A story in the Chicago Tribune today revealed that many police officers who swear “to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” are rarely punished when their testimony is found to be false or an outright lie.
The story opens with a case presented to Cook County Judge William Hooks. According to the case, two narcotics officers left their post while on an undercover drug surveillance operation to stop a minivan for failing to signal a right turn. The traffic stop resulted in the seizure of about 2.5 pounds of cocaine, but lawyers for the defendant said the story seemed fishy. They said there was no way two undercover officers would leave a sting operation to stop a random vehicle for a minor traffic violation. Oftentimes a judge will side with police, especially when drug paraphernalia is uncovered, but Judge Hooks agreed with the defense, saying the officers never would have left their post. He stopped short of saying the evidence was planted or that police didn’t have probable cause to stop the defendant (in fact, he stated the defendants were almost certainly players in a large drug trafficking operation), but he lambasted against a system where cops are allowed to bend the truth or outright lie on the stand because of their position of authority, and judges take their word even when things seem amiss.
Now, obviously the word of a veteran officer will probably carry more weight than that of a multiple felon, but judges can’t just take the testimony at the surface level. When this happens, according to Judge Hooks, the innocent can end up in prison while the guilty go free, and the justice system becomes tarnished.
Not An Isolated Case
The Chicago Tribune uncovered that police lying on the stand was not uncommon. The more troubling finding was that when police were caught in a lie on the stand, they were rarely held accountable for their actions. The Tribune uncovered more than a dozen cases over the last few years where officers were found to have given questionable or false testimony, but rarely were there any repercussions, even though the Chicago Police Department has a “zero-tolerance” policy for officers who do not tell the truth. Only in rare case where video evidence directly contradicts the officer have actions been taken against the officer. And we wonder why police are hesitant to wear body cameras.
The problem is that some officers live by the motto “the ends justify the means.” This is directly contrary to the basis of our Constitution which states that due process must be followed. Thankfully, that need for due process is realized by Judge Hooks, who in a previous ruling where the testimony of two officers had been questionable, had this to say:
“We all want to see guns and drugs off the street, but there’s a method to doing it, and it depends on competent, informed, and I emphasize the last one, honest law enforcement.”
In response to overwhelming inquiries from the Tribune, the Professional Standards Unit has begun to review several cases to determine whether officers committed perjury. They also issued a memo to all prosecutors reminding them of their duty to notify supervisors when an officer’s conduct or credibility has been questioned.