Why Do Police Lie Under Oath?

The New York Times had an op-ed this weekend, Why Police Lie Under Oath. The article quotes Peter Keane, a former San Francisco Police commissioner, who wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle:

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.”

Why do they do it? [More...]

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.

In 2011, after dismissing hundreds of drug cases in New York after the NYPD mishandled evidence, the Judge said, when sentencing a police officer for planting drugs on a suspect:

I thought I was not naive.... 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.”

Another big reason drug cops lie is the promise of federal money:

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.

Another: get tough on crime policies, which encourage police to boost their numbers when it comes to stop and frisk and arrests. As one NYPD cop told a reporter:

“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.”

Why do they get away with it? Most defendants realize that if a jury is given a choice between believing a cop in his blue uniform or a defendant in a jumpsuit, they are far more likely to believe the cop. They know the jury is thinking, "He must have done something wrong or he wouldn't be sitting there." So they take a deal to lesser charges, even if innocent, to avoid the harsher penalty they would receive if convicted at trial.

This isn't exactly huge news -- in 1982 Alan Dershowitz wrote 13 truths about what he called "The Justice Game" in his book, The Best Defense. Among them:

III. It is easier to convict guilty defendants by violating the constitution than by complying with it, and in some cases it is impossible to convict guilty defendants without violating the constitution.

IV. Almost all police lie about whether they violated the Constitution in order to convict guilty defendants.

V. All Prosecutors, Judges and Defense Attorneys Are Aware of Rule IVI.

VI. Many prosecutors implicitly encourage police to lie about whether they violated the Constitution in order to convict guilty defendants.

VII. All judges are aware of rule VI.

VIII. Most trial judges pretend to believe police officers who they know are lying

IX. All appellate judges are aware of rule VIII, yet many pretend to believe the trial judges who pretend to believe the police officers.

X. Most judges disbelieve defendants about whether their constitutional rights have been violated, even if they are telling the truth.

XI. Most judges and prosecutors would not knowingly convict a defendant who they believe to be innocent of the crime charged (or a closely related crime).

XII. Rule XI does not apply to members of organized crime, drug dealers, career criminals, or potential informants.

XIII. Nobody really wants justice.

But 30+ years later, it seems things have not changed. One step in the right direction would be to end quota systems (including those that supposedly don't exist) in places they are against the law. Another would be to end financial incentives to police, such as by cutting off the federal money that goes to drug task forces.

Until these and other changes are made, and people care enough to demand them, we are destined to continue as America: Prison Nation.

< Beyonce's Live Version of the Star Stangled Banner | Italy Reinstates Convictions and Orders Prison for Ex-CIA Agents >
  • The Online Magazine with Liberal coverage of crime-related political and injustice news

  • Contribute To TalkLeft

  • Display: Sort:
    I would never trust a police officer. (5.00 / 1) (#32)
    by Dr Molly on Tue Feb 05, 2013 at 06:27:31 AM EST
    I have to say that, although I have never directly been involved in a police or arrest situation, based on my own personal observations and experience of police officer actions throughout my life -- I have a very low opinion of them and would never trust them. That is sad but it is the truth. I have witnessed some horrific behaviors of police officers involving thuggish attitudes and power trips, many offensive and disturbing behaviors, and only ONCE have I experienced a police officer actually acting to help someone in need in a manner that I think befits someone who should 'serve and protect' the people.

    I can't help it, that has just been my experience.

    That's actually my experience also (5.00 / 1) (#39)
    by sj on Tue Feb 05, 2013 at 10:50:31 AM EST
    And I have relatives in law enforcement.  I love them, but but I wouldn't want to be a stranger to them and get stopped.

    My son and I were once stopped and handcuffed one night in front of our own home for almost two hours while 5 more police cars were called and the car I was driving (borrowed from a relative who was visiting) was searched.  After an hour of pulling up carpets and stripping the trunk they found a little tiny bowl from a pipe that had probably been there 15 years.  It wasn't even enough to ticket us on.

    Why were we stopped you might ask?  Because the New Mexico vanity plate was one character different (a space) from a Colorado license plate on a car that had been reported stolen.  It was the middle of winter and about 20 degrees out.

    Even half the cops wanted it all to end.  But the other half had to find something to justify all the activity.  In the end, they confiscated the license plate, threateningly informed us that we would have to prove it was valid and left.  The "proof" meant taking a bus to the courthouse, waiting in line about an hour, presenting the registration that the police had already seen, and having it returned without question.  Oh, and missing half a day of work.


    I hate people like that. They're just mean and do (5.00 / 2) (#40)
    by Angel on Tue Feb 05, 2013 at 11:13:09 AM EST
    this kind of thing because they can.

    Do you recall a couple of months back there was a DPS trooper in the Dallas/Ft Worth area who pulled over two women and cavity searched them?  Well, that trooper has been fired from her job, thankfully, and the two women have filed lawsuits, rightly so.  It's people like that trooper and the cops in your story who give all the other cops a bad name.  

    I was in traffic court, was 23 years old, never before had a ticket, and a cop said I ran a red light (I didn't) on my way to work one morning.  Well, the truth was he couldn't see the light from where he was parked, and I proved it in court with photos and a diagram.  He lied to the judge and told her I was also speeding!  I guess he thought I was a young and stupid coed (it happened on the main drag in front of the university) who wouldn't fight the charge.  The judge called him on the carpet for lying.  Moral of this story: Do not eff with me.  :)


    SITE VIOLATOR, (5.00 / 1) (#47)
    by caseyOR on Tue Feb 05, 2013 at 05:27:02 PM EST
    I think.

    Yes, it is (none / 0) (#48)
    by Zorba on Tue Feb 05, 2013 at 06:08:15 PM EST

    Diogenes Theorem (1.00 / 2) (#22)
    by diogenes on Mon Feb 04, 2013 at 06:54:20 PM EST
    "XI. Most judges and prosecutors would not knowingly convict a defendant who they believe to be innocent of the crime charged (or a closely related crime)"

    Very few people who I treat at the county jail tell me that they have never committed closely related crimes.  They are just innocent of "the crime I was arrested for".  Like the guy with a long history of domestic violence who nevertheless says that "she lied--I didn't hit her (this time)".  Very few innocent Sunday School teachers are arrested, have prosecutors take the case to a grand jury, get indicted, and get convicted in a trial.  

    What's your point? (5.00 / 4) (#23)
    by Yman on Mon Feb 04, 2013 at 07:04:05 PM EST
    You keep posting this "theorem" ad nauseum without explaining the point you're trying to make.  They deserve to have lies used against them and be wrongfully convicted because they've done other bad things?

    BTW - Are you a "Sunday school teacher"?


    Dumb (5.00 / 1) (#45)
    by ScottW714 on Tue Feb 05, 2013 at 04:49:11 PM EST
    Theorem - an idea accepted or proposed as a demonstrable truth often as a part of a general theory : proposition

    Just to be clear, a theorem is not what you believe, it's something you can quantify, which you can't, it would require knowledge that only the arrested would know for a fact.

    But more importantly, what the F does that have to someone intentionally convicting an innocent person.

    FYI, my Sunday school teacher, who was also the Chief of Police, was arrested for shoplifting.  You tell me, were those nails in his pocket stolen, or did he simply forget to pay for them as claimed ?  Right, only one person knows the answer to that and it ain't you.


    lol; your lamp's burned out, Diogenes. (none / 0) (#27)
    by Mr Natural on Mon Feb 04, 2013 at 10:06:31 PM EST
    Why do they lie under oath? (none / 0) (#1)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Mon Feb 04, 2013 at 01:38:17 PM EST
    Because they can and they think the ends justify the means.

    Also, would go a long way (none / 0) (#2)
    by bmaz on Mon Feb 04, 2013 at 02:04:25 PM EST
    ...to change how LE officers are trained in their academies. They are specifically taught how to shade truth, what points to highlight to evade truth and bulletproof stories and how to con juries and judges into believing the deception.

    In short duplicity and perjury are instilled as standard operating procedure from the outset with LE officers, and it is only exacerbated when prosecutors sandpaper off the remaining edges of honesty in preparation for court.

    Hear, hear: (none / 0) (#3)
    by oculus on Mon Feb 04, 2013 at 02:11:25 PM EST
    XI. Most judges and prosecutors would not knowingly convict a defendant who they believe to be innocent of the crime charged (or a closely related crime).

    [Se, A. Dershowitz, ante.]

    Oculus you missed number XII (5.00 / 1) (#13)
    by Jeralyn on Mon Feb 04, 2013 at 04:26:48 PM EST
    XII. Rule XI does not apply to members of organized crime, drug dealers, career criminals, or potential informants.

    No, I didn't "miss" it. (none / 0) (#25)
    by oculus on Mon Feb 04, 2013 at 08:10:49 PM EST
    And, yes, I realize this criminal (none / 0) (#26)
    by oculus on Mon Feb 04, 2013 at 08:12:37 PM EST
    defense blog.

    and don't forget (none / 0) (#28)
    by womanwarrior on Mon Feb 04, 2013 at 10:13:14 PM EST
    the rules re innocence or constitutional guarantees do not apply to people who are accused of looking at child pornography or who are accused of sex offenses, generally.

    agree (none / 0) (#8)
    by sj on Mon Feb 04, 2013 at 03:24:56 PM EST
    but conversely, it is foolish to pretend it never happens or even to deny that it happens routinely.

    In my experience, it happens, but not (none / 0) (#9)
    by oculus on Mon Feb 04, 2013 at 03:33:29 PM EST
    frequently. Also, in my opinion, sometimes the cause is confusion b/c the events happened awhile ago and the law enforcement officer has many intervening law enforcement contacts. I never saw an officer under oath lie just for the h*ll of it.

    red herring (5.00 / 1) (#10)
    by sj on Mon Feb 04, 2013 at 03:55:05 PM EST
    I didn't say they lied "for the h*ll of it".  And if that's the way you want to view it, there is no talking to you about it.

    I limited my comment to my (none / 0) (#12)
    by oculus on Mon Feb 04, 2013 at 04:05:37 PM EST
    personal  experience. I think is too simple to fling generalities.

    Okay (none / 0) (#15)
    by sj on Mon Feb 04, 2013 at 04:59:27 PM EST
    I limited mine to revelations that have been made over the years.  And I still never said they lied for the h*ll of it.

    Indeed. Peace. (5.00 / 1) (#24)
    by oculus on Mon Feb 04, 2013 at 08:07:25 PM EST
    can you reveal (none / 0) (#29)
    by womanwarrior on Mon Feb 04, 2013 at 10:14:27 PM EST
    what is the nature of your personal experience with the issue of police testimony?

    Most everyone here has this info. (none / 0) (#31)
    by oculus on Mon Feb 04, 2013 at 11:44:19 PM EST
    I hate to repeat it as some are less than kind.

    asset forfeiture (none / 0) (#4)
    by Abdul Abulbul Amir on Mon Feb 04, 2013 at 02:14:43 PM EST

    Asset forfeiture is another reason to lie.  When asset forfeiture covers a lot of a department's pay checks the motivation is obvious.


    Why does anyone lie under oath? (none / 0) (#5)
    by Donald from Hawaii on Mon Feb 04, 2013 at 02:15:54 PM EST
    Because when lying is incentivized, people will often perceive it to be in their own best interests to do so. It's pretty much the same reason why people think they can appear before legislative bodies, and then knowingly and willfully peddle falsehoods to lawmakers in their testimony in a public hearing.

    I've been working for some time on a project about the "Massie Affair," the infamous case from 1931-32 Honolulu in which five local young men were first falsely accused of kidnapping and rape by a Navy officer's wife, and then one of them was subsequently kidnapped and lynched by the accuser's husband and mother. The Navy had a very powerful and influential political presence out here at the time, and wanted to secure a conviction of the defendants so desperately in the original rape trial that they pressured certain elements within the Honolulu Police Dept. to manufacture evidence against the accused.

    When the defense counsel proved during the rape trial beyond any reasonable doubt that the evidence was clearly false -- thanks in large part to several police officers who refused to go along with the scheme, subsequently agreeing to testify for the defense to that effect -- the trial judge not only refused to dismiss the false evidence, he even allowed the prosecutor to present that bull$H*+ to jurors again in his summation. Not that it mattered, because the case against the young men proved so flimsy that the jury refused to convict.

    Sometime afterward, after the Massies fled the islands following their commutation of their murder sentences after being convicted of lynching one of the defendants in the Massie Affair's spectacular second trial, the Territory of Hawaii hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency to investigate and determine what went so horribly wrong in this entire sorry matter.

    When Pinkerton investigators interviewed Circuit Court Judge Alva Steadman, who had presided over the original rape trial, he freely admitted that the Navy had brought considerable pressure upon both him and the Territorial courts in this matter. Further, he said that he was offered a promotion were he able to steer jurors toward convictiing the five falsely accused defendants.

    Steadman justified his actions to investigators by noting bluntly that because the defendants were nonwhite and poor, they were considered by territorial authorities as expendable commodities whose sacrifice was necessary to placate the U.S. military interests then dominating the islands. But he also offered in all candor, "Had that jury found those young men guilty, I never would have felt entirely right about it." Thank heavens for small favors, huh?

    So, I'd offer that 80 years later (not just 30), nothing much has really changed. When powerful interests incentivize people in authority to place their thumbs on the scales of justice, they're generally not only willing to do so, they will also bring enormous pressure down upon anyone within their own ranks who choose to think for themselves and not play ball in the interests of the prevailing status quo.


    They do it because they can. (none / 0) (#6)
    by Chuck0 on Mon Feb 04, 2013 at 02:41:42 PM EST
    And there are little or no repercussions when they get caught at it. Judges go along because too many of them are elected. And no judge will cross the police or prosecutors. No judge wants or any other politician for that matter wants to be labeled "soft" on crime or criminals.

    And don't give me the bogus line "it's a few bad apples." That is total BS. Police dishonesty and lying is pervasive all over the country. They lie in police reports, they lie in court, they lie to get warrants. Although they swear an oath (I presume) to uphold the US Constitution, most cops see the Constitutions and the rights granted to citizens as more of an impediment to their job. They look at the citizenry with contempt. We are all somehow beneath and they are the chosen few. Heroes. I think not.

    Complete hogwash (none / 0) (#7)
    by jbindc on Mon Feb 04, 2013 at 03:17:29 PM EST
    well, I recommend (none / 0) (#30)
    by womanwarrior on Mon Feb 04, 2013 at 10:19:11 PM EST
    that you read about the cases in Philadelphia where a public defender saw a pattern of the exact same language in many, many search warrants. Investigation revealed indisputable evidence of widespread lying and lots of convictions were overturned, and police officers fired.  I suppose I could find reference to it if I searched the internet, but I wonder if it is worth it to present more facts.  

    Not hogwash. (none / 0) (#33)
    by Chuck0 on Tue Feb 05, 2013 at 06:50:29 AM EST
    My father was a cop. I have listened in on many a conversation in social settings and heard firsthand, the contempt police have for the people, laws and the Constitution.

    I didn't say it doesn't happen (none / 0) (#34)
    by jbindc on Tue Feb 05, 2013 at 07:31:01 AM EST
    But you are generalizing about a whole lotta people in the system.

    Of course, we could also add the other side of the story - "Why do so many criminals lie under oath?"


    It's about losing our trust in government, and the (5.00 / 2) (#35)
    by Angel on Tue Feb 05, 2013 at 08:32:59 AM EST
    police are part of the government.  Of course people lie, all the time.  But when justice is at stake then it's in the best interest of everyone that the police tell the truth. In fact, it's crucial.

    It is a sad state of affairs (3.67 / 3) (#36)
    by Chuck0 on Tue Feb 05, 2013 at 08:42:07 AM EST
    if you are going to hold law enforcement to the same standards as the "criminals."

    They should be held to a higher standard, not a lower one. They have the power of life and death. Freedom or incarceration. They are paid to uphold the law. The "criminal" is not.


    Wrong. Again. (none / 0) (#37)
    by jbindc on Tue Feb 05, 2013 at 08:51:19 AM EST
    What I said is that your statement was an incorrect and biased sweeping generalization of tens of thousands of people who work as police officers, prosecutors, judges, and federal agents.

    You said this: (4.00 / 3) (#38)
    by Angel on Tue Feb 05, 2013 at 09:49:42 AM EST
    "Of course, we could also add the other side of the story - "Why do so many criminals lie under oath?"

    So it appears you're saying it's okay for cops to lie if the so-called criminals lie.  It isn't okay, and never should be okay for cops to lie, regardless of whether or not anyone else does.  


    No (none / 0) (#41)
    by jbindc on Tue Feb 05, 2013 at 11:15:41 AM EST
    Just pointing out that making grand pronouncements about only one side of a story makes the commenter look foolish.

    Yeah, right. (none / 0) (#42)
    by Angel on Tue Feb 05, 2013 at 11:21:00 AM EST
    Proving my point (none / 0) (#43)
    by jbindc on Tue Feb 05, 2013 at 11:26:46 AM EST
    Meh. (none / 0) (#44)
    by Angel on Tue Feb 05, 2013 at 11:39:37 AM EST
    And it's not just big drug cases (none / 0) (#11)
    by Dadler on Mon Feb 04, 2013 at 03:58:54 PM EST
    I've been to lousy traffic court and small claims twice and been screwed by officers or landlords (int the case of small claims) being much less than truthful and the judge entirely siding with them. Once I came in with photographs of the scene where I'd been ticketed for an illegal turn, to show how obstructed the view of traffic signs was and how faded and poorly maintained the road-striping was, but the officer came in with a crude hand-drawn diagram, which the judge studied carefully, as opposed to the cursory glances he gave to my photos, and I got fined heavily. Bah! Still makes me mad.

    On this issue, (5.00 / 1) (#16)
    by NYShooter on Mon Feb 04, 2013 at 05:17:37 PM EST
    I agree with you, and ChuckO 100%. I've been in cases where the judge's lack of veracity, and his open, willful determination to rule for his favored side was so transparent that it just left you breathless. If I gave you the details of one particular case involving an unscrupulous repair shop you would be left astonished, mouth agape, and stunned that a miscarriage like that was even possible. And, yet it happened, and happens, every day, all over the country.

    It is truly a national scandal.


    H. L. Mencken says it was not a new problem (none / 0) (#14)
    by J Upchurch on Mon Feb 04, 2013 at 04:56:59 PM EST
    I've read H.L. Mencken biography back when he was a police reporter back at the back at the turn of the 20th century and from what he said, police weren't any more honest back then when they had far fewer incentives to lie.

    Also from what he said reporters weren't any paragons of honesty either. Sometimes they would lie because collecting the actual facts was too much work and other times because the lie made a better story.

    So the (none / 0) (#20)
    by Ga6thDem on Mon Feb 04, 2013 at 06:16:31 PM EST
    more things change the more they stay the same.

    You Didn't Mention... (none / 0) (#17)
    by ScottW714 on Mon Feb 04, 2013 at 05:35:52 PM EST
    ...the most obvious reason, the personalities that are drawn to that profession.  Not all of course, but in my experience, many just simply get enjoyment from the power, and are more interested in that aspect than the law or the Constitution.

    For example, the recent epidemic of Sheriffs claiming they won't police Federal laws that haven't been written.  They don't know the details, but are almost joyous in declaring publicly that no one is going to tell them what to do.  These are people who are interested in the law or the Constitution, they are hooked on the power.

    It's just unfortunate for the rest of us that the easiest path to power just so happens to intertwine with the law and the criminal justice system.  Controlling people's destiny is probably the most gratifying apsect for these people, especially when their authority is questioned, they will make sure that mistake never happens again.  And we as a society give them the power because like Dershowitz said, we aren't really interested in justice, we just want the scum bags off the streets.  So we grant them power hoping they won't misuse it.

    That's been area of study (5.00 / 1) (#18)
    by NYShooter on Mon Feb 04, 2013 at 05:56:39 PM EST
    for quite some time.

    I'm sure you've heard about the famous "Milgram experiment" on obedience to authority figures conducted by Yale University back in the early 60's. That was where ordinary people administered what they believed were electric shocks to a person when ordered to do so by a scholarly person in charge, even though they believed the person being shocked was in real pain.

    There was an  even more stunning experiment done more recently "The Stanford Prison Experiment," where volunteers were placed in the role of prison guards and the actions these ordinary people were willing to do when given the appearance and role of someone in authority will stand your hair on end.

    Scary stuff, and definitely in need of study, and reform.  


    Those Were Controlled Experiements... (5.00 / 1) (#19)
    by ScottW714 on Mon Feb 04, 2013 at 06:11:55 PM EST
    ...with ordinary folks.

    What do think the Sanford experiment would look like if they had sought out people who desired to be in law enforcement or actual cops, and intertwined them with real criminals.


    And thanks to technology, namely phone and dash cams, we get to view that experiment going very badly about once a week.


    yup (5.00 / 1) (#21)
    by NYShooter on Mon Feb 04, 2013 at 06:17:49 PM EST
    Cops and crooks = Bloods and Crips

    So, "civilized" society hires one gang of thugs to protect us from the other gang of thugs.

    Been that way for centuries