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“The Police Don’t Always Tell The Truth”: The Killing Of Walter Scott Sheds Light On The Problem Of Police Lying

Yesterday The New York Times published a video showing a police officer, Michael T. Slager, fatally shooting a black man, Walter L. Scott, as he ran away from the officer.

The video is disturbing enough by itself. But it becomes even more troubling when we consider how radically at odds the visual evidence seems to be with the police incident report filed on the killing. As the Times notes, Slager “said he had feared for his life because the man had taken his stun gun in a scuffle after a traffic stop on Saturday.” Yet the video shows Scott killed in flight, something like 20 feet away when the final bullet hit. After the shooting, Slager is shown placing an object next to Scott’s prone body. According to the Times, police reports also claim that officers performed CPR on Scott, an assertion not borne out in the video.

The death of Walter Scott will add more tinder to the already blazing political debate over police violence. The apparent contradictions between the incident report and the video highlight an overlapping but distinct problem: The police don’t always tell the truth. Police violence and police lying are two separate problems, although they also reinforce each other. Police violence flourishes in part because of the prevalence of police lying, which is rarely challenged by the criminal justice system.

In the Scott killing, there is good reason to believe that without the powerful counter-evidence provided by the video, which led to Slager being charged with murder yesterday, the police incident report would have been accepted as the official account of the shooting. Indeed, the persuasive power of police testimony extends outside official channels. Prior to the emergence of the video and Slager’s arrest, Slager’s version of events was echoed by the local media in South Carolina as if it were factual.

Police lying doesn’t just act as a shield for police violence, but as a larger source of corruption in the criminal justice system. Criminal cases are always narrative battles: Prosecutors and defense attorneys compete to win cases by presenting the most plausible stories consistent with admissible evidence. The police play a crucial part in this system as a supplier of narrative facts, in the form of both reports and testimony under oath.

As Ohio State law professor Michelle Alexander noted in a 2013 article in The New York Times, there is a powerful social presumption that we should put our faith in cops. “As a juror, whom are you likely to believe: the alleged criminal in an orange jumpsuit or two well-groomed police officers in uniforms who just swore to God they’re telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but?” Alexander said that this abiding faith in the police is misplaced: “In this era of mass incarceration, the police shouldn’t be trusted any more than any other witness, perhaps less so.”

Alexander’s contention rests on a strong scholarly literature about “testilying”—the practice of police officers committing perjury to secure a conviction, usually against someone they think is guilty. In a classic 1996 article for the Colorado Law Review, Vanderbilt Law professor Christopher Slobogin demonstrated that both “reportilying” (falsifying police reports) and “testilying” are pervasive in many American jurisdictions.

Police perjury, Slobogin argues, occurs because “police think they can get away with it. Police are seldom made to pay for their lying.” Not just prosecutors but even many judges see themselves as sharing a common set of goals with the police of making sure the guilty get punished. Working in a shared enterprise, they are loath to challenge police perjury. “Prosecutors put up with perjury because they need a good working relationship with the police to make their cases,” Slobogin notes.

Slobogin documented his case by citing a compelling 1992 study by Myron Orfield of the Chicago criminal justice system showing that a large percentage of judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys acknowledge the reality of police perjury: “In his survey of these three groups (which together comprised 27 to 41 individuals, depending on the question), 52 percent believed that at least ‘half of the time’ the prosecutor ‘knows or has reason to know’ that police fabricate evidence at suppression hearings, and 93 percent, including 89 percent of the prosecutors, stated that prosecutors had such knowledge of perjury ‘at least some of the time.’”

If officer Slager did fabricate his incident report in the Scott killing, he wasn’t being a bad apple but rather adhering to a dishonesty that is all too common in American police forces. Such is the credence given to police reporting that Slager’s rendition of events was only overturned by the compelling counter-narrative offered by the video, shot by a civilian onlooker.

Videos, including police body cameras, are not a panacea to the problem of police violence. The 1992 Rodney King trial alone should remind us that compelling visual testimony can be overridden by the social trust many jurors give to police. Still, in a society where both the state and many citizens are too credulous about police testimony, videos are often the best way to break the stranglehold of the official narrative.

 

By: Jeet Heer, Senior Editor, The New Republic, April 9, 2015

April 10, 2015 Posted by | Criminal Justice System, Police Shootings, Police Shotings | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Our National Legacy”: North Charleston Murder Stems From American Tradition

An unarmed man shot in the back. An innocent man released after serving 30 years on death row. The centennial of Billie Holiday’s birth. These are the stories that emanated from my radio yesterday, and all bear a common thread: the devaluing of black life.

The biggest news, of course, came from North Charleston, South Carolina, where Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, was shot in the back by a white police officer after fleeing on foot from the scene of a “routine traffic stop”—also known in some parts as “driving while black.”  One difference this time: The cop was charged with murder after a damning cell-phone video, shot by a bystander, was provided to state authorities, and then posted on the website of the Charleston Post and Courier.

Scott was shot eight times. The video shows the officer, Michael T. Slager, dropping an object, which appears to be his Taser stun-gun, next to Scott’s body. Slager told his bosses that Scott had grabbed the Taser from him. In truth, it seems that what Scott was killed for was not any threat he posed to the officer’s life, but rather the ego of a white cop who couldn’t bear to have his authority defied by a black man. Think about Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Isn’t that ultimately why they died?

It may seem that police killings of black people—and general harassment of African Americans by law enforcement—are on the rise, but chances are that they are not. Chances are better than good that this is the way it’s always been. It’s just that citizens are now able to shoot videos with their phones, and to take to social media to howl about injustice the moment it occurs.

Take the case of Anthony Ray Hinton, 58, just released from Alabama’s death row after spending half his life there for two 1985 murders he didn’t commit. His conviction was based on police assertions that the bullets found at the scene of the crime matched a gun found in his mother’s house. But, when both were tested decades later, they didn’t. Here’s how Hinton explained his predicament to the BBC:

He said he was told by police the crime would be “put on him” and there were five things that would convict him.

“The police said: ‘First of all you’re black, second of all you’ve been in prison before, third, you’re going to have a white judge, fourth, you’re more than likely to have a white jury, and fifth, when the prosecution get to putting this case together you know what that spells? Conviction, conviction, conviction, conviction, conviction.’ He was [right] and that’s what happened.”

He said: “I think if I’d have been white they would have tested the gun and said it don’t match and I would have been released, but when you’re poor and black in America you stand a higher chance of going to prison for something you didn’t do.”

Yesterday also brought human-interest stories marking 100 years since the birth of the great jazz innovator, Billie Holiday—meaning that, if, like me, you listen to the kind of radio that celebrates America’s classical music (because that’s what jazz is), you may have caught the iconic strains of Holiday’s brutally graphic tour de force lament of lynching, the centuries-old practice of white mobs hunting down a black person, torturing and mutilating that person, and then usually hanging the body from a tree. For those unfamiliar, here are the opening lines (lyric by Abel Meeropol):

Southern trees bear a strange fruit

Blood on the leaves, and blood at the root

Black body swingin’ in the Southern breeze

Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees

But you should really listen to the whole thing. Every American should. In fact, it should be part of the Common Core curriculum. Because until we understand this legacy—our national legacy—it’s hard to see how things will ever truly change, except, perhaps, by matter of degree.

 

By: Adele M. Stan, Guest Blogger, The American Prospect, April 8, 2015

April 9, 2015 Posted by | American History, Police Abuse, Police Shootings | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

   

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