Cross: Greg Prickett on Cop To Lawyer

Oct. 14, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — Ed. Note: Scott Greenfield “crosses” Fort Worth, Texas, criminal defense lawyer Greg Prickett, who spent 20 years as a cop before turning to the law.

Q. You did 20 years “on the job” before you became a lawyer. What made you decide on a career in law enforcement in the first place?

A. I wasn’t planning on it, I was going to go to college and be a mechanical engineer like my father, but I got involved in a Boy Scout Law Enforcement Explorer program in high school and loved it.

Q. What did you love about it? Be real about this. What was it that made you say, this is what I want to be?
A. We did ride-alongs, and this was before the police were overly worried about liability. I was able to see police solve problems (sometimes by arresting people, sometimes not), and I got to see exactly what they do. It wasn’t like the TV shows, there was a lot of boredom, but there was also excitement. In the 2 or 3 years I did that, I rolled on everything from report calls, to heart attacks (and rode with the victim in the box to the ER, holding the oxygen mask while the EMT did chest compressions), to a traffic stop where the officer almost had to shoot the driver (who was having a flashback to the Korean War and thought we were North Koreans/Chinese). It’s hard to explain, but it gets in your blood. I just loved it.
Q. When you left the Academy, were you “retaught” the job by your training and senior cops?
A. Yes, and I did the same later as a field training officer (FTO). All the academy does is give you a basic understanding, in much the same way that law school and the bar give a baby lawyer the basic knowledge he or she needs to survive in a courtroom. In both instances, the baby lawyer and the rookie officer really don’t know what’s going on without guidance from a more experienced lawyer or an FTO.
Q. What was “retaught”?  What did you learn on the street that the Academy didn’t teach you? What did you learn on the street that was different than what the Academy taught you?
A. It’s hard to say. The academy gave you book knowledge. I was the valedictorian of my academy class, but it took working with my FTO and the experienced officers to really learn how to deal with people. I learned how to read people on the street, how to read a situation. It is a skill that no amount of book learning or classroom exercises can teach you. Some things that work real well in a controlled environment, like a technique called “speed-cuffing,” don’t work at all on the street where the subjects are not always compliant. You learn that even with lights and sirens on, people still don’t pay attention and will run into you, pull in front of you, etc.
Q. Did you believe that you were on the side of the good guys as a cop?  Who were the “bad guys” as far as you were concerned?
A. Yes, I generally believe that most cops are the good guys. For that matter, most people who either commit a crime once or as a habit are not “bad” people, they are just people. There are some, however, that are just evil. I don’t know how to explain it, but you can see in their eyes. Sociopaths, really, who don’t care about anyone but themselves.
Q. So there was no sense of “us against them”? The question isn’t whether “most cops are good buys,” but whether there was a culture of sides, good and evil, and you picked the good guy side.
A. The longer a cop is on the street, the more a sense of us against them kicks in. But it is not as black and white as you indicate, not as much as a good vs. evil, but a sense that the public does not understand what cops do and why they do it. We used to divide people into two groups, the victim a—holes and the criminal a—holes. The victims wanted to know why their brand new TV was stolen off of their front porch (right out from under the neon-sign blinking “steal me”) and why weren’t we dusting for fingerprints. The criminals were just that, burglars and thieves.
Q. Did you perceive your duty as getting the bad guys off the street, no matter what?
A. No. My job was first to protect people from harm. After that, it was my job to gather evidence so that the DA could make their case in court. It wasn’t my job to convict the bad guy.
Q. Were you really able to dissociate your job of collecting evidence from the ultimate goal of conviction? That seems nearly impossible to do?
A. I think most officers do have a difficult time with that. I know that many officers would get really upset if they were beat over a traffic ticket. I think that working for the lieutenant I mention below is the reason I could disassociate the two areas. While I was working for him, I would read proposed legislation and prepare a draft of what our position should be, which often was something that I disagreed with. An example was concealed carry—at the time it was not allowed in Texas and the police department opposed the bills that would have made it legal. I disagreed with that, but I wrote a position paper opposing it anyway. It taught me to look at both sides of an argument, and to look at what my role was in a dispassionate manner.
Q.  When you prepared your reports, talked to prosecutors, testified in court, did you “fill in the blanks” in order to make sure that the bad guys wouldn’t be able to find holes to beat the rap?
A. No.
Q. Did you know of any other cops who did so?  If so, what did you think about it?
A. I never knew of a cop in our area that would lie or embellish something on the stand. On the contrary, I saw a number of cases where the officer would tell the truth, knowing that it would result in an acquittal because it would raise a reasonable doubt. They got mad about losing, but they didn’t lie.
You also have to remember that cops are professional witnesses. We testify all the time and the more practice at something one has, the better one performs (normally). We knew to only answer the question asked, not the question that the defense counsel should have asked.
Q. As a cop, you got into a few “skirmishes” along the way, people suing you or filing complaints about you for alleged misconduct. Did being on the accused side of the fence change your perspective?
A. Not really, even going through a federal lawsuit did not change my perspective.
Q. Was it different when you were the falsely accused than when a perp claimed to be the falsely accused?
A. Not normally. In most of the cases where a defendant claimed to be falsely accused, they were not. We either had video or fingerprints or DNA, etc. I never had a case where I thought that the issue was even close, but I was lucky. I know a couple of officers in other departments that really stressed over that issue, making sure that they had the right guy.

In the federal lawsuit, the Texas AG’s office backed us all the way. At the first settlement talk, the AAG told the plaintiff’s lawyer that we would only settle if they walked away from the case with nothing. After the MSJ was rejected (there was a question of fact), the AG’s office took it to the Fifth Circuit on an interlocutory appeal. After the Fifth Circuit affirmed, but narrowed the grounds the way we wanted, the AAG played hardball at mediation (our counter to their request for $250K was $15K to settle the case). I felt confident the entire way through the trial, until the jury retired to deliberate. Then I stressed, wondering if those eight men and women were going to get it right (they did).

Q. Was there any point where you did something, whether use more force than you could have, escalated a situation when you could have de-escalated it, which you now realize would have been better handled differently?
A. Sure, but there were also points where I could have used more force than I did, including several where I would have been justified in using deadly force but did not. I tried to evaluate every situation after the fact to determine how I could improve.
Q. Did you ever stand by as a fellow police officer engaged in misconduct and abuse? What were the motivations for speaking out or keeping silent?
A. That question is very broad, so I’m going to focus on the use of force aspect of it. I never saw another officer who was with my department engage in behavior that I felt was inappropriate. I saw several where the officer was about to twist off on a suspect, but in each of those cases a sergeant or other officer also saw it and headed it off before it went bad. I saw one officer with another agency pepper-spray a handcuffed prisoner, and I talked to his sergeant about it. I don’t know what happened on the matter.
Q. Now that you’re a lawyer on the side of truth and justice, do you look at police officers differently?
A. Are they still the “good guys,” or are they only as good as the worst thing they’ve done? No, I still look at police officers the same, but you have to understand that most officers do not and did not have the same outlook as I did. Most police officers look at things from a black and white, good or bad, very binary perspective. I was lucky, in my second year as a police officer, I got pulled off of the street for a special assignment to help my lieutenant. The lieutenant, who had earned his law degree at night school while working full-time as a cop, was the legislative coordinator for the Dallas Police, and I was tasked with helping him. He treated it like an apprenticeship and taught me a lot, including how to Shepardize a case and to use pocket parts (there was no internet then). Working with him for that year gave me a whole new perspective on law enforcement and the criminal justice system.
Q. As a lawyer, do you use your knowledge of police culture and tactics to challenge a cop on the stand?  Do you have any qualms about it?
A. Absolutely I use my knowledge of police work and tactics. As a defense attorney, it is my job to zealously represent my client to the best of my ability. It’s my job and I have no hesitation or qualms about it.
Q. You knew you were going to catch a lot of grief for your post on Cleveland Police Officer Timothy Loehmann’s killing of Tamir Rice. Do you think that people just don’t “get” the decisions a cop has to make when faced with a threat?
A. Yes, I knew that most people were not going to take the same position as I do on the legality of the shooting. I think that it is impossible for the average citizen to really understand what police officers have to do in those types of circumstances. That is what I was referring to when I said that the public does not understand what cops do and why they do it. As Crawford noted on p. 5 of her report, the focus needs to be on the weapon and the actions, or the officer dies.
It’s clear that the general public does not understand the dynamics of an armed or potentially armed encounter, based on the reaction to my encounter with a guy with a hacksaw. I’ve also been at arms-length from a burglar in a building holding a metal bar over his head (and didn’t shoot him), held my gun next to a driver’s head while his hand was about six-inches away from a butcher knife he had been reaching for, held many people at gunpoint while making felony arrests, but didn’t shoot any of them, nor feel the need to shoot any of them. In none of those cases was there a clear feeling that I was in fear of my life—which I felt without any question in the case with the hacksaw.
The point that most people don’t understand is that while they have all the time in the world to second-guess what officers do, the officer has to make a decision right then, instantly, and then to live with that decision. Had I been faster on the draw that day over 25 years ago, I would have had to live with the consequences. I have no doubt in my mind that I would have been cleared, and there is no doubt in my mind that I, or any one else, officer or civilian, would have been justified under the same circumstances.
Q. While I know you fault Office Frank Garmback for pulling up too close to Tamir Rice, is there anything that Loehmann could have done that would have ended the confrontation without anyone dying?
A. I don’t think that Loehmann had any options that were viable. Look at Crawford’s report where she discusses the simulation used by the FBI. If you wait for the subject to draw the gun, you’re dead. I do fault Garmback for driving right up to Rice, who was the suspect. He left Loehmann with no options, no time, and no space.

11 thoughts on “Cross: Greg Prickett on Cop To Lawyer

  1. Richard Kopf

    Scott and Greg,

    This was very revealing, and fascinating. I admit, however, that Greg’s responses confirm my own biases as a judge. While recent events have made me more skeptical of cops, in my gut, the following statement by Greg pretty much sums up my experience:

    “I never knew of a cop in our area that would lie or embellish something on the stand. On the contrary, I saw a number of cases where the officer would tell the truth, knowing that it would result in an acquittal because it would raise a reasonable doubt. They got mad about losing, but they didn’t lie.”

    Thanks for this great piece. All the best.

    Rich Kopf

    1. Greg Prickett

      Scott, that’s not a correct statement. Police are people too, and police screw up, just like everyone else. I watched an officer I knew get convicted of a felony (not related to the job), and I watched another one destroy his career over substance abuse.

      It is clear that there are problems with both police as an institution and police officers individually, and those problems need to be addressed. I try, in the columns I write here, to point out those problems and to offer a way forward.

      But that doesn’t change the fact that most officers are genuinely good men and women. Most should be emulated, not condemned, by society.

  2. Ben

    “I never saw another officer who was with my department engage in behavior that I felt was inappropriate.”

    “I never knew of a cop in our area that would lie or embellish something on the stand. On the contrary, I saw a number of cases where the officer would tell the truth, knowing that it would result in an acquittal because it would raise a reasonable doubt. They got mad about losing, but they didn’t lie.”

    These are either out-and-out lies, willful ignorance or an impressive level of self-delusion.

    1. Greg Prickett

      My comment about inappropriate behavior was limited to excessive force, and I stand by that statement.

      There was plenty of other behavior that was inappropriate, but it wasn’t related to the use of force.

      Please don’t take one limited statement and misapply it across the board to all conduct.

  3. James Gordon

    In my experience there are good departments and bad departments. If the culture of a department encourages/rewards honest behavior, it becomes self-reinforcing. Officers are surrounded examples of how to behave. The opposite also is true. I have no idea what kind of department
    Dallas PD was at the time the Greg worked there.

    1. Greg Prickett

      Both Dallas PD at that time (I started under Chief Billy Prince) and the PD I went to after Dallas would tolerate mistakes, but would not, under any circumstances, tolerate lying.

      If you screwed up and were in the sergeant’s office, you were much better off if you told the truth. If you lied, you would get sent to IA and would get fired over it. It was that simple, or at least it was back then. I have no idea what Dallas is like now, I was there over 25 years ago.

      1. James Gordon

        Firing officers now likely is much more difficult than it was 25 years ago. Supervisors with whom I speak express frustration at how difficult it is to terminate an officer’s employment. Attempts are usually unsuccessful and supervisors instead promote or move problem officers to “somebody else’s problem.” I’m not a huge fan of unionizing public service employees.

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