Why do police lie? Insight from a Florida judge

This post was submitted by the Law Offices of Howard Friedman – a Massachusetts law firm that specilized in civil rights and police misconduct cases.

An interesting decision from a judge in Volusia County, Florida, helps us understand why police lie. The case at issue involved the Daytona Beach Police Department, which received an anonymous tip that there was drug activity at the defendant’s home. Two officers went to the home, and the defendant’s mother answered the door. The officers told her they were looking into a “911 disconnect” and wanted to enter the house to ensure her safety. She allowed them in. By lying in order to gain entry to her home, these officers engaged in a police procedure called a “knock and talk.” Courts have found this practice perfectly legal. Officers are permitted to create false scenarios to try to catch people they think might be involved in crime, but for whom they do not have probable cause to arrest or search.

The Daytona Beach officer claimed that once he was inside the defendant’s mother’s home, he asked if he could search further and the mother said yes. The mother, on the other hand, testified that the officer never asked permission to search the house any further. The officer found drugs in a piece of furniture, which led to this criminal case. The defendant filed a motion to suppress this evidence, which Circuit Judge Joseph G. Will allowed on January 17, 2012.

The parties agreed that the mother’s consent was necessary in order for the search to be legal. Thus, Judge Will had to determine who was more credible; the mother or the police officer? The defendant argued that the officer damaged his credibility when he lied to gain access to the home, even though his lie was legal. Judge Will agreed.

The judge’s opinion argues that by encouraging police officers to lie, we have corrupted our police, communities, and government. He writes:

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?

In the many police misconduct cases this firm has handled, we have witnessed the costs that Judge Will refers to. Communities lose faith in the police and feel fearful in police presence. Many people do not feel safe dialing 911, even during dire emergencies. Some officers feel empowered to use excessive force and then lie about it, knowing that their version of the story is more likely to be believed than their victims’. Other officers lie to cover up the actions of fellow police officers. Police give false testimony in court, a practice referred to as “testilying.” Unfortunately, Judge Will’s opinion is unusual; judges and juries usually honor the word of police officers and favor their testimony over the testimony of civilians.

An article in Police Chief Magazine, Understanding the Psychology of Police Misconduct by Brian D. Fitch, offers psychological insight into why police officers lie. The article describes eight ways in which officers rationalize lying and other misconduct: denying that there was a victim; denying that anyone was hurt by their misconduct; claiming that there was a higher cause that compelled them to commit misconduct; blaming the victim by claiming that the victim deserved to suffer because they broke the law; using dehumanizing language (e.g. “scumbag,” “piece of trash”) to make the victim seem less human; claiming that they had no choice but to commit misconduct because they were a victim of circumstance; comparing their misconduct to more serious misconduct in order to minimize what they have done; and diffusing their own responsibility when there are multiple officers involved.

Apart from understanding why police officers lie, it remains in question what can be done about lying officers. Over two years ago, Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis declared that officers will be fired if they lie in the line of duty, to internal affairs investigators, or in court. But in over two years, only one officer—David Williams—has been fired under this policy, and only after a complex federal lawsuit brought by this firm.

EPN

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