America is losing confidence in its police. According to a recent Gallup poll, public perception of law enforcement is at its lowest point since the organization began tracking that question twenty-seven years ago. For the first time ever, a majority of Americans do not express confidence in the police, with only 48% of people maintaining faith in the institution. The results may come as no surprise: horrific incidents of police violence have dominated headlines as protestors campaign to “defund the police.” It’s a state of affairs that’s become deeply concerning to police themselves. A Pew Research study reveals that 86% of officers believe the tense environment has made their work harder, and nine out of ten report increased concern for their personal safety.
We place confidence in others when they honor their promises, act sincerely, and consistently tell the truth. But rebuilding public confidence in America’s police won’t be easy, in part because police officers themselves aren’t just sporadically and spontaneously dishonest; in fact, American police are trained to lie, and the law-enforcement community itself has embraced deceit as a legitimate investigative tool. A leading handbook on interrogations canonizes false empathy, and our courts have ratified the use of brazen falsehoods to coax confessions out of suspects. Deceit has become central to the American brand of police investigation.
Here’s a classic example of the duplicitous procedures that punctuate police investigations. Police take two suspects from a scene into two separate interrogation rooms. An officer tells one suspect, “Your buddy has already given you up.” But the truth is that the suspect in the other room is insisting he’ll only speak to his lawyer—while another detective feeds him a new variation of the same lie. “You don’t seem like a criminal mastermind. Was this really all your idea, like your friend in the other room says it was?”
While techniques vary, many if not most are based on the same self-serving premise: confessing is somehow in the suspect’s best interest, and refusing to cooperate will only make things worse. Who could withstand such pressure? It’s rare to encounter someone who will lie shamelessly to you with ease. It’s utterly surreal to encounter someone who studies, practices, and regularly employs techniques to fake empathy, exploiting your belief that they must have some level of integrity when they offer to extend a helping hand. Is this really how we want our public officials to operate?
Our police departments are normalizing the use of sham sympathy and unabashed deceit with social reinforcement from fellow officers who, with the blessing of the courts, take their cues from the same playbook. But unlike human suspects, the habit of lying can’t be confined within the solid-block walls of an interrogation room. A number of academics, relying on studies from the field of psychology, have warned that we are turning lying into a learned social behavior that becomes more routine with each successfully-coerced confession. Positive feedback from each “victory” in the interrogation room inspires police to deploy the same techniques in new environments. While deception is, by its nature, difficult to measure, evidence suggests that police not only lie outside the interrogation room, but lie often: even under oath when it constitutes perjury.
A study conducted in the wake of Mapp v. Ohio is particularly revealing. Mapp established the “exclusionary rule,” which prevents illegally obtained evidence from being introduced in court. Researchers compared legal records of the New York City narcotics bureau before and after this ruling to see whether officers had lied to get around the new rule of evidence. Cases where officers admitted to finding drugs hidden on a defendant’s person dropped from 35% to just 3%, while reports of suspects dropping or throwing drugs onto the ground skyrocketed from 17% to 43%. A survey conducted by researcher Myron Orfield reinforces the finding: 92% of judges, defense attorneys, and prosecutors interviewed said they thought police were lying to avoid the exclusionary rule at least some of the time.
None of this information is new. The famous Mollen Commission, appointed to assess corruption in the New York Police Department in 1994, detailed the many ways officers systematically falsified documents or committed perjury. It described a “police culture that exalts loyalty [to the department] over integrity,” a characterization that has entered our modern vernacular as “the blue wall of silence.” Behind this widespread perception is the oft-unstated assumption that police need to lie to be able to do their job. Any proposition that confining deceit to the interrogation room would promote integrity outside of it will inevitably confront the argument that preventing police from lying to suspects in the course of their investigations would let criminals escape conviction and killers roam free.
But no empirical data suggests that policing would be crippled if police officers could no longer lie to arrested suspects. Nor is it a universal practice. British courts regularly exclude confessions obtained through the use of deceit, and Germany places strict limitations on the use of deceptive tactics in interrogations. Not only do both countries enjoy lower rates of crime than the US, early data shows that new, non-deceptive interrogation techniques employed in the UK not only produce a high volume of confessions, but fewer false confessions as well.
And citizens in the UK and Germany have far more confidence in their police forces than we do in ours. Evidence even suggests that police in Germany really are more honest than average citizens, which might be why the most recent poll, from 2019, showed 77% of German citizens trust them. A survey conducted the same year showed 75% of citizens in England and Wales placed confidence in their police. America’s confidence in its police was just 53% last year, and it has plummeted since then.
We don’t have to let our faith in law enforcement continue declining. Imagine if every arrest began with the words: “I am required by law to tell you the truth. I will answer any questions you may have to the best of my ability, including the charges against you, the charges being considered, and the sentence they might carry.” What if instead of training police to feign empathy and misrepresent evidence, we used a rigorously honest approach the way other countries do?
Let’s throw out the handbook that teaches police to use lying to coerce confessions. It’s time to start envisioning a police force Americans can trust—and a criminal justice system they can respect.
Walker Gray contributed to the development of this article. Walker is a former seasonal police officer who is now pursuing his J.D. at George Mason University.