Can Lying for Justice Change You?

Previously on

This is the sixth in a series of articles about police deception in the investigation of criminal activity. Web links to the earlier articles are listed below.

Previously, we've discussed factors that make this a complex, murky, high stakes area of police activity. Two factors stand out.

  1. Legal Confusion - Courts disagree on what deceptions are constitutional and otherwise legal. Their decisions determine whether evidence obtained through deception is admissible or suppressed.
  2. Ethical Confusion - Public opinion about police deception sometimes depends on an "end justifies means" analysis. If the deception catches the real criminal, it's acceptable. If the same deception is used with someone who turns out to be innocent, the public can become outraged. Police should not use an end justifies means analysis to guide their behavior. But, honest, ethical officers disagree amongst themselves about what deceptions are morally acceptable.

Last month, in Lying for Justice - Does Legal Equal Ethical? we saw that the public, up to and including the Department of Justice and Congress, may demand that police heads roll even if their use of deception was technically legal.

There is another factor muddying the water.

Are Officers Affected By the Lies They Tell?

Can lying as part of the job affect officers? Have you been affected by the use of deception as a police officer?

My favorite answer to this question over the times I've asked it nation-wide in training is,

Yeah, hopefully I've gotten better at it.

As to the legal and ethical use of deception in investigating crimes, hopefully you have become more skilled. But do you know officers who have been affected in other ways? How?

Here's what some experts say about the impact of police lying:

As the police officer becomes comfortable with lies and their moral justification, he or she is more apt to become casual with both.
Sissela Bok, Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, New York: Pantheon Books.

Psychological barriers wear down; lies seem more necessary, less reprehensible; the ability to make moral distinctions can coarsen...
New York Commission to Investigate Allegations of Police Corruption and the Anti-Corruption Practices of the Police Department, Milton Mollen, Chair.

In an update to his book Undercover: Police Surveillance in America, Gary T. Marx discussed correlations between undercover work (deceptive by its nature) and health and work problems. Marx cited several studies. (Web link below to Marx's update.)

M. Girodo interviewed 271 federal undercover agents who volunteered for one study. Self-reports of drug and alcohol abuse and disciplinary infractions were positively correlated with the extent of undercover experience. This relates to prior research finding that accumulated experience in undercover assignments is associated with a variety of social and psychological problems.

Another study by Farkas of undercover officers in Honolulu found that more than one-third reported negative changes in their social relations, stress over being with family and friends in public, and anxiety over being unable to discuss their work with those close to them.

A study by Pogrebin and Poole of forty officers with undercover experience from diverse agencies illustrated these and other negative themes.

In favorite quotes about police deception, Marx captures some of the effects on officers who regularly use police deception.

You know what I compare it (narcotics sweeps) to? The Dept. of Sanitation picks up our garbage every day. They know there's going to be more garbage tomorrow. Now, what would happen if they didn't? The city would be in chaos. It's the same thing with narcotics. We have to do these things.
(Police official, New York Times, 25 December 1988)

I don't like deceiving people, especially friends, and contrary to what others think, I feel very badly about it. But then decent soldiers feel badly about the necessity of killing in wartime.
(P. Knightley, The Master Spy: The Story of Kim Philby. Philby was a British Intelligence Office and double agent for the Soviet Union.)

I felt like a snail, spreading ooze in front of me so that I could slither ahead another inch or so, not really getting anywhere, just going for the sake of moving forward.
(Kim Wozencraft, author of the novel Rush about an undercover officer)

Work with garbage every day, throw yourself into the thick of it, and there's an increased chance some of the stench will rub off. The trick in the last two quotes above is to keep feeling. There's a t-shirt you can buy at Sally's Cop Shop across the road from the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center. It reads,

What did you feel when you shot that man, officer?

We understand the need to inure ourselves to the tougher aspects of policing. But if the price is not feeling, drug and alcohol abuse, and failed relationships at work and home, we've failed recruits and officers.

Are we properly preparing officers for the psychological affects of lying?

Law enforcement would not consider permitting an officer who first qualified on the range as a recruit to complete her career and retire (if she lived that long) without ever training or qualifying with a firearm again and without any continuing education on the legal use of force. Yet we do regularly do this in the high stakes area of police deception - often without even providing initial training in the academy on the well-documented aspect of the impact of lying as a regular part of one's job.

Stay tuned

We've already looked at some legal guidelines for the use of police deception. Coming soon on we'll explore some practical guidelines for the ethical use of police deception. We'll also look at what departments and agencies need to be doing to prepare officers before they enter this arena. The stakes are high. Officers can lose their jobs, be sanctioned by the court, have a case against a serious felony offender dismissed, and have their personal and professional lives disintegrate.