Ever heard of police officers “testilying” in court? “Testilying” is the cynical euphemism that cops use for testifying falsely in order to secure convictions against people whom they believe to be guilty. But there is obviously another word for it: police perjury. “Testilying” is rationalized as somehow justified because the cop’s goal is to make sure that the bad guy gets convicted. The cop lies so that the suspect does not get off on a technicality. But it’s unmistakably police perjury, and the so-called technicalities are our constitutional protections against government persecution.
A survey of prosecutors, judges and defense attorneys in Chicago concludes that cops commit police perjury on the witness stand about 20% of the time. Almost all of the police officers questioned in another study admit that fellow officers commit perjury – sometimes rarely, sometimes routinely, but most everyone is doing it. Yet, cops are almost never called out on police perjury, much less disciplined, fired, or prosecuted. San Francisco’s former Police Commissioner Peter Keane described the rampant frequency of police perjury: “[P]erjury in court to justify illegal dope searches is commonplace. One of the dirty little not-so-secret secrets of the criminal justice system is undercover narcotics officers intentionally lying under oath. It is a perversion of the American justice system that strikes directly at the rule of law. Yet it is the routine way of doing business in courtrooms everywhere in America.”
As Commissioner Keane references, often the perjury happens in the mundane cases – the drug busts and the gun possession cases – where cops blatantly lie in order to retroactively justify their search after they found something illegal. Even then, police perjury is deeply troubling because it masks the fact that police are conducting illegal searches in the first place. If they can just lie to justify the searches after the fact, it gives them license to search without proper cause, targeting people based on race or youth. This contributes to the systemic racism and discrimination in the criminal justice system. And once the wink and nod become the legal system’s response to frequent police perjury the entire system breaks down. We see corrupt cops framing innocent people and the colleagues of abusive cops blatantly lying to justify police shootings. And, far too often in our cases at Loevy & Loevy, we see actual criminals walk free while innocent people go to prison based on lies and manufactured evidence by the police.
A brutal piece in the Huffington Post compares cops’ lies to the videos of the corresponding violent police encounter with the suspect to show how the culture of lying fosters abusive policing. The article juxtaposes reports like: “The shackles accidentally hit one of her arms” with a video of the incident that shows two cops beating a 16-year-old girl senseless. The video corresponding to the report of “a physical altercation ensued” is disturbing to watch. And, of course, no one can forget the contrast between South Carolina Officer Michael Slager’s report that he “felt threatened and reached for his department-issued firearm and fired his weapon” with the video showing him repeatedly shooting a fleeing Walter Scott in the back.
Understanding the routine lies told by cops is the key to understanding why the problem of police violence is not going away. When you understand that police perjury is the accepted norm, it makes sense how a Chicago Police Department officer can gun down Laquan McDonald, while all of the fellow officers at the scene lie about the circumstances to make the shooting appear justified. Every time that a cop lies and he isn’t disciplined, the culture of police violence gains further support within the ranks. Every time the justice system plays along with the not-so-secret secret of rampant police perjury it contributes to the culture of violence.