When I was growing up, every kid knew this jingle:
Pants on fire.
Hanging from a telephone wire.
Nevertheless, on September 21, 2010, Chicago Police Officer Sylshina London did what literally hundreds of police officers do every year in the United States: she helped convict someone by lying to a jury.
The practice — far, far, far more common than the average American could possibly imagine — is so widespread that it even has a name: Testilying. And I’ve written about a number of times, particularly in my article of the same name.
I can’t prove that testilying has become more common than it was in the past — part of the problem with testilying is that it’s frequently difficult or impossible to prove — but it certainly appears that officers are increasingly willing to lie. It is possible that the phenomenon has always been more widespread than I knew before I became an attorney, but even older officers with whom I’ve spoken seem to think it has become more accepted among younger officers.
In any event, it certainly is endemic to the system these days.
I think the reason so many officers lie is, to put it simply, because they believe they can. It’s part of the same ethic I was discussing yesterday, when I talked about officers who ignore the rights of the People because they can, because of the “I am the Law around here” attitude. It’s the same thing that causes police officers generally to ignore the Law’s applicability to them in all things, large or small. (How many times have you seen a police officer speeding, without lights or siren? How many times have you noticed them weaving in and out of traffic, again, without sirens or lights? I even once saw an officer sitting at a red light who, without sirens or lights, proceeded through the light after sitting for a few seconds. At least he looked both ways first. Wish I could do that without fear of a ticket!)
The problem with testilying goes beyond the possibility that innocent people might be convicted. It goes beyond sending someone to jail, or prison, and saddling them with a criminal record. Our system, ostensibly about justice (despite what some attorneys believe, it is referred to as the criminal justice system), depends upon fairness in the procedures used to convict even those who are guilty.
Our society continues to support lying police officers because we don’t see them for what they are: destroyers of justice. In a word, they are criminals. More than that, they are the worst sort of criminals, because their lies destroy that which is basic to a free society.
Think about it. A thief, a robber, even a murderer, takes something from a few individuals. Seldom, however, does their crime actually impact the core structures of our society. A lying police officer, though, tears at the very fabric that makes society possible. Without a system that society can trust to “dispense justice,” or “maintain order,” or “redress grievances” in a fair and honest manner, there is no social contract.
This is because, when officers lie in court, there is no Rule of Law. As the Wikipedia article just linked notes:
The rule of law is a legal maxim that provides that no person is above the law, that no one can be punished by the state except for a breach of the law, and that no one can be convicted of breaching the law except in the manner set forth by the law itself. The rule of law stands in contrast to the idea that the leader is above the law, a feature of Roman law, Nazi law, and certain other legal systems.
When a police officer lies in the courtroom, he is putting himself above the law; an individual is potentially being punished not for a breach of the law, but because the officer doesn’t want him to go unpunished; and the individual is not punished in the manner set forth by the law, which requires an examination of testimony which is supposed to be truthful (remember the Oath: to tell the Truth, the whole Truth?).
The ubiquitousness of cameras is, for some people, beginning to bring to light the lies of police officers, as it did with Officer London’s testilying. This is one reason police officers are fighting so hard to make it illegal for ordinary citizens — we the People — to record what they do. Even (2015 update: Link has vanished) news reporters are not safe.
But we need to go farther than simply recognizing the rights of citizens to tape officers. Jurors need to seriously take to heart the questions asked of them when they go in for jury duty: will you give more weight to the words of a police officer just because he wears a uniform? Many times, jurors will tell you that they won’t. Ironically, the truth (cops aren’t the only ones who lie!) is that usually the uniformed police officer is believed over other witnesses, no matter how unlikely the officer’s version — no matter how many other witnesses’ testimony contradicts the police version.
Sadly, when police are the liars, it’s usually the innocent who are burned.