Law professor and civil rights activist Michelle Alexander has written an op-ed in the NY Times called “Why Police Lie Under Oath.” Using a title like that is sure to create controversy but she raises the important issue as to what extent law enforcement can be trusted. For the wrongfully convicted and wrongfully accused, this could mean the difference between freedom and a lifetime of incarceration. In Alexander’s view, it’s too easy for police officers to get away with it, writing that “[a]s a juror, whom are you likely to believe: the alleged criminal in an orange jumpsuit or two well-groomed police officers in uniforms who just swore to God they’re telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but?”
Alexander looks at two major circumstances where this occurs. The first is in the context of drug arrests. She quotes a former San Francisco police commissioner as saying police perjury to justify illegal dope searches is “commonplace.” The former commissioner further describes the process as “the routine way of doing business in courtrooms everywhere in America.” Furthermore, in 2011, hundreds of drug cases were dismissed due to police corruption and lying. Additionally, the Bronx District Attorney discover that a high number of people were being falsely arrested for trespassing at housing projects. Alexander explains that “Jeannette Rucker, the chief of arraignments for the Bronx district attorney, explained in a letter that it had become apparent that the police were arresting people even when there was convincing evidence that they were innocent. To justify the arrests, Ms. Rucker claimed, police officers provided false written statements, and in depositions, the arresting officers gave false testimony.”
The second situation arises where there is pressure to meet arrest quotas. In New York, police officers felt pressure (denied by the Police Commissioner) to arrest someone even if the crime is not committed. In addition, Alexander notes that the number of arrests may impact whether state and local law enforcement agencies receive federal grant program funding. Agencies feel that the funding will cease if the numbers are not up to expectations.
So where does this leave the defendant? In a very bad position. A false report leads to a false arrest which then puts the defendant in a bind. As Alexander noted above, the jury will most likely believe the officer’s version of events. At this point, the defendant may also feel pressure to falsely plead guilty to the crime. Even if the defendant has committed a crime, the officer’s lying may result in a more serious charge and additional prison time. With resources at a premium, can the criminal justice system afford to continue operating this way?
Police perjury or “testilying” is not new but the question remains as to why it still exists. Why haven’t police chiefs and departments taken away the incentive to lie under oath? Alexander sums it up best when she writes that the “fact that our legal system has become so tolerant of police lying indicates how corrupted our criminal justice system has become by declarations of war, “get tough” mantras, and a seemingly insatiable appetite for locking up and locking out the poorest and darkest among us.”