Falsified facts by any other name are still false
Police officers can’t risk getting caught up in either politics or misguided social experiments
Aficionados of "The Wire," an HBO series that began nearly two decades ago but still attracts new fans due to its realism and relevancy, will recall that Season 3 focused on a Baltimore police district whose commander sought a novel way to reduce crime to appease his superiors at the monthly CompStat meetings. How was this done? By moving crime to an isolated part of the district and having his officers overlook open drug use and sale in that self-contained area. In other words, pretend the crime doesn’t exist.
Of course, all great stories in fiction usually find their inspiration from real events, and the monthly grind of CompStat meetings and political pressure to lower crime rates have been a gruesome reality for more than two decades for many big-city police commanders. In fact, the pressure to reduce crime had been so great that some resorted to underreporting crimes or downgrading serious offenses to lesser ones resulting in well-publicized scandals. A 1998 New York Times article outlined the pressure to alter crime reporting data as crime rates continued to drop across the country. More recently a 2020 news report focused on Washington D.C. police officer whistleblowers who reported on their supervisors’ intentional downgrading of crimes.
The ostensible reason for such underreporting is to make a city appear safer than it is so that tourism and investment dollars do not dissipate. Whether it is called “juking the stats” or “cooking the books,” the result is the same – it is a lie and a fraud committed upon public safety.
But what happens when the band-aid is ripped from the wound and police officers – line officers, supervisors, or chiefs of the department – are caught falsifying crime reports to downgrade the seriousness of offenses? It is simple: they are disciplined and, in some instances, fired. This is an appropriate response to falsifying public records. Except, there is a new twist to this scenario, and it is one that can potentially place police officers in the political crosshairs. Around the country, a few newly elected district attorneys have taken office with a promise to end the “carceral focus” of their office and usher in new progressive prosecution policies.
A reverse-engineered “juking of the stats”
Anyone who has worked in the criminal justice system for a length of time, and who especially has been exposed to the volume of cases that make their way through large municipal court calendars, knows the system is not perfect. As a matter of fact, it is flawed in many ways. However, I’d be at a loss to point to an example of any criminal justice system within a democracy that is flawless. By nature, none of us are perfect and neither are the systems we create. There is always room for improvement. But whatever the ills of our criminal justice system, whether it be structural inequality or some other systemic malady, the approach by district attorneys in several of our large cities is a cause for concern. The purposeful downgrading of certain crimes to provide less severe ramifications for the perpetrators is a reverse-engineered “juking of the stats,” except it is being done upon the directions of elected public officials.
A recent story out of New York City focused on a policy memorandum to office staff from newly elected Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg regarding the handling of felony cases. You can find the memorandum here for your own assessment and determination of the viability of District Attorney Bragg’s policies; however, it is clear from a reasoned reading of the memorandum that several items contained within are courting disaster for the safety of Manhattan residents already experiencing an increase in crime from prior historic lows. Time will tell if their election choice was the right one.
Recited facts must be true
District Attorney Bragg joins several big-city prosecutors across the country who have taken more progressive, anti-carceral approaches to crime-fighting. This article though is not about them. Prosecutors come and go, well-intentioned policies wither under the reality of rising municipal crime rates, and in the balance, the constant workhorse is the officer on patrol and the detective working cases. This brings me to my main point and issue of concern, how are police officers to remain committed to their duties amid all this experimentation?
Charging decisions fall under the purview of the local district attorney’s office. Prosecutors look at the factual recitation of a proposed complaint, the available evidence, and, based on the criminal code, charge an offense accordingly. Prosecutors have always acted as the gatekeepers in forwarding charges to the criminal court. Based on a prosecutor’s determination the arresting officer will sign off on the criminal complaint.
However, in some jurisdictions, an arresting officer must now be extra diligent in reading what is to be signed and ensure all the relevant facts are included before signing a prepared complaint. Most important is that the recited facts are true and correct.
If a district attorney wants to lower a charge due to office policy that is the district attorney’s decision. An officer need not be complicit by being forced to sign a complaint narrative that differs from the facts known to the officer. This is a warning that has already been widely distributed to NYPD members by Vincent Vallelong, president of the NYPD Sergeant’s Benevolent Association.
The warning resulted from an incident wherein a career criminal’s arrest for what should have been lawfully categorized as an attempted robbery was downgraded to petit larceny. In that case, the alleged perpetrator stole items from a store and when confronted threatened store employees with a pair of cutting shears. The criminal complaint presented to the arresting officer made no mention of the weapon displayed and the officer refused to sign. It is unlikely at the time that the arresting officer was aware the beneficent downgrade was thanks to page 3, section 6 (a) & (b) of the new district attorney’s January 3 policy memo. What the officer likely did know was that the oath taken upon entering the police academy was being tested and remaining true to that oath by not signing a falsified complaint was the only correct choice.
Prosecutors have always been partners with law enforcement in ensuring the safety of the community. Sometimes the relationship can be testy and disagreeable, but close relationships often are that way. The mutuality in ensuring the safety of the community fails when one partner seeks to replace the facts of any given case with constructed social outcomes.
Should anything go wrong – for instance, a perpetrator released on a downgraded charge goes out and commits a more serious crime and now there are calls for public accountability – it is not the district attorney’s office who will be made to answer. Most assuredly the blame will filter downward, and the district attorney’s office will point to the person who signed the complaint. That’s politics.
Police officers can’t risk getting caught up in either politics or misguided social experiments. Facts are not negotiable, or as John Adams more eloquently stated, “facts are stubborn things.” Criminal complaints signed by arresting officers must retain all the relevant facts and accurately describe the crimes committed. When police officers have failed to do this and falsified facts, prosecutors have rightfully prosecuted them for doing so. The situation does not change merely because an elected public official with a law degree and new ideas about fixing the criminal justice system seeks to end the carceral state. It is still a fraud that causes harm and negatively reflects on the integrity of the criminal justice system.