A New York Times report published on Sunday found that in at least 25 cases dating back to January 2015, “judges or prosecutors determined that a key aspect of a New York City police officer’s testimony was probably untrue,” and the city has done essentially nothing to stop it or even let people know it’s happening.
The Times reports:
In these cases, officers have lied about the whereabouts of guns, putting them in suspects’ hands or waistbands when they were actually hidden out of sight. They have barged into apartments and conducted searches, only to testify otherwise later. Under oath, they have given firsthand accounts of crimes or arrests that they did not in fact witness. They have falsely claimed to have watched drug deals happen, only to later recant or be shown to have lied.
No detail, seemingly, is too minor to embellish. “Clenched fists” is how one Brooklyn officer described the hands of a man he claimed had angrily approached him and started screaming and yelling — an encounter that prosecutors later determined never occurred. Another officer, during a Bronx trial, accused a driver of recklessly crossing the double-yellow line — on a stretch of road that had no double-yellow line.
Although finding that cops have lied in 25 cases is, uh, a lot, it’s highly likely there’s many more:
The 25 cases identified by The Times are almost certainly only a fraction of those in which officers have come under suspicion for lying in the past three years. That’s because a vast majority of cases end in plea deals before an officer is ever required to take the witness stand in open court, meaning the possibility that an officer lied is seldom aired in public. And in the rare cases when an officer does testify in court — and a judge finds the testimony suspicious, leading to the dismissal of the case — the proceedings are often sealed afterward.
In one case described by the Times, Officer Nector Martinez testified that he had discovered a gun in the Bronx on a woman named Kimberly Thomas because he heard a noise in her laundry bag. A surveillance camera, however, showed that there was no laundry bag, and that they simply questioned Thomas before walking into her apartment, where they found the gun.
Once Thomas’ lawyer sought to have the video played in court, the case was dropped in November 2017. At that point, the Times says, Thomas had appeared in court nearly sixteen times in fighting the charge for over a year.
This is a problem that’s been going on for decades, which is referred to within the New York Police Department as “testilying.” In 1994, a mayoral commission investigating police corruption found that this was a widespread practice.
“We have 36,000 officers with law enforcement power, and there are a small handful of these cases every year,” NYPD assistant commissioner for communication and public information J. Peter Donald told the Times. “That doesn’t make any of these cases any less troubling. Our goal is always, always zero. One is too many, but we have taken significant steps to combat this issue.”
Not enough steps, apparently; since the case against Thomas was dropped, Martinez has been promoted to detective.
Martinez’s account was found to be false due to surveillance video footage, and the Times says that policing experts think body cameras, surveillance videos, and cell phones can “greatly reduce police lying.” (Back in January, the city announced a plan to equip all NYPD officers with body cameras by the end of the year.)
But given the retaliation that people who film police encounters can face, and that body cameras seem to have little effect both on how officers do their jobs and whether or not the public is willing to hold them accountable, we should hesitate to put our faith in technology to change American policing for the better — especially when it comes to a problem that’s as old and as prevalent as this one.