What members of law enforcement are trained/allowed to lie, to whom, and to what extent?

Police Forged Reports to Get Confessions

And here’s an enormous and ongoing scandal in the UK:

At present, the inquiry is in process and the final report not yet created; the sole known impact on police practice is the above statement combined with the alleged disbanding of the units involved.[ when? ]

Thanks for all the answers so far; I’ll ask one more specific question:

My first example story (Person A) actually happened to me, though a little differently. I’d been accused of something serious but completely untrue by a former employer. Cop called me and asked me about it. Dumbfounded I said no, explained, he seemed satisfied and hung up. ((Yes I probably shouldn’t have talked to him but I did)) A couple days later my girlfriend called me very upset and said a cop had come to her house and started yelling at her that he could prove what I did (a complete lie; I’d done nothing and he had no proof) and she had better cooperate with him. Fortunately she had an unusually strong character and told him to go pound sand. That was then end of it… I immediately called the department asking questions about this but got no answers. 10+ years later never heard from the police again. So:

  • Is it permissible for police to lie to a potential witness for the purpose of pressuring them into making a statement supporting their case against someone else?
  • If so, how would such a statement be viewed in court?
  • Did this issue go away for me because they realized it was a false report, or did that cop actually make a big screw-up and they dropped it. Their silence afterwards seemed strange.

Here I’m asking to what extent is it allowable by investigators to feed a witness (not the suspect) false information (lie) and manipulate them into telling them what they want/need to here for their purposes. And then submit that statement as evidence.

I saw something vaguely similar on an episode of the first 48, where a detective started telling a group local residents near the scene of a murder how until this crime gets solved the police were going to be pounding on every door in the neighborhood, taking statements from every person in a X-mile radius, and finding out everything little thing that was going on in that town, strongly hinting that everyone had better start talking to the police about this one crime immediately, or else.

I suspect that it might be ok in some jurisdictions but It probably wouldn’t work in mine. I can’t even imply I have any input into plea deals. It’s not only lies that have limits.

Happens all the time - we get what are then known as “falsely convicted” where innocent people are railroaded for the benefit of a policeman’s or prosecutor’s career.

The cases of Donald Marshall and David Milgaard come to mind as Canadian cases from the 1970’s. In each case, witnesses were pressured to lie in order to achieve a conviction. Basically, people who were sketchy people or had points of pressure were “persuaded” to sell out a friend under the threat of being implicated themselves.

The more egregious case was made into a book, “Redrum the Innocent” about Guy Paul Morin. Tried and acquitted, tried and convicted, and each case appeal court ordered another trial. His third trial for the murder of Christine Jessop near Toronto in 1984, finally ended in a dismissal in 1992 when DNA evidence became possible, and it was established he was not the killer. In the lead up to his first trial the police persuaded the girl’s parents to rearrange their timeline, since their original timeline did not allow Morin time to have committed the crime. (“You sure? You don’t want this monster to get off, do you? Maybe you arrived home a half hour later?”) An undercover policeman in the next cell taped his rambling conversation in prison (hence the book title) but the recording equipment “malfunctioned” but the policeman swore he’d confessed. A government inquiry was ordered, and showed the police had fixated on the “weird” neighbour to the exclusion of real suspects, and did everything they could to convict him of the crime.

Fun fact, a few years ago, in 2020 and long after the 1984 murder, police identified the real murderer, already dead, from DNA of his relatives.

So don’t believe the police shows “I want to find the real killer”. Their job is to close cases, as fast as possible, with a coerced confession using tricks, if possible. Actual detective work is overrated - confessions are so much simpler. As the case of Morin shows, even if you actually beat the rap, it can ruin your life for a decade.

A good USA example might be the Central Park 5. There are plenty of other cases, too. I recall reading several cases where when the key witness recants, even admits they were heavily pressured, it’s still an uphill struggle of years to get exonerated. For some stupid reason, the justice system (Canadian or US) refuses to admit they can make mistakes.

Yes, obviously undercover cops have to lie. We all accept that.

Not being a “cop” but still a Fed, we were trained in interview techniques but never to lie. I was never undercover. All white collar crime.

However, I sometimes would ask a question in such a way they might assume I knew the answer already. Or that I knew they were lying, when instead I just thought they were lying. “Did you know about this structuring?”
“Uh huh” skeptical look-
'Well, I didn’t want to know. I turned a blind eye. ’

Or have a file with lots of numbers and stats and while they are talking check the file, even if it had nothing to do with their case. Look knowing and suspicious. There are legit tricks you can do to get the truth, without resorting to lying.

Except for undercover work, l consider lying a bad tool, and one that should not be used.

In most dept that is NOT Okay.

Well, many, several decades ago, this was the example used in the textbook for the Military Police Officer’s Basic Course. But things both change and vary.

I found a few of the Reid techniques to be outdated. Some savvy or hard willed individuals would be more apt to lawyer up when the program was used on them.

The instructor was adamant that subjects would respond in a specific way every time. Myself and everyone else in the class strongly disagreed, especially against some of the scenarios we were put in. Most of us had been on the job for many years and knew better. But the instructor would not budge on this.

They teach the course almost like it’s a religion: THIS IS THE WAY, AND IT IS THE ONLY WAY!

Thanks again everyone; while there is still a bit of interest I’m hoping to find the answer to this:

Yes, police will occasionally lie and pressure witnesses to provide false testimony, which can get the accused in trouble. That can sometimes be corrected for the accused. But:

Is that police lying to pressure a witness legal? I’ve seen some department policies saying they can’t do so, but policy isn’t law. When it happens anyway what happens to the officer? Is it a slap on the shoulder & “ahhh don’t worry kid, we’ll get 'em next time, keep trying”, or is it a formal review and correction to the conduct that may have done real damage to someone?

I have the feeling that what you are considering bad behavior covers a wide range of activity. If the officer is knowingly attempting to obtain testimony he knows to be false then its subornation of perjury and is a crime. If a detective uses some persuasion to get a reluctant witness to provide truthful information then there is probably nothing wrong with what he did. There is a wide range of behaviors in between that run from fine to illegal depending on the circumstances.

I think this is a fundamentally different issue than what’s being discussed here. The discussion here is about police themselves lying. What you’re talking about is the police/prosecutors pressuring witnesses to lie, which may not necessarily involve any lies at all on the part of the police/prosecutors. (FWIW, in either case, it’s likely typically the case that the police/prosecutors believe they’re pressuring the accused or witnesses to tell the truth, though of course they may be wrong about that.)

There’s an enormous imbalance of power between the prosecution and defense in respect to the latter issue, in that the prosecution sometimes has significant leverage over the witnesses, and which which they are legally allowed to exert (without being charged with “witness tampering”). I believe this was a significant issue in the Enron trials, in that the prosecution told potential defense witnesses (I forget if this was explicit or strongly hinted) that if they testified for the defense they would be assumed to be part of the conspiracy and indicted themselves. But I think it’s all legal.

But again, that’s separate from what’s being discussed here, which is about police/prosecutors lying themselves.

Any form of inappropriate pressure would possibly be categorized as lying, or (as mentioned above) feeding the witnesses false information to repeat.

We see something like what you mean in every police show where the cops say something like “if you don’t tell us, you’re helping him and that makes you an accessory and you can be charged”. Wouldn’t the same rules about coercion cast doubt on the veracity of coerced/threatened witnesses as much as on the confession of the defendant?

I’m sure your vast experience in the field has given you a different perspective. In my experience its the exact opposite.

In my experience the same rules apply to witnesses and suspects with regards to promises and persuasion. One big difference is that all suspect interviews must be on video, witness interviews do not. Witness interviews are taped when it becomes a formal statement. This has changed recently with the law regarding body cameras but a witness can request to not be taped. A suspect can not. As with the rest these rules and laws vary, sometimes greatly, depending on jurisdiction.

There may be some TV induced confusion about how confessions are taken. A tv drama often ends with the suspect saying “I did it and I would do it again!” On the stand the lawyer would pick you apart. “Detective did my client say what ‘it’ was?” “No but we all knew.” “So you are telling me you’re psychic?” The confession is the starting point. The rest of the interview is spent corroborating the details of the crime in the suspect’s own words. A vague “confession” is not enough for a conviction. No prosecutor I know would even put it in front of a grand jury without more. In my 25 years of experience dealing with multiple agencies and many different prosecutors its never been get a confession at any cost. Its always been bring a case to court with all loose ends tied up so the prosecutor has a slam dunk.

All witness interviews, or just the final one? If they all aren’t taped, doesn’t that leave room for pressure and/or coercion?

Sure there is plenty of time for arm breaking and fingernail pulling off camera. That’s what we like to do with our witnesses.

People have a very skewed idea of what the job is. For obvious reasons of course. It’s the most fictionalized job with little sense of reality and the real life fuck ups get highly publicized. You have this view that it’s a crusade and there are accolades for an arrest. It’s not and there aren’t. It’s just a job. Coercing a witness to testify would make the job harder. In one or two years when it comes to trial that witness will not still be coerced and most likely not cooperative. So what’s the point? The statement is meaningless without the possibility of direct testimony later.

There are no metrics for closing cases? A cop can sit on the force without a single arrest or conviction from academy to retirement and have the same position and pay as a cop that has arrests and convictions?

Why wouldn’t they be? If they made a statement and signed it, now you can coerce them by telling them that you will hold them in contempt or charge them with perjury if they don’t testify or change their story.

Not as skewed as your ridiculous reinterpretation of what I said. I never even implied the use of direct torture. The pressure can involve the involvement and/or public embarrassment of family and friends, or other unrecorded threats or promises.
As far as your claim that the very idea that it happens is silly because it just wouldn’t work in the police’s favor? I guess all those news reports and scientific studies over the years are just as silly, right?



Seems to me that there may be a fire behind all this smoke after all. BTW, if the job involves a review board or an election, I can almost guarantee that someone’s arrest and/or conviction rate will be brought up. The phrase “Tough On Crime” isn’t just seen in fictional depictions of law enforcement.

That, and reopening a case of a convicted person can be a real son of a bitch. Police, for the most part, do not like any implication that they might have screwed up, either on purpose or otherwise.

A statement to the police is not under oath before a judge, and therefore cannot be used as the basis for a contempt charge or a perjury charge.

If there is a difference between the statement and subsequent testimony, and the person says: “Yes, I gave that statemetn becuase I felt threatended by the police, but I"m telling the truth now,” that’s not helpful in obtaining a conviction. It immediatelly puts the police conduct in issue, diverting attention from the actions of the accused.

What about cases where the person testifying believes that the police promise or threat is very real, stays intimidated, and doesn’t change testimony? If police coercion never works for the most part, are the police total idiots for using that technique as often as they do?