Philly Police Union Sues Over Attempts to Keep Bad Cops Off the Stand

They say it's about due process. Is it really about all that sweet overtime money?


Philadelphia police
Joe Sohm / Dreamstime.com

Do police officers have a right to testify about their investigations in criminal court cases? That weird idea seems to serve as the foundation of a lawsuit by Philadelphia's police union against the city's mayor, police commissioner, and district attorney.

Philadelphia's Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 is suing because District Attorney Larry Krasner has a list of cops with bad records, and his office uses this list to determine whether those cops can be called to the stand to testify in cases.

The reason for the database's existence is eminently logical—if prosecutors use testimony from police officers with a documented history of misconduct, the defense can then bring that up and use it to cast doubt on an officer's integrity and testimony and seed doubt in the jurors' minds. In short: Part of the purpose of the list is to keep cops off the stand that could potentially wreck the prosecution's case and also to alert prosecutors in advance about these potential problems.

But the police union doesn't see it that way. They are filing suit because there's no due process system where the police officers involved can challenge being put in the database in the first place. As a result, this impacts their jobs and they have no recourse in the matter. The lawsuit argues, "For such police officers, critical parts of the work performed by police officers are restricted, resulting in the lost wages, damage to reputation and professional harm to those police officers."

This lawsuit may seem baffling at first. Why would the police union demand that officers have some sort of "right" to testify in criminal cases if their testimony actually has the possibility of backfiring and clearing the defendant? Why is the police union trying to screw up these cases?

The Philadelphia Inquirer provides the most logical explanation: It's the money. In just seven months in 2018, Philadelphia police officers earned a whopping $12 million in overtime at the courthouse testifying in cases.

Philadelphia's police union isn't alone in this latest pursuit. The Inquirer notes that the union for Pennsylvania state troopers is suing the district attorney's office in Chester County for the same reason. That district attorney, Thomas Hogan, responded that it's within his own discretion to maintain such a list.

On the other side of the country, in Los Angeles, the union representing sheriff's deputies took it a step further and used the courts to stop Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department leaders from even passing the names of deputies and detectives with misconduct records along to prosecutors. Fortunately, California has changed its laws and opened up disciplinary records in cases where officers have gotten into trouble for lying, so it's going to be harder to keep that information under wraps.

It's worth noting here that there are only 66 officers on this list being kept by Krasner in Philadelphia (though he is actively looking for more who need to be added), and of them, he'd still allow 37 to testify, but prosecutors had to inform defense attorneys about their past. Philadelphia's police union represents 6,500 officers. If anything, Krasner's tiny list actually supports the union's claim that it's just a handful of "bad apples" in law enforcement who are the problem. And yet the union is still suing the city for trying to keep these apples from "spoiling" their court cases.