RSN Fundraising Banner
FB Share
Email This Page
add comment

Alexander writes: "In this era of mass incarceration, the police shouldn't be trusted any more than any other witness, perhaps less so."

Are police officers more trustworthy than private citizens? (photo: Reuters)
Are police officers more trustworthy than private citizens? (photo: Reuters)

Why Police Lie Under Oath

By Michelle Alexander, The New York Times

03 February 13


housands of people plead guilty to crimes every year in the United States because they know that the odds of a jury's believing their word over a police officer's are slim to none. As a juror, whom are you likely to believe: the alleged criminal in an orange jumpsuit or two well-groomed police officers in uniforms who just swore to God they're telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but? As one of my colleagues recently put it, "Everyone knows you have to be crazy to accuse the police of lying."

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."

Remarkably, New York City officers have been found to engage in patterns of deceit in cases involving charges as minor as trespass. In September it was reported that the Bronx district attorney's office was so alarmed by police lying that it decided to stop prosecuting people who were stopped and arrested for trespassing at public housing projects, unless prosecutors first interviewed the arresting officer to ensure the arrest was actually warranted. Jeannette Rucker, the chief of arraignments for the Bronx district attorney, explained in a letter that it had become apparent that the police were arresting people even when there was convincing evidence that they were innocent. To justify the arrests, Ms. Rucker claimed, police officers provided false written statements, and in depositions, the arresting officers gave false testimony.

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.

The pressure to boost arrest numbers is not limited to drug law enforcement. Even where no clear financial incentives exist, the "get tough" movement has warped police culture to such a degree that police chiefs and individual officers feel pressured to meet stop-and-frisk or arrest quotas in order to prove their "productivity."

For the record, the New York City police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, denies that his department has arrest quotas. Such denials are mandatory, given that quotas are illegal under state law. But as the Urban Justice Center's Police Reform Organizing Project has documented, numerous officers have contradicted Mr. Kelly. In 2010, a New York City police officer named Adil Polanco told a local ABC News reporter that "our primary job is not to help anybody, our primary job is not to assist anybody, our primary job is to get those numbers and come back with them." He continued: "At the end of the night you have to come back with something.  You have to write somebody, you have to arrest somebody, even if the crime is not committed, the number's there. So our choice is to come up with the number."

Exposing police lying is difficult largely because it is rare for the police to admit their own lies or to acknowledge the lies of other officers. This reluctance derives partly from the code of silence that governs police practice and from the ways in which the system of mass incarceration is structured to reward dishonesty. But it's also because police officers are human.

Research shows that ordinary human beings lie a lot - multiple times a day - even when there's no clear benefit to lying. Generally, humans lie about relatively minor things like "I lost your phone number; that's why I didn't call" or "No, really, you don't look fat." But humans can also be persuaded to lie about far more important matters, especially if the lie will enhance or protect their reputation or standing in a group.

The natural tendency to lie makes quota systems and financial incentives that reward the police for the sheer numbers of people stopped, frisked or arrested especially dangerous. One lie can destroy a life, resulting in the loss of employment, a prison term and relegation to permanent second-class status. The fact that our legal system has become so tolerant of police lying indicates how corrupted our criminal justice system has become by declarations of war, "get tough" mantras, and a seemingly insatiable appetite for locking up and locking out the poorest and darkest among us.

And, no, I'm not crazy for thinking so.

Michelle Alexander is the author of "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness." your social media marketing partner


A note of caution regarding our comment sections:

For months a stream of media reports have warned of coordinated propaganda efforts targeting political websites based in the U.S., particularly in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

We too were alarmed at the patterns we were, and still are, seeing. It is clear that the provocateurs are far more savvy, disciplined, and purposeful than anything we have ever experienced before.

It is also clear that we still have elements of the same activity in our article discussion forums at this time.

We have hosted and encouraged reader expression since the turn of the century. The comments of our readers are the most vibrant, best-used interactive feature at Reader Supported News. Accordingly, we are strongly resistant to interrupting those services.

It is, however, important to note that in all likelihood hardened operatives are attempting to shape the dialog our community seeks to engage in.

Adapt and overcome.

Marc Ash
Founder, Reader Supported News

+21 # Yopeace 2013-02-03 11:10
NH Chiefs of Police have created a raffle to give away a gun a day for 31 days in May. The first day's prize is a semi automatic assault weapon. Please join the community in asking the Chiefs: "Give up the gun giveaway and accept the offer of a buyback of all of the raffle tickets."
+19 # anntares 2013-02-03 11:16
Thank you for this article. Also applies to the Assistant District Attorneys who may see discrepancies or lack of evidence but push the case. I was part of a case like that.

Fortunately the defendant was given a pro bono lawyer to replace the overworked Legal Aid lawyer and that new lawyer found ATM security videos showing no armed robbery. And honest NYC jurors focused on evidence and acquitted 100%. But that only happened because the defendant was not a US citizen and his government paid for one lawyer - and two others signed on pro bono - so he was able to risk trial rather than take a 10 year plea deal to avoid the risk of conviction and 25-75 years. Why were the security videos not disclosed initially by the ADA? How could the ADA keep going to trial after seeing two ATM videos with the alleged knife-wielding defendant, each time, walking in 6 feet in front of his alleged victim, not looking back to see if followed. Twice that happened, walking in and out of two ATMs an hour an a half apart. And at the end of the second video, the accuser gives the defendant a quick hug and they walk away in opposite directions, casually. There are also cars, taxis and pedestrians in the ATM videos. Turns out the accuser was afraid his estranged wife would find out he was gay so tried to get a restraining order - and that request somehow turned into more and more accusations of two rapes, beatings, torture , kidnapping and two robberies at knifepoint.
-13 # Hirspray 2013-02-03 11:30
The police are in a difficult position. The incentives are to save their jobs and lying is part of it. In Oakland a bystander reported the ugly behavior of the out of control crowd, bent on fighting the police. There are young hoods from out of the city determined to destroy the " Pigs". The other unfortunate problem is the court's ruling that Oakland could not hire local residents exclusively. Many of the police are from suburban areas with a completely different culture. There are gangs lots of guns and an 'us and them' dynamic that defies common sense.
+17 # Artemis 2013-02-03 13:04
The police have CREATED a difficult position - greatly aided by the National Rifle Association, not to mention the incredible social injsutice in the USA.
+2 # Nominae 2013-02-04 01:41
Quoting Hirspray:
The police are in a difficult position. The incentives are to save their jobs and lying is part of it. In Oakland a bystander reported the ugly behavior of the out of control crowd, bent on fighting the police. There are young hoods from out of the city determined to destroy the " Pigs". The other unfortunate problem is the court's ruling that Oakland could not hire local residents exclusively. Many of the police are from suburban areas with a completely different culture. There are gangs lots of guns and an 'us and them' dynamic that defies common sense.

All of your negative marks here derive from the typical human "Black and White" view. ALL stories have at LEAST two valid sides to them, usually many more.

I have three nephews and one niece in police uniforms. Police are PEOPLE. They range from the highly altruistic, to the kind of people who should NEVER be allowed to carry a gun, much less a badge which they interpret as a "license to kill".

So, knee-jerk, "up/down", "black or white" judgments of such a HUGE number of our fellow humans represents childish fear and inability to process actual facts, even when the facts DON'T support your pet prejudice.

I have encountered police brutality, and I have been helped and treated like a human equal by different HUMANS in uniform. Police are NOT "all the same", and neither is lazy generalization a substitute for actual thought.

And, no, you do NOT want their jobs !
+1 # fliteshare 2013-02-19 05:13
As long as speeding tickets are more important than warcrimes. Who would want their jobs ? Honour and courage have made place for institutional cowardice and greed.
+1 # Beth Carter 2013-02-04 01:56
I think you need to see the movie Serpico which was based on a true story.
+17 # WestWinds 2013-02-03 11:48
Things like the Byrne Memorial Grant should be abolished. Basically, it has created bounty hunters out of the police departments.

The mission of the police has gone from one of public assistance to one of public predator under the NeoCons because as GWB said, "It takes time to restore chaos," because in chaos the 1% can steal and abuse while the police keep the 99% busy with fear.

New York has a long history of problems. Frank Serpico's efforts netted him a murder attempt by fellow officers. Officer Serpico is a great American hero and a model for all officers in the field.

I was once profiled, stopped and ticketed because I purchased a small black compact vehicle with a spoiler and tint on the windows. Out of four cars, three of which came around me and raced on ahead, I was the one who was stopped. I can still see the shock on that officers face because he was fully expecting a male youth of color and was visibly stunned to get just the opposite. Nonetheless, I had to cut a deal with him because I was charging "profiling" and he knew it, but he was willing to lie so he said I could plead guilty to a broken speedometer and pay a fine. I was so disgusted that the young judge asked me several times if this was the truth. I was afraid to say otherwise because the police in the town I lived in had recently been rounded up for running a late model car theft ring.

We live in interesting times...
-1 # EPGAH3 2013-02-03 19:10
Well, whether police or education, the numbers become all that matter. Schools must pass a certain number of people, even if they don't deserve it, or LOSE funding, while cops must arrest a certain number of criminals, to GET funding.
(Scoring CONVICTIONS, on the other hand, is a WHOLE other story. I have seen criminals tell incredibly obvious lies, or worse, BRAG about their crimes, and get away with it on technicalities that wouldn't fly in an 80s cartoon!)

But still, as long as people will not protect themselves from criminals, we need police to be our defenders.

In related news, in MEXICO, vigilantes have begun simply killing Cartel members and drug-dealers, and in vigilante-guard ed towns, crime has dropped more in the past 15 DAYS than in the 15 YEARS before that! Mexico is the LAST country I would expect that in (Well, maybe Zimbabwe), but what I DID expect is that the Mexican Government has sworn swift action--against the vigilantes, not the drug-thugs!
+2 # Glen 2013-02-04 08:14
When the government and the law are profiting from the drug trade, they will protect those doing the dirty work. Same in this country, but the drug trade keeps it all toned down to prevent too much public scrutiny.

But we all know it is happening.
+4 # EPGAH3 2013-02-03 19:12
PS, in some States, too dark of tinted windows are illegal, because they can't see who/what is in the car. Whether that means the cops or the stoplight cams, I can't tell. Check the laws where you live, or you give the cops a "free" arrest.
+17 # Activista 2013-02-03 13:25
"you have to be crazy to accuse the police of lying"
I did once .. and got on the police revenge "hit" list ... one can not believe how many obscure laws there are ... and cost of the obscure tickets (city revenue) ... that I never got before. It is police state system .. police here are mostly fat insecure people with personal problem - revenge and control freaks. Lived in the different cultures but none of the country had so many police and force/violence glorification.
Police parked in the park with SAY NO DRUGS on his car in the middle of empty bier and whiskey bottles ... I picked them up/cleaned the area and suggested that this could be more effective prevention than sitting in the car ... half our later there was a ticket ... my car was parked pointing in the opposite way ... as was for the last ten years ...
Visit country traffic court hearing .. 90% VERY POOR people ... missing teeth etc. - and they are giving them $500 fine for not having the insurance. I doubt that most of them did not see $100 bill in a while. And "privatised" jails are being filled via community cost and "private enterprise" PROFIT. Police and judges are filling their friends pockets.
+7 # DaveM 2013-02-03 14:52
My father practiced law for 23 years in a small town. One day a new court reporter was hired. At the end of the day, she said to my father: "did you know that the police lie in court?" All he could do was say "yes, they do". And of course, no one questions it.

I was one the "wrong side" of area law enforcement at one time and for years had to allow extra time each time I went somewhere as there was about a 20% chance that I'd be stopped on some pretense (on two occasions, it was claimed that my turn signals were the wrong color). It never went beyond the "friendly reminder" stage, but it was annoying.

Odd thing is that since I purchased a new car 2 1/2 years ago....I haven't been stopped once.
0 # Allen 23 2013-02-03 23:03
Police video, police video, Attorney, Lawyer, Car searches. Search warrant. Police officer, Deputy and police corruption, Police brutality state police, police video, police record. Attorney, Lawyer. Attorney or Lawyer - Police officers and police Corruption Police officers- police video, officer. Forum, and Police video -forum - police corruption-Atto rney-police video-Lawyer-Po lice Corruption and Police.Police brutality, cop, police.

A big FU to officer Dillingham who arrested me and threatened me with violence on his private chambers. Two years on I was cleared of all trumped up charges and Received a settlement out of court. Thanks to the ACLU and the witty Ms Murphy as my lawyer.

Cops lie as a course of duty, they are there to protect the banks- everything else is secondary.
+2 # gzuckier 2013-02-03 23:47
If you've ever been to traffic court; the cop has to sit there and testify that he remembers the whole thing just like it was ten minutes ago, rather than 10 months. If I can't recognize the cop, given that a ticket is a somewhat memorable event in my life, how can the cop remember each one of however many tickets he writes a day? I'd love to one day say a lawyer ask the cop "So, if you remember it so well, what was the defendant wearing?"
Of course, this isn't the fault of the cops, they're just stuck with this as part of their job; if there was any honesty in the legal system, they'd allow the cop to say "Of course I don't remember it, but I wrote down the particulars on the ticket there, see?" and that would be enough. So everybody on both sides of the law starts out with the knowledge that the whole process is BS; and any judges who actually believe that truth is paramount are probably to naive to sit on the bench.

THE NEW STREAMLINED RSN LOGIN PROCESS: Register once, then login and you are ready to comment. All you need is a Username and a Password of your choosing and you are free to comment whenever you like! Welcome to the Reader Supported News community.