of the police, just like Bar associations cannot discipline prosecutors. They need completely separate organizations to investigate crimes by police and prosecutors. Of course, then THOSE will be victims of “regulatory capture”, but it’s a start. No group can police themselves.

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