Editorial: Untruthful cops a drag on Detroit force

The Detroit News

Of the 2,484 officers working for the Detroit Police Department, 54 have records of being untruthful, which undermines their effectiveness within the force. This seems outrageous, and the Police Department must prioritize public interest by reforming a system in which these policemen are protected.

While untruthful cops aren’t barred from testifying in court, they are a liability. Often times, the officer who makes the arrest is the key witness establishing the guilt of the perpetrator.

When the key witness has a record of untruths, it’s easy for a defense attorney to call his or her credibility into question. How are these officers supposed to carry out their duties and make arrests if their own records will result in criminals possibly walking free?

Detroit police chief James Craig

“In the department I came out of, if you were found guilty of untruthfulness you could no longer be a police officer,” Police Chief James Craig says. He has put his department on notice that untruthfulness is a fireable offense.

But there’s not much he can do about the 74 officers in question — 54 have confirmed records of untruthfulness — whose discipline already took place under previous leadership. Unfortunately, past administrations didn’t see this issue as a fireable offense.

Reopening closed cases would violate contractual obligations that existed at the time of the adjudication between the city of Detroit and the police unions, opening the city to lawsuits. It would also violate the spirit of the Fifth Amendment which prohibits multiple punishments for the same offense.

Cops guilty of untruths ought to face charges of perjury if their lies occurred while testifying under oath in a courtroom.

But Craig says his hands are tied in this. All he can do is put these officers on smaller cases and make sure they aren’t placed into situations where they will be hamstrung in their ability to enforce the law.

Complicating the issue is the fact that past administrations frequently overcharged police officers. Some of the officers appear to be guilty of little more than incorrectly marking their officer logs, but accepted plea bargains admitting to untruthfulness.

“One could construe that rather than an untruthfulness charge, that could be a neglect of duty,” Craig says.

Neglect of duty isn’t great, but it doesn’t present a challenge to the credibility of an officer’s testimony in court.

Officers who believe they were settled with an unjust charge by past administrations ought to have the option of having their record reviewed — and potentially expunged.

Concerning officers with real histories of untruths, Craig ought to put them on desk duty — if he can’t get rid of them.

“I’m still carrying the ghost of past administrations,” he says.

And he's right: No officer should ever have been allowed to stay on the force with a sustained finding of untruthfulness, but that’s what has happened.

At the end of the day, a system that protects ineffective policemen on the public dollar is broken and ought to be fixed.