NEW YORK-Cops lie. Not all of them, but so many lie about their arrests, tickets and interactions with the public that it's a miracle anyone still respects the law.
Corrupt cops were around long before Serpico, but the problem appears to be getting worse. After the dust settled from the recent Rampart Division scandal, Los Angeles prosecutors were forced to drop hundreds of charges against innocent people sitting in jail, who'd been convicted of crimes invented from thin air by police officers willing to lie in order to embellish their arrest record. Now courts have found that New York City police, already facing multi-million-dollar lawsuits filed by demonstrators who were held in horrifying "Little Gitmo" conditions at the 2004 Republican National Convention, fabricated charges against nearly all of those they arrested.
The NYPD arrested 1,806 people during the RNC. "Of the 1,670 cases that have run their full course," The New York Times reported April 12, "91 percent ended with the charges dismissed or a verdict of not guilty after trial."
Using a new tactic, protesters hired hundreds of anti-RNC cameramen to videotape their arrests. Their evidence proved that cops trumped up nearly every charge. Some of those arrested, it turns out, were passersby who didn't participate in the protests at all. The videos, reported the Times in its usual understated style, offered "little support [for police] or actually undercut the prosecution of most of the people arrested." After viewing the evidence, Manhattan's district attorney dropped the charges.
The newspaper cited the case of Dennis Kyne, the first RNC arrestee. At Kyne's trial for "inciting a riot and resisting arrest," NYPD officer Matthew Wohl testified that he had been forced to pick up the defendant "while he squirmed and screamed," grabbing "one of his legs because he was kicking and refusing to walk on his own."
The videotape, unlike P.O. Wohl, doesn't lie.
The tape "showed Mr. Kyne agitated but plainly walking under his own power down the library steps, contradicting the vivid account of Officer Wohl, who was nowhere to be seen in the pictures. Nor was the officer seen taking part in the arrests of four other people at the library against whom he signed complaints."
The prosecutor "abruptly dropped all charges."
In an Orwellian twist, the authorities even censored their own tapes to delete evidence of police lies. Alexander Dunlop, charged with pushing his bicycle into a line of police officers and resisting arrest, was seen on a police tape before the incident in question and sitting in handcuffs after his arrest. The D.A.'s office erased "parts of the tape that show him calmly approaching the police line, and later submitting to arrest without apparent incident."
Summer's convention demonstrations were one of last year's biggest stories, taking place in the streets of the nation's largest and most densely populated city-not to mention its media capitol. If cops are willing to lie about events witnessed by hundreds of people in broad daylight, while the cameras roll, if they're unafraid to file phony charges against white college kids with rich parents who can afford good lawyers, one can easily imagine what they do to minority teenagers on the desolate streets of the slums. Who can blame urban kids for despising the police?
This clean-cut Ivy-educated white columnist has encountered enough instances of cops lying to reasonably conclude that the socially destructive phenomenon is widespread:
• A couple of years ago a Los Angeles police officer cuffed me while citing me for jaywalking-actually, I was in the crosswalk with the green "walk" signal in my favor-then tossed my ID into the gutter. The LAPD internal affairs division repeatedly ignored my complaints about this unprofessional goon.
• A Nevada state trooper, not content to ticket me for the 80 miles per hour I was actually speeding on a desert stretch of U.S. Route 95, wrote me up for a more ambitious but false 100 in a 70 mph zone. I was so incensed at the level of exaggeration that I later flew back from New York to challenge the ticket. I won.
• I'm currently awaiting the outcome of a ticket I was issued for violating New York's law against talking on a cellphone while driving, a rule with which I agree. First, I always use an ear bud-which is legal. And as my phone bill attests, I wasn't even using the phone at the time in question.
And there's more.
I'm no angel. I jaywalk and speed. When I get caught, I pay the ticket without complaint. But I refuse to plead guilty to an offense of which I'm innocent just because an officer of the law is willing to lie in order to meet his ticket quota.
Why do so many cops lie? My pet theory is that, in the same way that Bill Clinton's sex scandals encouraged promiscuity among impressionable young people, George W. Bush's contempt for the truth and the law, including granting permission to torture and jail the innocent, set a tone that emboldens law enforcement officers to feel that they can get away with anything.
Whatever the cause, cops who slander the innocent unravel our respect for the uniformed authority figures who are the most public face of our government. Public contempt undermines the tacit consent of the governed, the vague but essential groupthink that perpetuates political legitimacy in any society. Lying cops imply lying leaders; lying leaders imply illegitimate rule.
Amazingly, police departments rarely impose sanctions against cops whose testimony is repeatedly found to be untrue by judges, prosecutors and juries. The prevailing attitude is: do whatever, say whatever, and see what sticks. But this has got to stop. Criminal policemen ought to face treatment at least as harsh as employees of other, less vital, professions who lie to their boss. When a judge or the prosecutor's office throws out a case because the evidence disproves a police officer's account of the incident, a warning should be placed in his file. The second time he bears false witness, he should be fired and ordered to find another, more appropriate job (political consultant, secretary of state, or CFO for a Fortune 500 company).
Only when the police police themselves will policing be seen as a truly honorable profession.