Civil Liberties

Watching Policemen Lie

A Baltimore newsman remembers.


David Ettlin, who spent decades at The Baltimore Sun, reacts to recent events in his city:

A photo from HOMICIDE. Because photos from THE WIRE are getting to be a bit of a cliché.

During a 40-year career in the news business, I came up with my "two first laws of journalism":

No. 1 is "Cops Lie."

No. 2 is "Cops can't spell."

I mean no disrespect for officers of the law. I like most cops I've met. But I deemed it important for folks in the news business to understand that cops are very much like other folks you meet—they do not always tell the truth or get things right….

I learned about cops lying—or perhaps not telling all the truth—as a young police reporter at The Baltimore Sun nearly half a century ago. A tactical squad sergeant invited me to go along on drug investigations and raids with his team of about half a dozen men. But I had to make a deal with the devil. I might witness some activities that I had to agree not to report in my story.

I don't see any spelling errors here.
Baltimore Police Department

The first such incident came as the cops were trying to locate a drug dealer, and leaned on his mentally slow brother-in-law for information, stopping by the man's tiny street-level apartment in pre-urban renewal South Baltimore. They told the man he faced arrest for drug possession and, to his denials, got him to agree to a search of his dwelling. As they rummaged around, one of the officers planted a packet of powder under a lamp, then "found" the supposed drugs. The guy was scared. And then, to avoid arrest, he told the team where to find his brother-in-law's drug stash nearby.

That was a little deception, a warrantless search—a shakedown, really—at the expense of a simple-minded citizen of Baltimore to get what they wanted.

Ettlin honored his agreement not to write about that lie (until now, I guess). But he goes on to tell the story of a deception that he did write about, one that had been enshrined in an official police report. Read the rest of his account here.