Untruthful Detroit cops a problem in court cases, experts say
Detroit — Dozens of Detroit police officers likely cannot testify in court because they've been disciplined for being untruthful, which experts say undermines their credibility and discourages prosecutors from pursuing certain cases.
Of the 2,484 sworn officers on the Detroit police force, "there are currently 74 DPD officers who have been found to have been untruthful," a city attorney wrote in a response to a Detroit News Freedom of Information request.
"However, 20 of those instances cannot be confirmed as discipline records were destroyed," Jack Dietrich, the city's FOIA coordinator, added. "Therefore, at this time DPD can only affirmatively state that 54 officers have been found to have been untruthful."
While 54 officers is only 2% of the police force — and 74 only about 3% — Chief James Craig said that's still too many.
"This is an issue," Craig said. "You can’t have these officers in certain units. If we make an arrest, and you have an officer with a discipline history of untruthfulness, prosecutors may not charge the suspect, and dangerous criminals might get away."
Wayne County assistant prosecutor Maria Miller said the prosecutor's office has declined to move forward with criminal cases because of officers' untruthfulness, as did Bill Vailliencourt, Livingston County prosecutor and president of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan.
"This isn't just a Detroit problem, or even a Michigan problem — prosecutors are dealing with this issue across the country," Vailliencourt said. "I've had this come up with cases. The more serious cases usually involve more than one officer, but with, say, a drunk driving case, there have been times where we've declined to move forward because the officer had been found lying in the past."
Cops with such blemishes on their records are called "Giglio-impaired" after Giglio v. United States, a case in which the U.S. Supreme Court granted a man a new trial because prosecutors didn't inform the defense about a deal they'd negotiated with a witness not to prosecute him in exchange for his testimony.
In the court's opinion, then-Chief Justice Warren Burger said that deliberately deceiving a court and jury by knowingly presenting false evidence was incompatible with the "rudimentary demands of justice."
Miller said prosecutors are required by law to tell defense attorneys if a Giglio-impaired officer is involved in a case, but she said those cops aren't necessarily barred from testifying.
"If we have this situation it must be disclosed to the defense so that they are aware of it," Miller said. "This circumstance would not necessarily preclude the person being called as a witness in the case by either party."
Prosecutors who put Giglio-impaired officers on the witness stand are taking a chance of damaging the cop's credibility with jurors, University of Detroit-Mercy law professor Larry Dubin said.
"If you can show an officer has lied before, then you can attempt to impeach the officer, and weaken the credibility of the officer, which means the jury will be less likely to find the officer’s testimony is truthful beyond a reasonable doubt," he said.
Dubin added that Giglio-impaired officers "are not prohibited from testifying, and if the case reflects a lack of intentional misrepresentation, then a prosecutor may feel an explanation is sufficient to restore the officer's credibility," Dubin said. "Those decisions are made on a case-by-case basis."
Craig said he's doesn't want to risk tainting cases, so he's moving officers with truthfulness issues on their discipline records out of high-arrest units.
"One case that brought it to the forefront: An officer was working in a high-profile unit which made a lot of gun arrests, but because of his discipline record, the U.S Attorney was not going to file any charges involving that officer," Craig said. "We moved that officer out of that position."
Craig did not identify the officer because he was not charged with a crime.
Officials with the U.S. Attorney's Office said they couldn't comment on specific cases, but added in a statement: "If an essential witness’s testimony is called into question because of previous findings regarding his or her truthfulness, that may impact the decision ... on how or whether to charge the case.”
Craig said in the future, the issue will be moot because he's firing officers who were caught lying, a policy reflected in a department-wide memo the chief issued in October.
"I can't go back in the past and undo what other administrations have done," Craig said. "But moving forward, if an officer is found to have flat-out lied, we're terminating them."
In response to Craig's memo, the Detroit Police Officers Association filed an unfair labor practice complaint. DPOA vice president Ronald Thomas said the union doesn't have a problem with the department firing officers who are found to have lied, but said the complaint was filed because of how the department historically handled disciplinary matters.
"Over the years, the department has abused that untruthfulness charge," Thomas said. "For instance, if I fill out my run sheet, which only allows for a half-hour lunch, and I stay in a restaurant for 40 minutes, the department was calling that a false statement.
"That was the reason for the unfair labor practice complaint," Thomas said. "We want to make sure the department doesn't try to go back and rediscipline all those officers now. But if an officer gets caught lying, the union does not have an issue with that officer being fired. We understand how important it is to gain the public's trust. Fortunately, we don't have a lot of those cases. Most of the cases I know of are frivolous."
Craig acknowledged previous officials erroneously charged officers with lying.
"Say there’s an investigation and you find out the officer’s written log is off by 10 minutes; does that in and of itself mean he committed a false written statement? No, that sounds more like an error," Craig said.
"In years past, I think the department would overcharge people; they'd do shotgun blasts — if they couldn't get an officer on one thing, they'd do a plea and accept a false statement charge," the chief said. "We're not doing that anymore."