A Police Officer's Word; A Juror's Job

June 14, 2009
/ Author: Rick

If past experience with some of the readers of this blog is any indication, many will not understand the point of this post.  In addition to the prejudices favoring police officers, the point of this post is both simple and complicated.  My fear is that the simplicity of the main point will swamp the complexity of what I’m really trying to get to.

Nevertheless, I’m going to put it up anyway, in the hopes that some visitors here are able to properly parse sentences and will get the point.

I’m not going to give my usual disclaimer, either.

Oh, okay.  Just for the denser readers, I will again state the disclaimer.  Let’s see if they’ll be able to read it when I put it up like this:


The problem is, police officers — and not as many people believe (hope?) just a few — actually do “misstate the truth.”  Police officers are human beings who are frequently under a lot of pressure.  And that pressure takes many forms.  Everyone thinks about the pressure officers are under when they face potentially life-threatening situations.  Not many people think about the moral pressures officers face.  Probably it’s because few of us actually have to face such moral pressure ourselves, so it just doesn’t occur to us.

Like practically every other human being on the face of the planet, police officers face decision-making tasks.  And like practically every other human being on the face of the planet, while making those decisions they seldom consider the moral implications of the processes they go through in making their decisions.

Notice I did not say, “they seldom consider the moral implications of their decisions.”  That is a separate question.  Certainly their decisions have moral implications.  Certainly part of what I’m concerned about — and part of what all of us should be concerned about —are the moral implications of their decisions.

Just as important, however, are the processes we go through in arriving at a decision.  For that is the area where many problems arise.  Setting up sting operations utilizing people of questionable character is something unavoidable in police states.  (In constitutional democratic republics, this isn’t as much of a problem, because officers will be looking for people who have already committed crimes rather than trying to find people they believe have a propensity to commit crimes.  But constitutional democratic republics are a thing of the past.)  Frequently these people of questionable character must be paid money to perform their tasks, which, on top of their already questionable bona fides, gives them an incentive to do bad things; i.e., to make things up, so as to show their “value” to their handlers and collect fees.  So special care must be taken in arresting people on the say so of paid snitches.

Evaluating the actions of others before deciding whether or not they are worthy of arrest is another area fraught with procedural moral difficulties.  Unconscious attitudes about others — not exclusively, but not infrequently, seen when white officers interact with non-white “suspects” (or simply when officers interact with “suspects,” regardless of the colors of either party) — impact interpretations of behaviors.  Unconscious attitudes about others are unavoidably impacted by “typological beliefs.”

I say “typological beliefs,” by the way because I don’t merely mean “stereotypes.” Certainly stereotypes are one form of typological belief.  They’re generally shared, like cultural memes, and generally caricature-like.  But people develop their own idiosyncratic beliefs based on their own experiences which are not necessarily characteristic of “ordinary” stereotypical views.  But this is perhaps a more complex point to be discussed more fully in any comments that may pop up about it, or in another post dedicated to that issue.

Then, of course, there are the attitudinal issues.  Increasingly, officers are a cynical lot, suspicious of anyone not wearing a uniform.  As one former law enforcement officer has written, this “us versus them” mentality leads to a generalized mistrust for “civilians.”

Ultimately, officers make mistakes.  Not just the “ultimate” mistakes in terms of getting their decisions wrong, but the more subtle mistakes that lead them to these “ultimate” mistakes in the first place.  The distrust of “civilians,” the “us versus them” syndrome leads officers to believe that anyone working with them can be taken at their word.  Anyone vetted by an officer, vouched for by an officer, becomes one of the good guys.  Even if they aren’t.  Anyone who contradicts an officer becomes an enemy of law enforcement.  Even if they aren’t.

So, increasingly, innocent people are arrested for crimes they never even dreamed of committing, let alone actually committed.  Once in awhile, they get lucky.  They can prove they are innocent.

The problem is, it’s rare for someone to be able to do this.  It’s difficult.  In the end, when someone is innocent of the crime of which they’ve been accused, it boils down to their word against the officers’.  On top of that, since one officer will believe or take his cue from another officer, the single innocent citizen will usually be telling his story in the face of more than one officer who contradicts that story.

The officers may believe what they’re saying is true.  Even those who don’t will believe what they’re doing is right.  After all, they’re putting away “the bad guy(s).”

This article is not meant to be a diatribe against the police.  It’s not meant to say that they should never be believed.  Before I became an attorney, I worked for a multi-millionaire chief executive officer and owner of a large company who liked to say:

Trust but verify.

This is why we have jurors.  Not so that when police get up and testify at a trial, the jurors can say, “Oh, dude must be guilty.  The cop said so.”  And, remember, because they frequently influence one another, the number of officers testifying does not necessarily change things in this regard.

To those jurors and potential jurors out there who may be reading this, I’m simply saying, “Okay.”  You want to trust the officers?  I have no problem with that. I only ask one thing: Evaluate the evidence that supports what the officers are saying.  Evaluate the evidence that contradicts what the officers are saying.  And in the end, don’t just discredit evidence because it contradicts what the officer(s) is(are) saying.  Officers are under tremendous moral pressures which can lead them to falsely — perhaps unintentionally, but still falsely — accuse innocent people.

If it’s an officers job to keep us safe, to arrest bad guys, to collect evidence and to testify against people, it is a juror’s job to evaluate all this evidence and testimony.

In doing your jobs, it’s okay to trust.  But remember that it’s also okay to verify.

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