Posts Tagged ‘police’

Q&A Roundup Part 5

Friday, September 18th, 2015

I made a thing for Radley Balko at the Washington Post on Qualified Immunity. Some people had questions about it over on my comic, which was about something completely different. One of the WaPo pages mentioned the elimination of the KKK under President Grant.

Wait I thought that the KKK and Knights of the White Camilla weren’t so much defeated as succeeded in implementing policies after the compromise that brought Rutherford B Hayes into the White House?

There’s no doubt that Reconstruction failed, and racist policies were certainly implemented as a result — but the KKK itself did cease to exist as an organization. Another KKK would eventually be formed in 1915 or thereabouts, but that original one was gone.

The failure of Reconstruction is a fascinating area of our nation’s history that can be difficult to piece together, because almost everything written about it until maybe the 1960s was revisionist as hell. And even a lot of modern sources can be equally revisionist, just on the opposite swing of the pendulum. I think of the fiasco as a long string of failures and miscalculations, worsened by the economic depression of the 1870s, of which Hayes was only the last. (And speaking of revisionism, until the 1950s or 60s Hayes was lauded as the man who reunified the country, one of the greatest presidents!)

That is very interesting. However, what does any of this stuff about reconstruction have to do with law? Or the neuroscience of memory?

What, we haven’t had digressions here before? Just run with it.

As to the Qualified Immunity thing – is that the same doctrine that allows prosecutors to avoid any punishment when they do things like withholding evidence during discovery?

Nope. Different doctrine.

Prosecutors have something else called “absolute immunity.” They can’t be sued for stuff they did in their role as prosecutor, even if it was really really egregious and caused great injustice. They lose their absolute immunity only when they start doing the actual police work, at which point qualified immunity would instead apply. Apart from that, they have absolute immunity.

It can be a real problem: Prosecutors have insane power, and complete discretion as to how to use their power. But there’s no accountability for misuse or abuse of that power. Sure, there’s professional discipline for prosecutorial misconduct, but it’s rarely enforced. And it’s not the same as allowing the victim to sue the malefactor.

[A few states do allow suits for some prosecutorial misconduct. The damages are (I think) always paid from tax money in those cases, though, so even then the prosecutor herself isn’t at risk.]

We’ll cover all this in more detail when we get to Advanced Criminal Procedure. But that subject — what happens once you’ve been charged with a crime — is more about what the lawyers and judges can and cannot do. So I’m not going to get to that until I’ve at least done Constitutional Law and Torts, which are much more relevant (and interesting) to everyone else. So in the meantime, feel free to bring that stuff up here in the comments!

 

[If you want to read what I actually said about Qualified Immunity, click on the link at the top.]

Training and Experience

Thursday, December 4th, 2014

This has been another one of those years with a heightened awareness of police violence against unarmed black men. Awareness is a good thing. Understanding, however, is better. You can’t solve a problem until you know what the problem is.

The problem isn’t really racism, though. The problem is fear. These shootings don’t happen because the victim was black. These shootings happen because the officer was afraid.

The overwhelming majority of police officers, of course, will go their entire careers without ever pointing their weapon at another human being, much less shooting at one. Of the few officers who do pull the trigger, the majority are justified — they’re using deadly force to protect themselves and the public from deadly peril. That’s the norm. But some police shootings shouldn’t have happened — the victim wasn’t armed, and wasn’t posing a serious threat to anyone.

When those shootings happen, it’s because the officer was afraid. He saw danger where it didn’t exist. Maybe he panicked when the victim reached for his wallet. Maybe he was scared in a dark staircase and was suddenly startled by someone appearing out of nowhere. Maybe he wasn’t scared witless, but simply rationally assessed an indignant shouting person as being a vicious attacker. Either way, he pulled that trigger out of fear.

That fear is real. It doesn’t justify anything, however. Fear is the problem that needs to be solved. So where does it come from, and what can be done about it?

-=-=-=-=-

Police often use the phrase “training and experience” in court, to explain their judgment calls. “I suspected that the defendant was getting ready to rob that store, based on my training and experience.” “I determined that the substance he was selling was probably cocaine, based on my training and experience.” It’s a catchall phrase, but not a meaningless one. Training and experience, after all, are how any of us know anything. We know that 2+2=4 because we were trained in elementary school to do addition. We know that the sun rises every morning and sets every evening because we’ve experienced that every day of our lives.

Experience is stronger than training. I can lecture you until I’m blue in the face that the sky is red, but that’s not going to change what you already know from your experience, that the sky is blue.

This fear that police officers have comes from experience. It is ingrained in an officer’s brain from his lifetime of experience. His perception is that this kind of person, looking like that, behaving like that, in this kind of a situation, is probably a threat. Right or wrong, justified or not, that is what he’s learned. It’s what he instinctively knows. You can give sensitivity lectures until you’re blue in the face, but the only thing that’s going to change that perception is real-life experiences demonstrating that he doesn’t need to be afraid.

That’s important, because this fear is not something that can be intellectually or rationally changed. It’s purely unconscious. It’s coming from the unthinking part of the brain, before the thinking part ever gets involved. The emotional parts and ingrained memories of past experiences are saying “this is a threat,” and are pumping fight-or-flight signals all over the nervous system without any conscious control.

On top of that, the brain is unconsciously creating a perception based, not on what’s really going on, but on what it expects is probably going on, based solely on what that brain has experienced in the past. We don’t have much room for attention at any one time — our brains can only keep track of a handful of things at once, and the area of our visual focus is (astonishingly) no bigger than your thumbnail held out at arm’s length. Our brains create the illusion of a continuous experience, and of seeing all the things we think we see. And that’s what it is: an illusion. To do this, our brains fill in all the blanks with what’s probably there, based on the experiences we’ve stored. This happens without our awareness, without our control, and it happens constantly. We perceive what our experience expects to see.

And in the case of unjustified shootings, the police officer very often saw a threat where none existed because in his personal experience, that was a threatening situation.

It’s worsened when an officer’s experience is extremely limited. And it very often is. But it’s all he’s got to go on. Someone raised in a quiet suburb, who whose only experience with certain people has been of a violent or threatening nature, is going to know, based on his training and experience, that people like that are dangerous.

This fear can be racial — police officers are generally more likely to use violence against blacks and hispanics than against whites or asians. Even police officers who themselves are black or hispanic. But that doesn’t necessarily make it racist. And in fact race is less important than socioeconomic status — police are more likely to shoot at low-income, low-prestige individuals regardless of race. But that, too, doesn’t necessarily make it classist. It’s not blind racism or classism, but rather a prejudice based on limited life experiences. An officer may have a real prejudice that black people (say) are more likely to be dangerous than white people, and that poor people are more likely to be dangerous than middle-class or rich people.

We can spout statistics until we’re blue in the face again, that these prejudices do not in any way reflect reality, but that’s like telling him the sky is red. They reflect the officer’s reality, the only one he knows.

On top of that is the “us vs. them” mentality that many police officers can’t help but develop over time. Nobody’s on their side — the politicians whose rules the police are enforcing are the first to throw them under the bus if there’s ever any outcry. The citizens whose lives they’re protecting, for whom they’re risking their lives, call them names and march in outrage. The communities they police scream bloody murder when they don’t like what an officer did, but don’t utter a peep about the people in their communities who are killing children and driving businesses away. Nobody organizes marches against the criminals, against the real bad guys. The only people on their side are fellow cops. Not even prosecutors are really on their side. It doesn’t take long for an officer’s training and experience to prove to him that the citizens he serves are actually his opposition. And when any of us look at people as outsiders, we’re even less likely to notice individual differences. An officer who no longer sees himself as “one of us,” but rather sees any of us as “one of them,” is far more likely to rely on internal prejudice when assessing an individual. This is what we all do, by the way — it’s yet another unconscious function of our brains over which he have little or no control. Members of an “other” group just get lumped together into a stereotype, without much attention to individual differences.

-=-=-=-=-

Stereotype is the right word here, but not in the way it’s normally used. It means “the things our brains expect to see.” Most of the time, stereotypes are great — they’re a real survival skill without which we couldn’t function in a complex environment. “That car was coming right at me last time I saw it. It’s in my blind spot now, but it’s probably still coming this way. I’d better get out of its way.” In a panic situation, when there’s no time to think and assess, they’re a real time saver, as the T-shirt says. Your brain falls back on what it already knows, to determine what is probably happening, and what is probably the best thing to do about it. Most of the time, it’s right. Which is why you’re probably still alive to read this.

But sometimes instinctive reactions are tragically wrong. An inexperienced motorcyclist, for example, who suddenly needs to veer left, will do the obvious thing and steer the handlebars to the left. Which is unfortunately the opposite of what he needs to do, and so he goes down and slides into that oncoming truck. A more experienced biker, however, will have trained herself to overcome that instinct and do the counterintuitive thing — she pushes the left handlebar away from her, and veers to the left as she wanted.

Similarly, a police officer whose experience with certain people is limited can easily misinterpret a harmless situation as a dangerous one. Like the motorcyclist, the only cure is more experience.

Training helps a little bit, but it only goes so far. You can lecture to the inexperienced motorcyclist until your face assumes a certain hue, but he’s not going to believe it until he tries it. And it will take a lot of practice to make the counterintuitive decision the ingrained instinct. Similarly, you can give all the cultural sensitivity training you want, but for it to have any real effect the officer is going to have to see for himself that most people who look like that, talk like that, dress like that, live in that neighborhood, etc… most of them are okay. And he must gain enough experience to be able tell those few who are threats from the majority who aren’t.

That doesn’t come from a lecture. That comes from spending time in the community and getting to know the people. That comes with walking the beat with a more experienced cop who knows the people, who can share his knowledge and insights. That comes from giving police officers experience, not just of the criminal element, but of the community as a whole.

That’s hard to do. And it’s getting harder in recent years. Police are less and less likely to come from the communities they police, and cultural dissonance and misunderstanding are ever more likely. Community outrage against police is getting louder, and the “us vs. them” mentality is only getting stronger. Policing policies are less about understanding the community and making judgment calls, and more about arresting every infraction. Police are using more and more overwhelming force to ensure compliance with their commands and improve their chances of getting home safely. Cultural awareness has never been greater, and yet police officers have less opportunity to experience it firsthand than ever.

Giving officers the necessary training and experience is harder than ever. But it’s the only real solution.

Ray Kelly on Stop-and-Frisk: You saved HOW many lives?

Tuesday, July 23rd, 2013

NYC’s Police Commissioner Ray Kelly wrote a piece for today’s WSJ titled “The NYPD: Guilty of Saving 7,383 Lives” and subtitled “Accusations of racial profiling ignore the fact that violent crime overwhelmingly occurs in minority neighborhoods.” In it, he makes a great case for the fact that his cherished stop-and-frisk program is not effective policing, and may in fact lead to more crime.

That’s not his intent, of course. His purpose is to defend the NYPD’s much-maligned stop-and-frisk program (and also its surveillance of political dissidents). He doesn’t succeed. In fact, he does a great job of discrediting himself right off the bat. Which is a shame, because he makes it too easy to roll your eyes at him, and that would be a mistake. This stuff demands serious discussion.

He starts off with a burst of illogic and bad math, to wit:

(A) During the 11 years Bloomberg’s been mayor, unspecified tens of thousands of weapons have been seized by the police;
and
(B) During those same 11 years, there were 7,383 fewer murders than in the preceding 11 years [though he cites 13,212 and 5,849 as the figures, so the actual difference would be 7,363];
therefore
(C) The NYPD has saved 7,383 lives.

Uh huh. Right.

Well, he IS right that crime is way down. A careful statistician might even observe that crime in this city is way WAY down. And this is a good thing.

But to what extent is it a result of the police seizing all those weapons? (And how many weapons did they seize in the 11 years before Bloomberg? He doesn’t say.) In fact, to what extent is the drop in crime the result of policing policies at all? Most research I’ve read seems to support demographic shifts and maturing community attitudes as its primary causes.

Kelly makes this “we saved lives” point in order to justify the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program. He makes other arguments, too. Taken together, his arguments all boil down to “it works, therefore it’s justified.”

No. Wrong.

Just because something works, that doesn’t make it right. Or even legal. Just think of the atrocities the State could commit if mere effectiveness was all the justification it needed. Better yet, don’t think of them. I don’t want to give you nightmares.

But put that aside for now. Is he even right to claim that it’s working, in the first place?

-=-=-=-=-

It is silly to deny that good policing can affect crime rates. When the police are effective — when criminals stand a good chance of being caught and punished — then that effectiveness serves as a deterrent. People who otherwise might have committed a crime are more likely to think twice about it.

Then again, we are talking about violent crime, here. How much violent crime is even capable of being deterred? Most assaults and murders are unplanned, spur-of-the-emotions stuff. The odds of being caught and punished aren’t exactly being weighed. Even an effective police force will have an iffy deterrent effect there, at best.

But that’s not what stop-and-frisk is about. And it’s not really about getting weapons off the streets, either.

Stop-and-frisk is about making the risky people take their risky behavior somewhere else.

The NYPD is doing it because they think it will work. That it has worked. That it is working.

And they are wrong.

-=-=-=-=-

First things first: It is (more…)

“Collars for Dollars” Plus “Occupy Wall Street” Equals What?

Friday, November 18th, 2011

The Facebook post above was posted to Reddit earlier today.  We don’t know if this is an accurate copy or not, the internet being what it is, but it’s close enough to what we’ve heard actual officers say that it is useful to illustrate a couple of points.

First, the whole “Collars for Dollars” mentality we’ve mentioned before. In short, the NYPD is a unionized labor force, whose workers get paid a base salary plus overtime. The base salary is barely sufficient to meet the expense of living in NYC (so many cops choose to live pretty far away from the city, cutting any ties to the communities they police, with attendant consequences). The way for an officer to make some real money is by working overtime.  That lovely, lovely overtime is what pays for their mortgages, their kids’ schools and the occasional night on the town. The way to make overtime is either (1) by making arrests or (2) working a “detail.”

Arrests generate overtime because, at the end of one’s shift, one gets to stay at the precinct for many more hours filling out the reams of attendant paperwork, securing evidence, and helping a prosecutor draft the various complaints. If any of the collars were for felonies, ideally they have been timed so that the resulting grand jury presentation will be held on the cop’s regular day off — RDO for short — which gives the cop 8 hours of overtime even if he only showed up at the DA’s office for half an hour.

Details are out-of-the-ordinary assignments where an event requires extra police to provide security, police not otherwise assigned to a normal duty — police working overtime or on their RDO. Details can range from providing a police escort for a visiting dignitary, to lining the streets for a parade, to dealing with an unruly mob. Details are a great source of overtime.

You see this in the Facebook discussion, which appears to include more than just one NYPD officer. The original poster is on his RDO, and he’s hoping the OWS protesters start acting up so he can get called in to do a double tour and get 15 hours of overtime pay (for getting the chance to hit some protesters). Another jokes that he hopes they don’t start rioting until his shift starts that night, presumably so he can maximize his overtime.

There’s nothing wrong with police officers joking about stuff that, to the rest of us, might sound obscenely offensive. It is often a tough job, often horrific, and black humor is how people of all walks of life deal with such things. The post about pretending to be a protester, shoving people from the inside, shouting invective, and leaving a BB- or paintball- gun behind? That one’s probably a joke (although — and probably because — such things have been known to happen).

But there are other wishes expressed here which, though certainly cathartic, are probably more sincere. The desire to “rock,” or get physically violent with a protester, comes out strong here. Why? Because the protesters are the enemy.

That’s our second point: To the police, it’s “Us against Them,” and (more…)

Tarnished Justice: Cops Meet Their Quotas, Even When Crime is Down

Thursday, October 13th, 2011

If you belong to a certain population, who cares if you get arrested for no reason? Certainly not certain parts of the NYPD, according to former detective Stephen Anderson. If there’s an arrest that needs to be made, and you don’t have a guilty person to arrest, you just “arrest the bodies to it — they’re going to be out of jail tomorrow anyway, nothing is going to happen to them anyway.”

It’s an attitude that is all too prevalent in law enforcement, one that is far too easy to fall into: It’s just no big deal.

Except it is a big deal.

Here’s what happens to you when narcotics officers arrest you for no good reason: You’re forcibly kidnapped, usually in public, in some of the most shaming circumstances imaginable. You’re hauled off in handcuffs, which fucking hurt. You’re fingerprinted, and a rap sheet is created, and unless you are very lucky the fact of this arrest will be part of your official record for the rest of your life. You’re charged with a crime, perhaps a felony. To support the charge, officers like Anderson will provide some real drugs and say they found them on you. Maybe they’ll sit around and try to come up with an incriminating statement they’ll say you “blurted out” on the scene. Faced with overwhelming evidence, you may (more…)

Answering Your Most Pressing Questions

Saturday, July 16th, 2011
Real nice, Google.

Because we were bored out of our skull this afternoon, we checked this blog’s stats on Google Analytics.  Browsing through the various keywords people have used to find this blog over the past year, all we can say is “The hell is wrong with you people?”

Leaving aside the freaks and weirdos (and possibly some of their clients), however, it seems that most people find this blog by asking Google the same handful of questions.  The number one search engine query that get people here, every month this year, is something along the lines of “why become a lawyer.”  Number two includes variations on a theme of “can a cop lie about whether he’s a cop.”  The top five are rounded out by queries about what crimes Goldman Sachs may have committed, connections between Adam Smith and insider trading, and what one should say to a judge at sentencing.

We’re not sure that we’ve actually discussed all of these topics here.  Then again, we might have, and just forgot it (which is a distinct possibility — these posts are all written in a single pass, without any real editing, and usually are not given another thought once they’re posted.  If you ever wondered what “ephemera” meant, you’re looking at it right now.)

Still, in the interests of alleviating our boredom public service, here are some quick answers to our readers’ most pressing questions:

1. Why Should You Become a Lawyer?

Because you feel a calling to serve others.  Because you want to make a difference in the lives of others.  Because you are genuinely interested in the rules by which human society functions, why people behave the way they do, and the policies and interests underlying it all.  If those are your reasons, then you belong.

Not because you want to (more…)

They’re Not on Your Side

Wednesday, November 17th, 2010

When we were kids, the police were the good guys.  They were who you could turn to if you got lost.  They were the ones who protected us from the bad guys.  They were on our side.

When we were kids, of course, we learned a simplified version of reality.  All the “lies we tell children” because the truth is too complex, or because it’s the way we’d like them to think.  The problem is that lots of us grow up without ever learning the “reality” version of reality.  The results can be tragic.

Because the police are not on our side.  And woe betide the honest citizen who acts like they are.  It’s not that the police are bad.  The vast majority are good, decent folks.  It’s that the police see the world in “us against them” terms.  And we good honest citizens are part of the “them.”

We all know that being a police officer can be dangerous.  When a cop pulls you over, or encounters you on the street, he has no way of knowing whether you’re going to be that one wack-job who pulls a gun or a knife on him.  It happens.  Because the world contains wack-jobs, thugs and the like, we are all potential threats.

But that’s not the half of it.  For a while now, the police have felt embattled.  They’re constantly criticized for violating civil rights.  They’re hamstrung by “technicalities” that make it harder for them to do their job.  Politicians, protestors and the proletariat are constantly pointing fingers at the police.  We civilians are a spoiled, ungrateful bunch.

And hence, the “thin blue line.”  From a police perspective, it’s an us-against-them world, and if you’re not in law enforcement then you’re on the other side.

Now a police officer cannot help but notice that there are only a few of “us,” and a heck of a lot of “them.”  The only thing protecting the police is a perception of their authority.  If the public loses that perception, the police lose their power.  So they desperately need us to respect their authoritah.  Any sign of insubordination must be dealt with right away.

It’s a neurotic worldview.  It’s a perfectly rational reaction, but that doesn’t make it any less paranoid.

And of course their job is not “to protect and serve” — at least not in their eyes.  Their job is to (more…)

Something to Consider Before Speaking to Law Enforcement

Friday, November 12th, 2010

That is all.

Tape Away – Maryland judge rules that cops have no expectation of privacy during traffic stops

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010

You’ve probably all seen the video by now of the motorcyclist recording himself speeding down a Maryland road, only to get pulled over by a plainclothes cop who leaps out brandishing a gun and otherwise behaving inappropriately.  And you’ve probably heard how the motorcyclist is now facing trial on charges of illegal wiretapping, for the recording of the officer.

The case has become the most visible in a rising tide of police backlash against citizens videotaping them while they abuse their authority.  We wrote on this (and the reasons why the police are losing respect) here.

Well now Judge Emory Pitt has thrown out the charges against the motorcyclist, ruling that police and others who exercise their authority in public “should not expect our actions to be shielded from public observation.”  You can read the Baltimore Sun article here.

Although this isn’t controlling precedent for any other courthouse, the ruling makes perfect sense. A police officer — or anyone else, for that matter, who is doing something in the open in as public a place as a freeway — would be an idiot not to expect that others are going to see what he’s doing. If it’s freely observable by the general public, then what possible expectation can there be that it’s private?

The same goes for cops who get taped beating people in a plaza, tasing people in an auditorium, or even just being dicks at a demonstration. The public is watching. So there’s no reason why the rest of the public shouldn’t be allowed to see it as well.

As Balthasar Gracián wrote in 1647, “always behave as though others were watching.” Good advice. Perhaps soon the police will begin taking it to heart.

“Unprecedented” Disrespect for Police is Well-Deserved

Friday, July 23rd, 2010

cops_on_video

“There has been a spate of particularly brutal and senseless attacks on the police,” according to Eugene O’Donnell, professor of police studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and a former police officer and prosecutor. “It seems to me, [there is] an unprecedented level of disrespect and willingness to challenge police officers all over the place.”

What a telling quote.  (We’d have missed it, too, if Scott Greenfield hadn’t written about it today.  Apparently this was quoted on Fox, and we’ve never gotten around to actually watching or reading Fox News.  We get our news mostly from Fark and the WSJ.)  We have no data with which to verify the claim that police are getting attacked more often.  Nor are we aware of any studies showing an unprecedented level of disrespect for the police.  But like all good anecdotal claims, it seems right because it meshes with our own perception — regardless of whether our perception accurately reflects the truth.

In other words, it’s telling not because it is true, but because it feels true.

Perception is everything.  Reality has a way of catching up.  It’s true of almost every human endeavor except pure math and the most rigorous science.  Perception either is truth, or it becomes truth.

And the perception is that people have “an unprecedented level of disrespect” for the police.  Accurate or not, it’s fast becoming the truth.

-=-=-=-=-

So how come?  That’s easy.  Disrespect must be earned.  People tend not to disrespect others until they’ve been given a reason to.  But once respect is lost, it is practically gone forever.  Reputation works that way.  And when people lose respect for an authority figure, the effect is even worse.  There’s a sense of betrayal.  A violation of trust.  When a trusted authority figure has betrayed that trust, the natural response is not mere disrespect, but hostility.

In recent weeks, there has been talk of more and more people getting arrested for videotaping the police.   It’s nothing new — we’ve been reading such stories for several years now, ever since cell phones started being kitted out with video cameras.  Still, it’s a topic of the day, and we’ve had a few conversations with people on both sides of the issue.  Leaving aside the whole wiretapping issue, however, (a typical explanation for such arrests in states without a one-party-consent rule, though it’s still bogus when the taping is in public and not remotely unlawful eavesdropping), it sure seems like cops are making these arrests because they’re afraid of being made to look bad.  Perception matters.

Are they afraid of misperception?  Sure.  “The camera doesn’t lie,” folks say.  But that’s demonstrably false.  Look at that famous video of Rodney King getting clubbed by a swarm of cops.  It sure looks like he’s getting hit for no good reason, doesn’t it?  But the video doesn’t show King going 80 mph through residential neighborhoods after a 100+ mph freeway chase, it doesn’t show King acting like he was flying on PCP when he got out of the car, it doesn’t show him fighting off multiple officers who tried to handcuff him.  The video actually shows the cops acting by the book, doing exactly what they were supposed to do — get him on the ground and keep him there.  He got hit with batons when he kept trying to get up, and the cops struck him to keep him on the ground.  The jury acquitted the cops, because they did it by the book.  But there was rioting and mayhem as a result, because the perception was different.

The camera does lie, because it doesn’t tell the whole story.  Cops suddenly rushing up on a guy for no apparent reason, frisking him, and arresting him — that looks bad if you didn’t know the guy had sold crack to an undercover a few minutes before.  But the camera didn’t catch that.  But guess what, that’s still the cops’ problem, and rightly so.  Eyewitnesses in the community didn’t see it, either, after all.  Is it any wonder why some communities have a strong perception that the cops keep grabbing people for no good reason?  Because that’s what they see.  Right or wrong, that’s the perception. 

And it’s the cops’ job to manage that perception.  Nobody else’s.

But the cops have to be afraid of legitimate perceptions, too.  The camera does happen to catch a whole lot of real police misconduct.  Cops abuse their power all the time.  They do lock people up without good reason.  They do hit, shoot, tase people without good reason.

This misconduct is nothing knew.  There have always been (more…)

Myth #2: Cops Can’t Lie

Friday, June 18th, 2010

For as long as we can remember, the word on the street has always been that cops cannot lie.  So if you’re doing a drug deal with an undercover cop, and you ask him point blank if he’s a police officer, then he has to tell you the truth.  He might try to technically get out of it by saying yes in a sarcastic tone of voice, but he has to be able to testify later on that he did say he was a cop.

And for as long as we can remember, we thought that was dumber than dirt.  The first time we heard this, back in our dim and distant teens, we imagined something like this:

ruacop

It just made no sense.  And, of course, it’s simply not true.  No undercover cop is ever going to jeopardize his investigation or his safety by admitting to the fact that he (or she) is a cop.  And there is no rule anywhere that says they have to.

But even so, this myth has persisted.  We can’t count how many cases we’ve dealt with where (more…)

Criminal Law Myth #1: You Can Drop the Charges

Thursday, June 17th, 2010

So Jacki called the cops on her man.  She didn’t mean for him to go to jail, really.  But it was a stressful situation, and this was the best way she could think of to get back at him.  It felt great, and having the cops on her side — having the cops as a weapon — was totally empowering.

But enough’s enough.  He’s been locked up for a couple of weeks, now.  It wasn’t supposed to be like this.  And it’s really hard for Jacki, what with him being out of work this whole time, and not being around to help with the baby.  And he really didn’t do anything wrong… it’s just that, you know… she wasn’t thinking straight.  And now it’s time for her man to come home.

That should be easy enough.  All she needs to do is drop the charges, right?  She’ll just go over to the DA and say she doesn’t want to pursue the case. 

We imagine that something like this is what’s going on in Jacki’s mind:

drop_charges_fantasy450

-=-=-=-=-

Unfortunately, real life is more like (more…)

“Collars for Dollars”

Thursday, June 17th, 2010

collars_for_dollars

“Nathan, when you become mayor, I’m gonna be the first volunteer for your security detail.” 

This was a detective speaking, back when we were an ADA in the Manhattan DA’s office.  My office, as usual, had about five cops in it.  I liked this detective, and asked how come he wanted that job. 

“So I can be first in line to put a bullet in your head.”

He was only half kidding.

The reason is because I’d just proposed, in detail, exactly how I would cut out the NYPD’s systematic corruption that caused — and still causes — a great deal of injustice.

Several years have passed, and nothing has changed.  The NYPD is still set up to fail.  No matter how good its officers may be — and most really are quite good — the NYPD is designed not to serve justice, but to frustrate it.

-=-=-=-=-

There are several areas that need fixing.  But the single fix that would have the greatest effect would be to end the NYPD’s “collars for dollars” mentality. 

The force is structured so that cops wind up getting paid a commission — actually a bounty — for every arrest they make.  There’s a huge financial incentive for a cop to make an arrest, and there is zero downside if the arrest turns out to be bullshit.  Cops can easily game the system to maximize their pay.

Meanwhile, there’s huge political pressure on each command to “make its numbers” each month.  Not quotas, per se, but a sufficient number of arrests to justify the command’s existence to the politicians who (more…)

First Look: “10 Rules for Dealing with Police”

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

Our friends at the Cato Institute forwarded this to us, and it looks like it even might be halfway decent. The folks at Flex Your Rights are about to release a new DVD, “10 Rules for Dealing with Police.” It looks like a primer on how the police can lie and trick people into giving up their constitutional rights. Not a shock to those of us who do this stuff for a living, but it might be worth a watch for others.

The Prosecutor’s B.S. Meter

Tuesday, June 16th, 2009

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I love reading Scott Greenfield’s blog Simple Justice. He posted a good one the other day called “Another Prosecutor Loses Her Virginity,” about a former prosecutor, Rochelle Berliner, now a defense attorney, who just came to the realization that cops sometimes lie.

Her epiphany was published in Saturday’s New York Times, in an article headlined “Drug Suspect Turns Tables on NYPD With Videotape.” A pair of defendants had actual video evidence that the cops had totally fabricated the entire basis for their arrest, and they gave the video to Rochelle.

”I almost threw up,” she said. ”Because I must’ve prosecuted 1,500, 2,000 drug cases … and all felonies. And I think back, Oh my God, I believed everything everyone told me. Maybe a handful of times did something not sound right to me. I don’t mean to sound overly dramatic but I was like, sick.”

Scott has a typical defender’s take on this.

What is disturbing about Berliner’s exclamation is not that she spent 14 years prosecuting people without having realized that maybe, just maybe, her cops weren’t perfect. That’s to be expected of career prosecutors, who often spend their entire careers with their heads deeply embedded in the cops’ derrière. It tends to give one a poor view of reality. It’s that she spent four years since leaving Special Narcotics as a defense lawyer and yet, not until now, was aware of the fact that cops, sometimes, fabricate crimes out of whole cloth. That’s four years of defendants represented by someone who was certain that they wouldn’t have been arrested if they weren’t guilty.

. . .

Rochelle Berliner now knows better. Welcome to the ranks of criminal defense lawyer, where we don’t have all the answers but we do know that the prosecution doesn’t either. You’re lucky that you’ve joined in the age of pervasive video, or you still wouldn’t believe this possible. Imagine how many times before the age of video Dominican immigrants like the Colon brothers were convicted for crimes that never happened, with someone like you feeling awfully good about it. I can understand why this would make you sick.

So congratulations on losing your virginity. I hope it didn’t hurt too much. I’m sure it didn’t feel very good for Jose and Maximo Colon, and I hope Police Officer Henry Tavarez loses his soon.

We didn’t want to comment on this, at first, because it so happens that we worked with Rochelle for a few years in Special Narcotics, and we knew and liked her. And frankly, she is well-equipped to defend her own self if she so desires.

But Scott’s piece, and a couple of the comments posted to it, kept nagging at us. There are some things we think really ought to be said here. So here’s our two cents’ worth:

First of all, a quick and unnecessary defense of Rochelle. We’ve known a whole array of prosecutors in our time, and Rochelle was one of the good ones. There certainly are prosecutors out there who are so misguided as to believe that their job — we kid you not — is to fight to convict anyone the cops bring in. We once walked out of an interview (with Dade County) where that exact philosophy was espoused. And there are plenty others who just put in their time to do a workmanlike job, without pushing themselves too hard one way or the other. But there are a significant number who truly believe their job is to achieve a just outcome, taking everything into consideration. Rochelle always struck us as being one of the latter.

And yet her bullshit meter seems not to have been working properly for nearly 18 years. What gives?

Speaking for ourselves, we like to think our own B.S. meter was working just fine — at least a lot of the time. We pissed off a lot of cops in our day. And there are some ex-cops who probably still rue the day that they lied to us. But there’s no way our B.S. meter was on all the time. It’s impossible.

We worked with a lot of the same detectives, over and over. You get to know the teams pretty well. They’re almost friends, some of them. You learn which ones are straight arrows, which ones are clowns, which ones are unscrupulous or lazy, and which ones are just along for the ride. You learn that most of them are happily gaming the system to make as much overtime as possible. You also learn that most of them couldn’t care less whether someone gets convicted after the arrest is written up. And hopefully you’re able to listen to each individual with the appropriate level of disbelief.

But when you’ve worked with someone for a while, and gotten to know them, it’s natural to let your guard down. How skeptical are you likely to be of someone who’s been pretty straight with you for as long as you’ve known them? And even if you do retain some skepticism, so what? There has to be a reason to suspect that the facts are not what you’re being told, and most of the time there’s no reason to do so.

Part of this is the randomness of real life. Maybe there’s a little detail that’s not right — or perhaps too right. But that’s life. The truth is rarely ideal. So it’s not easy to tell when any particular glitch in the matrix is a clue to something more sinister.

Part of this is the sheer routineness of drug cases. There are only so many ways these crimes happen, and the facts don’t vary too much from case to case. When the story you just heard happens to fit the pattern of the past thousand cases you’ve handled, it would be strange to be skeptical.

So even with a fully-functioning B.S. meter, there’s no way you’re going to catch everything. You just do the best you can.

The irony is that, the longer one serves, even as one’s knowledge of street reality grows from rookie ignorance to near-expert mastery, one’s ability to sense bullshit decreases dramatically, for all the reasons just mentioned. You’ve known the cops forever, you’ve handled this same kind of case countless times before, and the story just rings true.

This is where we defense attorneys have an obligation.

I’ll give my defender readers a moment to recover. Yes, I actually suggested that we are obliged to do something here.

You okay? Good. Yes, we defense attorneys have an absolute duty to ensure that prosecutors are given all the tools necessary to flush out the bullshit. This isn’t burden-shifting, it’s an imperative of our role.

For street crimes, the only facts an ADA or AUSA has in any given case are those provided by the cops or agents involved. If those facts fit together, there is no reason to believe the truth is otherwise.

It is so rare as to be remarkable for a defense attorney to come to a prosecutor with new facts, or a new way of looking at the facts. But most of the time, whenever it happened to us or we’ve done it ourselves, it was most assuredly worth it.

In any given case, the prosecutor has already made up his or her mind about guilt, innocence, and the appropriate plea, based on the facts provided by the cops. No amount of whining or cajoling or begging is going to change their mind. And yet that is precisely the idiotic strategy used by so many defenders out there. The only way to change someone’s conclusions is to present new facts that change the conclusion.

This isn’t burden-shifting, it’s a defender’s duty. Our job is to protect our clients, period. If the prosecutor is holding all the cards, and is going to make the biggest decision of our client’s life, we need to do what we can to make sure the right decision is made. We have an obligation to extract from our (yes, probably unwilling) client and other witnesses the facts that will make a difference.

And you know what? When a defense attorney came to us with new facts, or a new way of looking at them, we listened. We didn’t listen to the whiners, but we did listen to those who truly advocated, who had something we needed to hear. And more often than not, at least in our experience, such advocacy resulted in a dramatically improved outcome for the defendant. We were known to even dismiss indictments, if the new facts warranted.

* * * * *

We can’t end this without revealing a dirty secret, however. Prosecutors are only human, after all, and even the best are subject to incentives that reduce the likelihood that their bullshit meter is on full power.

Some people just want to be liked, and so they go along with whatever the cops tell them. These people are patsies and pushovers, and tend not to last long as prosecutors.

Some people befriend the cops, and so become not the advocates of the People, but of the officers. They go to bat for their cops — and yes, “their” cops is how they’d phrase it — even against the cops’ own supervisors. Friendship and loyalty are powerful human traits, and it’s the exceptional person who can act in spite of, rather than in keeping with, such emotional forces.

And some people are ambitious. A prosecutor without ambition is something of an oddity, and one is never quite sure about them. Ambitious prosecutors want good cases. They want big cases. They want that one case that makes them feel like they’re actually making a difference, and not just holding back the tide with a teaspoon.

Well, the big cases don’t just land in your lap. They are brought to you. And they are brought to you by the cops. And the cops won’t bring them to you unless they like you, feel like they can work with you, and trust you do prosecute the case the way they’d want it to be prosecuted.

Are the cops going to bring their big cases and investigations to the ADA who’s always giving them a hard time? The ADA who busts their balls over every little glitch? The ADA who doesn’t go to bat for that RDO overtime once in a while? Hardly.

So this is a real, albeit unspoken incentive. (Actually, it’s not unspoken. We were told this plainly and clearly by multiple prosecutors and cops during our time with Special Narcotics. Sometimes as a warning of what to watch out for, but also sometimes as instructions on how to act if we wanted to start getting those juicy investigations.)

So an ambitious prosecutor has an incentive to act in such a way as to increase the chances of bagging the big cases. Does that mean such prosecutors are necessarily turning off their B.S. meters? That they’re consciously avoiding knowledge of the truth, or knowingly deciding not to challenge the story they’re getting. No, not at all.

It’s not a conscious process. It’s a perfectly human, unconscious thing. The decision is probably not passing through the frontal lobes. It just happens that way.

* * * * *

So there are all kinds of reasons — some justifiable, some not — for prosecutors to believe tales told by cops that may not be exactly truthful.

Knowing this to be the case, what should we defense attorneys do about it? Should we throw up our hands and bemoan the injustice of it all? That wouldn’t accomplish anything. Should we fight to change the system, so that it minimizes the inevitable injustices occasioned by its administration by human beings? Of course, and that’s been the role of our jurisprudence since Magna Carta, but it’s hardly useful on a case-by-case basis.

What we need to do is acknowledge that this is a phenomenon that occurs. That there are reasons why it occurs. And then take the necessary action on our own part to minimize the injustice. If we have facts that the prosecutor ought to know, then share them! Better to persuade one lawyer now than to hold on to the facts and seek to persuade twelve random jurors a year from now. If we have a perspective about what the facts mean, then persuade the prosecutor. Don’t whine or plead, just make a rational argument from shared principles. It works often enough.

And if push comes to shove, and you have a fight on your hands, then goddammit fight. But don’t just complain that the system is unfair.

Good defense attorneys like Scott Greenfield get this. Good prosecutors get it, too.