A video showed officers in Buffalo, New York, pushing a 75-year-old man. Police initially said he had tripped and fell.
News cameras showed officers in Atlanta breaking the windows of a vehicle, pulling a woman out of the car and tasing a man. In his report, an officer wrote he wasn’t sure the pair was armed. They were college students returning from a late-night food run.
Police officers are authority figures, and their words have historically held more weight than the average citizen. But videos from several recent incidents, and countless others from over the years, have shown what many black Americans have long maintained: that police officers lie.
Here’s why experts say some police officers falsify reports and statements, and why the problem persists.
What prompts it
It’s fairly common for officers to lie in police reports, said Philip Stinson, a criminologist and professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University.
Stinson has tracked arrest cases of nonfederal sworn law enforcement officers who have been charged with at least one crime from 2005 to 2014. His research shows that out of more than 10,000 officer arrest cases, about 6.3% involved false reports or statements. About a quarter of those cases involving false reports or statements also involved alleged acts of police violence – and he said the problem is probably more common than the data suggests.
So why do officers lie in police statements?
Self-preservation: One of the reasons is simple: to avoid the consequences.
That’s according to David Thomas, a professor of forensic studies and criminal justice at Florida Gulf Coast University and a retired police officer.
When officers misrepresent incidents in police reports, it is often to justify the use of excessive force or an unlawful arrest, he said. The officer knows that they have made a mistake and are trying to avoid losing their job, criminal charges or other disciplinary actions.
“Your motivation to lie, really, is to keep your job and hope that nobody finds out,” Thomas said.
To justify an action: Another reason is what’s known as “noble cause corruption,” said Philip Stinson, a criminologist and professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University.
Officers might lie in police reports to justify an action they took, whether the use of force or a questionable arrest. Police are often operating under the mindset that they are keeping communities safe or getting criminals off the streets. So when they lie, the idea is that the ends justify the means – that their actions were ultimately for a good cause.
“It’s an ingrained part of the police subculture in many communities across the country,” Stinson said.
Even if there is video of the incident showing otherwise, many officers believe that their word will mean more than the tape, Thomas said.
A common argument that officers make when a video shows them acting in questionable ways is that the public often doesn’t see what happened at the beginning, he said. So some officers will tell a story that justifies what viewers saw in the recording.
What perpetuates it
Time and time again, videos have surfaced that have contradicted what police said in their initial statements.
In the case of 15-year-old Jordan Edwards, who was shot by officer Roy Oliver as he was leaving a party, the Balch Springs police initially said that the car Edwards was in was moving aggressively toward officers before Oliver fired into it.
The body camera told a different story, showing that the car was moving in the opposite direction.
They are often not held accountable: Roy Oliver was ultimately convicted of murder and sentenced to 15 years in prison – but such convictions are rare.
That’s one of the reasons that some police officers lie in reports, despite the possibility of video counteracting their claims, says Rachel Moran, an assistant professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law.
Sometimes, the video is never made public. And even when it is, officers are often not held accountable.
“There’s so many lies being caught on video or this behavior that the police then tell a totally different story about,” Moran said. “There’s a lot of police officers lying who we’re just not going to find out about. And then the ones who are, it doesn’t mean just because there’s brief political outrage that they’re going to get held accountable.”
The investigative process tends to favor officers: Moran, whose research focuses on police accountability, said that the complaint process for someone who feels they have been mistreated by an officer can be highly bureaucratic. It also tends to favor the officer, she said.
Most police departments around the country handle officer misconduct complaints through an internal affairs unit within the department. That means police are generally investigating their own colleagues, and deciding what punishment, if any, to impose.
“There’s a strong culture of protecting each other,” Moran said. “Sometimes there’s also strong bias often against people making the complaints. Class and race bias come heavily into play there. So here’s often a presumption, whether intentional or not, that the people making the complaints are probably at fault.”
Discipline is often minimal: Even when discipline is imposed, Moran says, it often isn’t meaningful.
Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer who pressed his knee into George Floyd’s neck, was the subject of at least 18 prior complaints, according to a department internal affairs public summary. Only two were “closed with discipline.”
But it’s not just an accountability issue, says Stephen Rushin, an associate professor of law at Loyola University Chicago.
Officers are often protected from repercussions: In some jurisdictions, there are systems in place that protect officers from repercussions, Rushin said.
In an article for The George Washington Law Review, Rushin and Atticus DeProspo analyzed 657 police union contracts and 20 law enforcement officer bills of rights, which govern internal disciplinary procedures for many police officers in the US.
They found that “while many of these jurisdictions have reasonable regulations in place to prevent coercive or abusive tactics, a significant number of departments provide officers with interrogation protections that may frustrate accountability efforts.”
About 20% of the agencies they analyzed stipulated a waiting period for officers before they are interrogated about suspected misconduct. And about 28% of agencies required internal investigators to turn over potentially incriminating evidence to officers before they may be questioned.
“In agencies that provide rigid waiting periods and agencies that provide officers access to video evidence and other incriminating evidence against them in internal investigations, officers know they’re going to have a period of time to get their story straight, to come up with a story that’s consistent with the evidence against them to avoid accountability,” Rushin said.
What might prevent it
Preventing officers from lying in police reports and statements is an extremely complex issue.
Video evidence: The use of surveillance cameras, smartphones and body cameras to generate evidence in incidents of potential police misconduct has become much more widespread in recent years. And in many incidents, it was the video footage that led to criminal charges – and sometimes convictions.
But rules often vary on whether officers are required to turn on body cameras, whether the videos must be reviewed before writing incident reports and whether are released publicly. And studies on their effectiveness have yielded mixed results.
Changing the culture: Another piece of it is changing systemic police culture, said Thomas. Police chiefs need to set standards and better train officers around use of force, deescalation and report falsification, and hold officers accountable when they violate those standards.
“Systematically, the culture has to change or we will continue to have these problems,” he said.
Ending in-house investigations: One particular reform that’s often proposed around police accountability is removing internal affairs units from review processes, and empowering civilian review agencies, which are generally composed by members of the public, Moran said. But even when cities have civilian review boards, they tend to be weak, she said.
Thomas also pointed to the power of police unions, who play a significant role in protecting officers from accountability and often block efforts by departments to reform agencies.
There are no easy answers, the experts said.
But, they say, with so many instances of video evidence discrediting the initial police account, demanding them is long overdue.