Mimesis Law
27 May 2017

Holding a Dirty Cop Accountable

Jan. 20, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — At Fault Lines Links, Ana Sofia Walsh included a story by N.J. Burkett about a Long Island cop, Scott Greene, who abused his position of power and found himself on the receiving end of the justice system:

A former Suffolk County police sergeant was found guilty of stealing money from Hispanic drivers he pulled over but was acquitted of more serious hate crime charges.

As is always the case when a cop is charged and convicted, it probably took an awful lot to get to that point.

Even cops with a long history of complaints tend to get the benefit of the doubt when accused of a crime. That’s probably due in large part to the fact the accusing citizens likely came into contact with a cop because of something the cop claimed they did wrong, like a traffic violation, or under questionable circumstances, like matching the description of a suspect. People don’t often randomly encounter cops when there isn’t some sort of reason for a cop to get involved, and that reason can easily provide cause to doubt the accusations against the cop.

Moreover, Greene’s victims didn’t exactly have the cleanest of hands, though I doubt anyone’s arguing they deserved to have their stuff stolen:

He was accused of targeting Hispanic motorists in Suffolk County to steal money from their vehicles and was caught during a 2014 sting operation. At his trial, six Hispanic men testified that he searched them when they couldn’t provide driver licenses and later realized money was missing from their vehicles.

I’m sure people do make up stuff because they’re angry about the ticket they were given, or upset that they were questioned about something they didn’t (or maybe even did) do. Whether it’s common or not, and also whether it’s a valid complaint or not, the fact is that when anyone accuses a cop of misconduct, there is almost always going to be some way to argue they have a motive to lie. It makes it that much less likely anything is going to happen to a dirty cop. On top of that, people who don’t have driver’s licenses are probably less likely to speak out against a cop and less likely to be taken seriously than the average citizen.

Assuming a person passes that hurdle, even when authorities do take a complaint seriously, the jump from a mark on the cop’s disciplinary record to a criminal case is a huge one. Requesting disciplinary histories for officers, it’s astonishing what can be seen. Things like causing an accident due to excessive speed only to then file a false report after citing the person they hit, or punching someone without provocation then claiming it was self-defense, would get anyone other than a cop fired.

I’ve even seen a pattern of that sort conduct for years from officers who still have badges. It’s troubling, but it isn’t as uncommon as most people think. Although the opposite should be true, in general, prosecutors put up with a lot more from cops than they do from your average citizen. It’s a lot harder to wreck the life of someone in your field who may move in the same circles as you than it is to do the same to some faceless stranger, I suppose.

Cops, of course, do get charged from time to time, and when they do, the prosecutors usually do just what they did in Greene’s case; they file as many of the most serious charges they think the facts will support. In Green’s case, that meant going with hate crime charges:

Greene could have faced 7 to 20 years in prison if he had been convicted of the hate crime charges. “After hearing all of the available and admissible evidence, the jury determined that Scott Greene was a thief with a badge,” District Attorney Tom Spota said. “We are disappointed they did not believe Greene stole from his victims because of a belief or perception regarding their race, color, or national origin – as the hate crime statute requires. We respect their verdict. This defendant can no longer victimize anyone because of his position as a police officer and we will recommend the maximum term of imprisonment at sentencing.”

The idea that someone is deserving of far greater punishment for a crime because they did it based on a perception or belief about race, color, or national origin is a fascinating one. I doubt Greene’s victims feel a sigh of relief knowing that Greene’s just a thief, not a racist thief. Had he been convicted of the hate crime charges, I doubt they would’ve felt better knowing he would get extra time because he chose them as victims based on their race rather than the fact they were easy marks or unlikely to tell on him. They probably felt just as targeted due to their race regardless of whether that was Greene’s intention or not. They probably want Greene to get the most time possible whether he’s a racist or not.

The effect on sentencing in Greene’s case is remarkable, as he’s apparently looking at only one and a third to four years in prison without the hate crime charge. His minimum and his maximum prison terms would have quintupled had the jury thought he was doing it to them because they were Hispanic, yet the fact that prosecutors included the hate crime charge may be questionable given some interesting surrounding circumstances:

Greene’s trial took place weeks after the police department’s former chief, James Burke, was indicted on federal charges of abusing a burglary suspect and coercing officers to cover it up. The allegations in that case do not involve Hispanics. 

Greene’s boss wasn’t such a good guy either, but his victims weren’t Hispanic. Considering that he and Greene were both up to no good, it certainly does make it look like more of a dirty cop problem than a racist cop problem. I wouldn’t be surprised if all of Greene’s victims happened to be Hispanic because he patrolled a most Hispanic area, and the chief’s victims weren’t because he didn’t.

One can’t help but wonder what, aside from the race of his victims, led the district attorney to think Greene’s crimes were racially motivated, as that sure is a hefty increase in exposure for the same acts committed with a different mindset. Although filing a charge like that can really shift leverage and in many cases might coerce a plea, One would hope the prosecutor wasn’t doing it just for that. Regardless, he didn’t win on that count or quite a few others:

Jurors convicted 52-year-old Scott Greene of larceny and official misconduct, but they found him not guilty of 17 other counts, including the most serious charge of grand larceny as a hate crime.

And that’s really the final hurdle bringing a dirty cop to justice. Not only do bad cops have some institutional insulation from charges that the rest of us lack, but they’re usually really good about covering up their crimes, demanding  a lawyer when questioned, and, as that last snippet suggests, putting on a robust defense. It seems Greene did just that, and given the number of charges he beat, it wouldn’t be stretch to call it a bit of a defense victory.

Still, it’s good to see a bad cop held accountable, and the district attorney’s comments about Greene no longer being able to victimize anyone are important, as that’s what really matters. Taking bad cops off the streets should be the primary objective no matter why they do what they do.

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