never talk to police, even if you’re innocent

Good reasons not to talk to police from a lawyer’s perspective, even if you’re innocent. And the police officer’s response, who was also in the room and spoke just after the defense lawyer.

The lawyer’s main points are that you should not talk to police. You shouldn’t “tell your story,” as even the most trivial detail can and will be used against you later (he provides examples). Even if you’re innocent, an apparent or even mistakenly perceived contradiction could be interpreted as a lie, one that could lead to a conviction. Police aren’t your friends.

He also reveals what we already know: there are a lot of laws, more than anyone can possibly keep track of. There are laws that reference other laws, including foreign laws. There are, quite literally, too many laws to reliably count. Any one of them could be used to convict you and there is no way you can possibly keep track of them.

The officer’s main points are largely in agreement. Cops aren’t your friends. The officer details his tactics. While not surprising, I’m nonetheless impressed with just how clever they are. He gives examples of tactics he uses to motivate people to talk and spew confessions. He stresses that he doesn’t like sending innocent people to prison. I believe him.

What’s disheartening about this is that it eviscerates the myth that police officers are our friends, that they’re here to “serve and protect.” They certainly do a service to the public, of course. It’s a stressful and thankless job. Imagine the terror that would ensue if police were suddenly absent, if the predators on the street could operate unpunished. But not all members of law enforcement are saints. And even if you’ve “done nothing wrong” you could be a victim of law enforcement.

The powers and institutional practices of law enforcement probably make incarcerating guilty people easier. This is a merit to the system. However, there is a cost to this approach. The incentive is on convictions, and promotions and status (not to mention ego) are based on this. The incentive is not on correctly differentiating innocent and guilty. You don’t get extra points for realizing that someone who appears guilty is, in fact, innocent. Police are therefore not impartial. Structurally, they are biased in favor of finding or inventing evidence to support the claim of guilt. Cases must be closed and time is short.

In a better world, perhaps this would not be the case. Police officers would be as objective as they could be, and would get recognition for finding plausible reasons to assume innocence even if initial evidence suggested otherwise. As it stands, police sometimes “lose” exculpatory evidence while conveniently retaining damning evidence. And what happens to whistleblowers in law enforcement who shine the light on this topic? As Ben Kruidbos has learned, they get fired.

The irony of all this is that people high in the Agreeableness dimension (on the Big Five personality profile) are perhaps the most likely to cooperate in a way that would hang them later on. But this is the system we have. The system culminates in volumes of legalese that a prosecutor can use against you; police officers and other staff who will work to convict you and sometimes conceal evidence without you ever knowing such evidence even existed; and the reality that only some of the most sophisticated people and/or those with significant wealth and legal resources can retain their freedom.

Wouldn’t a system wherein people trusted police and who feel they could talk to them freely be much better? I think it would be much better for most members of the public, people who are innocent, but not necessarily better for police officers and prosecutors. It’s cognitively less demanding to just get some damning “evidence” even if it’s really just a few verbal slip-ups than it is to really evaluate innocence and guilt and represent it as such. To sum it up, the simpler and less analytical approach is cognitively easier for police (less mentally exhausting), easier for prosecutors to use for convictions, and harder for the accused to defend against, innocent or otherwise. A system where we could trust police would be better for most of us in other ways: we might be more willing to go to police to supply tips or to report being victimized, for example.

We’re past the tipping point on this one, I suspect. Innocent people can be arrested and convicted for non-crimes. Technology has empowered us all, but that includes police and government, who can then go back in time (to old emails especially) and convict us using our own words, out of context. Legal statues pile up and are more broadly interpreted. The prison system is an economic “growth sector.” But the real fear here isn’t a conviction per se. It’s the anticipation of one. And that’s coming from someone whose record is spotless and who follows the spirit and the letter of the law.

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