Evidence gathered by the police and other investigative agencies is usually the most important factor in any criminal trial.
But what happens when police officers are untruthful in their accounts? As criminal defense attorneys, we are acutely aware that unreliable evidence from police officers is more common than many members of the public believe.
Recently, the Dallas Morning News reported on how Dallas Police Chief David Brown is holding a number of disciplinary hearings against officers.
“Officer Christopher Watson, 43, received a 15-day suspension after an internal affairs concluded that he was ‘untruthful’ in his statement about the events involving the Oct. 14 controversial shooting of a mentally ill man in Rylie,” reported the Morning News.
The newspaper said Watson’s partner, Cardan Spencer, was fired from his job in October, after video evidence taken by a neighbor showed that the mentally ill man, Bobby Gerald Bennett, was standing still with his hands at his side when he was shot. He was holding a knife in his hand and said he wanted police to shoot him.
The Morning News reported on how Watson gave a statement on the day Spencer shot Bennett in Crimson Court in the Dallas neighborhood of Rylie. Bennett was wounded but survived. Watson said he saw Bennett take two steps toward the officers with a knife raised aggressively.
His account of the incident led to the arrest of Bennett for aggravated assault against a public servant, a first-degree felony.
In the past the police officer’s account would likely have been taken at face value and a mentally ill man would have been convicted of a felony. Today when most people own a smartphone with video capability, law enforcement officers can be challenged more easily. It’s hard to dispute clear digital footage.
The Dallas Morning News reported on how Watson later changed his statement and said stress led him to remember the incidents out of sequence, according to Brown. Watson still insisted Bennett walked toward the police officers with the knife raised but only after he was shot.
The police department filed the charge against Bennett, even though they already had the neighbor’s video in their possession. The police chief said the department had not, at that point, verified the authenticity of the video.
The Dallas Morning News also provided an update in the case of Cortenay Howard, an officer hired in 2002.
He was later fired after an internal police investigation found that he filed a fraudulent insurance claim for hail damage to his BMW in 2012.
“Since 2008, Howard has filed at least nine insurance claims, though he has failed to follow through on some of them,” reported the Morning News.
Internal records found the National Insurance Crime Bureau had flagged him for irregularities surrounding the hail damage claim and two other claims. Howard, 41, denied having filed any fraudulent claims.
Our society expects a higher standard of behavior from police officers. Those familiar with the criminal justice system in Texas know it’s not always the case. When officers fail to tell the truth, innocent men and women can end up as victims.