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The Danger of Police Dishonesty

Recent events have shown what can happen when large sections of society lose confidence in the legitimacy of police power, and though the outrage playing out in cities across the U.S. was mostly inspired by repeated incidents of the unjust use of deadly force, many of the same incidents also exposed an equally disturbing problem: The police routinely lie to the public.

It is entirely possible that police dishonesty may be even more destructive to the fabric of law and order than police brutality, because the necessity of police honesty lies at the foundation of the criminal justice system. The sworn testimony of police is critical at nearly every phase of the legal process – from affidavits to arrest reports to testimony in court. If faith in the honesty of police were to be seriously undermined, the whole system would tremble. 

Yet the incentives for police to lie are powerful and ubiquitous. The most common is that evidence obtained from illegal searches is constitutionally excluded, which provides a strong motivation to offer false justifications, especially because most police departments base promotions upon an officer’s record of arrests that lead to conviction. Secondly, the use of excessive force can cost an officer his job or result in criminal charges, and officers are therefore tempted to close ranks and blame the victim for the violent escalation of the encounter.

The public, and especially judges and juries, tend to trust police officers and believe their testimony, and while that trust might usually be well-placed, the emergence of a litany of incriminating video evidence has caused many to question deference police have long enjoyed.

In the death of George Floyd, for example, the Minneapolis Police Department issued a statement that asserted Floyd was killed while physically resisting officers. There was no mention of Officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes. If independent video had not emerged, it is unlikely the official version of the incident would have been questioned. The same could be said of the elderly protestor violently shoved to the ground by Buffalo police whose department falsely claimed the man tripped and fell during a fight between police and protestors.

The video offers proof of police dishonesty. It does not, unfortunately, offer guidance on what to do about it. The prosecutors responsible for punishing police dishonesty are loathe to do so. These prosecutors rely on the public’s near-reflexive trust in officer testimony, and to even admit that there is a problem would reveal that police perjury is almost never punished. New York and San Francisco are experimenting with different systems to address the problem, but it is far too early to know if either will succeed.

In the meantime, public anger and mistrust only grows with each new revelation of police misconduct, and the dangerous erosion of the foundation of the unique position of police continues apace. 


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