Baltimore Police Officer Vincent Cosom is facing assault and perjury charges over the beating of a man at a bus stop. Cosom had asserted in his official report of the incident that the man had attacked him first. Video evidence tells a different story.
Having covered policing stories for a number of years, I was not surprised by the beating. Nor was I surprised that the officer had allegedly falsified information on the police report — there is a rich history of police testimony proving false in the face of video evidence and witness statements.
I was surprised, however, that the Baltimore officer is facing perjury charges. It was a sliver of silver on a grey cloud of police impunity culture that the incident has prompted censure and a federal investigation into the entire Baltimore Police Department. It has been a recurring feature of recent renewed media focus on police violence and misconduct — thanks largely to the bold and ongoing protests in Ferguson, Missouri — that cops enjoy impunity not only for their misdeeds, but also for their attempts to cover them up.
Reported leaks from Officer Darren Wilson's grand jury hearing over the shooting of Michael Brown not only suggest that the cop will not face indictment, but also that his testimony contains discrepancies compared with the initial police report filed by Detective Patrick J. Hokamp. Crucially, Hokamp's account does not include the detail, allegedly later claimed by Wilson, that the 18-year-old Brown beat the officer close to unconsciousness.
Concerns about Wilson's account haven't arisen in a vacuum. They are borne in a context of misleading police testimony when young black men have been killed by police bullets. When Bronx teen Ramarley Graham was shot dead by police following a stop-and-frisk, the initial police report claimed the young black man was armed. The claim was disproved, but without consequence for the officers who made it.
It is commonplace enough for cops to present falsified narratives in reports and on the stand that the term "testilying" was coined to name that very issue. Misleading police narratives are increasingly uncovered thanks to the proliferation of witness cell phone videos and surveillance footage (a small boon of our state of totalized surveillance). Whither, then, the uptick in perjury charges? "Testilying" is a telling neologism, not only because it suggests a practice common enough to deserve its own term, but also because it highlights how the appropriate word, "perjury," is all too rarely applied.
I would love to offer some statistics here on the frequency of undone cop narratives, the number of perjury charges brought against officers a year, the number of convictions. But, as anti-police brutality activist and writer for the Free Thought Project Cassandra Fairbanks told me, "finding stats on any kind of police misconduct… it's pretty much easier to find a unicorn." Radley Balko pointed out in the Washington Post in April that for some decades, a police system relying on fulfilled quotas and a criminal justice system that upholds police impunity combined to make "testilying" easy and common. The Exclusionary Rule in US justice means that if police violate a detainee's constitutional right during a stop and search, any evidence found is often considered inadmissible in court — prompting cops to lie about how they collect evidence. But the Exclusionary Rule, as Balko points out, "is also the only real deterrent to illegal searches."
Balko rightly stressed the importance of recording police action in an effort toward accountability. That's how testiliars get busted. But being found out does not end impunity. It seems uncomplicated and reasonable to demand that officers found to have falsified official narratives are duly held to account.
More broadly, we need a sea change in assumptions about trust and criminality. It's not only quotas and compliant courts that have enabled police perjury. Cultural assumptions about young black men, especially in poor urban neighborhoods, function in opposition to basic jurisprudential tenets. They are treated as guilty first, and proven innocent later when, for example, no weapons are uncovered from crime scenes and cell phone videos emerge. Falsified police reports rely on it being accepted that young black people are probably armed, probably holding drugs, and probably dangerous. False police reports then serve to re-inscribe criminality on black youth. It should not have been necessary to defend Michael Brown's posthumous reputation, but for the New York Times obituary that told us he was "no angel." But the sentiment that a priori criminalizes blackness, and trusts authority, makes police lies all too easy. By now, we should all know better and trust the uniform less.
Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard
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