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Dirty Tricks Cops Use

Bart Rommel (1993)


The methods really used by police officers are sometimes as ugly as the crimes they combat. (3)

It's unfortunate that some police officers appear to concentrate on apprehending relatively minor offenders, and even innocent citizens, instead of hitting hard at heavy-duty felons. One reason is that it's safer to arrest a yuppie smoking a joint in his BMW than to shoot it out with a heavily-armed drug dealer. Another is the constant pressure for "production," statistics that help the police chief prove that his agency is doing a good job, and deserves a larger budget. A profusion of easy arrests looks better on paper than a small but select number of "quality" arrests. (3-4)

Officially, police departments do not have quotas for traffic tickets. However, police officers in Green Bay, Wisconsin, are protesting what they say is a departmental policy mandating disciplinary action against officers who fail to meet a monthly quota.
Unofficial incentives exist. In Arizona, off-duty police officers can earn extra pay by conducting driver improvement classes. Arizona law mandates that for the first violation during each two-year period, the driver has the choice of going to court or signing up for a driver improvement class, which at the time of writing costs about $75. Taking this option keeps the violation from appearing on the driver's record. An added incentive for the first offender is that a recorded violation serves as an excuse for his insurance company to raise his premiums. Clearly, choosing the driver improvement class has benefits, among which are that the officer conducting the class earns extra money. (17)

At times, suspects may actually be guilty but evidence is thin or not apparent to the officer. To avoid suspects' getting the impression that they got away with something when the officer finally has to let them go, the officer can do something to make their lives miserable. One tactic in car stops is to surreptitiously spray Mace into the dashboard and air conditioner vents. When the suspect resumes his interrupted journey, he'll get a healthy dose of tear gas.
A variation on this theme works especially well when the car has fleece seat covers, or at least cloth seats. Spraying Mace into the fleece or fabric produces a long-lasting effect, because body heat causes the active ingredient, chloroacetophenone, to vaporize and irritate the suspect's bottom and crotch. (27)

One cheap and dirty way of making the target vehicle's tail light pattern distinctive is to break one. Keeping track of a vehicle with only one tail light is easier, and trailing officers can hang back to prevent being "made" by the suspect without fear of losing him. (31)

Another tactic works to keep an arrested suspect from contact with his attorney, family, and associates by shifting him from one holding tank or station house to another. An attorney with an order of habeas corpus can't serve it until he physically locates his client. A police agency with many police stations can move the suspect irregularly from one to another, eluding the attorney. Small-agency officers can do the same thing by moving a suspect to the next town, or to the county sheriffs jail, making the rounds for as long as it takes to make the suspect feel isolated and to elicit a confession. (35-6)

A principle some officers follow is to dispense street justice to "rabbits," those who flee when ordered to stop. (41)

If it becomes necessary to use force on a suspect, an indoor setting is more secure because of limited access. Even a telephoto lens can't see through a wall.
The type of force is important, as well, because of visual impact. A videotape of an officer striking a suspect with a baton has tremendous visual and dramatic effect. This is true regardless of justification. A suspect who resists arrest and fights the officer can be made to appear as if he's merely defending himself against police brutality. By contrast, a shooting takes very little time, much less physical exertion, and doesn't appear as dramatic because there's less action. (43)

There are, however, several ways of inconspicuously inducing a suspect to attack and justify the officer's use of force. One officer kept a pin in his Sam Browne belt, and would jab the suspect during a search. Another is to produce pain by jabbing the body's sensitive areas, such as the testicles or a tender spot in the armpit. Flicking a finger into someone's eye also will stimulate him to attack the officer. The officer blocks the view of witnesses by getting in close to the suspect. This works very well on a suspect driving a car, and it's possible to flick a finger quickly into his eye without passengers seeing it. (44)

Another way of terminating suspects is during a violent crime in progress. One police unit specialized in targeting repeat offenders. Unit officers would conduct surveillances while suspects were planning crimes and gathering weapons and other equipment. When the crime "came down," officers would act. The key was to interrupt the crime at the critical moment, making a gunfight inevitable. It was helpful if innocent lives were endangered by the suspects, because this would without doubt justify officers' use of deadly force. (51)

Dropping a Dime
This technique is to obtain probable cause to enter suspect premises. An investigating officer anonymously calls "911" to report that a "man with a gun" ran into the suspect premises. Another pretext is to report a fight or disturbance in progress. The police dispatcher sends a patrol unit, and when it arrives the investigators meet the uniformed officers. They announce that they just "happened" to be in the area, and offer to assist the patrol unit. Using this pretext, they enter the premises. Once inside, they can conduct a surreptitious search, plant evidence, etc. (54)

Planting evidence can be simple or complicated, depending on the situation and the locale. One of the easiest ways is to drop a plastic envelope of marijuana through a partly open window onto a car seat. Many drivers, especially in hot climates, leave one or more windows open a crack to let hot air vent from the vehicle. A plainclothes agent can slip a "baggie" through the crack in a couple of seconds. the practical value of this technique is that many states have laws allowing police to seize any vehicle in which they find illegal drugs.
In some instances other vehicles become the targets. Aircraft, much more expensive than cars, often serve to smuggle illegal drugs over the United States' Mexican border. Narcotics officers also use them for aerial surveillance. More than one aircraft has come into the hands of narcotics agents because an agent "happened" to be walking around the airport and noticed contraband on a seat. (56-7)

Another important aspect is that seizing assets an hamper a suspect's defense. Confiscating a bank account or other liquid assets thereby makes prosecution easier because without the funds to pay a private attorney, the suspect has to rely on the public defender. Public defenders are typically inexperienced and overworked, with caseloads as heavy as those of police officers. A typical public defender is a recent law school graduate using the post to obtain experience before trying for a more lucrative job. (60)

Although tradition-minded officers curse the Miranda Decision, saying that it makes their work harder, there are many ways to obtain confessions from suspects, and police still manage to keep the jails full. (79)

Another form of intimidation is to use the good cop /bad cop technique, also known as the "Mutt and Jeff' technique. This is the whipsaw approach, using both sympathy and threats, with one interrogator snarling and acting in a menacing manner, while his partner is sympathetic and conciliatory. The alternating "hot and cold" treatment breaks down a suspect's emotional resolve, and the surprising aspect is that this works, even on persons who know the trick, because it hits at gut level, not upper cortex. Detectives investigating the killing of a female motorist by a California Highway Patrolman used the good guy bad guy technique against their suspect, Patrolman Craig Peyer. (97)

Investigators don't always record statements, however. An example is a police officer who just shot and killed a robbery suspect. He may say something like, "When I saw that n[____]r pull his gun, I shot him." Investigators know that, if they record such a statement, or write it down verbatim, this can serve as justification for a wrongful death lawsuit, a peg upon which a civil rights group can hang a propaganda campaign, etc. Therefore, they do not tape record an officer's initial statement, only a sanitized version, and they go over his statement carefully with him before making their report. They do not extend such courtesy to civilians involved in shootings, even though the circumstances may be very similar. (98)

It's clear that the polygraph is as unreliable today as it was during its early developmental years. Nevertheless, the polygraph is still a valuable investigative tool. This is because the crafty investigator uses it as an intimidation tool, taking advantage of suspects' credulousness and suggestibility. The polygraph technician makes every effort to convince the suspect that "the instrument will not be beaten," and thereby persuade him to admit the truth. (102-3)

An officer who obtains an alibi gun may be causing complications for himself if the gun's previously been used in a crime. Some suspects aren't too dismayed by losing their guns to an acquisitive police officer because this provides a one-way gate for losing the evidence. If the officer is later discovered to have the gun by his superiors, he can't point the finger at the suspect from whom he confiscated it because this would implicate him in an illegal cover-up. (110)

In other instances, the evidence is solid, but it's necessary to shade the truth regarding its acquisition. This is, strictly speaking, perjury but it happens every day. (117)

Planting evidence is one act that frustrated investigators use. This goes by various names, depending on the locale. It's called "farming" in Philadelphia, and "flaking" in New York. (118)

Sheriffs officers in Maricopa County, Arizona, raided a suspect's home seeking illegal drugs. The officers planted a marijuana bush in the suspect's yard while other deputies were interrogating him inside. Then they brought him out to see it, in an effort to make him think they had solid evidence against him. (119)

A Phoenix, Arizona, officer was suspended without pay for 40 hours for conducting illegal searches and paying informers with drugs. The fall-out from this case was the resignation of two other officers and dismissal of a third. These officers set up drug buys, then allowed their snitches to keep the drugs as payment. (121)

Another type of sting is to use an informer to entrap the target. Entrapment is illegal, and if a police officer is the one who conducts the entrapment, it can destroy the case. This is what happened with the two truckers. However, if a third party, working for the police but unknown to the prosecutor and defense attorney can make the set-up, his role can be so low-profile that he's out of the picture when the arrest comes down and when the case goes to trial. A simple example is the informer who agrees to plant drugs in the target's home or car. In the simplest method of operation, he lays a baggie of marijuana on the seat of the car. Later, an officer walking by just happens to see it lying in plain sight, and this provides probable cause for search and seizure. Alternatively, an officer can stop the car when the target is driving it, and "happen" to see the baggie, giving him cause for an arrest. (125)

Delivering illicit materials to the target of an investigation is another way to use an informer and agent provocateur. Los Angeles officers seeking to make a case against anti-war activists arranged for their agent provocateur to deliver a case of hand grenades to their home. This led to their subsequent arrest for possession of the grenades. (126)

What was remarkable about the AZSCAM sting was that Stedino was able to play his game or as long as he did. He operated for many months before one legislator he'd approached alerted police. None of the others, even those who had declined his offer, had reported him to police, suggesting that there exists a tolerance of bribery among Arizona legislators. It also suggests that many legislators who were not themselves open to bribery were reluctant to turn in their colleagues who were doing wrong. (129)

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