The Efficacy of Police Lies

Cops lie.

This is not a controversial assertion, because there is nobody, but nobody, who has a clue about criminal law who doesn’t know this to be true. But it’s also not sufficient to mean anything, because some lies are not only useful, but lawful, while others are not.

When cops take the witness stand to testify, they are as obliged to tell the “whole truth” as any other witness. They don’t, of course. At least not most of the time. It’s not that they lie about everything, although that happens, but they lie about little things, the normal gaps in their story that they either never knew, because they can be asked questions on cross that call for information that they took for granted, or they’ve forgotten the details they deem insignificant and so make them up on the stand.

Some might call it “white lies,” or trivial lies, although if it was so trivial, why not just admit that you don’t know and leave it to the jury to decide whether or not it matters?

But for the most part, cops lie. Some might argue that they lie every time they testify, but that’s hard to say. I’ve had cops who completely blew my cross by telling the truth, when I had them nailed on a detail in their grand jury testimony and then they take the stand, admit they were wrong and leave me hanging with nothing more to say. Fortunately, this almost never happens.

That’s one kind of lying, the bad kind, the unlawful kind. The other kind, the lawful kind, is when police use lies to obtain information, admissions, confessions, in their investigation and gathering of evidence. This type of lie is not only lawful, but endorsed by every court that’s ever considered the issue as a necessary tool in the police belt. Deception is an effective tool of law enforcement.

The problem is that it’s still deception. We can’t lie to a federal agent about a material fact when they ask us questions. Why can they lie to us?

America is losing confidence in its police. According to a recent Gallup poll, public perception of law enforcement is at its lowest point since the organization began tracking that question twenty-seven years ago. For the first time ever, a majority of Americans do not express confidence in the police, with only 48% of people maintaining faith in the institution.

We place confidence in others when they honor their promises, act sincerely, and consistently tell the truth. But rebuilding public confidence in America’s police won’t be easy, in part because police officers themselves aren’t just sporadically and spontaneously dishonest; in fact, American police are trained to lie, and the law-enforcement community itself has embraced deceit as a legitimate investigative tool.

There is, of course, a line to be drawn between the use of deception as a means of getting people to provide information they would not otherwise provide, and lying to a judge or jury when they claim to be under plenty penalty of perjury. But Cato’s James Craven has a point, that when lying is ingrained and pervasive, even if distinguishable, you’re still a liar and the public still perceives you as a liar. And while we can draw a line between deception as a tool and illegal deception in police reports, warrant affidavits, grand jury and trial testimony, that line is fuzzy as can be. If lying is acceptable for the public good, then why should it not be just as acceptable to make sure the bad dude gets convicted as it was to get the bad dude to confess?

My old prosecutor buddy, Ken Lammers, explains why this is very wrong.

Standing alone, it’s a very dubious proposition that the general public distrusts police because they lie during the questioning of suspects, so the author attempts to strengthen it by positing that lying in the questioning of a suspect leads to (1) police lying about searches in court and (2) lying to keep each other out of trouble. He doesn’t provide any proof of that connection and indirectly points toward collateral factors that are much more likely as causes: (1) the imposition of federal search and seizure standards through Mapp, and (2) the loyalty factor found in any group of people who rely upon one another. I agree, these are factors – particularly the second – which can lead the general public to mistrust law enforcement. They aren’t tied into using deception during questioning.

Perhaps Ken’s point would be clearer if he stated that they “aren’t inherently tied” to using deception during questioning, as they don’t have to be. There is a rational line, a “conceptual ledge” if you will, that could prevent the slide down the slippery slope into lying scoundrels in general. But is this a difference without a distinction? Just because the deception can be rationally justified doesn’t mean it deserves to be, or that lawful deception hasn’t permeated the police mentality to the point that this fine line can’t prevent the tide of lying from washing over the duty to tell the truth.

Ken isn’t wrong about the distinctions in cops using deception as an effective tool in law enforcement. It’s effective. It’s very effective. It’s often too effective, thank you, Mr. Reid. But as long as cops persist in believing that their lies are the good lies outside of the interrogation room, just as they’re the good lines on the inside, they have earned the public’s mistrust.

Can the police manage to regain public trust by being scrupulously honest in every aspect of their performance of their duty, with the interrogation room being the one judge-approved exception? Or would the more effective reaction be to just require cops to tell the truth all the time, giving up the effectiveness of deception as a law enforcement technique in exchange for regaining the public’s trust on the whole?

20 thoughts on “The Efficacy of Police Lies

  1. Hunting Guy

    “ I’ve had cops who completely blew my cross by telling the truth, when I had them nailed on a detail in their grand jury testimony and then they take the stand, admit they were wrong and leave me hanging with nothing more to say.”

    Speaking as a non-lawyer, I see that as a good thing. Am I missing something?

    1. SHG Post author

      It’s a good thing for the law and society, but sucks when it ruins my plans to make the cop cry on the stand when I rip him to shreds.

  2. Henry Berry

    Maybe Picasso’s (or someone’s) insight, “Art is a lie that reveals the truth” has some relevance here. Although I don’t think anyone would confuse police with artists. Nonetheless, I don’t think anyone would argue that lying to convict is justifiable. Your post deals with police lying in the process of investigation carrying over into grand juries and trials. No decent person — i. e., one wanting to be respected and be respectable — would argue that the “carrying over” is justifiable or respectable, and in fact was not in itself criminal. But there’s a whole area of police lying that isn’t touched on nor even alluded to in this post of yours. This is police lying to cover up crimes of other officers. This is an elemental part of police culture — and another reason, possible even more so than the one you deal with — why police are rightfully despised by a large part of the public.

    1. norahc

      “Although I don’t think anyone would confuse police with artists.”

      I don’t know about that. Some police reports are absolute masterpieces of bullshit.

    2. SHG Post author

      That was part of the linked discussions, but raises a separate issue that likely has nothing to do with legally justifiable lying.

  3. Kathryn M. Kase

    Why not hold cops to the same standards everyone else is held to and require them to tell the truth all the time? James Bond movies to the contrary, the world is not full of criminal masterminds, especially when it comes to violent crime, most of which is committed by people with a low tolerance for frustration.

    So maybe the answer, Scott, is that we need cops who are both truthful all the time and smarter than the alleged criminals. Easy peasy.

    1. Miles

      The answer to your “why not” is because deception is an effective law enforcement tool, as has been said over and over. And it is. That doesn’t make it right, but that’s the answer to your childish question. Do you not grasp that you’ve made no argument to the contrary, or to question its effectiveness?

      And by the way, everyone else is not required to tell the truth all the time. It’s not a crime to tell someone that dress doesn’t make their butt look fat. Did you not know this? How do you argue in court without getting defendants the death penalty for jaywalking?

  4. KP

    Politicians lie all the time, its expected of them, and no-one trusts them. We have a civil service that runs on lies (or, unrealistic proclaimed expectations) but it still runs, so if all the cops lie and no-one trusts them it doesn’t matter, it will still run.

    Perhaps the public don’t know cops lie. Only if they have had the experience of being prosecuted and the cops lying will they know, or “I read it on Twitter..” Maybe this is a problem of social media and TV, Person of Interest is real isn’t it?

    It would be lovely if cops never lied, or politicians, or anyone, but no husband is honest when his wife returns from the hairdresser..

  5. MollyG

    Deception in interrogations is wrong for many reasons, but the best reason is that it particularly hurts the innocent. If a cop says that they have evidence or a witness is implicating you, and you are innocent, then you know the evidence is fake, the witness is lying, or the cop is lying. The innocent suspect (and their lawyer if they have one) must thread the needle of faith that the person who is lying now (and trying to frame an innocent person) will suddenly tell the truth later on in the legal process. That is a hell of a risk to take and my heart breaks for anyone in that situation.

    1. Keith Lynch

      Yes, exactly. Even worse is when a person has been raised to totally trust police. Such people have been convinced that, since they have no memory of a crime there is (according to the police) overwhelming proof that they committed, they must be criminally insane, and respond with a false confessions or even with suicide. I came very close to that myself, 43 years ago. It was by far the worse experience of my life, and I still have nightmares about it.
      As such, I consider bringing Officer Friendly to a school to groom his future victims to be a far worse form of child abuse than mere buggery, and I consider teaching children to never ever trust a cop to be among the most important thing any school or any parent can do.
      Eventually, no suspect will trust the police. And no judge or juror will either. What happens then? Start over with a new organization in place of the police?

      1. JohnM


        In the article, where you had crossed out plenty, I thought you were taking a subtle dig at Lin Wood’s Georgia Lawsuit which was signed “Under Plenty of Perjury”.

        Unless you are continuing the joke, and therefore you know that I know that you know that I know…

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