Throwback Thursday: ‘Don’t lie to me like I’m Montel Williams’


I wrote this column only a year ago after the U.S. swim team ran into trouble in Brazil during the Olympics. The moral of the story is, don’t lie to the cops, they can usually tell and they don’t like it. I’m reminded of this video from the first few episodes of the great old 1990s TV series “Homicide: Life on the Street.” Detective John Munch is interrogating a suspect and warns, “Don’t lie to me like I’m Montel Williams!”

Here’s the column.

People lie to police for a lot of reasons. Fact is, police officers are probably the most lied to people in all of human existence. Moms probably rank No. 2. For the record journalists are in third. Fourth place goes to those in the general category of “themselves.”

Now the reasons people lie to police should be pretty obvious to almost anybody with an attention span that exceeds an episode of the old TV detective show “Columbo.” The most common fibs probably go something like: “I have no idea how fast I was going, officer, my speedometer is broken.” Or: You mean that was a Stop sign?” And then there is this revered classic: “Honest, officer, I only had two beers with dinner.”

The chance that this kind of misdirection actually works probably rivals the odds that Usain Bolt might actually lose a footrace anytime soon.

And then there are the incidents with higher stakes. That’s when the lies get bigger and bigger and bigger. These deceptions are often concocted by the following:

■ Those desperate to try and get away with whatever the police might think they’ve done.

■ People desperate to hide the fact that something else actually occurred.

■ The downtrodden desperate for money. (Note: we had a local version of this in August when a visually impaired man told police he was robbed after 2 a.m. He wasn’t. He was hoping the community would come forward and give him money. They did.).

■ Teens who desperately don’t want their moms – or dads to find out. (Note: We had this kind of case a few weeks ago when two white teens told police they were robbed and beaten at random in City Park by black teens. As it turned out, all the teens converged at the park for a pre-arranged fight. The kids who turned in the false report apparently lost.).

■ Adults who desperately don’t want their wives – or husbands – to find out.

■ Jackasses who somehow believe they’re entitled to some break because of who they are.

■ Morons who somehow think they’re smarter than the police.

I’m not sure what makes otherwise sensible humans so certain they’ll get away with whatever it is they’ve done just by lying to the police like a foyer rug. Police investigators have heard every tale in the book so they’re not easy to fool. One thing I’ve learned in nearly 35 years in the newspaper business is that there are very few criminal geniuses out there. The idea of an arch criminal is a myth supported only by TV scriptwriters and comic book authors.

Yes, Lex Luthor is a fictional character. So are the Joker, the Penguin and Catwoman.

And as my all-time favorite fictional TV detective Frank Pembleton from “Homicide: Life on the Street” once said, “Crime makes you stupid.”

Which brings us to disgraced U.S. swimmer Ryan Lochte and his much-younger teammates who embarked on a drunken odyssey as the Olympic games in Brazil were drawing to a close last week. The swimmers, after a night of partying because their competition was completed, claimed they were robbed at gunpoint. Lochte was particularly brave in his account of what happened. What a hero.

But when the fiction was removed from the actual facts, police in Brazil said it didn’t go down exactly that way. The swimmers themselves were the ones who committed a crime in need of reporting. The intoxicated men – Lochte at age 32 is way old enough to know better — vandalized a gas station bathroom and urinated in areas where they really weren’t supposed to. They apparently broke a helpless door, an innocent soap dispenser and a luckless mirror. A security guard did pull out a gun and the gas station employees sought money for the damage. Instead of waiting for police to arrive, the swimmers forked over some cash then left and made up their own absurd story. Much of it made no sense at all.

For the record, stories that don’t make sense to cops usually get questioned. Once the questions start, the accounts from those involved begin to careen like a pinball. Once the stories veer in new directions, these perpetrators trip themselves up.

So by telling this lie, the swimmers created an international incident. After all, Brazil is touchy about how its Olympic games are perceived. They embarrassed their team and their nation and they wasted the time of a police force stretched thin already. The latter may be the biggest misdeed of all.

On Friday Lochte, in the safety of the United States, issued an apology. That’s well and good. But there is a larger lesson here. Don’t lie to the cops. It wastes their time and they don’t like it.

And they’ll probably still catch you anyway.

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