"That's What Real Policemen Do; They Stand Up for Each Other"

06/25/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Norm Stamper 34-year veteran police officer who retired as Seattle's chief of police in 2000

Thus spake, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, a city cop who joined other police officers and DEA agents in a packed federal courtroom last week. All those badges flashed in support of Drug Enforcement Administration Agent Lee Lucas who is facing an 18-count indictment. The 19-year veteran stands accused of perjury, making false statements in internal reports, obstruction of justice, and civil rights violations. (The day after the federal agent was fired veteran Richland County Sheriff's Deputy Charles Metcalf copped in U.S. District Court to a civil rights violation stemming from his work with Lucas.)

The alleged facts (Lucas has pleaded not guilty) are all too familiar: a narcotics agent recruits an informant but fails to monitor the man's activities or verify his statements. When the narc learns of his snitch's make-believe cases, he conceals evidence, makes false statements to his superiors, lies on the stand, and sends guiltless people to prison. Can you say "Tulia, Texas"?

Of all the shameful deeds alleged, let's focus on one pivotal in this and so many other police scandals, namely lying. Not the "Why, yes those cargo pants are flattering" kind of lie but the kind that results in innocent people living life behind bars.

Early in my career I worked for a police chief who was fond of saying, "The thing I love about cops? They know the difference between right and wrong. They tell the truth." I worked with such police officers; those who mixed competence with their honesty were justly treasured by their communities. But I also fired or had a hand in firing many cops whose loyalty was to something other than truth.

At bottom, there are two explanations for cops who lie. The first is that the institution hires liars. We could waste a lot of time on this one. Or we could, as I'm happy to do, concede the point: Despite advances in the hiring process--smarter psychological testing, more rigorous background investigations--a certain percentage of characterologically untruthful candidates do winnow their way through the screening protocols. This happens most often when law enforcement agencies are on a hiring binge. In a push to get cops out on the street, they sacrifice quality for speed, compromise standards, and hire people who should never don a police uniform. The lesson here is constant diligence, and a willingness to let a position to go vacant rather than fill it with a prevaricator (or worse).

But the second and far more useful explanation is systemic. Cops lie for reasons embedded in the history, structure, and culture of the institution itself. A critical part of that system is the laws police officers are called upon to enforce, none more relevant to this discussion than the nation's drug statutes.

Since the 1930s but with ever-growing vigor from 1971 to this moment, America's police officers have been conditioned to believe that anyone who's ever taken illicit drugs, contemplated same, or trafficked in them is The Enemy. The constitution aside, why would cops fret over legal niceties or democratic rules of engagement when working behind enemy lines? The very nature of an undercover narcotics assignment dictates duplicity.

But too many drug cops wind up lying to their bosses. They fudge or manufacture facts in their official reports. They perjure themselves on the stand. (Too many, for that matter, wind up planting, stealing, using, and/or selling drugs.)

The facile response is to scold/fire/prosecute these wayward individuals and (rarely) their too-trusting--or complicit--bosses, and let it go at that. Nothing wrong with holding people accountable, nothing right about not doing so. It's a must. But it begs the tougher question. When will we learn that drug prohibition is a huge part of the problem of police corruption?

There is a long list of justifications for ending not merely the rhetoric but the reality of America's holy war on its drug consumers. But one of those reasons is that it would eliminate the all-too-common cheating, stealing, and lying that goes on in the name of drug enforcement.

Ending drug prohibition will not halt the spectacle of cops lining up to defend the indefensible. But it will make for a healthier, safer society, and it will reduce the temptation for a law enforcer to lie his or her way to drug warrior fame.