Whether it's a jury trial, bench trial, a motion, or any number of other things; if you've been a cop for any period of time, chances are good you will have to testify in court. Here are four things to do to make sure you're better prepared. Whether it's a murder trial or a traffic ticket, you want to put your best foot forward.
Your reputation is everything in law enforcement and it is especially important any time you're in court.
Dress to impress- you're the police, make sure you look like what people expect the police to look like. You can blame cop shows and movies for this, but unfortunately it is a fact. People (aka Jurors) expect cops to look like...well cops. Shiny black boots, nice pressed uniform, in general a look of being squared away. Jurors, judges, attorneys, family members hold a certain view of law enforcement professionals in their heads and when we don't look like that it can hurt us in court. They expect patrol officers to be in nice looking uniforms with all the gear, and they expect detectives to be in well fitted suits. Fitting in to their expectation can go a long way earning credibility with everyone in the courtroom. Take an extra few minutes to look good for your next court date and see how people look at you...
Know your report- don't just read your report, really learn the details. This is likely the whole reason you're there in court, to cover whatever you wrote in your report. I always read my report a few times in the day(s) leading up to trial. Sometimes a week or two leading up to it. A lot of it will depend on how serious the trial is, but it's always good to seem like you know your stuff. When you are going through the report, highlight the important details so you can focus on them. Did the suspect have a red shirt or orange? Was the bruising on the right or left arm? You get the idea. The last thing you want is to not remember or give incorrect details on the stand. Rule of thumb- the more serious the case the more time you need to spend preparing.
Get prepped by your prosecutor. This is YOUR responsibility! A lot of other cops I know will just wander in to court the day of and hope for the best. Maybe they have a short conversation with the attorney first, but before you know it, they're up on the stand. This happens a lot in traffic court, but I've seen it on domestics, parole violation hearings, and even some felonies. All cops think if the prosecutor wants to prep me they will tell me. False. The prosecutor is likely too busy juggling tons of cases, or simply just does not have the time to prep someone that doesn't ask. Any time I have court I always ask the attorney to prep me. Even if it's only for a half hour or so (for non-serious things). And here's the kicker- they always say yes! It is not the prosecutor's job to make sure you don't look like an idiot on the stand. That's your job. The prosecutor is worried about putting on the entire case. This is also a good time to get feedback on your reports and the prosecutor will likely have an idea about the defense strategy too. This can give you a heads up for cross examination and maybe give you some clues on how to answer their questions. The more prepared you are the better you will look in court (and believe me defense attorney's will remember who does well in court and who doesn't)!
Take your time answering and make eye contact These are two very actionable tips that can improve your testimony right now. First, take your time answering questions, especially on cross examination. Defense attorney's will often give you a series of quick yes or no questions and then throw one in that you should not answer in the same fashion. (For example 5 quick yes questions and then a surprise no question). If you're answering too fast you may not catch it and their trap has worked. When a defense attorney is cross examining me I always pause for about 3-5 seconds before answering. This gives me some time to think and it also gives the prosecutor time to object if they need to. A lot of times they defense will hope you answer before the prosecutor even has time to say "objection!" Make eye contact with the judge or jury. Depending on if this is a bench or jury trial you always want to answer the questions looking at the trier of fact (ie. judge or jury). This can feel a little uncomfortable at first, but you will get used to it, and it's a huge boost to your credibility. Especially for jurors. I will usually try to look at a different juror as I answer the list of questions.
***Quick Bonus tips:
Be professional, but personable when testifying. A smile or a tasteful joke can sometimes play very well...but know your audience and the type of case.
Be confident when you speak. If you mumble or seem overly nervous, it can look like you are unsure of your own testimony. Speak just loudly enough and confidently enough they could hear you without a microphone. And sit up straight- no slouching!
Don't argue with the defense attorney. This is a pretty common defense strategy and we as cops fall for it all the time. The jury expects the defense attorney to be a jerk a little bit. They expect cops to be the ones that are in control all the time. Whether this opinion is right or wrong that's what the public expects- cops are in control in any situation. Losing your cool on the stand, loses your credibility with the judge/jury. Don't argue on cross examination. If there is something you want to debate chances are your prosecutor can tell. Let the prosecutor clean it up on redirect examination or at closing arguments.
Simple explanations can go a long way. Jurors need to understand you, more than they need to see how smart you are. A simple effective explanation of something is better than a complicated one that you may think makes you look smart. Don't get me wrong... I live for the day when a defense attorney asks me to explain the cyanoacrylate fuming method...but I also know I don't want to lose the jury with a complicated explanation. Simple and clear explanations can make a big difference. If a judge or jury doesn't understand what you're talking about, it's hard for them to be on your side.
Try these tips out and see how things go your next time time court!
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