Can an Ex-Cop be an Excellent Public Defender Investigator?
I am sort of a cynic by nature, and rarely do I have experiences that shame me into more positive trends of thinking (which only reinforces the cynicism), but I did recently read an article about public defender investigators that startled me into excitement and optimism.
Intellectually, I have always understood the temptation to think that police officers make attractive public defender investigators – there are certainly some overlapping skills. But I wondered how well those skills actually translate into defense advocacy when the same people who patrolled communities as cops switch cars and clothes and go forth to earn the trust of the community that they used to profile, entrap, and directly or indirectly keep on its knees.
But in Mother Jones’ article about the Broward County Public Defender’s Office (Florida), “The Defenders: How a Squad of Ex-Cops Learned to Question Authority and Give Criminals a Fighting Chance,” I started to think about this a little differently. Maybe in the right place, with the public defender leader, the right office culture, with the right group of ex-cops, maybe something phenomenal can happen. Howard Finkelstein, Broward County’s elected public defender, and his investigators, might have a thing or two (or more) to share with the rest of our community.
The article is full of great stories: through diligent work, one ex-police officer investigator follows a young woman’s convoluted story on a $4,200 counterfeit check charge through the FedEx mail tracking service, a hacked email account of a fire department chief, and 200 similar incidents across the country to his “aha” moment: “when he realized his client was a victim, not a perpetrator, he experienced ‘a complete change of life’.” Article author Jason Fagone writes, “As a cop, Smith would have pegged her as a grifter and never given her story a second thought.” But as an investigator, he found the key to setting free a totally innocent person. Prosecutors dropped the charges.
A different ex-police officer investigator, a decade-long instructor on searches procedure for the police department, documented a coerced confession and an improper lineup identification of his client. On his police-earned credentials of the faulty protocols, charges were dropped.
Another time, an ex-police officer investigator tracked down a GPS report, a computer dispatch report and an officer report to exonerate a client of his expired tag and driving with a suspended license charges. Evidence proved the car was parked (the client said was he was helping a friend change a tire) and the police report was logged by the third officer on the scene – though the officer stated he was first on the scene in sworn deposition. The cop was charged with perjury and falsifying documents and sentenced to three years probation and community service. The client walked.
I was amazed and deeply moved by what was really a story about openness to personal growth in each of these officers-turned-investigators. This is a rare thing for any human being, and the investigators featured in this article were not only former officers, but were retired veterans of police forces. Many of them had toed the party line for 25 or 30 years as police officers. Then they go to work for the public defender, and they demonstrate the capacity for personal transformation that lets them say, “When you’re a cop you kind of develop an attitude that everybody you deal with is an idiot, or they’re criminals… It’s really not that way.”
I am not wholeheartedly endorsing ex-cops as the answer to public defense investigation, nor am I suggesting that non-police officer investigators can’t have similar results, but the article encouraged me to be open to a similar capacity for changing my own way of thinking. Howard Finkelstein’s experience with investigators may not translate everywhere, but I think he is on to something, and I was excited that what I once thought was a wound in the side of public defense delivery might instead be a secret weapon. You can read the whole article at http://www.motherjones.com/toc/2014/07
By the way, the topping on the cake for my revelation: It was a 20 year law enforcement officer who gave me his June/July issue of Mother Jones with a post-it flagging the article.