Officer Nicholas M. Buckley described the arrest in exceptional detail, the single-spaced lines covering two full pages in his report.
He had worked for the San Francisco Police Department for three years, and in recent months he had patrolled the Tenderloin district, a neighborhood of dive bars and homeless shelters wedged between City Hall and the city’s booming commercial center — a neighborhood, Buckley wrote, where “violent, felonious crimes are frequently committed.”
As he and his partner drove past the intersection of Eddy and Taylor streets shortly after 11 p.m. on December 1, 2015, they saw about a dozen men huddled on the sidewalk beside a chain-link fence. The cops suspected the men were gambling. As the officers pulled up to the curb, the men began to disperse.
Buckley homed in on the guy in the long brown coat, Brandon Simpson. While the other men nonchalantly headed north up Taylor Street, Simpson went in the opposite direction and “quickly walked away from the group upon detecting police presence,” Buckley wrote.
He noted what he considered Simpson’s suspicious body language: hands near his waistband beneath his coat. It was “consistent with a person trying to conceal a weapon,” he would later say in court.
Buckley ordered Simpson to stop and show his hands, and when he did not, Buckley “grabbed him by the shoulders.” Simpson resisted and struggled to escape, the officer said. A battle broke out as more officers joined the effort to subdue Simpson, punching and kicking him until they were able to “gain control” and snap on handcuffs, Buckley said. Afterward, officers picked up a white object that had apparently fallen out of Simpson’s waistband or coat. It was a sock with a gun inside of it. Simpson was booked on charges of illegal firearm possession and faced 10 years in federal prison.
On April 13, 2016, officer Buckley repeated his story in a written court declaration, the same story he’d tell a month later on the witness stand during Simpson’s pretrial hearing.
When Buckley had finished testifying, the defense attorney stepped up. She had footage of the arrest, from a surveillance camera on a building across the street.
In full color and crisp definition, it showed what really happened that night.
The police car pulls up. The huddled men stroll away together. A man in a long brown coat near the back of the group — Simpson — walks with them. His arms are at his sides, clearly visible. He holds a water bottle in one hand. Seemingly picking this man at random, Buckley cuts him off on the sidewalk. The man tries to step around the officer. Buckley places a hand on his chest. The man takes a step back. Buckley grabs his arms, pinning his hands to his back. A second police car pulls up. Three officers rush to Buckley and knock the man to the ground. His body disappears beneath the scrum. With the man pinned against the fence, the officers let loose punches and kicks.
Judge Charles Breyer, a long-faced man with combed-down gray hair who often wears a bow tie beneath his robe, was incensed.
“The video was unequivocal in rebutting everything the police officer testified to — at least to all the pertinent details,” he said, before he dismissed the case.
For much of modern American history, police officers were considered, by most judges and jurors, to be the most reliable narrators in a courtroom — professional and neutral arbiters of facts. The increasing prevalence of camera footage eroded that bedrock of the justice system, wiping out powers long held by law enforcement. Within the last half decade, a new reality has set in for cops, lawyers, and judges: Videos have replaced police reports and testimony as the most credible version of events, proving time and again, with increasing frequency, that police officers lie.
BuzzFeed News reviewed 62 examples since 2008, including 40 since 2014, of video footage contradicting a cop’s statement in a police report or testimony. Nine of these videos captured high-profile abuses that led to protests, dominated Twitter timelines, and drew coverage from more than a few national news outlets. The other 53 incidents came and went without much attention beyond that from local residents and reporters. In almost every case, the officers lied for the same reason Buckley did: to retroactively justify their actions.
There are no comprehensive statistical studies of police lying — for somewhat obvious reasons: It’s impossible to know how often officers get away with lying. In one quantitative effort published in the University of Chicago Law Review in 1992, Myron Orfield, who is now a law professor at the University of Minnesota, surveyed dozens of prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges in Chicago. Fifty-two percent of them responded that prosecutors “know or have reason to know” that an officer fabricated evidence “at least half of the time.” Nearly 90% of prosecutors responded that they were aware of police perjury in cases “at least some of the time.”
San Francisco officer Buckley lied in his police report, in his court declaration, and in his testimony. He lied about his reason for approaching Simpson, and the video showed that he violated Simpson’s constitutional rights by stopping him without reasonable suspicion and then detaining him without probable cause.
“Why do they do it? The main reason they do it, historically and now, is they can get away with it.”
So it didn’t matter whether or not Simpson had a gun. The stop was illegal, Judge Breyer ruled in his dismissal of the case, and so the evidence it produced was legally useless. Prosecutors dropped the charges and informed Buckley’s bosses.
Eight months later, Buckley remains on the force. The department would not say whether he has been disciplined but told BuzzFeed News that “this is still an active and open Internal Affairs investigation.” Federal prosecutors have not charged him with perjury and would not comment on the case.
Lying is “something that has been endemic in the history of the American police system for the last three or four generations,” said Peter Keane, a former San Francisco police commissioner who now teaches law at Golden Gate University. “And why do they do it? The main reason they do it, historically and now, is they can get away with it.”
Of the 62 incidents BuzzFeed News reviewed, only 22 led to charges being filed against an officer, and of those, only nine have resulted in convictions.
Cameras prove cops lie, and there are more cameras out in the world today than ever before. While its depth is unknown, the scope of police lying is wide. Officers lie in high-profile cases and little-known cases, and lie by fabrication, omission, and exaggeration.
Police officers lie when they or one of their colleagues kill. Officer Michael Slager, of North Charleston, South Carolina, claimed he fatally shot Walter Scott because he feared for his life after Scott grabbed his Taser and pointed it at him, but video showed Slager shooting him in the back from 17 feet away, then dropping his Taser by Scott’s body. After Chicago officer Jason Van Dyke shot Laquan McDonald 16 times, five cops claimed that McDonald lunged at Van Dyke with a knife, but the video showed the teenager walking away.
They lie when they beat up people who were not resisting arrest. Officers Sean Courter and Orlando Trinidad of Bloomfield, New Jersey, claimed that Marcus Jeter hit one officer and tried to grab the other’s gun, but video showed the officers pulling him out of his car and immediately assaulting him. Five Marion, Florida, cops claimed Derrick Price resisted arrest, but video showed that he was on the ground surrendering with his hands up when the officers began punching and kicking him.
They lie when they think no cameras are watching, like Reading, Pennsylvania, officer Jesus Santiago-DeJesus did when he smashed Marcelina Cintron-Garcia’s cell phone and arrested her on a false charge of assault after she filmed him during a traffic stop. They lie when they should know for certain that cameras are watching, like officers in Seabrook, New Hampshire, in Skokie, Illinois, and in Sweetwater, Florida, did when they slammed and injured suspects getting booked into their police stations, then falsely claimed the suspects had acted aggressively.
Cameras prove cops lie, and there are more cameras out in the world today than ever before.
They lie when witnesses are around. New York City officer Paula Medrano failed to mention in her accident report that pedestrian Felix Coss had the right of way when the police van she was driving fatally struck him in broad daylight.
They lie when no other cops are on the scene. Bullitt County, Kentucky, sheriff’s deputy Matthew Corder arrested Deric Baize for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, claiming that he “caused alarm to neighbors,” but video showed that Corder entered Baize’s house and tased him only after Baize had cursed at him for blocking his driveway. “Next time you tell a police officer to fuck off,” Corder said, “you might want to think about it.”
They lie in big cities. Houston officer William Wright accused Julian Carmona of pointing a gun at him at a gas station, but video showed that Carmona had merely picked up his gun when it fell out of his truck before quickly placing it back inside. Baltimore officer Vincent Cosom claimed to have punched Kollin Truss at a bus stop in self-defense, but video showed that Truss was walking away, with his arms by his side, when Cosom attacked. Los Angeles officers Michael Ayala and Leonardo Ortiz claimed that Brian Beaird, who was unarmed, was reaching for his waistband when they fatally shot him, but video showed that Beaird’s arms were raised at his sides.
They lie in small towns. Neenah, Wisconsin, cops reported that they shouted a warning before opening fire and killing an innocent man during a hostage standoff, but video of the incident “does not give any indication that there was a verbal command given,” the town’s police chief acknowledged. Lincoln, Rhode Island, officer Edward Krawetz claimed that he kicked Donna Levesque in the face “to defend” himself from serious injury, but video showed that she had lightly kicked his leg while sitting handcuffed on the curb. Evansville, Indiana, cops said that officer Nick Henderson hit Mark Healy because he was resisting arrest, but video showed that Henderson struck him because his hand got stabbed by a needle in Healy’s pocket.
They lie by omission, like the officers in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and San Antonio, Texas, did when they failed to note in their statements that the suspects they fatally shot had their hands up in surrender. They lie by exaggerating or downplaying, like Bay Area Rapid Transit officer Nolan Pianta did after he violently slammed Megan Sheehan, then wrote in his report that he “guided her to the ground.” They lie by outright fabrication, like King County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Lou Caballero did when he falsely accused a bus driver of cursing at him. Or like Jackson, Georgia, officer Sherry Hall did when she accidentally shot herself, then reported that a black man had done it.
Police officers lie about traffic stops. Kentucky state trooper Phillip Burnett arrested motorist Freddie Gregory on the false claim that he was “menacing” the officer after he ticketed him for not wearing a seatbelt. Dallas Sgt. Stephen Baker falsely claimed Marcial Salazar ran a red light.
Some of them keep up the lie even in the face of the video evidence. Confronted with his own dashboard camera footage in court, Baker still refused to back down. “I don’t make too many mistakes,” he said, even as the defense attorney repeatedly played a clip showing that Salazar had a green. When internal affairs investigators later asked Baker to explain his obviously false statements in court, Baker told them that he hadn’t been able to tell whether the light was red because he didn’t have his reading glasses with him.
And those are just since 2008 and just what’s been caught on camera.
A cop’s word is often the difference between a person’s freedom and imprisonment. In many cases, an officer and a defendant tell diametrically opposed versions of the same incident — a “swearing contest,” lawyers call it — and a judge or jury is left to decide whom to believe: the professional law enforcement agent who has testified in dozens of trials or the undereducated, underemployed, probably black or Latino guy from an “area known for narcotics trafficking” accused of breaking the law? The scale is even more unbalanced when the word of the defendant is lined up against the words of not one but two, three, four, five professional law enforcement agents. “The words of the police officers would always prevail over the words of poor black and brown folks,” said Craig Futterman, a professor at the University of Chicago law school.
Police aren’t supposed to take sides in court, but of course they do. It serves their purpose to defend the legitimacy of the arrest and the evidence they gathered and handed to prosecutors. They do the investigative legwork for prosecutors and meet with them to discuss case strategy. It’s no surprise, then, that cops often emerge as the prosecution’s best witnesses, their experience on the stand contrasting with a defendant’s understandable nervousness, their veneer of neutrality hiding their personal belief in a defendant’s guilt.
“In criminal cases officers are given a higher degree of credibility,” said Tom Grover, a former Albuquerque Police Department sergeant who now works as a defense lawyer. “They are seen as having no stakes in the matter, of just doing their duty.”
Some jurors see right through this veneer. An officer’s usual aura of credibility doesn’t hold up as well in cities with large black and Latino communities filled with residents who have long distrusted police, said Futterman. Derwyn Bunton, chief public defender in New Orleans, can recount many occasions when, during jury selection, the judge would ask the roomful of prospects, “Who would you trust more: your neighbor or a police officer?” “Very often people chuckle out loud,” he said. “And this was before video evidence became as big as it is today.”
Yet even healthy skepticism of police officers has failed to overcome the decades of tradition and legal precedent working in their favor. That much was clear after 28-year-old Terrance Bostick was arrested on drug trafficking charges in 1985. Two Broward County Sheriff’s Department officers had found cocaine in Bostick’s bag while he sat on a bus in Florida. According to the officers’ account, it was all so easy: They stepped onto the bus, told Bostick they were cops, asked permission to search his bag and informed him of his right to refuse, and Bostick consented. Bostick, however, claimed that he never agreed to the search. No other witnesses testified.
Prosecutors, defense attorneys, and police officers from around the country said they’d seen a surge in how often criminal cases hinge on video evidence.
In his ruling on whether the search was constitutional, Judge Russell Seay called the officers’ story “highly improbable.” “Why would a cocaine smuggler consent to a search that could send him to prison for decades?” he wondered. But the judge declared that he had no choice but to grant the police the benefit of the doubt.
“When you’ve got sworn testimony from two police officers and they’re testifying, sometimes you don’t have much other than that and you have to go along with the sworn testimony, but it does really stretch the imagination,” he wrote. Bostick was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison.
But the presumption of police honesty has become an antiquated convention. “And,” former police commissioner Keane said, “it’s only starting to change for one reason: video.” Just as the new DNA evidence of the last two decades proved with scientific certainty that cops sometimes coerce suspects into false confessions, video footage in recent years exposed that cops sometimes open fire on people who pose no threat.
This new criminal justice landscape was born from the intersection of two historical trends. First came the technological advancement that suddenly multiplied the number of cameras out in the world. As cameras became smaller and cheaper, more business owners could install them on their buildings, more city governments could stick them on light poles, more police departments could clip them to their uniforms, and more people could easily access them on their mobile phones.
New York City’s Civilian Complaint Review Board, which handles accusations of police misconduct, reported that it found more false police statements in 2014 than in the previous four years combined, largely because of an increase in video footage. Prosecutors, defense attorneys, and police officers from around the country told BuzzFeed News that they’d seen a surge within the last few years in how often criminal cases hinge on video evidence. According to the Washington Post’s database of police shootings, the number of them caught on video increased from 142 in 2015 to 231 in 2016.
“We’re seeing an explosion of video in public places coming to us from many different sources,” said San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, who previously served as the city’s police chief. “We’re seeing things today that we would not have seen 10 years ago, and I think that’s very healthy. If you were looking at a graph of a curve, you’d see gradual increase, and then all of a sudden it’s like a pogo stick within the last two or three years, post-Ferguson.”
Colliding with this new technological reality was a new civil rights movement sparked by two deaths that were not caught on camera. The details of what happened in the moments before George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, in 2012 and officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 have been — and probably will always be — heavily debated. In both cases, the shooters were not convicted of any crime, fueling further protests declaring that “black lives matter.”
“You’re seeing people pull out their video cameras much more often when they see a police interaction in the street,” Gascón said. “It’s a new era for us.”
Every few months since the Ferguson uprising, new videos emerge showing police officers killing black men, producing a string of national news headlines — Walter Scott in North Charleston, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Laquan McDonald in Chicago, John Crawford in Beavercreek, Sam DuBose in Cincinnati, Mario Woods in San Francisco, Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, and others. In many of these cases, the videos directly contradicted the police version of events. From 2005 to 2014, an average of six officers a year were charged with murder or manslaughter, according to a study by Bowling Green University professor Philip Stinson. In 2015, prosecutors filed those charges against 18 officers; more than half of them had been filmed in the act.
Though these well-known cases are among the most egregious examples of police misconduct in recent history, they represent only a portion of police deception. The list of known lies grows longer with each fresh clip.
“The ubiquity of video today has made it impossible for broader society to deny the reality and prevalence of police abuse in black and brown communities.”
“This is a paradigm shift,” said Futterman. “The ubiquity of video today has made it impossible for broader society to deny the reality and prevalence of police abuse in black and brown communities. It provides objective evidence of what folks in those communities have already known for years. And now that the jack is out of the box, there’s no putting it back. It’s triggered an ongoing conversation that isn’t going away.”
Video is our most undeniable, and our most easily digestible, form of evidence. It does not always answer all our questions. Recordings from three cameras were not enough to reveal whether Keith Lamont Scott held a gun when Charlotte police killed him. But a video tends to reveal enough to challenge, if not disprove, the official police account.
Its value, then, is in its power to break through the delusion of American comfort, the willful or accidental ignorance many of us maintain because, as James Baldwin explained in 1964, “life is beautiful, and in order to keep it beautiful you’re going to stay just the way you are and you’re not going to test your theory against all the possibilities outside. America is something like that. The failure on our part to accept the reality of pain, of anguish, of ambiguity, of death has turned us into a very peculiar and sometimes very monstrous people.”
But with each video, thrust onto screens across the country, this reality exposes itself just a bit more; the water around the iceberg drains a few feet and it turns out the thing looks even bigger than many of us thought, and who knows how much more is down below, unseen?
There are two overarching, sometimes overlapping, reasons officers lie. The first is to keep themselves out of trouble, to avoid criminal charges or losing their job after a shooting or a beatdown or a questionable arrest. This is the one we most often hear about, in the aftermath of high-profile police abuse, when Sandra Bland is found dead in jail or Eric Garner suffocates on the pavement. It’s messed up, unethical, immoral, unacceptable, but also a simple act of self-preservation by a person who must have recognized that they’d done wrong.
The other reason cops lie is to lock up a suspect who they know — or think they know — is guilty even though they have insufficient evidence to make a legal arrest.
“When an officer is stretching the truth, it’s often driven by the belief that they’re meeting with a person who has committed a crime and in order to protect the community and get that arrest and conviction, you push the line,” said Gascón, the district attorney and former police chief. “But that’s just as much of a violation of the rules.”
Kissimmee Police Department officer Tiffany Hall seemed to believe that Jonathan Elliott was guilty. She and her colleagues had a tip that people were trafficking drugs at the Tropicana Motel, an orange and white inn flanked by palm trees and dried grass along a stretch of highway dotted with cheap lodging. Hall and several other officers staked out the building on the evening of November 24, 2015.
“When an officer is stretching the truth, it’s often driven by the belief that they’re meeting with a person who has committed a crime.”
As the motel’s surveillance footage would later show, two men knocked on the door of room 208, and another man — Elliott — let them inside and closed the door. After a few minutes, the two men left. Hall and two other officers got a room key from a motel employee and entered 208, where they found a bag containing around 30 grams of weed. They arrested Elliott for marijuana possession.
Problem was, the officers had violated Elliott’s Fourth Amendment rights. They did not have a warrant to enter his room. And so, in her police report, Hall described a scenario that met all constitutional requirements, a tale she would repeat in testimony: She claimed that she watched the two visitors hand Elliott a bag “containing a green leafy substance” as they stood at the open doorway of the room.
She went on to describe a drug bust that went smoothly, almost laughably so: In Hall’s version, the officers knocked on the door, Elliott opened it, Hall spotted the bag of weed on a nearby table, and Elliott “stated ‘here’ and handed me the plastic bag.”
Elliott, who had a burglary conviction on his record, asserted that the police version was false, but he didn’t expect people to believe him. “Usually, a story like that coming from someone like me who has a past of doing things, it’s not usually believable,” he told the Orlando Sentinel.
But he informed his court-appointed attorney, Catherine Conlon, that he had noticed a surveillance camera outside his room. Osceola County prosecutors did not know the footage existed, and when Conlon brought it into court, they dropped the charges against Elliott and instead filed criminal charges against Hall, for perjury and falsifying records, and the two other officers, for official misconduct. The Kissimmee Police Department suspended the officers without pay.
This drive to catch the bad guy by any means necessary was not developed in a vacuum. Cops feel institutional pressure to make arrests. In many, if not most, police departments, arrests are a primary metric with which to measure an officer’s ability and work ethic. Michael Baysmore, who was a patrolman with the Baltimore Police Department for two years before joining Coppin State University’s force, recalled that the path to promotion within the BPD was through arrests — a high volume of them or a string of high-quality ones, like gun busts or big drug seizures.
“The people who really paid the most attention to arrests were the ones trying to get into specialized units, the ones trying to make a name for themselves, trying to stand out,” Baysmore said. “Whenever your evaluations would come up, if you got a negative review it was probably because you were one of the people on your shift with the least number of arrests.”
Temptation to falsify hovers over a cop like a devil on the shoulder. Letting a probably guilty suspect get away makes an investigation feel “almost like a waste,” Baysmore said. He recalled such an instance from September, when he responded to a call of theft at a building on Coppin State’s campus. Somebody had stolen two cell phones from an office on an otherwise vacant floor of the building. The surveillance tape showed a young man get off the elevator on that floor around the time the phones went missing, then leave the building a few minutes later. Shortly after that, another camera, too distant to capture clothing details or facial features, showed a blurry figure walking toward a bus stop nearby. Inside a trash can next to the bus stop, Baysmore found a cell phone case and IDs belonging to the owners of the phones. “So I knew it was him, but at the same time I really couldn’t prove it,” he said.
There were no witnesses and no other relevant surveillance footage. There was just a young man who was near the scene of the crime when it occurred and, shortly after, may have been near where the evidence was found. “If I tried to write up the probable cause statement based on that, the state’s attorney won’t take the case,” Baysmore said.
But if, in his report, he had invented some reason, some pretense, to search the young man, perhaps he would have found the cell phones and gotten the arrest. Instead, Baysmore let it go. “A couple of officers I work with, they were saying, ‘You shoulda just locked him up!’”
This is an age-old police dilemma, to get the bad guy at any cost or to play by the rules no matter the cost. “A professional police officer,” retired NYPD detective Marq Claxton said, “realizes that you can work well within the parameters of the law and still be effective. That is the job.” In practice, however, there have long been officers under the impression that the job allows for shortcuts. Richard Uviller, a prosecutor in New York City for 14 years who spent eight months embedded with the NYPD for his 1988 book, Tempered Zeal, found that the “most common form of police perjury” involved officers inventing probable cause after an arrest. “The instrumental adjustment,” he called it. “A slight alteration in the facts to accommodate an unwieldy constitutional constraint and obtain a just result.”
The officers believed these practices were necessary to compensate for a criminal justice system that they saw as too lenient. Several cops, both active and retired, told BuzzFeed News that in recent years the courts have only gotten more forgiving, the expectations on police have only gotten higher, and the job is harder now than it has been in decades. “You add in the additional oversight that everybody’s calling for, this decrease in confidence and trust from the community, this policing model based on enforcement, and you’ve got pressure on all ends,” said Claxton, who policed in the 1980s and ’90s. “You’re gonna have people who make false statements under the guise of they need to do this in order to protect the system because, the way they see it, the Constitution is so restrictive it won’t let us catch the bad guys.”
Another NYPD detective, who worked from the early ’70s to the late ’90s, said, “Who would wanna become a cop today? I have young guys in my neighborhood asking me if they should become a cop. I told them to become a fireman.” The detective, who requested anonymity to speak openly about his career, recounted how easy it was to make arrests back in his day. “I made seven gun arrests in eight hours once,” he said. “We would drive down the streets and anybody that looked at us a certain way, we would chase them, throw them up against the wall, and the gun would fall to the ground. That maybe wouldn’t stand up today. But we knew the guy was a bad guy and we just did what we had to do. I don’t know if I could be a cop today.”
“Today, as soon as you stop somebody, you have 20 people standing around there with phones taping you.”
Within the last decade, as crime rates reached new lows and the general public was not as worried about public safety, lawmakers rolled back many of the tough-on-crime policies of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. The videos of fatal police shootings brought fresh, heightened scrutiny to law enforcement and spurred protesters to call for changes in departmental practices.
“Today, as soon as you stop somebody, you have 20 people standing around there with phones taping you,” said retired NYPD detective Jay Salpeter. “Which I think is a good thing for the cop, too. A cop has the ability to take your life.”
Baysmore, the Baltimore cop, said that he now always assumes a camera, somewhere, is watching him while he’s on the job. It makes him nervous sometimes, that a clip gets taken out of context, that the blurring whirl of a tense situation gets frozen into its most damnable elements, that his memory slips up at the wrong time, that a small inconsistency in his report gets blown up and next thing he knows his photo is on the evening news and protesters are calling him a liar.
“When you’re out there dealing with stuff, you’re just reacting,” he said. “You just have a split second to react and do something, so you might not remember everything they said or you said or every movement. In the back of your mind you try and have a photographic memory, but at the same time you’re trying to apprehend a suspect.”
Early in his career, his reports contained every detail he could remember. Now, he plays it safe, the second-guessers always lingering in the back of his mind, alongside the worry that a seemingly inconsequential instance of misremembering — the color of the car, the type of fence the suspect threw the drugs over, the alley he cut through during the chase — could irreversibly poison the arrest, undermining the credibility of all his words.
“If there’s something I’m not totally clear about, I just won’t put it in there,” he said. “I keep it shorter. I won’t add words I don’t have to.”
Those in the police world insist that the Baysmores far outnumber the Buckleys and the Halls. “Ninety-nine percent of officers are really good,” said Dan Klein, a retired Albuquerque police sergeant. It’s an ongoing frustration for many officers that the other “1%” are the ones most well-known to the public. “That’s the world we live in,” said Joe Gamaldi, vice president of Houston’s police union. “A situation where an officer gets accused of excessive force, that’s going to be the thing that people hear about.”
As officers see it, those outliers, broadcast to the public over and over, cascade into a growing wave of anti-police sentiment; hence, an entire profession judged by the worst among them, the crumbs defining the reputation of an otherwise respectable institution. “Every time there’s a bad incident caught on video, it makes it that much harder to recover,” said John Cornicello, a retired NYPD detective. “In between all that, there are all the good interactions we don’t hear about. The ones we don’t see, of course, are all the times where nothing bad happened.”
The consensus police version of this story is that the abuse and the lies and the unjustified killings are the work of “bad apples.” A recent poll by the Pew Research Center, for example, found that two-thirds of officers believe that the police killings of black people in recent years are “isolated incidents” and not “signs of a broader problem.” If this conclusion is not entirely convincing, it might be because of how deeply embedded the misconduct appears, how normalized, how easy it seems to come to the officers performing rogue acts with minds untethered from consequences. It’s a comfort that suggests institutional acceptance. “It’s not just the rotten apples,” said Geoffrey Alpert, a criminology professor at the University of South Carolina. “It’s the rotten culture that allows the rotten barrel that creates the rotten apples.”
A rotten culture of policing is perhaps the only way to explain what happened in a case Chicago defense attorney Steve Goldman worked in 2014.
During a surveillance operation sparked by a tip from an informant, police officers pulled over his client, Joseph Sperling, and found a duffel bag filled with weed in his car.
Goldman obtained the dashcam footage from a police cruiser at the scene. When the officers testified about the arrest during a pretrial hearing, Goldman realized, “Oh my god, they have no idea we have this video.”
Five officers took the stand and “started saying the exact same thing like it was scripted.”
“All officers lied on the stand today…. Many many many many times they all lied.”
Every cop testified that at least four minutes passed from the time Sperling was pulled over until he was arrested. Each one testified that officer William Pruente smelled weed while standing at the driver’s side window, searched the car after Sperling admitted to having weed, and handcuffed him after he found the duffel bag.
“I mean it’s not like officer Pruente just walked up and got my client out of the car, right?” Goldman asked one of the cops, Vince Morgan, in court.
“That’s correct,” Morgan replied.
“And when my client exited the vehicle, he wasn’t immediately handcuffed, was he?”
When the fifth and final officer took the stand, Goldman played the video. It showed Pruente walking up to Sperling’s car and, without questioning him or taking his license, immediately opening his door, getting him out, putting on handcuffs, and sitting him in the back of a police cruiser — and only then searching his car and finding the bag.
“Obviously this is very outrageous conduct,” Judge Catherine Haberkorn said in court. “All officers lied on the stand today. … Many many many many times they all lied.”
Asked how so many officers could give the exact same false story, one cop testified that they had gathered with a prosecutor to go over the questions they would be asked in court and hear the answers their colleagues were giving. To get their stories straight, it seems.
Prosecutors, absolving themselves by noting that police hadn’t sent them the dashcam footage, dropped the charges against Sperling, then filed perjury charges against the officers. In her closing remarks, Judge Haberkorn acknowledged the reality that a probably guilty man was going free because of police actions.
The evidence against Sperling was so strong that Goldman had initially advised him to plead guilty. “But the deal they were offering wasn’t that good,” he said. And so they went forward with the case. It did not shock Goldman to hear police officers lie under oath. What shocked him was the casual disregard for truth and law they exhibited in what should have been an open-and-shut case: “They had him!” Goldman said. “They had him! They didn’t have to lie about it. It was a done deal.”
Sperling sued the department for civil rights violations and won a $195,000 settlement. Two years later, he was charged with aggravated DUI and reckless homicide after a car crash that killed another driver.
The right dominoes have to fall the right way for one of these videos to emerge.
First, the video has to exist, of course. Not get destroyed by an officer like Jesus Santiago-DeJesus who smashed the cell phone in Reading, Pennsylvania. Not suffer technical malfunctions, like more than 10% of Chicago police dashboard cameras. Not get erased or altered, like Reynaldo Chavez, a former records custodian for the Albuquerque Police Department, accused officers there of doing to body-camera footage. “Suspiciously the cameras almost never work when you want to use them,” said New Orleans public defender Bunton. “Often we go to court and the cop says, ‘My dashcam didn’t work,’ or, ‘Something happened to the tape.’”
Once charged, the defendant must decide to fight on, rather than take a plea deal. If Sperling had pleaded guilty, for example, the police lies never would have come to light. Another batch buried in the graveyard of the unseen, population unknown. More than 90% of criminal charges lead to guilty pleas, and most plea deals get settled before any evidence gets presented at a pretrial hearing — a negotiating ploy for both prosecutors and defense lawyers who aim to hedge their bets before showing their hands, and before expending too much energy digging into a case. “No one really wants to take a chance” of some unforeseen evidence popping up to give the other side more leverage, Goldman said. The mindset for both parties is “let’s work this out now and we can both be happy.”
“Often we go to court and the cop says, ‘My dashcam didn’t work,’ or, ‘Something happened to the tape.’”
With the case moving forward, a lying police officer is still in the clear unless the defendant has an attorney willing and able to track down, obtain, and review any relevant footage that may exist. Goldman said that his dogged pursuit of the dashcam video was largely possible because he had the luxury of clocking in as a private attorney, rather than a court-appointed defender juggling too many cases. “A lot of public defenders don’t have the time and resources to do that on every single case,” he said. “Everyone claims they’re innocent. But as a private lawyer I get to charge by the hour.”
The New Orleans public defender’s office, one of the most underfunded in the country, is forced to “triage based on the severity of the cases,” Bunton said. With the 17,435 felonies and misdemeanors that passed through their doors in 2015, each lawyer on staff took on an average of 335, each investigator more than 1,341. The office is so short on investigators that, Bunton said, his already overworked attorneys often “have to do their own investigations.”
By contrast, lawyers at the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office averaged 175 cases each, and their investigators 874. While Bunton’s office budget amounts to around $450 per case, the office of San Francisco’s chief public defender, Jeff Adachi, gets nearly $2,300.
With that stability and support around him, Adachi has gained local renown for his staff’s knack for unearthing incriminating videos of police officers.
In 2011, after clients told him SFPD officers were conducting illegal drug raids, Adachi dispatched investigators to “canvass for videos” around high-arrest areas across the city, he said. The initiative produced stunning surveillance footage from inside the Henry Hotel, a low-cost temporary residence popular among people unable to afford permanent housing. The videos showed police officers busting down doors without warrants and stealing property from the rooms. Three officers were convicted on corruption charges, another for making false statements.
It was one of Adachi’s investigators who went to the site of Brandon Simpson’s 2015 arrest and spotted the surveillance camera peering down from across the street. When the case was sent out of state court to federal court, Adachi handed the footage to the federal defense attorneys.
“We’re the defense, we have to hustle,” said Adachi, alluding to the nationwide disparity in funding between public defender and district attorney offices. “These videos usually don’t just pop up out of nowhere.”
Although sometimes he gets lucky and they do just pop up out of nowhere. In November 2015, one of his clients, Stanislav Petrov, was arrested after leading Alameda County sheriff’s deputies on a 30-mile car chase that ended on foot in an alley in San Francisco’s Mission District. The encounter with deputies left Petrov with a concussion and two broken hands. The deputies claimed that Petrov had resisted.
Two homeless people who witnessed the arrest told Adachi’s staff that Petrov had not resisted at all. “But without the video nobody would have believed them,” Adachi said.
Then, Adachi got an email from a former student at a law class he teaches. The student’s friend had stationed a motion-activated camera in a Mission District alley where he parked his motorcycle, in case of theft. The video confirmed what the witnesses said: Petrov had stopped running, given himself up, when the first deputy tackled him and started throwing punches. The second deputy then repeatedly bashed his head with a baton. The beating went on for nearly a minute, both deputies swinging their batons, continuing even as Petrov lay nearly motionless, and even as other officers arrived at the scene. Before leaving, one of the deputies snatched a gold chain from Petrov’s neck.
District Attorney Gascón charged deputies Luis Santamaria and Paul Wieber with assault with a deadly weapon. The case is pending.
Police officers have a long documented history of lying, a thick catalog of proof even without the help of cameras.
Yet the culture of deception, and the courtroom reverence for the official police account, has persisted, largely because, former police commissioner Keane said, the institutions with authority to punish officers usually fail to punish them for lying. Departments tend to go easy on their own. For instance, after a New York City commission in the mid-1990s found that officers lying under oath was among the “predominant and most widespread” problems within the NYPD, department officials agreed to fire any officer caught making false statements. But the commission later found that 41 of 59 officers caught lying kept their jobs. Meanwhile, prosecutors, who are most directly tasked with addressing police wrongdoing yet work in partnership with officers, tend to be “afraid to take on the police,” Keane said, hesitant to pursue charges without at least “overwhelming evidence.”
Which helps explain how an officer can maintain a career even while accumulating numerous allegations of misconduct. By the time Bullitt County Sheriff’s Deputy Matthew Corder wrongfully arrested Deric Baize for cursing at him in 2014, he’d been fired from two other law enforcement agencies, formally investigated for excessive force four times, and found to have wrongfully arrested a tow-truck driver repossessing his car. It wasn’t until there was video evidence of his behavior — entering Baize’s house and tasing him — that a prosecutor filed criminal charges. Corder would be convicted of violating Baize’s civil rights and sentenced to 27 months in prison.
The institutions with authority to punish officers usually fail to punish them for lying.
Video evidence is not the complete answer to the problem of police lying. It does not always capture necessary context. Filmed from certain angles, it can mislead from the truth. And, as Houston police union VP Gamaldi worried, it can nudge us into a future of over-reliance where “people are gonna think if it’s not on camera, it didn’t happen.” Yet it holds the power to sway prosecutors otherwise inclined to give cops the benefit of the doubt. Bernalillo County, New Mexico, District Attorney Kari Brandenburg, who went her first 14 years in office without charging any officers for shootings, filed murder charges against two Albuquerque cops who shot a homeless man in 2014 because, she told BuzzFeed News, “the video made me sick.”
The impact of an officer caught falsifying ripples beyond the police department, into the office of the district attorney, who must reckon with the sudden collapse of a case they had built. In 2015, a department store’s surveillance footage showed that Marshall, Missouri, officers Tyler Newell and Josh O’Bryan had falsely claimed that Carl Roettgen, who was wanted for a parole violation, pointed a gun at them and tried to run them over in his car before they arrested him. Saline County Prosecuting Attorney Donald Stouffer “spent hours examining the video, trying to reconcile the video with the two officers’ statements,” he said in a press release. “For the first time in my 28 years of service in the prosecutor’s office, I dismissed criminal charges because I concluded the testimony of the primary law enforcement witness lacked credibility.”
Stouffer sent a letter to the police chief informing him that his office “will not file any case in the future in which either officer plays a significant role.” To his disappointment, Stouffer encountered “an apparent belief” among high-level police commanders “that the outcome of a criminal case is more important” than punishing officers for lying.
It was one of a growing number of recent cases exposing the emerging rift between prosecutors and their longtime allies in blue, as district attorneys navigate the political pressures to crack down on police misconduct captured on film in the post-Ferguson era. The New Mexico Office of the Attorney General reported that the Albuquerque Police Department pursued a “politically motivated” investigation into Brandenburg after she filed the murder charges against the officers. After Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby filed criminal charges against six officers involved in the arrest of Freddie Gray, who died in custody in 2015, a police union magazine ran her photo on the cover under the headline “The Wolf That Lurks” and a column that listed past criminal allegations against her parents. After San Francisco DA Gascón, a former SFPD chief, led a blue-ribbon panel investigating racial bias in the department in February 2016, a police union press release blamed him for an uptick in property crimes, declaring that Gascón, “instead of fighting a war on crime, is fighting a war on the police department.”
Gascón has been among the most aggressive prosecutors in pursuing police misconduct cases. Within the last two years, he has charged four officers who had been caught lying in official statements. Three of those officers are still awaiting trial. The case against the other officer, Michael Lewelling, illustrates the uphill climb prosecutors face to overcome laws seemingly designed to protect officers who appear to have lied — and the quandary of whether the uphill climb is worth damaging their ties with the department.
Lewelling claimed that he had assaulted a suspect who attacked him with a wooden cane inside a hospital. Surveillance video showed that the man was walking away when the officer slammed him down, choked him, then arrested him.
“Anybody could look and see that this guy lied on multiple levels,” Gascón said. “But perjury is a very difficult charge to bring.” A prosecutor must show that the officer knew that the statement was false, which means wading into the murky waters of proving a person’s motivations. The San Francisco jury convicted Lewelling of assault, but acquitted him of perjury, for which he had faced up to four years in prison. He was sentenced to 100 hours of community service.
Gascón is far from the only prosecutor to stumble through a criminal justice system that gives officers wide leeway to act and to justify their actions. Even with video footage contradicting an officer’s explanation for fatally shooting an unarmed man, prosecutors in Cincinnati and North Charleston failed to win convictions in 2016 murder trials, with jurors in each case deadlocked.
The police antipathy toward Gascón has risen with time, as his crusade to hold cops accountable trudges onward. In November, police union officials from San Francisco and Los Angeles sent Gov. Jerry Brown a letter dissuading him from appointing Gascón as the state’s attorney general, citing his “poisonous relationship with law enforcement” and deeming him “a reckless and erratic man with bad judgment.”
“To appoint him to higher office,” the letter stated, “would endanger public safety.”
Historically, the power of video has mostly rested with law enforcement. Surveillance and dashcam footage have most often served as tools wielded against defendants.
“Part of the big difference right now is who controls the video footage,” said Seth Stoughton, a law professor at the University of South Carolina. “We’re talking about civilians who are taking the video and doing what they will, as opposed to the video staying more or less in police control.”
The transition into new technologies, and their democratizing potential, tends to catch police departments off guard. The lack of control over this newest generation of videos has left many officers shaken and convinced that, in a world where video is increasingly inevitable, they’d better reclaim some of that power. More than a dozen former and active officers told BuzzFeed News that they now supported the use of body cameras. A recent Pew poll showed that two-thirds of cops were in favor. “At least you would have the full story,” said Baysmore, the Baltimore officer.
Body cameras bring complications — debates over privacy, public access, and who pays for all the work hours behind the necessary redactions. Only 21 states have passed laws creating a framework for how to handle this new technology. Their rules vary wildly. In California and Maryland, for example, all body-cam footage counts as public record. In Illinois and South Carolina, none does. In Texas, it’s public record only if it “furthers a law enforcement purpose.” In Louisiana, the footage is accessible only after a judge decides that it does not violate anybody’s privacy. In Nevada, all footage is public but can be watched only in the room where it is stored. And so on — a whole new set of problems to solve, some of which will be unforeseen.
To the officers who back an expansion of body-camera use, the growing pains are worth the still-unknown cost. To Joe Gamaldi, the Houston union vice president, the greatest benefit of cameras lies in their potential to exonerate officers in an era when more people are distrusting of the official police narrative. “I believe that video will clear them more than not,” he said.
His view is rooted in the philosophy that cops don’t lie as often as all the publicized videos suggest, that the public sees most of the bad but little of the good, that there isn’t much more iceberg hidden beneath the dark water.
“How big you think the iceberg is depends on how much you trust them,” said professor Stoughton. “If you don’t trust the police at all, you think that that’s a huge iceberg and we only see a little bit of it. If you tend to strongly trust the police, even if we’re not seeing all of it, we’re seeing most of it.”
The truth emerges only as the water continues to recede. We don’t know what we haven’t seen. ●
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