Michelle Alexander wrote one of the most important books on civil rights in the last decade, it’s titled The New Jim Crow, Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness. Last week, she wrote a lengthy article in the New York Times entitled “Why Police Officers Lie.” I highly recommend both, you can google the article easily enough.
The Times just published a few “letters to the Editor” about the article, two of which were by police officers. It’s interesting reading. Here’s a snippet from Jonathan Wender, who was a police officer and now a professor at the University of Washington. He wrote: “While there are far too many police officers who are arrogantly convinced they can do no wrong, there are also far too many pundits who believe the police can do no right.”
A former NYPD Lieutenant Andy Rosenzweig wrote: “Police officers also lie because they believe, albeit often wrongly, that they’re performing a public service by ensuring that defendants are convicted. Ms. Alexander is correct that this is a problem. But to ignore the cynicism created by a legal system, a government and a larger society (think of the Wall Street scandals) where bad behavior is commonplace and very often goes unpunished is to miss the point.”
No doubt these two officers are civic minded and candid. But there are a couple of themes here that are really problematic even as the officers acknowledge the problem of police lying under oath (testilying). Mr. Wender’s letter exhibits a common theme among police officers, that they are doing a tough and dangerous job that goes unrecognized by the general public. This attitude always amazes me. Cops are ALWAYS being celebrated and commended in the press. Despite much evidence to the contrary, they are trusted. When one is killed in the line of duty, even if it is by accident or some health failure, they are mourned by the entire community. They are constantly being thanked for doing a dangerous job, even if being a police officer isn’t as dangerous as being a construction worker or a taxi driver. But the ideas that Mr. Wender promotes, that somehow 1) critics of the police believe that they can ‘do no right’, and 2) that they are representative of a majority segment of society, pervade police departments — certainly NYPD — and causes them to see the community as an enemy, not a partner in crime fighting.
Mr. Rosenzweig’s letter shows another common belief that is typical of police officers. First, he says that police officers lie because they think they are performing a public service by doing so. He notes that police officers are often wrong in thinking that. Not always, just often. Lieutenant Rosenzweig, a former high ranking NYPD supervisor, green lights the idea that lying under oath can in fact serve the public interest. The problem with this is that any cop — really any person — can convince themselves that their lies are serving a greater purpose. That’s the reason we have a criminal justice system with due process guarantees that relies on truthfulness, because we know that not just cops but anyone can convince themselves that lying is a good idea even when it is clearly not. Lying, whether it’s for a “good reason” or not, perverts the justice system. It therefore NEVER serves the public interest.
Lieutenant Rosenzweig also seems to justify testilying by condemning the legal system and society as a whole. How does lying about a person having marijuana in plain view, or an injured defendant having resisted arrest redress societal ills such as untrustworthy politicians and banking scandals? It doesn’t. It adds to those societal ills. Moreover, Lieutenant Rosenzweig, like his colleague Officer Wender, suffers from police victim complex. He seems to think that we have all these lying politicians and bankers and nobody seems to care about or write about them, only police officers. Nothing, of course, can be further from the truth. Media and ordinary people are always talking about political and economic scandals while police officers are constantly lauded for their efforts except when they engage in the most egregious or pervasive misconduct. It’s good to be a cop, and instead of appreciating that, they pretend that the world hates them and they too often treat the communities they are sworn to protect as the enemy.