Training Cops to Lie, Pt 2

Dec. 21, 2009
Can the public face the truth about the bargains courts have struck in authorizing police to use some deception in tackling criminal stealth and concealment? Val Van Brocklin looks at the unexpected responses to telling the truth about lies in our criminal justice system.

The "L" word

It was the use of the "L" word that did it. If I had titled last month's article Legal Parameters of Strategic Deception, instead of Training Cops to Lie, I doubt there would have been a brouhaha. If you'd like to see a brouhaha, just click on the web link to Part 1, below, and read all the way through the comments at the end of the article.

My intent in Part 1 was to posit that the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that the duties of law enforcement may require limited, officially sanctioned deception in the course of criminal investigations. United States v. Russell, 411 U.S. 423, 434 (1973). ("Criminal activity is such that stealth and strategy are necessary weapons in the arsenal of the police officer.")

Even criminal defense attorneys empathize with this necessity,

I have not read many reported decisions in which the Courts have been enthusiastic about trick, deception, and artifice by law enforcement personnel, but the Courts do understand that in the real word, a world in which crime loves darkness, stealth, and concealment, crime can sometimes only be detected and prosecuted through those same means.
(See web link to J.D. Obenberger's article.)

The Supreme Court has referred to these sanctioned ruses as "strategic deception." Illinois v. Perkins, 496 U.S. 292, 297 (1990).

It was also my intent in Part 1, to look at some court decisions on police deception for some legal guidance on a topic so complex and murky that the courts don't even agree.

Then I intended in Part 2, and possibly subsequent articles,

  • To look at some scenarios and see if we could apply case law in a way that would help officers in the field ensure they acted legally.
  • To raise consciousness about some of the psychological affects of employing deception in the investigation of criminal activity.
  • To discuss appropriate training for the use of police deception.
  • To consider agency policies and procedures for employing police deception.
  • To examine the response of police leadership to the use of police deception.

But use of the "L" word - lie - rather than something like strategic deception, created an uproar that I had neither intended nor anticipated.

Can we face the truth about lying?

I was taken aback by the intensity of negative response to the idea of law enforcement using any deception in investigating criminal activity. Such a posture would eliminate any undercover investigations of drug trafficking, prostitution, pimping, child pornography, public official misconduct, corporate corruption, and an endless list of etceteras. I was chagrined by the notion, as one reader commented, that I had unwittingly provided reactionary "cop bashers with more ammunition."

In retrospect, I'm glad for several reasons that the "L" word set a fire where strategic deception hasn't even have lit a spark.

  • If there are reactionaries who are going to blame officers for the balances our courts draw, and not enforce the law if they don't agree with it, I want to know that. And I want prosecutors to know how to voir dire for such people during jury selection on a case in which officers have used legally sanctioned deception.
  • Not all the comments were "knee-jerk" or extreme. Some were inquiring citizens and officers with honest concerns about any use of deception. This raises a separate question: Does legal equals ethical? That is, just because the law says police can use deception, should they? And what are some of the consequences officers, prosecutors and the criminal justice system might face if the public doesn't think a legal use of deception was ethical?
  • It's been interesting to see the reaction to telling the truth about police lying and the "how" and "why" the system hides behind jargon.

Addressing this latter point first, it was the Supreme Court that coined the phrase strategic deception, in sanctioning some police lying in the investigation of crimes. Did the court hope to thus shroud the bargain they had struck "in the real word, a world in which crime loves darkness, stealth, and concealment, (and) crime can sometimes only be detected and prosecuted through those same means?"

Hiding the truth behind jargon.

Using jargon to make palatable what we ask officers to do to keep the rest of us safe and secure against those who would harm us isn't unique to the criminal justice system.

Our politicians, and under their direction, our military, has engaged in the same linguistic contortions.

  • In 1947 the Department of War changed its name to the Department of Defense.
  • The Cambodian invasion was called an "incursion" and the war was officially a "police action," even though 2 million people died. (The president could declare a police action without congressional approval.)
  • In 1974, a US Air Force colonel in Phnom Penh, Cambodia said to American reporters, "You always write it's bombing, bombing, bombing. It's not bombing, it's air support."
  • We didn't retreat in Vietnam; we staged a "phased departure."
  • "Neutralize" is the current euphemism for killing someone (CIA Manual).
  • "Collateral damage" is the unintended killing of civilians.

And don't forget all the corporate buzzwords such as "right-sizing," "relayering," and "reengineering," for describing firing people.

I'm glad I used the "L" word instead of strategic deception. While I didn't anticipate the breadth of depth of response, I take heart from the ever wise Anonymous, who said,

Never fear to use little words. Big, long words name little things. All big things have little names, such as life and death, war and peace, dawn, day, night, hope, love, and home. Learn to use little words in a big way.

I don't believe that soldiers and police officers should be the only ones facing the truth of what we ask and authorize them to do on our behalf. We already ask them to face enough on their own while we sleep safely in our beds.

In this ongoing series of articles, we will face squarely the bargains we - the courts and the citizenry - ask police officers to make on our behalf. And if we find the bargain distasteful when truthfully revealed, we - the citizenry and the judiciary - need to address that.

But before I continue in this series with examining our legal system's criterion for police lying in the investigation of crimes, reader response to Part 1 reveals we first need to look at:

The Truth About the Truth in Our Criminal Justice System - A criminal trial is NOT about finding the truth.

So log on next month and keep those comments coming.

About the Author

Val Van Brocklin

Described by Calibre Press as "the indisputable master of enter-train-ment," Val Van Brocklin is an internationally sought speaker, trainer and noted author. She combines a dynamic presentation style with over 10 years experience as a prosecutor where her trial work received national media attention on ABC's Primetime Live, the Discovery Channel's Justice Files, in USA Today, The National Enquirer and REDBOOK. In addition to her personal appearances, she appears on television, radio, and webcasts, in newspapers, journal articles and books. Visit her website:

Sponsored Recommendations

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Officer, create an account today!