The high cost of police officers lying to get arrests and convictions

This decision by a Florida Circuit Court judge regarding what he deemed to be obvious lying by police officers is great reading, even though it’s from way back in January. I just read about it in a blog post by Radley Balko, agitator extraordinaire at his web site.

Having been an editor who has spoken to many people over the years involved in cases where the police involved in an arrest were clearly lying — defense attorneys, judges, defendants — it really fucked up my worldview when I first realized how often it happens.

I have a lot of friends who are honest cops and I don’t think that even most cops are crooked. A little confused at times about whom they are supposed to be protecting and serving, which leads to some on-the-scene excesses by even the best cops. But most of them dishonest? I’d like to think not.

But in my experience, a cop who’s decided to use lies as an end to whatever means can cut a huge swath of damage before (and if) he is caught. For instance, cops used to routinely lie in Boston about how they would brazenly entrap innocent gay men in sex stings at rest stops and in public bathrooms by saying the men touched themselves or the officers when nothing of the sort happened. Either that or they’d use physically beautiful cops as decoys to ensnare men who would not have otherwise been picking anyone up in a public place.

This led to years of mistrust between gays and cops.

Anyway, this judge in Florida, Balko notes, had enough and let the officers know it:

Dishonesty is seldom without consequences for any of us. When the government lies to its citizens, though, the consequences are dire. What of the societal costs included when officers of the law offend law-abiding citizens by lying to them? Or the costs of teaching and encouraging young officers to be dishonest in their work for the sake of enhancing their arrest rates? Or the costs suffered when naturally enthusiastic officers who are taught to be dishonest in one “investigative” realm come to appreciate that dishonesty “works” just as well when it is not legally permitted? When a “white lie” told for legally permissible reasons morphs into the “white lie” told for noble, but illegal, reasons? What are the costs of alienating those growing segments of the community where “knock and talk” sessions are more likely to become a standard practice? Or the costs incurred when police come before the court, time after time, employing deceitful law enforcement practice?

What are the costs of teaching the community that law enforcement officers, whom ideally deserve the trust of the citizen, cannot be trusted to tell the simple truth? That no one is wearing the white hat anymore? That the ends justify the means? That the virtue of honesty is essential in our families and individual lives, but that same virtue is optional for the executive branch of our government in the exercise of its police powers? A nation founded on the notions we find in our Constitution is surely better than this.

You can download the full decision as a PDF here.