We’ve all seen or heard the rumor: if you ask a police officer if they are a police officer, they have to tell you.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
The reality is, police can, and often do, lie. They can lie about being undercover. They can also lie about anything.
One word: efficiency. After all, a police officer wouldn’t be able to do their job very well if they had to just recite actual facts to suspects.
For example, let’s assume there are two suspects who are arrested on suspicion of drug trafficking. And, let’s also assume they were actually transporting illicit substances, but the police don’t have any concrete evidence. So, they tell one suspect that his cohort just sold him up the river, confessed to everything, maybe even some extra stuff too just to get them to deny some crimes but admit to other crimes, and that person in turn admits to everything. In an instant, an otherwise evidence-less case is looking significantly stronger.
Put simply: the easiest and best way for police to get real, concrete evidence is to manufacture a story and sell it to a suspect.
What Can Police Lie About?
Anything. Well, almost anything. A better way to put it is more like they can lie about nearly anything related to the crime, and some things that are not closely related to the crime to a certain degree, depending on the facts and circumstances of the specific case.
However, that’s a lot to remember. The take away here is the police can lie about practically anything.
Here are some common scenarios where a lie from a police officer tends to dupe those who don’t know better.
1. False Confessions: As mentioned above, it’s pretty common for cops to mince words and put one person against another. They expect emotions to run high, and for the other person to automatically implicate the other, and in doing so, implicate themselves. It sounds ludicrous, but it works surprisingly well.
2. Better Sentence: Cops may also insist that by cooperating a suspect will get a better sentence or may not even wind up being charged at all. Let’s clear up some air about that – the police probably know better than to promise a better sentence, because they have been trained to know that would be illegal (more about that later on).
More importantly, the police have absolutely no power to charge anyone (that’s up the district attorney), and they certainly have no final say in what sentence someone receives (that’s up to the judge). The police simply enforce the law and make arrests when the law is broken, and believe me, they are good at that.
3. Other Suspects: It is not uncommon for law enforcement to insist that a person who is a suspect is not the only suspect, or not a suspect at all, and that this conversation is simply to help them figure out the whereabouts of the “real bad guys.” Again, police enforce the law and arrest people, and someone who is being interrogated or questioned by the police wouldn’t be unless they were at least suspected of one thing or another.
4. “Off the Record”: First of all, this may not technically be a lie because there is no “record.” A record isn’t exactly officially created until the questioning is done under oath. Which, even if a police officer turns off a tape recorder and video camera, is absolutely what they will do after they are arrested and they are called in to testify at the defendant’s preliminary hearing: give statements under oath.
Are There Any Limits?
Fortunately, yes. Unfortunately, they are vague and narrow. Without getting into the legal definitions of how far is too far, the main consideration is whether or not a lie or series of lies was coercive. In other words, if a police officer makes definitive assurances, or anything leaning towards beneficial treatment or situations unrelated to the crime itself, the lie may have gone too far and the confession will be no good.
For instance, a New York Court of Appeals has recently said that where a defendant’s free will is completely overwhelmed, lies stop being lies and become something worse. In one of those cases, a man was being interrogated in connection with the murder of 4-month-old son. He was told “67 times that what had been done to his son was an accident, 14 times that he would not be arrested, and 8 times that he would be going home.” However, most astonishingly, he was told that he needed to explain to the police how the accident happened so doctors could save his son’s life, despite that fact his son was already dead. Ultimately, while many of those assertions on their own did not taint the confession, the totality of all of those statements taken together was coercive that the defendant’s free will was deemed to be entirely destroyed.
Still, If I’m Innocent, I Have Nothing to Worry About. Right?
This perhaps the biggest lie of all. Innocent people wind up confessing to things they did not do all the time. Moreover, even if an innocent person doesn’t confess to a crime, it’s remarkably easy to implicate yourself, even if you are completely without fault. For example, a tall man fits a description of a bank robber, is arrested and questioned, and because he knows he is innocent, he tells the truth and admits to being in the bank, near the time of the robbery. He doesn’t need to admit to committing the crime to have already established more than enough probable cause – with perfectly innocent, legal behavior – to charge him. His situation starts to look worse if he starts answer questions about his financial troubles, all in the name of being innocent and wanting to cooperate.
And one more thing – memory is fickle. It isn’t uncommon for a blue shirt one day to become a yellow shirt another day; if someone if completely innocent buys into a law enforcement lie about “being innocent means nothing to hide” or “off the record, help us out with other suspects,” gives some information, and is later called in for more questioning or to testify and gives different statements, that innocent person is looking a lot like a guilty suspect.
What’s the Right Thing to Do?
Always tell the truth, even if the cops don’t. Ultimately, the specific “right thing to do” depends on many, many more factors than lying cops. However, at the end of the day, being honest is never a quality that makes a person look bad.
But in addition to telling the truth, it’s important for people to know their rights. It’s not against the law or being uncooperative to politely tell a police officer that their questions feel accusatory, irrelevant, or are just uncomfortable. From there, it’s usually best practice for a person being questioned to ask if they are a suspect and under arrest. Depending on the answer to those questions, we shouldn’t be afraid to tell law enforcement that if they are going to ask anymore questions, or make anymore statements (truthful or not) they will have to do so to a lawyer.