Reading Peter Moskos’ review of Radley Balko’s new book, Rise of the Warrior Cop, one thing stuck out like a sore thumb. Moskos, a former police officer and now professor at John Jay College for Cops, wrote:
Balko carefully prefaces his argument by noting that it isn’t, at its core, “anti-cop.” I suspect this is because he hopes to convince as many people as possible. As a former police officer, I have my doubts. Balko asserts that most police officers regularly commit felonious perjury. Lying, he writes, is “routine,” “expected,” and “part of the job.” He supplies little evidence for this claim – an absence that is particularly notable because the rest of his book is so meticulously researched and thoroughly footnoted. “Bad cops are the product of bad policy,” he warns us. But this is too glib. Bad policy creates bad policing. Bad police, however many there may be, are a separate problem.It’s not that Moskos denies that bad cops exist, or that cops sometimes lie, but he maintains the “one bad apple” argument until proven otherwise. Some of the verbiage is sloppy, such as claiming that Balko “asserts that most police officers regularly commit felonious perjury.” Nowhere does Balko speak to “felonious” anything, suggesting that Moskos enjoys a bit of hyperbole in his word choice at the expense of accuracy. Note the irony, as it’s something we’ll come back to later.
Some of us know a few cops. I know Radley does. I do. Some of you will as well. And for the most part, when you talk to a cop outside of his duties, or hang out with one at the bar sipping a beer, you will find them to be no different than anyone else. They can be great guys and gals, fun to talk to, pretty good about picking up the tab and pretty bad telling jokes. In other words, they’re people.
But in the performance of their duty, something changes. The definitions of what they do change from the ones we use at a backyard barbecue to the ones they use on their reports or on the witness stand. What non-cops, lawyers included, often fail to appreciate is what a cop means when he speaks of a lie.
Plant drugs on an innocent person? Lie
Put a throwaway into the hands of a dead civilian? Lie
These are lies. These are big lies that turn an innocent into a guilty, a bad shoot into a righteous shoot. Some cops will justify why these big lies are acceptable, but many cops will not. They draw a line at the big lie, even if they won’t rat out their brother who doesn’t. But they won’t perceive their silence, their failure to tell the investigating officer the truth about what they saw, as a lie. That’s a little lie, a required lie, because cops don’t rat out cops.
Then there the details. A tractor trailer obscures the observer’s vision as the undercover takes the hand to hand in a buy and bust, but he testifies that he saw the defendant hand the drugs to the undercover. To us, that would be a lie. To the testifying officer, not so much. You see, his partner told him it happened, and so it did. The perp is dirty, but the testimony needs to flesh out the details. So he fills in the underlying gap with what he is certain is the truth, even though a small lie is needed since he didn’t actually see it happen. This isn’t a lie. This is the job.
Moskos challenges Radley’s assertion that police testilying is pervasive: “routine,” “expected,” and “part of the job.” Where is the proof, Moskos asks? It’s a fair question. There may be a million anecdotes, but what good are anecdotes when the question is whether there is any empirical evidence to establish such a claim?
The problem is that the only basis for empirical proof of the pervasiveness of police lying would have to come from the police. It’s of little use for those of us on the other side to fill out questionnaires by researchers about the lies told in the reports or on the witness stand. We are the adversaries. Our claims are inherently untrustworthy. Only an admission by police that they color their testimony, fill in the gaps by making stuff up, say what they have to say to overcome the law, the lack of evidence, the burden of proof, in order to fulfill their bottom line obligation of making sure the bad guy loses. And while there is no incentive for them to do so, even if there was they wouldn’t support such a claim.
Why? Because to a cop, these aren’t lies.
Turning back to Moskos’ hyperbole, that Radley asserted that cops engage in “felonious perjury” all the time, those two words, felonious perjury, capture the problem in a nutshell. Those aren’t Radley’s words, and nowhere in his book is that phrase used. Moskos made it up, but it’s not wrong, it’s not a lie, because it serves to help him make his point.
Gilding the lily? Filling in the gaps? Creating a strawman? There are plenty of names for what Moskos does there, but the fact remains that for the rest of us, it would be a deliberate falsehood. A lie. It never happened, yet Moskos says it did. But then, Moskos was once a cop, and so he’s working with a very different definition than the rest of us.
Almost any cop you talk to in a bar will tell you stories of bad cops, lying cops, violent cops. No cop will deny they exist, and most, with a beer in their hand at least, will readily admit they know one or two. But ask them if they do it, if they lie, and they will look you in the eye and tell you that they aren’t one of the bad cops. And as far as they’re concerned, that’s the truth.