“Assault on a police officer.” That’s how a white MBTA police officer described a May 31 incident in which the officer dragged a Black passenger off a bus at Forest Hills Station and then forced him to the ground and put his knee on the passenger’s back.
It’s not just the racial dynamics of the encounter (which came to light on Monday when the Globe’s Evan Allen reported on it) that are sadly familiar. The officer, Nicholas Morrissey, was also said to have filed a police report that bears little resemblance to what video footage showed — joining a seemingly endless list of reports and sworn testimony in which officers have distorted facts, exaggerated, or downright lied.
As the nation grapples with police violence against Black Americans in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, a reckoning is also needed with a related problem: the license too many police officers feel to embellish or fictionalize descriptions of their encounters with civilians to justify arrests or use of force.
In the Forest Hills case, Morrissey said in the police report that the passenger “arose and attempted to spit in my direction. I grabbed him by the shoulders and redirected [him] before he fell through the door to the bus striking his forehead on the pavement.”
Morrissey, a 10-year veteran of the transit police, resigned ahead of a disciplinary hearing. But the consequences of lying are often surprisingly light. In Fall River, two officers admitted to falsifying reports but remained on the force. In New York City, an investigation by The New York Times found officers had been kept on the job, and in some cases even promoted, after offering statements that were later contradicted by video evidence; lying to obtain convictions in court is so common it has its own name— “testilying.”
Of course, not every police officer lies, and there are sometimes honest explanations for mistakes in initial accounts. But the inaccuracies in police reports and official statements are too common to write off as isolated incidents. Across the country, many high-profile police violence cases have also included misleading reports from officers. In the Floyd case, for instance, police initially said he had “physically resisted officers” and appeared to be “suffering medical distress.” Footage captured by bystanders showed an officer kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes as Floyd said, “I can’t breathe.”
The question that ought to haunt lawmakers is this: How many other deceptive reports go undetected? How many times have officers justified the use of force, or sent someone to prison, based on mistruths? The way that officers like Morrissey blatantly mischaracterized his actions — despite certainly knowing that cameras are everywhere — raises the disturbing possibility that he was so brazen because officers know they usually get away with it.
The police reform bill that Governor Baker introduced would create a state certification system for officers and decertify those who “create or use falsified evidence, including false testimony or destroying evidence to create a false impression.” It would leave it up to police agencies’ internal affairs departments to investigate false statements.
That’s a step in the right direction. But departments, and the state, ought to be more proactive — by, for instance, auditing a random sample of police reports for accuracy. Body-worn cameras, along with ubiquitous security cameras, could enable departments to scrutinize officer accounts. Departments should also monitor the number of charges individual officers file for crimes like disturbing the peace and assault and battery on a police officer — charges that defense lawyers say are often associated with falsified reports — and put those officers under more scrutiny.
Not every trivial inaccuracy has to cost an officer his or her job, and a little common sense should help separate innocent mistakes from self-serving lies. But just punishing the tiny fraction of police officers whose lies are caught in court or by a bystander’s smartphone won’t end testilying and fictitious police reports. There’s no silver bullet that will fix the broken relationship between police and Black Americans, but more accountability for cops who abuse the credibility that comes with their badge would be a start.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.