Cops Lie; So Does Everyone Else

My witnesses were there, ready, sitting on a bench in the hallway. We had them. The police had gone to the wrong address, a different address than was called in by the 911 caller, and that’s where they found the drugs and guns. They were fully prepped and raring to go, which is far more difficult than most people realize. Witnesses don’t want to testify for the defense. It’s like begging to make enemies of the cops, and in Washington Heights, nobody wanted to bring more attention to themselves from the 34 precinct.

The case was before Justice Charles Tejada, who was wearing the same tie as I was. He made a joke about it when he took the bench that morning. It was cute, but neither of us was too happy about it. Nonetheless, the suppression hearing got underway and the prosecution called its first witness, the arresting officer. He took the stand and . . . admitted that they went to the wrong house, a house that was on a street by the same name but ended in “terrace” rather than “road.” And just like that, it was over.

I went into the hall and told my witnesses they wouldn’t be needed. They were both disappointed and good about it. They didn’t like wasting their time, but they really didn’t want to testify.

The cop came out of the courtroom and I walked over to him. I have a habit of trying to talk to the cop after testimony. After all, you never know when you’re going to have to cross him again. He saw me talking to the witnesses and smirked. “Guess you didn’t need them,” he said. “Nope,” I replied. “You did the one thing I never expected and completely screwed me up.”

“What’s that?”

“You told the truth.”

He just smiled and walked away. There’s a hashtag going around public defender circles these days, #CopsLie. It was memorialized in a Daily News op-ed, Why blue lies matter: It is everyone’s business when police fail to tell the truth. The title is a cool play off “blue lives matter,” although this time no one is canceling their Daily News subscription. The idea isn’t remotely new or novel. I’ve written about it many times over the years. Even the New York Times, before it went woke, wrote about it, testilying. Again.

There are everyday lies that police tell. On an individual level, these lies can lead to wrongful convictions of vulnerable people, and on a systemic level, they can lead to irrational public policy, like when New York State rolled back bail reform this year.

To combat these lies, public defenders all across the United States recently launched a social media campaign called “Cops Lie: We Witness.” We organized this digital campaign to show that police abuse is not about a couple of bad apples or isolated incidents. For generations, police lying and abuse has been met with indifference by prosecutors, judges, and elected officials alike, with little to no consequences, despite the harms inflicted upon disproportionately black and brown working-class communities.

It’s been going on longer than generations, and it is, indeed, pervasive. And there are enough wiggle words in there so that it would be wrong to call this untrue. But it’s also not quite real, designed to create an impression that’s somewhat manipulative. Of course, for the cause, anything that works is fair game these days, even if it pushes the envelope of honesty. After all, the cops and prosecutors have being doing it forever, so why not the public defenders?

There are undoubtedly cases where innocent people are framed, with some notable cops whose careers seemed largely devoted to manufacturing crimes and criminals that didn’t exist. Louis Scarcella in Brooklyn was notorious, and even though prosecutors knew, they let it happen.

But for the most part, testilying isn’t about framing the innocent, but filling in the gaps. Cops  testify at trial from memories they don’t possess, so they make up what the know they have to say. Or they lie about the peripheral pieces, the consent to search that was never given, or spewing of the confession in advance of interrogation. Sometimes, it’s worse, a denial of the beating needed to persuade the perp to cooperate. Maybe it was the hint needed to make the ID of the guy the cops were certain pulled the trigger.

There are far too many ways in which a little lie nailed a conviction to be described, but there was almost always a lie buried somewhere in a case. And it was just as true if the defendant was a paleface as a person of color, even though emphasizing the latter seems to be the only hook that makes the passionate take notice these days. Maybe the PDs don’t mind “white lies”?

Cops lying is so prevalent that Diana Nevins, a New York City public defender, says she warns her clients about it. “Literally public defenders have to prepare our clients not to have outbursts in court when #CopsLie because judges may use it against our clients instead.”

Every trial lawyer knows “the squeeze,” when the defendant grabs your arm and squeezes so hard it stops the blood flow, as he leans over and whispers into your ear, “he’s lying!” It’s weird how defendants are offended, no, outraged, by the fact that cops lie. Defendants lie all the time, to us, to their friends and family, and in the rare instance of testifying, to the jury. They don’t see a problem; after all, they aren’t cops, and cops are supposed to tell the truth. Defendants, not so much.

But like the story of the suppression hearing before Justice Tejada, there is a detail that might be missed if you focus too much on the cop who completely screwed me up by telling the truth. My client, a lovely guy, had the drugs and guns that were found. He wasn’t exactly a poor innocent guy, but a very guilty guy who was caught because of a screw-up.

The brilliant departed Murray Kempton had a line I think of often:

There they go again, framing the guilty.

Yes, indeed. Cops lie.

13 thoughts on “Cops Lie; So Does Everyone Else

  1. Keith Lynch

    It’s rather cynical to insist that everyone, or even all defendants,
    lie. I don’t lie. And I was a defendant once. Defendants aren’t a
    self-chosen group like cops. Anyone can suddenly and unexpectedly
    become a defendant. As for cops, my idea of police reform includes
    every child being taught in school that cops should never be trusted,
    and every judge telling every jury that police testimony should be
    treated with extreme skepticism. Police lying to a suspect who, like
    me, was raised to trust cops can lead, not just to false confessions,
    but to suicide, as the suspect falsely concludes that he’s guilty
    despite not remembering the crime hence must be criminally insane.

    1. SHG Post author

      You’re right, it’s not absolute. Not every cop lies. Not every defendant lies. And while I’m happy to accept your representation of your personal story as completely true, since I have no reason to say otherwise, it’s yours and not reflective of any other story. One of the reasons personal anecdotes are frowned upon here is that they provide nothing of use to a better understanding of problems or solutions. And on the other hand, you could be full of shit and nobody would be the wiser, because how would anyone know?

      1. Gregory Smith

        Surprised to see you arguing this question in the space police/prosecutors are always trying to push the discussion into. Burden of proof/presumption of innocence means – in theory – it’s the other guy who has to do all the heavy lifting. Defendants are presumed truthful, absent persuasive evidence to the contrary. Prosecutors are presumed to be making entirely unsupported statements in the absence of corroboration. In other words, the playing field is supposed to be tilted and cop lies and defendant lies are not supposed to be comparable.

        1. SHG Post author

          That’s some mighty bizarre shit going on in your head, that the presumption of innocence somehow morphs into a presumption of truthfulness for defendants and presumption of . . . “entirely unsupported statements in the absence of corrob” by prosecutors. You might want to consider not smoking crack before commenting next time, as it’s not working for you.

  2. Jeff Gamso

    Real answer at a suppression hearing to why detectives didn’t read Miranda rights to suspect: “We figured he’d invoke them.”

    I’ve been saying for years that the first lie on the witness stand is “I do.” Doesn’t matter who says it. Everyone lies. Big lies, little lies, important stuff, trivial stuff, keep anyone on the stand for more than 10 minutes and he’ll knowingly say something that isn’t true.

    1. SHG Post author

      It’s always the trivial, utterly irrelevant and unnecessary, lies that make me laugh. And give me the best opportunity to discredit the witness. For reasons I’v never quite understood, judges get more pissed at the pointless lies than the big ones.

  3. F. Lee Billy

    White lies matter!?! Think about it. Very good essay. I think about this stuff a lot these dayz.

  4. Miles

    “Literally public defenders have to prepare our clients not to have outbursts in court when #CopsLie because judges may use it against our clients instead.”

    Are PDs no longer trained? Do they not have experienced PDs teaching them about how trials actually happen? They offer these rudimentary ideas as if they’re epiphanies, like they’ve discovered some magic secret nobody ever knew. Or are they just pretending to be clueless to play the emotions of their passionate tribe?

    1. SHG Post author

      A friend who trained PDs for LAS told me a few years back that they were impossible to teach anymore. They knew everything already, and were adamant in their belief that their opinions on what to do were as valid as a guy who spent 30 years trying cases as a PD, so why should they listen to him?

      Another friend, a PD supervisor, told me recently that while there are a few mediocre lawyers, most were basically incompetent, except in their own minds, where they were all Clarence Darrow. He told me the stories they tell on social media of their brilliance and fabulous success would be hysterically funny, but for the fact that there were real people going to prison because, in real life, they never won a case.

      Does that answer your question?

  5. John Barleycorn

    So definately take the oath with a spaghetti strainer on one’s head, unless appearing for the defense?

    And if appearing on behalf of the defense, definitely go with a tuck the tail in your collar knott and roll with an eldredge, epecially if you have the goods.*

    Seems as though you officers of the court have some work to do?

    Now might be a good time?

    * This knot is also a guarenteed dinner date with the type of prosecutor you may be interested to know a bit more about, just in case your CDL didn’t do her research and you get stuck on the benches outside the courtroom.

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