Among many difficult assignments a police officer is given over the course of their career, testifying in court can be one of the most stressful. All law enforcement officers — regardless of their rank or assignments are going to find themselves testifying on the witness stand at some point. Some officers will testify on a regular basis — others may only testify occasionally. Whether you are called to testify in federal or state court, understanding the principles of courtroom testimony can greatly reduce the stress. Law enforcement officers need to be (and also feel) confident and prepared when they are called upon to provide testimony in court.
Be Your Forthright, Level-headed, Self
Every activity a law enforcement officer engages in may result in being called into court. A rookie officer — or a seasoned officer who don’t testify on a regular basis — must first remember this: be yourself.
Don’t worry about what people might think of you. You can’t — and shouldn’t try to — change who you are. Every officer has a different ways of filtering information. We all have different and diverse life experiences.
Officers who have frequently testified in court have seen a lot of things — some of them good and many of them not so good. This can hinder an officer’s ability to be completely neutral when they are on the witness stand. Whether you’re in state or federal court, remember you’re there to perform a job, and that job is to help the criminal justice system with truthful and accurate testimony. You’re there to present evidence on behalf of the state or government to win a conviction. Just provide answers to questions that you can — don’t try to make up answers to questions that you don’t know the answer.
Judges and juries have a lot of avenues to make a decision on a case. Officers need to realize that there will be a lot of evidence presented by many different individuals, not just you. If you as a witness appear to be an advocate for a conviction (as opposed to being neutral) your testimony can be viewed by a judge or jury as being less credible.
Let’s be real: We all want to get a conviction, but the verdict will be up to the judge or jury to decide, not you. Don’t look like an advocate for a conviction. Juries can sense when you appear not to be completely neutral and believe me, a defense attorney will use this against you.
As a witness you’re going to be in the spotlight. You’re going to be cross examined about all the activities you’ve been involved in surrounding the case. Don’t try to get cute or cocky with the defense attorney. You’re not there to try to outsmart a defense attorney, just to present the facts of the case as you know them to be. It’s a lot easier for a defense attorney — all they have to do is ask questions. You as a witness have to answer their questions. Remember you don’t have to have an answer for every question asked. Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t recall or I don’t remember.” You’re not supposed to remember everything.
A defense attorney is likely to try to show a judge or jury that you can be very aggressive. They will try to get under your skin and get you aggravated. Don’t fall into that trap. It’s a cheap psychological game they are playing with you. Your job on the witness stand is to convince a judge or jury that you are just doing your job, that you don’t have a personal stake in whether or not the defendant goes to jail. Your personal stake is that you did your job and acted professionally.
Your credibility is going to be attacked on the witness stand — oftentimes that’s all a defense attorney has to work with. It’s important that you understand that our criminal justice system is set-up to be adversarial. Don’t take it personally.
Your Testimony Begins Before Taking the Stand
Make sure that you write a good, concise, case report. If you are not good at report writing, check out the reports of other officers who do write good reports. Read those reports and see how they structure their narratives. Learn from them and make adjustments in your reports. Always write your reports from the perspective of a defense attorney. When you are writing your reports, imagine that you are going to be the defense attorney defending this case. If you write your reports with this mindset, you’re going to give the defense attorney less opportunity to work you over on the witness stand.
What would you be looking for when exploring areas to attack? What are the weaknesses in this police report? Don’t lie about anything. Don’t be afraid to admit any mistakes that you have made during the case — nobody is perfect. There is often an issue of police officers overreaching in their efforts to obtain a conviction. No baseball player gets a hit every time they are up to bat and no sales person makes a sale every time they try. Police work is no different. As they say, “You win some and you lose some. “ It’s just a fact of life, accept it, learn from the experience and move on.
In 25 years as a Chicago police officer, some of the worst times I had in my career weren’t getting shot at or beaten up. They were getting grilled on the witness stand by a sharp and well-prepared defense attorney. I testified in both state and federal court throughout my career, and every single time I was nervous. Don’t let that nervousness overcome you. What you did right will come out and what you did wrong is probably not as important as the defense attorney will try to make it out to be.
Remember, the benchmark of all law enforcement officers on the witness stand is that we are just trying to do our jobs. We are not coloring the circumstances or trying to make up any answers to questions that we don’t know. We are not trying to be an extra prosecutor. You are just a regular Joe or Jill doing your job.