Truthfullness in Policing: An Issue of Public Trust

The citizens of Winnipeg expect police to be tough on crime but do they expect police to step beyond the bounds of the rules in order to do so?  Is it acceptable for the police to ‘fudge the truth’?  Do the ends justify the means if the cause is noble?

According to Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis, “Cops have been getting a pass on lying for a long time”.  This has prompted Davis to introduce a policy that sees police officers in Boston fired if they lie in the course of their duties. 

In Canada the approach has been less direct.  Although the courts have been urging police agencies to use audio and video tape interactions with suspects for some years, the reasons given have always been couched in benevolent terms.  The courts have indicated that audio and videotaping would establish an accurate record of what transpired and add credibility to the evidence of police officers.  What judges have been loath to say is that they simply don’t believe the testimony of some police officers who appear before them. 

The term used by defence lawyers and enlightened police executives in the United States (and at least one in Canada) is ‘testilying’.  The term is commonly used by defence counsel in Winnipeg.  It has even been suggested that lawyers maintain an informal list of police officers whom they suspect of ‘testilying’.  They share this list with each other so they can properly prepare themselves when they will be cross-examining one of the listed officers.    

Lack of truthfulness by police officers manifests itself in different situations.  Some of the common ones include:

  • When testifying in court
  • When preparing official police reports
  • When documenting a case in the form of their original notes
  • When presenting information to obtain search warrants
  • When being interviewed by internal investigators

Lack of truthfulness by police is one of the first steps down the road of alienating the public from its police.  It the police cannot be trusted to be truthful and honest in all their dealings, public trust is eroded.  

Police in the United States are starting to come to grips with this issue. 

 At a recent Police Executive Research ForumTown Hall Meeting (Denver Colorado, October  4th 2009), in excess of twenty Chiefs of Police including Toronto Police Chief William Blair confronted head on the issue of police truthfulness.  

The discussion revealed that most police chiefs understand the seriousness of the issue and like Commissioner Davis in Boston are taking steps to address it.  Some of their comments underscore the seriousness of the issue from both a public and an organizational perspective. 

Pasadena Chief Bernard Melekian indicated “The Public no longer presumes that police tell the truth”.  * 

North Charleston Chief Jon Zumalt stated: ‘My fundamental filter for making decisions on this is that we’ve got to gain the trust of the people we serve”. * 

And it’s not just an American problem.  Toronto Chief William Blair said this: “We’ve had lots of situations where officers have lied, and it has cost us dearly.”  Blair took it one step further: “And it’s not just a question of lying; it’s also about failing to tell the truth.  What we find so often in cases where an officer or a group of officers are engaged in inappropriate or even illegal behaviour there is reluctance in our policing culture to report it.  People simply don’t tell.  They avoid it, they stay out of it, they don’t have the courage to step forward”.* 

If, as is so often the case, the first step in addressing an issue is recognition that the issue exists, then in the United States and at least one Canadian city we are heading in the right direction.  The problem has been recognized and is on the action agenda.  

Ethics can be taught in a classroom but it does not end there. Ethical behaviour must be practiced on the street and in the office of police executives.  It must be modeled by those in leadership positions.  It must be reinforced through discipline.  Enforcing discipline within police organizations requires commitment from the chief of police.  It requires that tough decisions be made about the future viability of police officers who have been untruthful  as well as  police officers who have been convicted of committing a crime.  

Police chiefs must recognize that they cannot be everyone’s ‘buddy’.  

The first step is recognizing that a problem exists.  In Winnipeg we may not be there quite yet.    

* Quoted from Subject to Debate, A newsletter of the Police Executive Research Forum, Vol.23. No. 10 (October 2009)