Special Reports

Jurors' faith in police on lawyers' minds

As attorneys get ready for trial, they have to worry about more than how jurors will see the evidence in the case.

They think about how jurors will view witnesses - whether they're victims, defendants, experts, informants or cops.

Sometimes, how the men and women sitting in the jury box see law enforcement's credibility can seal or sacrifice a case.

Lately in Tacoma, some defense attorneys hope and some prosecutors fear that jurors' faith in the police has fallen since Tacoma Police Chief David Brame fatally shot his wife and killed himself April 26.

As questions have come up about who in the city and the police department knew about criminal allegations in Brame's past - and what they knew and when they knew it - potential jurors have expressed some disillusionment about the men and women in blue.

"In recent jury trials there's been quite a heightened discussion in jury selection about police and the trustworthiness of police," said Jerry Costello, Pierce County's chief criminal deputy prosecutor. "There's quite a split of opinion in the public about the police right now."

From Costello's point of view, that's demoralizing.

But to criminal defense lawyer Michael Schwartz, it shows jurors are becoming more aware that police aren't necessarily more trustworthy than others who testify.

"The events of the last several weeks, at least in this community, have served notice that many people's perceptions of police officers are just wrong," he said. "That's not to say that they all lie or they all commit crimes. It just means they're all human. ... They're fallible."

Prosecutors and defense attorneys say public sentiment about law enforcement can ebb and flow, depending on current events.

After Los Angeles police were caught on videotape beating up Rodney King in 1991, jurors nationwide questioned officers' veracity.

Defense attorneys say the Brame shooting might reverse a trend that began after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C.

"Immediately after 9/11," Schwartz said, "many defense attorneys believed that it wasn't wise to attack police officers' credibility or to attempt to undermine their investigation, because they had this favored status with jurors."

In general, attorneys say it's usually a minority of jurors who say they distrust police, and that hasn't changed since the Brame shootings.

News stories can influence people's view of police, said Seattle University criminal law professor John Strait.

"Cumulatively, they have an influence," he said, especially if officers' honesty is at issue. "If I see police lie, police lie, police lie, it might have an influence."

But not permanently, he said.

"I'm sure Brame's case doesn't help the cops, but I doubt that it really hurts them too much," Strait said. "Indeed, some of the line cops actually tried to expose it.

"It's kind of like when you ask people about lawyers in the abstract and then ask them about their own lawyer: 'Lawyers are scum, but my lawyer is a good one,'" he said.

Strait said what affects people's perspective more is their demographic group and their personal interactions with police officers. For example, he said, people who live on Tacoma's Hilltop or in Seattle's central district are more likely to have a negative view of police than people living in Tacoma's North End.

"Some of that will be just bias and prejudice," he said, "and some of it will be based on observed, personal experience."

During jury selection, judges and attorneys dig out biases and personal experiences and see whether a person can be fair.

Defense attorneys often ask jurors how they view police - usually to make sure they won't blindly take the word of officers above other witnesses. Lately, prosecutors or prospective jurors themselves are raising the issue.

During a recent jury selection in a drug case, a retired Boeing welder mentioned the Brame incident when Superior Court Judge Gary Steiner asked him what he thought of the legal system.

"I don't like what's happening with the mayor and the police chief, but I think at the street level, it works," said the man, who was chosen for the jury.

A therapist told the judge, "I'm still reeling from David Brame and the whole administrative fallout from that. And personally, I'm feeling like I don't trust a lot of police."

When deputy prosecutor Sven Nelson asked the woman to elaborate, she said it was an injustice that authorities ignored Brame's behavior and promoted him to chief.

"It makes me really wonder about the people under his tutelage," said the woman, whom Nelson struck from the jury.

A couple other jurors expressed broader concerns about police - that they target minorities and might develop biases by seeing nothing but the bad in life.

One man, however, said he might give more weight to a police officer's testimony than someone else's.

"A police officer's testimony would be that of someone who's trained to observe," he said. "If there's conflicting testimony, I would be more likely to believe someone who's gone through training. ... It may not be right, but credibility is a factor."

Defense attorney Bill Ferrell struck him from the jury.

Attorneys said most jurors say they can be fair.

"They're acknowledging that there are some significant issues for the city," said defense attorney Mary Kay High, who recently chose a jury for an assault case. "But they're all saying that it should have no influence on their evaluation of testimony by other city policemen or detectives."

District Court Judge Jack Nevin said said he has found jurors' responses about Brame measured.

"I didn't hear any responses that were reflective of the notion that all police officers were lumped into one category," Nevin said of a recent drunken driving trial in which jurors raised the issue.

"One juror," he noted, "said in her opinion it was important to remember that David Brame did not commit this act because he was a policeman."

For some Tacoma police, jurors' misgivings just add to the embarrassment and depression hanging over the department.

"I'm seriously considering changing professions," said Brad Graham, a sex crimes detective. "I'm worried that ... the general public is going to look at what's gone on and throw a blanket of distrust over all of us. And will that seep into our cases? So much of what we do is based on our integrity."

Graham said that, for 15 years, he was happy with his job.

"I used to think I had the best job," he said. "I get to put monsters in jail. I get to take people who prey on kids and put them in jail."

Now he watches people on the street and wonders whether they're questioning his virtue because of the badge he wears.

"I always assume suspects aren't going to like me, and I'm OK with that," he said. "But if they people who I work for - the community, the parents of children - don't trust me, what are we working for?"

Karen Hucks: 253-597-8660