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Globe Editorial

Testifying, ‘testilying’ - crack down on dishonest cops

August 7, 2009

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BOSTON POLICE Commissioner Edward Davis is telling his officers that only the unvarnished truth can protect the reputation of the department. Any officer caught in a lie, says the commissioner, deserves no future on the force.

Davis is crafting a one-strike policy that he believes will be the toughest of any in the country regarding police officers who lie on the job. The commissioner wouldn’t provide a copy of the policy, which he said is under review by police unions. But he said it will be just a few sentences in length and cover any officer caught lying in the course of court testimony, falsifying police reports, or lying to Internal Affairs investigators. “The presumptive punishment would be termination,’’ says Davis. Currently, officers caught lying on the job can receive as little as a short suspension.

A tougher policy is long overdue, and Davis seems to be making a bold effort to cut through the fog of the criminal justice system. That fog is thickest in cases of police perjury, or so-called “testilying.’’ But the commissioner, rightly, isn’t making much of a distinction between those officers who lie under oath and those who embroider reports or derail anti-corruption investigations. There may be distinctions of degree when it comes to lying. But in every case the lie has the power to undermine the credibility of the entire department - not to mention strip the average citizen of his or her freedom.

It would be easy to dismiss this new policy as a public-relations effort. Davis is not the first commissioner to promise a crackdown on crooked cops, and there are reasons for skepticism. In 1997, former police commissioner Paul Evans announced an elaborate new system of investigating any complaints of wrongful testimony - but the system never got up and running.

Evans’s false promise was made when his department was reeling from revelations that lies by Boston police fueled the wrongful convictions of young men including Donnell Johnson, who served five years for a murder he didn’t commit. Judges during that period were tossing out gun and drug convictions after determining that Boston officers would have needed X-ray vision to support their lying testimony.

Evans’s failure shadows Davis’s initiative. But the current commissioner appears to be preparing the ground for lasting change. His supervisors and command staff are now receiving intensive training on due process and public integrity, with special emphasis on the government’s duty to disclose exculpatory evidence. And there is no effort to spare the feelings of cops.

The top of the information packet now being distributed to officers includes the following words from a recent ruling on a gun case by US District Judge Mark Wolf: “False testimony by Boston Police officers and those working with them has both a long and recent history in cases before this court.’’ The packet includes other high-profile cases where testilying or prosecutorial misconduct led to mistrials or overturned convictions. The last page in the instructional packet makes the perfect bookend: “No case is worth your career, reputation or freedom,’’ it reads.

Whether the new policy will survive appeals to labor arbitrators isn’t yet clear. Davis expects more pushback from the detectives unions than from the patrolmen’s association. But William Sinnott, the city’s corporation counsel, is working with Davis to make sure that the policy is ironclad. And the commissioner is eager to enact it before the current contract expires in 2010.

Police officers must pass a physical agility test to get on the force. To stay on, they also must be strong enough to carry the truth.

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