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Police Misconduct Databases Find Use in the Courtroom

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By Jonathan R. Tung, Esq. on February 22, 2016 2:59 PM

When an incident between citizens and the police takes place, oftentimes the reliability of witness testimony can hinge on the believability of witness testimony or a question of character. And persons of some ethnic and social demographics have often felt that the police have enjoyed an unfair presumption of credibility. This has been a point of frustration both for lawyers and their clients.

But lately there has been a growing social movement to push back, manifested in the form of police (mis)conduct databases. In light of increased public focus on police behavior, police conduct data-banks are sure to see an increased use by defense attorneys seeking to discredit police-witnesses based a cop's past bad behavior. But what are the social costs?

Already in Use

Legal Aid Society defense attorney Vidya Pappachan's case demonstrates the power of such databases. She represented a client on felony drug charges in New York City. As many know, defense attorneys often have to handle a ridiculous caseload. Pappachan had hardly any time to prepare her client's defense.

However, she asked her paralegal to do some snooping of the arresting officers through one of the police misconduct databases, in this case the Police Accountability Project. The search revealed that the arresting officers had complaints lodged against them, had made false arrests in the past, and that those arrests bore an eerie resemblance to her client's case: There was no physical evidence to back up the arresting officer's account of what took place.

Because of this, Pappachan convinced the judge that the weight of the evidence against her client was poor and Pappachan's client was freed without bail. She thinks that had it not been for the database, her client would still be in the system.

Other Projects Popping Up

Currently, there does not appear to be a single uniform police misconduct database -- certainly not one that is federally run. Currently, databases in various cities are being refined and being moved from what used to be little more than scrappings of paper in binders to actual searchable electronic databases. Some databases are even being spearheaded by individual law schools.The databases are not open to the public (at least for now) and there is concern among some within the legal community that they could open a can of worms.

Patrick Lynch, President of NY largest police union, intimates that the databases can be used irresponsibly by people quick to paint police officers as "bad" based on "newspaper stories, quick-buck lawsuits and baseless complaints."

"Harder" Being a Cop

Ideally, the relationship between the police and the public is amicable. In reality, it is anything but -- particularly in poorer neighborhoods and neighborhoods of color.

There are good cops, and then there are dirty cops or cops who abuse police power. Unfortunately, bad cops ruin things for good cops -- just like bad lawyers ruin things for good lawyers.

The recent tragic police episodes involving young black men have, for better or worse, thrown the topic of police conduct into the spotlight. Between "Black Lives Matter" and the recent mandatory usage of police body-cameras by many departments, being a police officer today is -- almost undeniably -- far more complicated than it was only just a decade ago. Who knows what the future of law enforcement will bring?

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