The spread of amateur video footage recording police arrests and sometimes the deaths of civilians has the public concerned not only about the use of force by the police, but also about officer credibility. Footage from bystanders’ cellphones and from security cameras has shown the police version of incidents is in some cases inaccurate at best.
The New York City’s Civilian Complaint Review Board found that there were as many officers for making false statements in 2014 as in the previous four years combined. The CCRB reports that it’s on pace to see even more such cases this year.
Public Radio station WNYC took five months to examine the issue of police officer credibility to determine how often the NYPD’s 35,000 officers are found to distort the truth and what happens to them after. Their review of over one thousand criminal and civil court cases, as well as interviews with attorneys, revealed that more than 120 officers experienced at least one documented credibility issue over the past 10 years. Many of these are officers whose testimony a judge ruled to be uncreditable, and some have had their apparent fabrications exposed in lawsuits or other records. This list is incomplete because New York state laws make police disciplinary records confidential, and state criminal cases are sealed if the case is dismissed even where there is police misconduct. Most officers remained on the job, and at least 54 officers went on to make more than 2,700 arrests after the date their word was challenged.
The article points out that most officers on the 35,000-member NYPD testify without any issue, and the majority of the officers identified in the report had only one adverse credibility finding, which in itself doesn’t mean an officer was a liar. There’s no way to determine what else is on their record because of the confidentiality of the files.
But in some cases the NYPD disregarded the red flags of an officer’s trustworthiness, and it failed to put in place recommended fixes for many years. Let’s look at one extreme case:
Two men were loitering in the lobby of a Bronx apartment building one afternoon in 2012 when a NYPD narcotics sergeant ordered them to step outside. Detective Greg Larsen later testified that one of the men, Cleveland White, threw a prescription bottle full of oxycodone on the ground. Larsen arrested him for drug possession. This looked like a routine bust for Larsen’s unit, which broke up drug operations throughout the borough. White denied the charges, but it was his word against Larsen’s.
Or so the police thought. A security camera on the building captured the incident and showed White wasn’t holding drugs in his hand and never threw a pill bottle on the ground.
The charges were dismissed. White filed a lawsuit alleging cops planted the drugs. Larsen was indicted by a grand jury for perjury, and the Bronx District Attorney’s Office quietly prosecuted the case. Larsen said he was exhausted and handling paperwork for too many cases when he made the false statements.
But the investigation showed that Larsen has been sued at least 16 times, most including allegations of false arrest and brutality. Half of those suits were brought prior to the arrest that led to the perjury charges. In addition, Larson has had civilian complaints for excessive force and abuse of authority, and was disciplined twice by the department. In addition, last year the NYPD conducted an internal disciplinary trial related to White’s arrest and found Larsen guilty of making false statements. In December 2014, Larsen was fired.
The Larsen case is an extreme example, as police officers rarely face perjury charges. It’s more common that questions are raised in court about an officer’s credibility. For example, judges will allege that officers tailor their testimony to overcome objections about the legality of a search, such as alleging drugs were sitting in plain sight when they were found to be hidden in a car’s glove compartment.
This type of shading of the truth has been so prevalent it spawned its own term: “testilying,” which is police vernacular for giving false testimony. It was coined in the mid-1990’s, when a commission investigated police corruption and found that lying was one of the most pervasive forms of malfeasance in the department. It helped develop an atmosphere where more serious wrongdoing could occur.