The New York Times has an interesting opinion piece about cops who lie in order to bolster arrest and conviction rates. The article 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.”
The article points out that even the NYPD (you know, that icon of truth and justice) isn’t exempt from this kind of behavior:
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.
So, why do they do it?
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.
Radley Balko has repeatedly warned about the bizarre incentives created by such programs. Incentivizing any activity generates more of it and there is no incentive not to lie because cops are rarely held to account by their superiors, prosecutors, and certainly not by the public service unions that protect them from any repercussions from their abuses of power and lack of professional ethics.
But, it’s not just because of the drug war incentives.
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.”
The general claim of “tough on crime” is what defines almost any elected position in the criminal justice system. Advancement is yet another incentive for high arrest and prosecution numbers, which explains why prosecutors aren’t too eager to know when cops are lying on the stand. It’s all about quantity, not quality.
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.
Code of silence? Really? I’m stunned! Another possible reason might be that the public mostly just doesn’t give a shit. Most people, regardless of educational level, think that people who get arrested are almost certainly guilty. Why else would they have been arrested? It’s like our military operations where anyone we kill must, by definition, be an enemy (otherwise we wouldn’t have killed him). And anyone who watches cop shows on TV knows that cops are hopelessly burdened with rules that make it almost impossible to get a conviction unless they “bend” the rules.
Luckily for most of us, this kind of behavior most often targets those who are poor and largely defenseless. And minorities. Well, they’re minorities until they get to prison anyway.