Studies Demonstrate Police Misconduct and Lies are “Pervasive”

By: Houston Criminal Lawyer John Floyd and Paralegal Billy Sinclair


Historically people have thought of “cops” as the kindly officer “walking the beat” keeping the streets safe from crime and everyone out of harm’s way. No more. Too many people, especially those in minority communities, see the cops in a more distrustful way. People in the suburbs, Main Street business people, and even the elite that prosper on Wall Street know that the police will, and frequently do, lie. In a recent post, we called attention to a study released last year that lying police who planted evidence and committed perjury sent 1100 innocent people to prison over the last two decades.


Peter Keane is the former commissioner of the San Francisco Police Department. He knows cops, and in particular, he knows their propensity for lying. In a March 15, 2011 op-ed piece for the San Francisco Chronicle, Keane cited two primary reasons why the police lie. First, and probably the most prevailing reason, they lie “because they [can] get away with it.” This makes the lying practice “one of the dirty little not-so-secret secrets of the criminal justice system …”


The second underlying reason is the often referred to “war on drugs.” As Keane noted, the police make lying a routine habit to justify illegal dope searches. The former commissioner said that when the police go under oath to legitimize their drug searches, the judge, prosecutor and defense counsel (even courtroom observers) know the cop is lying; and, more to the point, all of these spectators know before the “swearing match” between the cop and the defendant begins, that the judge will invariably rule in favor of the cop. The parties involved in this process, even defense attorneys many times, know that little can be done because no cares about a dope dealer; in fact, the general public as a rule sees lying, even the planting of evidence, as a necessary evil to get the dopers “off the streets.”


Keane’s article stirred controversy in 2011, and is still resonating with many in the media. For example, Michelle Alexander, writing in an op-ed piece for the February 2, 2013 edition of the New York Times, called attention to Keane’s piece in her own piece titled “Why Police Lie Under Oath.” Citing the two primary reasons Keane gave for police lying, Ms. Alexander offered another equally compelling reason why the police take the “so help me God” witness stand oath so casually.


“Police departments have been rewarded in recent years for the sheer number of [drug] 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.’”


Cutting edge “police dramas” like FX’s The Shield and HBO’s The Wire has popularized the “warped police culture” to the point that Vic Mackey symbolized the “good cop” to millions of viewers. That may not have been the producer’s intent but it certainly was the effect. These viewers did not care how many drug dealers Mackey killed or set up (and many were willing to forgive him for murdering a fellow police officer because the officer was a “snitch”) so long as he prevailed and came out on top.


Vic Mackey is the “new age” cop, the persona of the “end justifies the means” kind of law enforcement so many cops now believe is necessary to “keep our streets safe.” New York City Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly denies that “arrest quotas” play a role in this new age law enforcement. As Ms. Alexander put it: “… Such denials are mandatory, given that quotas are illegal under state law. But as the Urban Justice 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 help anybody, our primary job is not to assist anybody, our primary job is to get these 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.’”


As Ms. Alexander also pointed out, research shows that ordinary human beings have a propensity to lie, a lot.  Many lie when there is no “clear benefit to lying.” They lie because it sounds good, or makes them feel good, or because it makes them more important than they really are. Police enter the training academy as ordinary people, armed with a natural tendency to lie.  Then they become cops with the power to destroy lives with a lie. Ordinary people generally lie about minor, insignificant things in daily life. Not so with cops, there lies can destroy reputations, careers and families.


“The natural tendency to lie makes quota systems and financial systems that reward the police for the sheer numbers of people stopped, frisked or arrested especially dangerous,” Ms. Alexander wrote. “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.”


Ms. Alexander concluded, “and, no, I’m not crazy for thinking so.” No, she is definitely not crazy—unless, of course (and this is always possible in our topsy-turvy legal system), telling the truth is a new definition of being “crazy.” Ms. Alexander called attention to what Justice Gustin L. Reichbach with the State Supreme Court of Brooklyn said after finding that lying and corruption in the police department’s drug unit was rampant: “I thought I was not naïve. 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.”


Welcome to the real world Judge Reichbach. Criminal defense attorneys may as well become “enemy combatants” when they try to penetrate the police culture of lying and corruption. It’s like being armed with David’s rock up against an army of Goliath’s, hoping only, every now and then, to strike a lucky blow for truth and justice.


By: Houston Criminal Lawyer John Floyd and Paralegal Billy Sinclair

John Floyd is Board Certified in Criminal Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization