“Each step of the officers’ story defies credibility… flagrant misconduct… evasive and contradictory testimony… questionable, problematic testimony… tailored to overcome constitutional objection… complete fabrication…… patently incredible testimony… one of the most blatant cases of perjury I’ve seen… I hope you won’t darken my courtroom with this police officer’s testimony again”.
These are actual quotes from judges across New York City courtrooms, after hearing police officers testify in “suppression hearings” in criminal cases. Yet, there is virtually never any follow up on such findings by anyone in authority. Prosecutors aren’t going to report the findings, since they’ve implicitly endorsed the testimony by putting the officers on the stand. The NYPD doesn’t monitor such findings, as they don’t want to know. The courts don’t report their results outside of the case itself- there’s no political upside to calling out the cops. In fact, judges often go out of their way to express how much it pains them to have to do it. Thus an excellent tool for disciplining bad cops goes completely ignored.
Suppression hearings take place in criminal cases before trials, and are used to weigh the constitutionality of certain police actions in searches and seizures, or in interrogations, or in lineups. At such hearings, the prosecutor generally presents police officer witnesses to testify about how they got their evidence. The testimony is subject to cross examination by a defense attorney, and both sides are entitled to make their arguments to a judge.
The great majority of the time judges find the officers who testify to be credible, and that the evidence was obtained constitutionally. Thus, it is important and notable on the rare occasions when judges find the cops’ actions unconstitutional, or that the cops lied on the stand, or both. There should absolutely be a formal reporting mechanism, for the NYPD brass (and other municipalities across the country) to find out when judges have called their cops out on bad searches and perjury.
The idea that civil lawsuits should be at least somewhat weighed in evaluating cops’ performance is finally gaining traction in municipalities across the country. But the results of suppression hearings are even more reliable indicators than lawsuit settlements since, unlike lawsuit settlements, the testimony in hearings has been tested in open court, under oath. At my firm, we have collected hundreds of pages of suppression findings that go against the cops. But we’re apparently the only ones.
The tools for correcting this are not hiding- they are in plain view, available to anyone with a law journal subscription. For the price of a stamp, I’ll gladly send the police commissioner my collection of judicial findings, and every other civil rights lawyer I know would do the same. In what other business would the bosses deliberately avoid written, reliable evaluations of their employees’ performance? What other business would ignore or tolerate formal findings by federal judges that their employees perjured themselves to cover up job site misconduct? There is only one conclusion to be drawn; the authorities don’t want to know.
When evidence is suppressed, defendants guilty of very serious crimes may walk free. The cost to society can be high. Yet, the cost to the cop who engaged in the misconduct is almost always zero. The government protects bad cops, up and down the line. It doesn’t have to be that way, and could end tomorrow, with the political will.