As the media continues to expose an appalling series of police shootings of mostly unarmed African Americans, most of us view the stories through the lens of our own experience.
White Americans generally respect law enforcement, and assume that they tell the truth when they say they were threatened and had to shoot. Seventy-seven percent of whites approve of the job being done by their local police department. Black Americans, having often personally experienced police harassment, are far more likely to mistrust law enforcement and skeptically view claims that lethal force was necessary. Forty-five percent of African Americans believe police “lie routinely to serve their own interests.”
Incentives for police perjury
Of course, like anyone else, police distort the truth. High ranking law enforcement officials and judges have noted the incentive systems in place — keeping the numbers up in drug arrests, for instance — that promote police perjury. Cops are allowed to lie when interrogating subjects, and they do so frequently.
In court, police appear polished, well groomed and in uniform, and they are nearly always believed over scruffy criminal defendants inexperienced with the machinations of the criminal justice system. When police are not believed, the remedy is a dismissal of the case, not action against the officer for lying. The advantage police officers have is that they are not only trained in how to be good witnesses in court — stay calm, review your notes beforehand, just answer the questions posed, remain factual, look jurors in the eye — but also how to protect themselves in the event they injure or kill a citizen — lawyer up pronto, do not give a statement, and review all the evidence with attorneys before giving a narrative.
It is impossible to overstate the tactical advantage police have in excessive force cases, given this training. Victims and witnesses invariably become emotional, even hysterical, and give unrehearsed, often inconsistent statements about what happened — as we saw in Ferguson. That doesn’t mean the witnesses are liars, but it can destroy their credibility in a courtroom.
Police are almost never prosecuted for perjury. The rare high-profile exception is Mark Fuhrman, who famously pleaded no contest to felony perjury for claiming in the 1994 O.J. Simpson criminal trial that he hadn’t used the “N word.” In fact he’d been caught on tape doing just that many times, bragging about his abuse of African American suspects. Among many chilling examples,
“You can take one of these n*****s, drag ’em into the alley and beat the shit out of them and kick them.”
Fuhrman went on to a lucrative career as a crime writer, radio host and frequent Fox News guest.
Since few witnesses will admit to lying, a wide scale assessment of confabulation by police or anyone else is impossible. But sure, police lie, somewhere between sometimes and often. Civilians lie too, somewhere between sometimes and often. Practice law as long as I have, since 1986, and you’ll come to believe that almost everyone twists the truth to avoid punishment, especially when they think they can get away with it. When human beings do stupid or evil things, they tend to fabricate to cover their tracks. In my experience, it’s exceedingly rare for someone accused of wrongdoing to fully own up to it and apologize. And our legal system strongly discourages such admissions.
In South Carolina, police lies and evidence planting
South Carolina police officer Michael Slager recently shot and killed Walter Scott, an unarmed African American man he’d stopped for a broken taillight. Scott ran from officer Slager, likely because he was far behind on child support payments and had been jailed for it in the past. (Debtor prisons are back in America.)
After the incident, Slager lawyered up and refused to give a statement to police investigators who arrived on the scene. A few days later, via his lawyer, Slager said he’d scuffled with Scott over his taser, felt threatened and thus had to shoot.
Then a citizen video surfaced, showing Slager shooting a fleeing Scott, shooting him repeatedly in the back. After the fatal shots, Slager appears to drop an object next to Scott’s body. It appears to be the taser.
This one case does not prove that all or even most police officers lie, of course. But it does vividly demonstrate the very real possibility that law enforcement can quickly come up with a false story to justify a shooting, complete with planting evidence at a crime scene. Each case must be based on its own proof, and no one – not a police officer, not a civilian – should be prejudged. But neither should we assume that police are model humans who never get angry or vindictive, who never overreact, and never fabricate. As long as police are human beings, they will do all these things and more, just as we all do.