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Police Quarterly Lies True Lies and Conscious Deception 2008

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Police Quarterly OnlineFirst, published on November 17, 2008 as doi:10.1177/1098611108327315

Lies, True Lies, and
Conscious Deception

Police Quarterly
Volume XX Number X
Month XXXX xx-xx
© 2008 Sage Publications
10.1177/1098611108327315
http://pqx.sagepub.com
hosted at
http://online.sagepub.com

Police Officers and the Truth
Geoffrey P. Alpert
University of South Carolina

Jeffrey J. Noble, Esq.
Irvine, California Police Department

Police officers often tell lies; they act in ways that are deceptive, they manipulative
people and situations, they coerce citizens, and are dishonest. They are taught,
encouraged, and often rewarded for their deceptive practices. Officers often lie to
suspects about witnesses and evidence, and they are deceitful when attempting to learn
about criminal activity. Most of these actions are sanctioned, legal, and expected.
Although they are allowed to be dishonest in certain circumstances, they are also
required to be trustworthy, honest, and maintain the highest level of integrity. The
purpose of this article is to explore situations when officers can be dishonest, some
reasons that help us understand the dishonesty, and circumstances where lies may lead
to unintended consequences such as false confessions. The authors conclude with a
discussion of how police agencies can manage the lies that officers tell and the
consequences for the officers, organizations, and the criminal justice system.
Keywords: police deception; lies; investigations; ethics

T

o perform their job effectively, police officers lie. They use deception, manipulation, and coercion to obtain important information from suspects. Police officers often tell those suspected of committing crimes that they possess physical
evidence implicating the suspect when no such evidence exists. Officers tell suspects
that they have witnesses who have identified or implicated the suspect when the witness either does not exist or when the witness never made any such statement.
Officers will tell suspects that some type of lie-detecting technology such as a polygraph or voice stress analyzer has conclusively shown that the suspect was lying
when the officer knows that the technology does not exist, does not work, did not
indicate deception, or was inconclusive. Police officers will deceive by omission,
conceal their identity, and even deny that they are police officers while attempting to
gain evidence of the criminal actions of another. They will work to create a perception of safety in their communities knowing full well that dangerous crime exists.
Indeed, officers engage in a wide range of deception limited only by their imaginations. Although some of these deceptive practices may be excusable or justifiable,
1

2 Police Quarterly

others may create ethical concerns and some are beyond the bounds of the law or
ethical policing.
The police are allowed to be deceptive in certain circumstances, but they are also
required to be trustworthy, honest, and maintain the highest level of integrity. Police
officers are held to a higher standard than nonpolice as they represent the government as agents of the law and the criminal justice system. Often, their word and their
“honesty” is taken over that of a civilian in legal proceedings, and judges will most
frequently award a “tie,” a “he said, she said,” or a “swearing contest” to the officer.
For example, when an officer gives a speeding ticket to an individual who protests
the speed or driving, it is rare that a judge will rule that the civilian is telling the truth
and the officer is telling a lie. Although officers are expected to tell the truth, and our
system of criminal justice demands, and relies on it; there are transgressions, and
officers have been caught stretching the truth without incident, and courts have ruled
that some lies are appropriate but others are not. The purpose of this article is to
explore situations when officers can lie, some reasons that help us understand the
explanations given for the appropriateness and justification of the lies, and areas
where lies may be lawful but may lead to unintended consequences such as false
confessions. Our focus is on lies told during interrogations as well as administrative
lies. We conclude with a discussion of how police agencies can manage the lies that
officers tell and the consequences for the officers, organizations, and the criminal
justice system.
In 1991, Hunt and Manning wrote, “Police, like many people in official capacities lie” (p. 51). Their insightful article informed us that lying is a valuable way for
the police to manipulate people and situations, and officers are rewarded for their
dishonesty: “Lying is a sanctioned practice” (p. 52). Beyond the police, it has been
argued that deception in the workplace is functional and normal (Shulman, 2006),
and that our criminal justice system is based on lies and untruths, and officials,
including judges, looking the other way when the truth is inconvenient (Dershowitz,
1996, 1998). In his testimony to Congress, and his analysis of the O. J. Simpson trial,
Dershowitz (1996, 1998) examined the work of police officers, defense attorneys,
and prosecutors and concluded that all parties encourage or tolerate lying throughout the criminal process. His comments about the civil justice process are just as
condemning. Although his “proof” may not be perfect, his arguments are compelling, and his comments about the lack of truthfulness and veracity ring true and
raise enough issues and questions that they must be taken seriously. Although
Deshowitz (1996, 1998) attacks our systems of justice, our focus in this article is on
one aspect of justice: the police. In a law enforcement profession where officer credibility is critical, and agencies need to include some policy statement prohibiting
lying (see Noble, 2003; Noble & Alpert, 2009), it is amazing that the practice not
only continues but also flourishes.
As necessary and straightforward as the prohibition seems, there are underlying
complexities that make it difficult if not impossible to manage and enforce. Lies are

Alpert, Noble / Lies, True Lies, and Conscious Deception 3

not a fixed target. Deception exists on a continuum, from what is commonly called
social lies or little white lies, where no consequences follow, to egregious misconduct that warrants dismissal or prosecution. Police administrators are faced with
concerns at almost all points of the continuum. Lies during the interrogation process,
although lawful, may present ethical challenges. Malicious lies require the fortitude
to remove the officer from the organization. But the true challenge is deciding how
to deal with deceptive conduct that falls in the middle of the continuum—not so
egregious that termination is the only solution yet not far enough toward justifiable
or excusable that the behavior can be ignored.

What Is Lying?
A lie is any intentionally deceptive message communicated either verbally or in
writing. Lying is a subset of the larger category of deception. Deception consists of
any intention to trick others by communicating messages meant to mislead and to
make the recipients believe what the agent (the person performing or committing the
act) either knows or believes to be untrue. Deception involves more than spoken or
written statements. It includes any intentional conduct that conveys a message to the
listener—including omissions. For example, physical expressions such as a shoulder
shrug, eye movement, or silence can be deceptive (Bok, 1999). Lies can be made by
an individual officer, which is the focus of this article, or encouraged by organizations. Police departments encourage lying by permitting it to exist or promoting it.
For example, if a call comes out at the end of an officer’s shift and an officer informs
dispatch that he or she is busy because he or she does not want to handle the call that
will continue way past the shift change, the officer’s lie is a burden on other officers
and inappropriate. However, the managers may condone the behavior as they do not
want to have to pay overtime to the officer.
More troubling than looking the other way at deceptive conduct that helps the organization maintain its budget, yet creates no harm to the community, are organizational
tolerances and implicit support of individual officer lies that promote the organization.
Consider officers who fail to take crime reports. After determining no insurance claim
will be filed, these officers may convince a victim not to formally report a crime,
suggesting that there is little likelihood that the offender will be identified or that the
property will be recovered. Other officers may create the impression that they are documenting the crime but have no intention of actually completing the report. In both
instances, the officers are motivated by laziness or incompetence. The actions of the
officer who looks as if he or she is documenting the incident may appease the victim,
but the result is the same. First, the lower numbers allow the organization to create an
impression of addressing crime effectively. Second, these same numbers harm the
community by creating a false picture of the nature and extent of crime.
Officers who lie as individuals often influence the organizational customs and
culture, which include distrust and suspiciousness of citizens, and a strong loyalty to

4 Police Quarterly

fellow officers. Thus, police culture can best be illustrated by the linkages among
values, traditions, and corporate strategy. Each of these components can explain the
importance of deception and lying by police officers—to protect themselves and
band together against the criminals. As the organization learns to accept the behavior, the culture of the department becomes accustomed to lying, and the longer it
continues, the harder it is to end (see Crank, 2004). The issues of organizational
meekness or encouragement are important and can influence the culture of the
agency and individual officer deception. These types of deception come in many
forms, and their range can be best understood on a continuum of intent.

Deception Continuum
Deceptive conduct by the police is easier to assess when it is illustrated on a continuum. At one end of the continuum are the types of lies that may be considered
acceptable. That end of the continuum contains excusable lies (lies made in jest or
socially acceptable lies) and justifiable lies (lies that may be defendable based on the
circumstances). The other end of the continuum contains intentional, malicious, and
deceptive conduct that will take one of three forms:
• Deceptive action in a formal setting, such as testifying in court or during a an
investigation;
• Failure to bring forward information involving criminal action by other officers,
also known as observing the so-called code of silence; and
• Creation of false evidence that tends to implicate another in a criminal act.

Intentional, malicious, and deceptive conduct in any of these three areas will permanently destroy an officer’s credibility. If an officer violates these standards, there
should be no alternative in an employment context other than termination or permanent removal from any possible activity that requires a reliable truthful person.
Conduct that reveals an abuse of an officer’s discretion is similarly placed at the
unacceptable end of the continuum. Police officers have a wide range of discretionary decision-making power that is necessary to maintaining an effective and efficient police force. The concern is not that officers are entrusted with various powers;
indeed, we entrust officers with an incredible amount of power to detain, search, and
arrest, all without the approval of a magistrate. But the alarm sounds when officers
abuse their powers in a capricious, arbitrary, and unfair manner. When officers inappropriately use deception to target a person or group, it is an abuse of power that
requires serious attention from administrators.
The center of the continuum contains a wide range of lies and deceptive practices
that may be acceptable or unacceptable depending on the circumstances. These middle
continuum deceptive practices are more difficult to assess. Frequently, these middle
continuum deception involve what may be termed “administrative lies.” Administrative

Alpert, Noble / Lies, True Lies, and Conscious Deception 5

lies are intentional acts of deception aimed to prevent some type of employment
action rather than acts related to the officer’s power as a police officer. For example,
an officer may lie about completing a report or performing a minor task. Although
such a transgression is not appropriate, it may or may not warrant the termination
of the officer. Other examples become apparent when officers complete a variety
of reports, including “use-of-force” or “response to suspect resistance” forms.
Although it is well known that some officers use unnecessary and excessive force, it
is unlikely that officers report that level of force on an official form (Alpert &
Dunham, 2004). Furthermore, officers are not likely to admit they have been drinking on duty or fail to wear seatbelts (Kim, 1999). These omissions, incomplete
reports, untruths, or lies are likely more prevalent than one would like to believe and
may involve a wide variety of activities.

Acceptable Conduct
Excusable Lies
Excusable lies are acts of deception where there is no intent of harm and little
likelihood that harm will actually occur. These acts encompass jokes, “white” lies,
minor embellishments, and exaggerations. These acts are such common practice in
human communication that deceptive conduct would be impossible to prevent
entirely by any rule, law, policy, or manner of enforcement (Nyberg, 1993). From the
social kindness of white lies to embellishments, exaggerations, and boastful behavior, the truth is concealed for a variety of reasons. The fact that we condone these
activities is evident in the fact that we teach our children the art of deception at an
early age (Bronson, 2008). Children learn from their parents, friends, television,
books, and other sources how to deceive. They learn how to maintain a poker face,
so they do not reveal information that could help observers. Young athletes learn
skills necessary to survive, including a bluff, a deceptive move, a fake throw, or a
way to disguise a change in direction with a head or body fake.
Deception concerning trivial matters, often told to spare another’s feelings, may
also be excusable. These white lies are meant not for any personal gain but rather for
social courtesy. Not every social situation calls for the whole truth. How do I look?
What do you think? and What a cute baby? Sometimes benign statements or tactful
silence are the most appropriate responses to some situations.
Lies made in jest, although sometimes callous and hurtful, do not affect an
officer’s credibility unless they are in such bad taste that they call into question the
person’s judgment in general. Officers frequently embellish and exaggerate the
misfortunes of others in conversations with each other. A sense of humor, even
where some deception is involved, helps responsible people cope with stress and
grim circumstances (see Davis, 1995). Although deceptive humor is sometimes an

6 Police Quarterly

acceptable practice, it is not a shield to the disciplinary process. When jokes become
malicious lies that intentionally harm others, they must be investigated and if found
harmful, discipline must be imposed. Police managers should not strive to create
such a sterile workplace that humor is forbidden; they would succeed only in making themselves objects of derision and ridicule. Police leaders should seek to establish and enforce reasonable standards.

Justifiable Lies
Police officers frequently engage in deceptive conduct to perform their duties.
Officers perform secretly in undercover operations seeking to gain evidence on the
targets of their investigations. While undercover, they may lie about their identity,
their past acts, or their plans of criminal activity. Police officers use unmarked cars
and some police agencies have even created fake silhouettes of police cars to deceive
motorists into decreasing their speed. Police departments around the country have
embraced the Broken Windows theory that by addressing quality of life crimes, they
can create a perception of safety and thereby actually decrease crime (Kelling &
Coles, 1996). Although an effective deterrent that many studies have shown may actually reduce more serious crime, it is nonetheless deceptive in that community
members may believe that certain areas are safe based on their individualized perception, created deceptively by the police, only to be victimized by the area’s reality.
But perhaps most interesting, and ethically difficult, is that officers routinely lie
to those suspected of committing crimes during interrogations in an attempt to elicit
the truth. These acts of manipulation and deception are not only taught and encouraged but also they are lawful and permitted by the courts. Inasmuch as these acts of
deception are lawful, they fall on the acceptable side of the continuum. There is,
however, a legitimate concern that certain types of deceptive practices may cause an
innocent person to falsely confess, that by accepting some types of deceptive practices as legitimate that the police may fashion a belief that all deception is acceptable, and a public perception that police officers are not trustworthy (Crank, 2004).
The courts have held that trickery and deceit may be used by the police to elicit
a confession as long as their actions do not “shock the conscience” of the court, or
be the type of action that would induce an innocent person to confess (Inbau, Reid,
Buckley, & Jayne, 2004). Such a holding is reasonable in that it is counterintuitive
that anyone other someone who had been physically tortured or who is mentally ill
would confess to a crime that they did not commit (Leo, 2008). After all, why else
would someone confess to a crime and subject themselves to a criminal record, fine,
imprisonment, or even the death penalty? Yet with the advent of DNA testing in the
mid-1990s, there have been more than 50 documented cases of wrongful conviction
based on the confession of an innocent person who was neither tortured nor mentally
ill (Innocence Project, 2008).

Alpert, Noble / Lies, True Lies, and Conscious Deception 7

The use of torture or deprivation has given way to modern interrogation techniques that rely on psychological coercive methods. The modern officer will isolate
the suspect and attempt to persuade him that there is no alternative other than to
confess, that the officer wants to help, and that the suspect would be better off by
confessing—none of which is true (Leo, 2008). These techniques are thought to be
a necessary part of policing to overcome a suspect’s will not to incriminate himself
or herself. These techniques are very effective, but they have also led to at least some
false confessions by persuasion of a person who has no memory of the crime, or
coercion by the use of promises or threats. This type of psychological coercion
appears to have its greatest impact on the highly suggestible or compliant individuals, such as the mentally retarded or cognitively impaired, juveniles, or the mentally
ill (Leo, 2008).
The key to determining if the confession was voluntary and valid lies in the words
of the interrogator and the words of the suspect. By reviewing the actual statements,
one can determine if the interrogator was overly suggestive, whether the suspect or
the interrogator actually voiced the corroborating information, and whether any
promises or threats were made.

Unacceptable Conduct
Malicious Lies
Although lies justified by necessity, lies told in jest, and white lies may be acceptable forms of deception in law enforcement, malicious lies are not. Malice on the
part of the communicator includes both lies told for personal gain and lies that
exceed the limits of legitimacy. The problem of police falsification was so common
that that the Mollen commission (Mollen, 1994) created a new word, “testilying,” to
explain the problem (see Capers, 2008). For example, a police officer may be
tempted to testify falsely to imprison a criminal. The public might approve of the
officer’s intention to remove a criminal from society, and the officer may validate his
or her behavior by believing that he or she is engaging in a greater good. In this case,
the ends are justified by the means. Carl Klockars (1980) referred to this dilemma as
the Dirty Harry problem, and asked rhetorically “when and to what extent does the
morally good end warrant or justify an ethically, politically, or legally dangerous
means to its achievement?” (p. 34).
Similarly, presenting false evidence intended to harm a suspect or engaging in the
so-called “code of silence” where an officer fails to come forward with information
on the serious misconduct of another officer is intentional malicious misconduct.
Not only is this conduct an affront to the values of policing but also under the Brady
v. Maryland (1963) decision, that requires the police department to disclose these
dishonest acts of officers, the officer would be rendered useless as a witness. In these

8 Police Quarterly

instances, there is no alternative other than to terminate an officer who has breached
his or her trust to the organization and to the community.
It is important to understand that motive or intentions can be mixed, so that a person may deceive to pursue some worthwhile utilitarian goal (such as public safety)
and at the same time have a malicious disregard for the rights of the suspect and for
the laws, policies, and limits that apply to policing. This willingness to betray basic
principles of honesty attacks the very public safety that the person believes himself
or herself to be pursuing. A police officer who by malicious disregard goes beyond
the limits of legitimacy is a threat to the public safety. He or she could be capable of
violating anybody’s rights—poisoning the idea of public safety.

Abuse of Discretion
Police officers abuse their power when they engage in certain types of deception.
Officers similarly abuse their power when they inappropriately abuse their discretion.
The nature of police work demands that a significant level of discretionary decision
making be placed in the hands of what are most often the least trained and the least
seasoned officers in the organization. These officers, unlike professionals in other
fields, typically work by themselves in a field environment where access to a supervisor is limited and seldom immediately available. Yet these officers routinely make
decisions that have a tremendous impact on an individual’s personal liberties. The officer has the discretion to decide to detain, arrest, and/or use force to gain compliance.
Discretionary decision making is an inherent part of police work. There is simply
no reasonable alternative to granting significant discretionary abilities to police officers. It would be neither practical nor prudent to attempt to establish a policy or procedure to address every possible situation that an officer may face. Police officers are
expected to properly assess situations and to exercise judgment as to when and how
they should use their power. The ability to make responsible choices based on training
and experience is the distinguishing feature that makes a police officer a professional.
Every day hundreds of thousands of police officers make decisions that affect a
vast number of people. For the most part, these decisions are made with care and are
appropriate for the situation facing the officer. Police managers are also aware that
some officers will make mistakes and others will intentionally abuse their authority.
Furthermore, some officers believe that if there is no rule specifying acceptable
behavior for a particular situation, that they cannot be questioned on the decisionmaking process or the actions they take. However, this belief is simply not true. The
idea of discretion is that you have choices—not that they cannot be reviewed.
Discretionary decision making is indeed subject to review, and abuses of discretion
may have both legal and disciplinary consequences.
When discussing discretionary decision making, there is a significant difference
between mistakes and abuse of power. Mistakes in the decision-making process lead
to poor conclusions. Although such decisions are improper, they can be remedied by

Alpert, Noble / Lies, True Lies, and Conscious Deception 9

taking action to reverse the consequences of the decision and by providing training
to an officer to increase the likelihood of more reasonable decisions and conclusions
in the future. The key to determining if an officer mistakenly applied discretion is
whether an officer acted in good faith and relied on reasonable criteria.
In 2004, the Baltimore Police Department engaged in a practice that illustrates the
hazards of police discretion when the decision-making process is based on improper
criteria. The practice, which was unofficially condoned by department leaders,
encouraged officers to negotiate the release of individuals arrested for drug crimes
or petty offenses if the arrestee could recover and turn in a gun to the officer (Ludwig
and Cook, 2003; National Research Council, 2005). When questioned about arrestees
trading guns for freedom, a department commander stated that the program’s goals
were a worthwhile and beneficial effort to take crime guns off the streets.
Taking guns off the streets in an attempt to reduce violent crime is certainly a
worthwhile goal. But the tactics employed by the Baltimore Police Department
effectively subverted the justice system by not filing criminal complaints on
arrestees in cases where the arrestee was able to buy his or her freedom by producing a handgun and delivering it to the police. This type of ends-justify-the-means
decision making is more than merely problematic; it undermines the ability of the
community to feel that they are being treated fairly. Klockars might well think that
Harry Callahan were chief of a department making those decisions!
Michael Josephson (2005) of the Josephson Institute of Ethics developed an outline of criteria to determine if an officer abused his or her authority. These criteria
are useful in the analysis of abuse of discretion allegations.

Proper Criteria
•
•
•
•
•
•
•

officer believes that a warning will be an effective deterrent;
the offender is apologetic or remorseful;
seriousness of the conduct;
mental health status;
use of weapons, violence, or threat of violence;
repeat offender; and
high probability that the conduct will continue if affirmative action is not taken.

Improper Criteria
• race, ethnicity, or gender;
• appearance (enforcing laws broken by unkempt individuals while ignoring similar
behavior by attractive offenders);
• wealth;
• type of vehicle;
• political reasons;
• officer laziness (to avoid work, visibility, overtime, or court);

10 Police Quarterly

• ends-justify-the-means thinking;
• employment of offender (police officer, firefighter, judge, or city council member).

Officers who abuse their discretion by relying on improper criteria are doing so
in a malicious intentional way or as a form of noble cause corruption. These officers
know that their decision making is improper and their abuse of discretion and deceit
is as powerful and improper as a malicious lie. The use of appropriate criteria and
the avoidance of improper criteria are critical components of an officer’s discretionary decision-making model. This foundation may not prevent good-faith mistakes, but good-faith efforts to make decisions on reasonable criteria will likely earn
the trust of the community.

Middle of the Continuum Conduct
As noted earlier, the problem for administrators is not the conduct at the ends of
the continuum. Acceptable conduct requires no action and unacceptable conduct
requires immediate intervention. But when conduct falls between the two extremes,
decisions about discipline become more difficult. Consider the following example:
A supervisor asks an officer whether a particular report has been completed. The report
itself is of very little consequence, and the question was prompted by a routine administrative action rather than any specific employee concern. The officer has not submitted
the report but quickly replies that the report was submitted. The officer then immediately
completes the report and turns it in before the supervisor can discover the lie.

In this example, the officer was dishonest. He was asked a direct question by a
supervisor and he lied. This misconduct is neither justifiable nor excusable. The
question was not posed as part of a formal process, the officer was not engaging in
an action to protect another officer, and the conduct in question did not place a community member at risk.
Is the conduct sufficiently deceptive to be punished by termination? There is a
strong argument for termination in this case. After all, the officer was asked a direct
question by a supervisor about a work-related subject, and the officer responded
untruthfully. The difficulty for managers is balancing the necessity to have officers
who are beyond reproach against the fact that all officers are human beings who
sometimes make mistakes. The officer’s response may best be described as a spontaneous unthinking reaction to avoid a minor reprimand from a superior. Several factors should be considered in making a final determination. Is the officer remorseful?
Does the officer recognize the error? Does the officer have an otherwise acceptable
record with the department? and Was the underlying issue important enough to indicate potential serious consequences from the officer’s behavior?

Alpert, Noble / Lies, True Lies, and Conscious Deception 11

Consider this example:
A dispatcher asks an officer if he is available for a call. The officer radios that he is out
of service and unavailable, when in fact he does not want to receive a call because it is
near the end of his shift. Based on the officer’s statement, the dispatcher assigns the
calls to another officer.

As in the last scenario, the officer’s conduct is neither justifiable nor excusable.
Once again, a determination must be made about whether the conduct is serious
enough to warrant termination. This type of intentional deceptive misconduct, which
can be termed “administrative deception,” creates dilemmas for police management.

Understanding Lies
Perhaps the number one lie in police work is “I don’t recall.” This is a classic case
of deception by omission that can take several forms. First, officers can forget that
an incident took place. Second, they can forget parts of the incident. Because of
radio broadcasts, computer records, and testimony of other officers and witnesses, it
is not likely that an officer will be able to forget an incident totally. However, if an
officer is going to hide something, it is more likely that he or she will “strategically”
lie to justify an action or to “win” a controversy. In this situation, officers may tell
the truth about the incident but conveniently forget one issue that happens to be the
critical part. For example, an officer who witnesses another officer use force on a
resisting suspect may recall the specific events leading up to the final frame, but may
not recall how the suspect received a serious injury. On one hand, the involved officer may explain in his or her report or to an internal affairs investigator that the suspect was fighting and when he or she was tackled, his or her head hit the pavement,
causing serious injuries. The suspect, on the other hand, may claim that the officer
slammed his or her head on the concrete by pulling his or her hair after he or she had
quit resisting. Clearly, one of the parties is lying and independent witness statements
will go a long way in convincing the investigators which version is likely to have
happened (see Alpert & Dunham, 2004). Although it is obvious that these discrepancies exist, and we know that suspects lie to avoid responsibility and punishment,
it is not as easy to figure out why officers lie, beyond the same reasons given for the
suspects.
Using a theoretical approach designed to explain individual police officer’s
biased responses to minority citizens, we offer reasons why officers may become
accustom to deceiving citizens and lying. Our approach is based on social psychological research on social conditioning that results in the internal justification for
deceit and lies (see Smith & Alpert, 2007).

12 Police Quarterly

Unconscious Approval
Social psychologists have long sought to measure how and why people respond
to stimuli. Specifically, cognitive theorists recognize that learning includes acquiring
or reorganizing information or observations. Furthermore, the relative power of
learning varies according to the degree of familiarity, success, and approval one
receives from patterned responses (Brehm, Kassin, & Fein, 2002; Good & Brophy,
1990). In other words, experiences, scripts, or cognitive schema develop as shorthand for entering events into categories of memory. This process may start as simple
and loosely organized experiences but can evolve into systematic and complex relationships. For example, children learn to lie from their parents and learn from the
authority figures to accept lies (Bronson, 2008). Other research findings provide evidence that these schemas developed by children and adults form a mental model that
plays a key role in predicting a person’s responses to other individuals, places, and
things in future encounters or events (Brehm et al., 2002; Bower, Black, & Turner,
1979). Once formed, persons, places, or situations that have familiar characteristics
or properties will activate these cognitive schemas and result in familiar responses
(Vrij, 2000). For example, it is likely that familiar behaviors or responses will be
triggered when one is involved in a situation that has been successful in the past
when a given response has been successful. A learned pattern of behavior is an
expected response to a stressful or ambiguous situation. Once a person has identified
a specific response that has been successful or “victorious,” future behavioral patterns will be predicted on the previously developed schema. In other words, unless
police officers who have told lies in the past with no negative consequences can
“learn” to be truthful, and acquire and accumulate antideceptive attitudes and
beliefs, it is likely that the deception and lies will continue and possibly grow in frequency and seriousness (DePaulo et al., 2003).
The role of stored information in decision making has been the subject of
research on social cognition. The accessibility of information, its history, or the ease
with which it can be recalled is a strong predictor of how people act toward others
(Sherman, Judd, & Park, 1989; Tversky & Kahneman, 1973). The body of literature
on social cognition suggests that responses to situations are learned behaviors that
develop after repetitive activities. This learned behavior can act as organizational
scripts for social memory and thus guide actions in future encounters (Noseworthy
& Lott, 1984). For example, if police officers use deceptive practices and “lie” repetitively with nonnegative results, they will likely develop cognitive scripts that link
deception and success. If officers are taught to be deceptive in one aspect of their
work, it makes sense that when possible, the success will be transferred to other
aspects of work (DePaulo et al., 2003). Over a period of time, it is likely that the
police will process new situations through the filter of existing schemas and successes that become easier to recall because of the large number of times the use of
deception and lying is successful and easy to do. On a more practical level, many

Alpert, Noble / Lies, True Lies, and Conscious Deception 13

recruits who enter police work wanting to be honest learn to lie in the academy,
observe their training officers make changes in reports, reduce the seriousness of
crime statistics in certain areas, and augment the information of warrants (Hunt &
Manning, 1991). Finally, many of these same young officers begin to mirror the
experiences of their mentors. In other words, they learn to lie, are not sanctioned for
it, and come to believe it makes their work easier and less complicated. After a while,
it becomes a learned behavior and one of the common tools of the job.

Specifying a Reason for Lying
Our approach begins with the notion that police officers view themselves as crime
fighters—soldiers in a “war” on crime. Beyond the “winning the war” mentality,
police work provides a rich environment for the ends-justify-the-means mentality.
Because the police maintain social control, officers must routinely be in contact with
those who break the law. Through learned and reinforced behavior, police officers
are at high risk for developing a pattern and practice of deception and lying that goes
beyond what is “normal” and acceptable. There exists a growing and persuasive
body of literature suggests that such behavior is likely an unconscious reaction
(Graham & Lowery, 2004; Greenwald & Banaji, 1995).
We propose that such unconscious behavior is the most plausible explanation
for the widespread lying that occurs among police officers. Skolnick (1982) has
informed us:
I cannot here reconcile such inconsistencies, nor am I writing to lobby the Supreme
Court. But I would like to conclude by suggesting that apparent inconsistency makes
law look more like a game than a rational system for enforcing justice. Because of this
appearance of inconsistency, police are not likely to take the stated rules of the game
seriously and are encouraged to operate by their own codes, including those which
affirm the necessity for lying wherever it seems justified by the ends. (p. 54)

Conclusions/Recommendations
Most deceptive police practices are unlikely to stop and indeed, there is no legitimate cause that would support discontinuing undercover operations, operatives
lying about their true identity, using unmarked cars, or even creating the perception
of safety in absence of a safe and secure environment. Similarly, it is unlikely that
the police or the courts will change their views on the use of deception to seek the
truth during an interrogation. But there are steps that should be taken to ensure that
officers do not slip from acceptable deception into intentional malicious deceptive
misconduct. First, officers should be trained as to the possible consequences of
deceptive interrogation practices, how to avoid these practices, and how to elicit a

14 Police Quarterly

truthful confession. Second, the police should receive training on the understanding
and recognition of lies and particularly of officers’ unconscious approval of deceptive conduct. Finally, chief executives need to take a strong role to communicate,
demonstrate, and uphold the values of professional law enforcement and be willing
to separate employees from the organization who behave in a manner contrary to
these high-ethical standards.

Interrogations
The advent of DNA analysis has conclusively shown that at least some individuals falsely confess to crimes and that deceptive psychologically coercive interrogation techniques particularly as they are imposed on vulnerable groups are a factor in
the false confession. Because interrogations of suspects by officers intentionally
occur in isolation and because the determination of inappropriate interrogation practices such as promises, threats, or the intentional or unintentional conveyance of corroborating information to the suspect, stem to stern recordings of all interrogations
of serious crimes should be mandated.
The benefits of videotaping include the following:
• provides transparency to the interview process,
• allows the detective to have greater focus on the suspect rather than on note taking,
• provides evidence that the detectives did not coerce the suspect to make admissions
or to confess, and
• allows the jury to make a credibility assessment of the suspect as they were being
interrogated (Cronin et al., 2007).

The recording of interrogations allows police supervisors and management along
with others in the criminal justice system to evaluate the reliability of the confession.
The context of any confession or statements made that can be observed in a video
tape provides the best method to understand how the information was obtained or
“volunteered.” This evaluation would consider (a) whether the confession contains
nonpublic information that can be independently verified, would be known only
by the true perpetrator or an accomplice, and cannot likely be guessed by chance;
(b) whether the confession led the police to new evidence about the crime; and
(c) whether the suspect’s postadmission narrative fits the crime facts and other objective evidence (Leo, 2008).
Some police officials have voiced concerns that include the following:
•
•
•
•

reluctance to reveal investigative tactics (such as lying),
a belief that recording will inhibit the suspect’s cooperation,
questions of legality,
concerns of costs, and

Alpert, Noble / Lies, True Lies, and Conscious Deception 15

• a belief that recordings might make detectives overly reliant on technology (Cronin
et al, 2007; Leo, 2008).

There is no evidence that a recording will have a chilling effect on the willingness
of a suspect to submit to interrogation by refusing to talk, becoming silent during the
interrogation, or to not make admissions (Leo, 2008). Indeed, there are several jurisdictions that now mandate recordings for serious crimes (e.g., Alaska, Minnesota,
Illinois, District of Columbia, Maine, New Mexico, Wisconsin, and North Carolina),
and there is no evidence that would suggest that these jurisdictions or the many other
agencies in other jurisdictions that record interrogations have had a decrease in confessions because of recording. Interestingly, a similar “chilling effect” argument was
posited after the Miranda decision was announced. Where a tape recorder may possibly be viewed as a warning not to talk, the Miranda decision was specifically
designed to be a red flag encouraging those suspected of crimes to seek advice of
counsel. Yet Miranda warnings have generally been ineffective, and it is doubtful
that the presence of a tape recorder could somehow convey a stronger message than
the direct statements mandated by Miranda.

Training
Police training is generally pragmatic—rules are explained and procedures are outlined. Philosophical discussion of the rules or procedures seldom plays a meaningful
role in police training. Police officers should be taught not to lie, or at least if they do,
to do so in a manner that is legal, ethical, and not harmful. It is easy to imagine that an
officer who is taught to deceive for a worthy purpose might extend their knowledge
beyond what is permitted. Therefore, police training should contain discussion and a
thorough overview of the concerns of deceptive practices and their limits.
All officers should receive training in police-induced false confessions. Interrogators
should be able to recognize groups of people who may be susceptible to suggestive
interrogation techniques, what causes an innocent person to confess falsely, and
through this improved training, how to be more effective at eliciting truthful confessions (Leo, 2008).
Another important step for all police officers is ongoing ethics and ethical decisionmaking training. Many police academies have incorporated ethics training into their
curriculum. These introductory courses provide the student with basic concepts
that one would hope all police officers would inculcate as they enter a career in
law enforcement. But as these students attend one course on how to be an ethical
officer, they attend subsequent courses teaching them how to deceive to achieve the
noble means of removing criminals from the streets. These deceptive techniques are
further expanded as the new officers enter their field-training program where they
work one-on-one with a training officer. Under this intense and isolated training
environment that occurs away from supervision, young officers may be indoctrinated

16 Police Quarterly

to types of deceptive conduct never imagined by police management. It is for these
reasons that character training based on commonly held values, such as respect,
responsibility, fairness, honesty, and justice be mandated as ongoing professional
training for all officers (Callahan, 2004). Finally, this training must be more than
merely asking officers to do the right thing. The training must be supported by an
organizational culture that views character and values as the cornerstone of professionalism.

Discipline
Our final recommendation requires that chief administrators make the tough decisions that are commensurate with their position. There is simply no alternative to terminating an employee who has engaged in intentional, malicious, and deceptive
conduct. As we have discussed, if an employee perjures herself or himself in court,
during an internal affairs investigation, or if they fail to bring forward information
involving criminal activity of other officers (code of silence) or if they create false
evidence that tends to implicate another in a criminal act, including an affidavit for
a warrant, that officer’s employment must immediately cease.

A Final Comment
It is the responsibility of all chief executives to develop an organizational values
statement and organizational culture that is consistent with the police officers’ code
of ethics. These guiding documents, supported by the words and actions of the command staff, form the foundation for all discipline meted out by the organization.
Additionally, an employee should not only be directed to a specific policy section
identifying their misconduct but also their actions should be identified as a violation
of the department’s stated values.
Police officers are sufficiently sophisticated and educated to know, understand,
and recognize the difference between accepted deception and deception that is neither socially nor lawfully acceptable. Organizations cannot either implicitly or
explicitly allow intentional deceptive misconduct by developing or allowing internal
standards, at any level in the organization, which condones such behavior. On one
hand, organizations must recognize the likelihood that officers will learn how to lie
and be comfortable telling lies. They must plan to train and educate officers to avoid
improper behavior. One the other hand, officers must learn the consequence of
telling lies; that they are held to a high standard, and that their acceptance in the
community is based on honesty and integrity. If an officer believes he or she can
operate by his or her own rules, get away without recalling all of the facts, and
believe that the ends justify the means, then criminal justice becomes more of a
game than a system or even a method.

Alpert, Noble / Lies, True Lies, and Conscious Deception 17

As Hunt and Manning (1991) warned us more than a decade ago, as officers
become accustomed to lying and the organization allows and encourages the behavior, both the officers and the organization will begin to believe their lies and policing becomes more isolated, looses public trust and credibility. This direction must
change if policing is to gain back the respect it needs and deserves.

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Geoffrey P. Alpert is a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of South Carolina.
He has been studying high-risk police activities for more than 25 years. He has published widely in
professional and academic journals, and has written more than 15 books on criminal justice issues.
Jeffrey J. Noble, Esq. is a commander with the Irvine Police Department located in southern California.
He was in charge of Internal Affairs for more than 4 years. He currently manages the police resources for
the area of Irvine that includes the following: University of California at Irvine, Concordia University, and
the business community adjacent to John Wayne airport.

 

 

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