Why Cops Should Not Be Automatically Believed


Despite an increasingly obvious track record of lying on reports, framing innocent people and many other forms of misconduct and abuse, juries tend to automatically believe police officers when they testify in court. Defense attorney Rick Horowitz explains why this is a bad idea, in response to another person pointing out that not all cops are bad:

The problem, of course, is that these days you just can’t tell, by looking at a particular law enforcement officer, whether a particular law enforcement officer is one of those who is being honest, or whether he is one who will lie (especially in court), or plant evidence, or ignore rights, or follow the law.

Therein lies the problem.

I know I say some nasty stuff about police officers. It may surprise you to know that I didn’t always talk like this, or think the way I do. Over the years since I became an attorney, however, I’ve come to know that every one of the things I talked about above happens on a regular basis.

Some police officers lie.

Some police officers plant evidence.

Some police officers ignore rights.

Some police officers will not follow the law.

Prosecutors won’t charge cops, even for the same things for which they’d charge you, since they’re all “on the same team.” Our courts — supposedly the last guardians we have against the abuse of the executive branch of government to which prosecutors and the police belong — are often complicit. Despite the large number of proven cases of police officers who essentially make a mockery of our laws, other parts of the government which should be policing the police refuse to do so.

And make no mistake, these are not “one-off” incidents we’re talking about here. I tried to highlight that fact by the numerous links above. And it did not take me long to find those links. But these links only scratch the surface.

I don’t doubt for a moment that here are lots of good cops out there. I know some of them personally. I suspect most of them try to do their job fairly and professionally. But that doesn’t mean we should treat the word of a police officer as automatically true or inherently more credible than the word of a suspect or defendant. We have more than enough cases now of police officers caught lying and abusing people — cases we would never have known about if not for video footage from a cell phone or surveillance camera — to justify treating their testimony as no more credible than that of a person accused of doing something wrong. If the officer’s claims are all the evidence you have, that’s a pretty weak case.

This is why every single police officer in the country should have a video and audio recorder on their uniform. Every single interaction they have with the public should be part of the evidence in a case. And this is something that every good cop should be in favor of. If they’re doing the right things, it can only serve to protect them from false accusations and provide more evidence against the bad guys. And if they’re not, that’s exactly why they need to be on video at all times.

Comments

  1. steve oberski says

    With increased authority comes increased responsibility.

    By definition, a good cop would welcome a higher, more onerous standard of accountability than that excepted of the average citizen.

  2. A. Noyd says

    All I have to say is thank fuck I had video of when I was arrested because most of the arrest report was a fiction the arresting officer invented to salvage the pride I’d wounded by not being sufficiently cowed by his attempts to intimidate me.

  3. Didaktylos says

    The only thing that will change this is collective criminal liability – every cop, prosecutor and judge to be held answerable for the misdeeds of any cop, prosecutor or judge.

  4. Anthony K says

    All I have to say is thank fuck I had video of when I was arrested because most of the arrest report was a fiction the arresting officer invented to salvage the pride I’d wounded by not being sufficiently cowed by his attempts to intimidate me.

    I wish I’d had video. They tried to intimidate me by claiming they had video evidence of me committing the crime. Having no idea what they were talking about, I laughed.

    Laughing is arrestable behaviour, I learned.

    (And the video they claimed they had was a lie.)

  5. freemage says

    And the painful bit is, the good cops are the ones getting screwed over by this thin blue line bullshit.

    In every jurisdiction where recording of police activity has increased, allegations of abuse or misconduct have decreased, often dramatically. This is both because the cops are more likely to behave, AND because there’s now actual evidence to counter bogus charges.

  6. Anthony K says

    And the painful bit is, the good cops are the ones getting screwed over by this thin blue line bullshit.

    Well, not to the degree that the citizenry is. The power differential is important. But yes, there are good cops, and they get fucked over by the bad ones.

  7. Brandon says

    Why Cops Should Not Be Automatically Believed

    Without getting into my personal opinion of police, isn’t the answer to this simply, “Because they are humans”?

  8. Kengi says

    I’m starting to get sick of the “Of course there are lots of good cops” and “Of course most cops are good” platitudes.

    The cops who don’t actually beat up suspects, but turn the other way when it happens are also bad cops. The cops who hear of the abuses of their fellow officers but do nothing about it are also bad cops. Every cop that won’t cross the thin blue line is a bad cop. Every cop who flashes his badge at a store clerk to see if he can get a discount is soliciting for bribes, and is a bad cop.

    Based on what happens when random cops show up to a scene where another cop has done something wrong, and the support they get from their superiors, I honestly wonder if there is a single “good” cop in all of Chicago, for example.

    I do remember, years ago, one cop who refused to stop ticketing city officials for parking violations. Last I heard he was stuck walking the O’Hare Parking lots. If he ever wanted out of that purgatory, he had to either quit, or become a bad cop, like everyone else on the force.

    The system is designed to produce and support bad cops while punishing good cops quickly and mercilessly. Is it really that difficult to believe that departments may not have any good cops?

  9. tuxedocartman says

    One of the things that’s frightened me the most about living in America lately is what you’ll see police officers doing on videos taken from their own dashboard cameras. Beatings, abuse, racial slurs… hell, I remember one case where the cop clearly planted evidence, in view of his own car’s camera! So if this is how they act knowing they’re being filmed, then 1) that speaks to the level of comfort they have that their fellow good ol’ boys and DA’s have their back, and 2) makes me truly wonder what they’re doing when they don’t think they’re being videotaped. (Actually, I don’t have to wonder; read about it all the time on here and over at Balko’s site).

  10. Michael Heath says

    Ed writes:

    I don’t doubt for a moment that here are lots of good cops out there. I know some of them personally. I suspect most of them try to do their job fairly and professionally. But that doesn’t mean we should treat the word of a police officer as automatically true or inherently more credible than the word of a suspect or defendant. We have more than enough cases now of police officers caught lying and abusing people — cases we would never have known about if not for video footage from a cell phone or surveillance camera — to justify treating their testimony as no more credible than that of a person accused of doing something wrong. If the officer’s claims are all the evidence you have, that’s a pretty weak case.

    I presume the population of law enforcement officers’ testimony is both more capable and more credible than the general population. However, and it’s a gigantic however, we understand that some cops lie, even in court. Therefore I treat the testimony of a police officer with skepticism.

    If a witness with no motivation to lie testifies, I’m compelled to believe they’re more credible than an officer or someone involved in the incident with skin in the game. In spite of the fact I’m confident the officer is more capable of observing and reporting an incident they witnessed.

    My skepticism is a disadvantage to law enforcement if its shared by many people, where they’ve earned this disadvantage by tolerating corrupt cops. We saw this in play at the OJ Simpson criminal trial.

    When I was a young man I was called to jury duty. I would have loved to have served on that jury since the case involved a step-dad who was accused of torturing his step-children. But the defendant’s attorney excused me from consideration as soon as I answered a judge’s question that I would weigh the testimony of a law officer over that of someone who wasn’t. My logic wasn’t wrong back in the early-1980s when this occurred, I simply didn’t know there were crooked cops back then, so I lacked a sufficient set of premises to take a superior position.

    The defendant was convicted and was sentenced to the maximum possible sentence at the time, a gut-cringing 3 – 5 years. In spite of the fact he’d shocked/burned toddlers with a live wire, put hot sauce in their cuts, and stuck them in a non-running clothes dryer. (I don’t remember why they didn’t suffocate.)

  11. Crip Dyke, MQ, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    Hmmm. Well I never (as an adult) thought any human should be believed “automatically”, but it was only during the reading of this that it occurred to me to name the argument against automatically believing someone who wears a uniform “Schroedinger’s bad cop”.

    Gives good cop/bad cop a whole new twist, don’t it?

  12. jamessweet says

    I can understand why some good cops might be opposed to the video thing — I don’t really want my employer videotaping everything I do! — but I think those concerns could be addressed by simply writing into the regulations that you can’t open the videos without subpoena. i.e., no pointy-headed bosses trawling the tapes to catch people taking ten seconds too long eating their donut — the tapes are only opened if they are needed as part of a trial or official investigation.

  13. Artor says

    Kengi @ #10 is absolutely right. My town had a scandal a few years ago when it finally came out that there were two officers who had been raping women in the backs of their patrol cars, with guns to their heads & threats of “I know where you live. Say anything to anyone, and I’ll kill you.” This went on for about 10 years, with scores of complaints against these two officers, and not one damn thing was done about it until someone finally talked to the press. I don’t live in a very big city, (156K) so I can’t imagine that there was a single cop on the force that didn’t know Magaña & Lara were very bad cops. And none of them said a thing for years, allowing the raping & violent assaults to continue, over & over again.

    Then there was the time my wife got pulled over on her way home from work. The reason? She wasn’t speeding, but she was attractive, & Officer McCreepy wanted to ask her out for a date.

    Then there was the time the cops raided my neighbor’s house with a tank & SWAT team on an imaginary drug charge and put their guns to the head of an 8 y/o. No drugs were found, and the tenants didn’t even smoke herb.

    As a white male, every encounter I’ve had with cops has been polite & professional, but I don’t let that fool me. Every single one of them is complicit in the crimes of their fellows. Yes, even your dear old grandad, who retired after 30 years on the force and never hurt a fly. He has stories he never tells, and he carries the responsibility for not telling them.

  14. Rip Steakface says

    @Crip

    Schrodinger’s Cop is pithier :P. Nonetheless, I like that idea – you can’t know if any given cop is good or bad, so you can’t trust any.

  15. Peter B says

    AMEN! on that last paragraph. Cost for equipment (including base station equipment) should be less that $1000 per officer. Unit to be ALWAYS turned on in the station especially during meetings with other officers and all politicians.

  16. pita says

    On the one hand, I agree that recording cops will almost certainly help curb wrongful and disgusting behavior (assuming that prosecution actually goes forward, which is a big assumption).

    On the other hand, I’m not sure how much of a fan I am of turning cops into walking security cameras. I suppose there’s something to be said for the idea that the camera won’t catch anything the cop wouldn’t or that the tapes would be sealed unless necessary, but the idea still gives me the chills.

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