"Bright Line" For The BPD?

Dick Lehr has an eye-catching piece in today's Boston Globe, in which police commissioner Ed Davis claims to be on the verge of announcing a one-strike policy against lying. “If our own internal process determines that an officer has been untruthful, the punishment will be termination,’’ Davis is quoted.

Before I continue, I want to make a quick plea for everyone to read Lehr's new book, "The Fence," about the Mike Cox affair. I have intended to write specifically about the book at some point, but for now let me just say that the book is not only immensely important, but also superbly written and highly engaging. (Lehr also thanks me in the book's acknowledgements, an unnecessarily gracious mention for a very small bit of assistance on my part.)

Anyway, back to Davis's impending crackdown on dishonesty. Good freakin' luck with that, Ed.

The problem is that routine, casual dishonesty has been engrained in the BPD culture and practices for so long, its like the entire departmental biosystem has grown around it. Lehr quotes an unnamed BPD officer confessing the routine matter of "testilying" by falsifying police reports: "We call it 'creative writing'," the cop says.

A lot of this stems from the very difficulty of the job. Many falsehoods begin as retroactive attempts to make an arrest, or other action, conform to proper procedure so that evidence won't be thrown out on procedural grounds. Often in the stress or perceived danger of an investigation or an encounter with a suspect, an officer breaks the ground rules. So, they write their report, or provide testimony, in a way that paints an untruthful picture of the officer conforming to the rules. (A little of this may have happened in the Crowley-Gates affair, BTW.)

I could bore you (or entertain you) with endless examples, many of which I've written about here at the Phoenix over the years (here's an article I wrote three years ago about an incident on Sonoma Street in Roxbury), but most of which are simply too routine to even take notice. A couple years back I was in a courtroom for a probable-cause hearing on a gun charge. It was a situation where the cops clearly acted, from the get-go, as though the three unknown young black men in the car late at night were nightmarishly dangerous -- and in fact it turned out that one had a handgun on him. But the search that led to the gun now had to be justified. The BPD officer proceeded to tell a highly improbable tale of spotting, from outside the passenger window, a small glass container with what appeared to be marijuana remnants, on the car floor near the driver's feet. This story became even more suspect when the defense attorney brought to light the original police report saying that the glass container had been found in a duffel bag in the trunk. (No matter, the search and discovery of the gun was allowed. There is tremendous incentive, all along the line, for everyone to blindly accept these tales rather than risk letting criminals go.) 

The trouble is that when this happens routinely, then everybody knows it's OK to do it -- which means they don't have to be real vigilant about following the ground rules, because they can always just say they did later. So, maybe you frisk every suspicious-looking guy in the dark parking lot, and then if one has a gun you claim that you saw him reach for his waist and run before you frisked him. That's going to make you a lot safer in the long run, right?

And when everybody is accustomed to this type of routine dishonesty, then it becomes easy for people to lie for all kinds of reasons: to avoid embarassment; to cover up misconduct; to cover for a buddy; etc. etc. etc.

Davis is correct that the department has not made the consequences clear. But you can't go from a culture of widespread acceptance of a behavior, to firable-offense zero-tolerance, with one memo. I'm no change-management expert, but I'm pretty sure that's not going to work out well.

The department needs a change-management expert, to bring the department from one side to the other. I believe it's a transition most officers would welcome, but it's not one where they see a clear and obvious path from point A to point B.

Oh, and BTW -- it would be nice if Davis's boss, the Mayor, would publicly get Davis's back on this issue. I'm not holding my breath for that.

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