The answer is that some police officers do indeed lie. The major conditions under which police lie are three: to frame a suspect, to protect themselves or fellow officers from detection or punishment of misdeed, and to secure information or a confession when interrogating suspects. In Frazier v. Cupp (1969) the Supreme Court ruled that this third instance of lying is legal. But it is especially problematic when officers falsely tell juveniles that if they just sign felony confessions they can go home to their families. The first two are obviously not legal.
What is the Frequency of Police Lying?
In the Wall Street Journal of February 1, 2009, Amir Efrati writes: “a survey of prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges in Chicago said that they thought that, on average, perjury by police occurs 20% of the time in which defendants claim evidence was illegally seized.” Michele Alexander, in a February 2, 2013 article in the International New York Times quotes Peter Keane, a former San Francisco Police Commissioner: “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.” Writing in the New York Times of May 15, 2015, David Goodman reports that in 2004 New York City Civilian Review Board “found 26 instances where they believed an officer gave a false statement to investigators, a total equal to the previous four years combined.” In the same article, the chair of the board stated that “It is more likely now than ever that the officers’ lack of truthfulness is going to be captured, documented, and that is a function of video.”
Indeed, we have seen this very recently in the April 2015 video showing North Charleton, South Carolina Officer Michael Slager dropping a taser next to the body of Walter Scott, undoubtedly so that he could justify the fatal shooting of Mr. Scott in the back by saying that Scott had grabbed the officer’s taser and was about to use it on him. We saw it again in July in the video where University of Cincinnati Police Officer Ray Tensing fatally shoots Samuel Dubose, an African American like Mr. Scott, and falsely claimed that he had been dragged by Mr. Dubose’s car.
There have been some cases in the past, when there were no monitoring cameras, that have more recently come to light. Perhaps the most notorious among them is the case of Jon Burge, the Chicago police commander who tortured confessions out of approximately 200 African Americans between 1972 and 1991. He was later convicted in federal court only of perjury as the Illinois statue of limitations had run out on aggravated assault or torture. Also of note is the now retired New York Detective Louis Scarcella who has been scrutinized for repeatedly lying and physically coercing many confessions that led to long sentences for murder. Another New York officer of note is Justin Volpe who sodomized Haitian Abner Louima with a broken broomstick in a Brooklyn police station. Officer Volpe received a 30-year sentence for the damaging of Louima’s internal organs, while three other police officers who were in the station and tired to cover-up the crime for Volpe were convicted of perjury. But such prosecutions and convictions are extremely rare.
Why Do Police Lie?
In Michelle Alexander’s 2013 article referred to above, she gives five reasons for police officers lying. The first is that they can do it because they know that judges (and I would add juries) will take their word over that of a defendant. The second is that such defendants are typically poor, uneducated, and members of a racial minority. The third is that there are federal drug programs that offer cash awards based upon numbers of arrests which can lead to lying or planting of drugs, as in the 1999 notorious case of Tulia, Texas where police framed 43 people, of whom 40 were black, on drug charges. The fourth is “get tough” philosophies and practices of policing, sometimes including arrest quotas, that put additional pressure on to show “productivity.” The fifth is that there is a human propensity to lie, especially if it will enhance one’s reputation or standing in a group.
I would add some other reasons. The first is that some officers act out of anger, a desire to “stick it to” someone whom the officer finds offensive. A second is racial bigotry, where the officer is already predisposed to find the person offensive and deserving of harsh punishment. While we would hope that the object of “peace officers” would be to deescalate a situation, an officer who cannot control his or her temper or who is racially prejudiced is a menace to society and is more likely to lie to commit and try to cover up a misdeed. Third, there is the strong sense of fraternity among police officers, which makes them reluctant to inform on a fellow officer or to not back him or her up in a lie. Especially in larger urban areas, this sense of fraternity is often fortified by a sense that they are under attack by a critical outside world that does not appreciate the job they do, a job that sometimes requires them to not play by the rules. The institutional manifestation of that fraternity is the powerful Fraternal Order of the Police (FOP), which forcefully defends officers regardless of their actions. Writing in the New York Times on June 26, 2015, Law School Professor Paul Butler, a former federal prosecutor, argues that the FOP-backed “Police Officer’s Bills of Rights” in 14 states, including Illinois, offers police officers more rights protections than are offered to any other suspected citizen, or for that matter public employee, making holding police accountable much more difficult .
Finally, and most shocking to me, is that police have historically been taught that deviation from the rules and law is legitimate. In his 1995 book, Edge of the Knife, John Jay School of Criminal Justice Professor Paul Chevigny found that not only do police officers regularly lie when they charge civilians with whom they have had face-to-face encounters or chased in a car, but that in New York City such lying has actually been taught in the police academy as a way to “cover your ass.” He also shows that police departments have scant regard for the millions of dollars that larger cities have to pay out in civil suits to individuals and families who have been victimized by police violence and lying, and that the most violent officers have been rewarded rather than punished.
The Consequences of Police Lying
The most serious consequence is that innocent people go to prison or die without any accountability of officers who fabricate. Secondly, the entire system of justice is compromised. People, especially African American people and poor people who cannot afford high-powered lawyers and investigators, have no reason to believe that they are equal before the law. Because the police officer is an agent of the state, an officer’s lie is much more socially destructive than that of an individual’s. Yet individuals who lie to the police are the ones who are held criminally accountable, not the other way around.
Writing about police lying in the July 15, 2015 issue of The Police Chief, the professional review of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Attorney and Professor Elliot Spector concludes his article by saying that “the best way to encourage honesty is to have a clear code of conduct stating that officers who are untruthful will be subject to termination for a first offense and to implement this code standard in a consistent manner.” I would add that if the officers lie on arrest reports or other official papers, to investigators, or in courts, they should also be criminally prosecuted by special prosecutors who do not work with the departments in question on a day-to-day basis. And there should be no statutes of limitation on police lying or brutality. Without these measures, it is difficult to see how confidence that there is integrity and equality in U.S. law enforcement can be restored.