Are Cell Phones Changing the Narrative on Police Shootings?

[A] police officer in North Charleston, S.C., is seen shooting an apparently unarmed man after a scuffle following a traffic stop. Publish Date April 7, 2015

[A] police officer in North Charleston, S.C., is seen shooting an apparently unarmed man after a scuffle following a traffic stop. Publish Date April 7, 2015

(Rolling Stone Magazine) Almost everyone’s seen the video. The latest murder of an unarmed African-American man by police was captured in its entirety by a bystander named Feidin Santana, and the footage was so gruesome it basically precluded any controversy.

Former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager has already been fired and charged for the murder of Walter Scott. Still, one has to wonder: “Would this guy have gotten away with this without the video?”

Nonwhite America has watched police lie compulsively about incidents like this for as long as there have been police. You can open the law books and find cases like the Scott murder in almost any state of the union, in almost every year, going back decades and decades.

The only difference is that in the past, before everyone above the age of 2 had a cell phone, the insultingly lame explanations of the police (“The gun just went off”; “The suspect suddenly took a swing at me”) were almost always swallowed whole, by juries and the media alike.

But even before cell phones became ubiquitous, the presumption that a police officer’s testimony is sacrosanct started to die out. Public defenders in big cities long ago learned to deal with the frustration of police caught lying on the stand who were allowed to continue giving evidence in other cases.

Even judges, increasingly, aren’t always buying the stories police officers give anymore, particularly when it comes to issues like probable cause. Earlier this year, a local defense attorney sent me a long list of cases, mostly here in New York, that involved judges ruling that police had fabricated testimony. It’s clear even magistrates are losing patience.

Take People v. Andrews, for instance, in which a judge named Steven Knopf threw his figurative hands up in frustration over a police officer’s changing descriptions of a “snowball” of cocaine he claimed to have seen a young black man throw into a Ford Focus. The story changed so many times that the judge had no choice but to toss the case.

“It is clear to this Court that [the] Police Officer’s multiple descriptions. . .indicates he was unclear about what, if anything, he actually observed in this defendant’s hand,” the judge wrote. “In fact, it is this Court’s belief that [the officer] did not see anything in the defendant’s hand, in spite of his creative descriptive testimony.”

The problem is that this kind of “testilying” is usually only caught when the officer’s fabrications are so absurd and incompetent that judges literally have no choice but to suppress his or her evidence. Judges don’t like showing up cops in court. There are even cases on record when judges admit out loud to being reluctant to discredit the testimony of police, no matter how clumsy their testimony.

“I don’t like to jeopardize their career and all the rest of it,” a federal judge named John Sprizzo said a few years back, after ruling that two cops had “tailored” their testimony to justify an illegal search.

Minus video, a defendant on the wrong side of a police fabrication typically has to hope the arresting officer is so dumb and such a maladroit liar that he leaves a judge no choice but to override his natural inclination to buy the testimony of a sworn officer. Those are pretty long odds.

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