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Police Lying Despite Video Evidence Called 'Incredibly Common'

After Philadelphia police officer Mark Dial fatally shot Eddie Irizarry, police told the public the 27-year-old had lunged at officers with a knife. Two days later, Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw admitted that wasn't true.

Officials said preliminary information about the shooting was called in by police radio, but that narrative was contradicted by body camera footage.

Outlaw moved to fire Dial after an attorney for Irizarry's family shared surveillance footage showing Dial shooting into the driver's side of Irizarry's vehicle and called police's initial account an "out-and-out, flat-out lie."

Policing experts told USA Today it is not uncommon for an incorrect version of events to be initially presented to the public even when there's video evidence to the contrary. This happens despite the increasing use of body cameras and viral bystander videos of police brutality.

"It's sad that this is not an aberration," said Rachel Moran, an associate professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minnesota. "It should be really unusual that the police would be involved in a violent event and then totally misrepresent what the person that they shot was doing...and unfortunately, I don't think it is very unusual."

Patterns of police deception have been "sufficiently documented" and considered an "open secret" for decades, Moran says.

"Judges will say this happened, prosecutors will say police regularly lied, defense attorneys certainly say that, police officers themselves," Moran said. "If you go back to the 1950s, the New York Police Department actually themselves coined the term "testilying" to describe their own use of deception when testifying."

Philip Stinson, a criminal justice professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, has created a database of 13,600 nonfederal sworn law enforcement officers who were arrested from 2005 to 2018. His data shows that about 6.2% of the more than 16,500 criminal arrest cases involved false reports or statements. He said though not all police officers lie, the data is "shocking."

"But what's even more shocking is that what the data are not capturing are all the instances where police officers are known to have lied, but they didn't face criminal charges specifically for lying," Stinson said. "So we assume that the problem is far greater. It's a normal part of policing in some places for police officers to lie."

Lauren Bonds of the National Police Accountability Project said initial police narratives have been contradicted by video evidence in several recent high-profile police killings. "It's incredibly common," Bonds said.

In some cases, police have falsely said that the victim reached for or threatened officers with a weapon. In South Carolina, former police officer Michael Slager claimed he fatally shot Walter Scott in 2015 because the 50-year-old Black man grabbed his Taser. But bystander video showed Slager shot Scott in the back and then placed his Taser by his body.

Bonds said police may give incorrect information because "it's worked in the past and people are banking on the fact that nobody's going to dig in more."

Moran said the rationale of why individual officers lie even when they know they're being recorded is hard to understand, but it may be due to the fact that the vast majority of body camera footage goes unreviewed.

Stinson said body camera and citizen-generated footage is "important to help keep the police honest and to serve justice," but preventing officers from being dishonest altogether would require a major change in police culture.


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