It’s Always The Other Cop

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.

17 thoughts on “It’s Always The Other Cop

  1. ExCop-LawStudent

    Part of the problem is the very culture Balko is taking on. I find myself drawn to defending officers when they are being attacked on various internet sites.

    A photography blog recently posted an incident where an officer had to shoot a Rottweiler that was charging the officers. The shooting was justified, although extremely disturbing emotionally (I love dogs), but a good deal of the comments were about doing the same to the officer.

    Add to that the sovereign citizen whackjobs and those who simply hate the police, and it is easy to fall into the habit of immediately defending an officer who is accused of misconduct.

    I’m sure you know my feelings on actual misconduct, you’ve seen enough of my posts on misconduct. Lying is misconduct, especially under oath, and should not be tolerated in police work.

    Note that I’m not talking about the lies an officer tells a suspect for a confession, such as “I want to help you” or “It will help to know your side of the story” when you know you have the right guy for the crime. Instead, I’m talking about the lies that either are for obtaining a conviction in court or to cover for an officer. These are unacceptable.

    Like I said, I’m drawn to defend other officers. Pretty much all officers are to one degree or another, based on the culture of the department and the community. It comes from the bunker mentality to protect each other. We do it on the street, and at times it is the difference between being seriously hurt or killed. That carries over to what are perceived as other attacks, such as what would cost an officer their job.

    It is natural that officers would tend to protect each other in those situations as well. It takes strong leadership to combat that AND it means that in many cases internal investigations need to step back from being punitive and towards training and guidance to correct behavior, when appropriate.

  2. SHG

    While I fully understand what you’re saying, I also trust you fully understand the problem with what you’re saying.

  3. John Neff

    What bothers me about this discussion is that lack of proportional response to police conduct. We have the folks that believe that the cops can do no wrong and those that think they can do nothing right. Most of us should be closer to the middle but there does not seem to be a middle.

    I am not very happy about the war zone mentality of the police but I have found myself in the strange position of defending their actions on more than one occasion. The weird thing about this is the police are the primary beneficiary of good police citizen relations and invariably when they turn sour it is because a cop screwed up.

  4. ExCop-LawStudent

    I’m not sure that I do.

    Are you talking about the “I want to help you” comments that are made to suspects?

    Or does it deal with backing other officers?

    Or something else?

  5. SHG

    When you see right and wrong through a particularly sympathetic lens, the line blurs and sympathy pushes you to resolve the blurriness in accordance with your sympathies. Or to put it more simply, you give your friends the benefit of the doubt.

    I am well aware of your position against police misconduct, which is what makes you an excellent person to opine on this subject.  Let’s get a bit more concrete :

    Note that I’m not talking about the lies an officer tells a suspect for a confession, such as “I want to help you” or “It will help to know your side of the story” when you know you have the right guy for the crime. Instead, I’m talking about the lies that either are for obtaining a conviction in court or to cover for an officer. These are unacceptable.

    Are you saying that any lie, even something relatively innocuous to clean up a messier truth but doesn’t bear upon the guilt of a defendant, is unacceptable? If your partner told you he was going to say it, would you tell anyone? If you told the prosecutor, but she did nothing about it, would you tell the defense?  Even if the defendant was 100% guilty? Even if he was a very bad dude and this could free him? Even if your partner asked you not to?

    It’s understandable that you would have a greater appreciation of how a scenario looks through a cop’s eyes, and have a natural sense of explaining (note that I don’t use the word defend) why it looks as it does to a cop.  But that same sympathy can keep pushing the blurry line further away, until you end up deep in “unacceptable” territory. Now that you’ve stepped away from the job, can you see how easily that happens and how facile the rationalization can be?

  6. ExCop-LawStudent

    OK, I see what you are saying.

    Yes, it is a slippery line, and you have to base it on strong moral values and integrity. So if my partner said that they were going to lie under oath, yes, you have to report it. Even if the person was 100% guilty. I don’t know if I would go to the defense, I would probably go to a Ranger.

    And you’re right, there are some that start off at the blurry line and end up deep neck deep in the swamp. Your Suffolk County post is a prime example of that. All of the officers involved should have been dismissed and prosecuted, although I’m not familiar with the NY statutes that would be applicable.

    It is a lot easier to see from the outside.

  7. bacchys

    I think Moskos is just being cagey, not hyperbolic. He knows that cops routinely lie. After all, the courts have told them that’s okay.

    Cops lie in how they frame an event. On the stand, the officer “directed” a “suspect” to get on the ground. In reality, he screamed, “Get on the ground m*****f*****! I’ll blow your mutt head off, scumbag!”

  8. ExCop-LawStudent

    Actually most cops don’t even remember saying anything close to what they actually say.

    I once told a guy to drop a butcher knife while I had my gun pointed at him. Or at least that’s what I thought and remembered saying.

    What the tape showed was considerably different – I had told him if he didn’t drop the knife I was going to blow his m***** f*****g brains all over the dash.

    In extremely high stress situations like that, my experience is not uncommon. You also see officers experience other things, like auditory exclusion, tunnel vision, time variations (fast or slow-motion), etc.

    If the officer did not have benefit of a video or audio tape, or witnesses, he may honestly remember it the way he reported it. I had video, and put down the exact quote, but I would have put down what I remembered otherwise.

    The real stress doesn’t kick in until later, either. I chain-smoked over half-a-pack after I realized what had happened.

  9. SHG

    I have no doubt that’s true, though the answer on the witness stand under oath should then be, “I can’t remember what I said.” And yet, the testimony will invariably be, “I directed the defendant to put the weapon down and put his hands in the air.”  That a cop can’t really remember is not only fine, but exactly what one might expect. The problem is they always remember under oath, and the word “motherfucker” is never uttered on the witness stand.

  10. Daniel

    I consider it a lie rather than “interpretive dance.” Cops lie about how they acted (for example, “quit resisting”) to make it look like they did nothing wrong or their actions were justified in comparison to what the cop claims the defendant did. An example, is claiming a defendant swore at them, when in reality nothing of the kind happened (I don’t swear at all, yet this lie was pulled on me in court by two perjuring cops who told the exact same lie). The “spin” or outright lie gives the impression that the defendant is more of a bad guy and the cop is less of a bad guy (implying the defendant deserved to be beat to a pulp). When it comes time for sentencing, the judge will throw the book at the defendant because they believe the exaggeration of the facts. Spin should be left to the prosecutor and the defense attorney at trial, but cops should leave the spin at home.

  11. SHG

    Interpretive dance was a joke. Do people frequently compare you to a brick?

    You’ve been put back on moderation. The stupid hurts.

  12. ExCop-LawStudent

    LOL, well, at least one judge was offended by my testimony, because when I know what I said am and asked on the stand, I tell them.

    He told me to not use that language in his courtroom.

    But you’re right, most officers won’t remember exactly what was said.

  13. SHG

    A much easier solution than thinking. Sorry, but clueless is still clueless, even if we’re on the same side of an issue. And if you aren’t tough enough to take a smack for such an obviously clueless comment, then you really shouldn’t be here anyway. I’m sure there are other places that will embrace an angry teacup.

Comments are closed.