|6 tips for more effective courtroom appearances|
PoliceOne Senior Editor Doug Wyllie
Adding on to a recent tip that focuses on the type of language that’s most advisable for court, I want to share several additional suggestions for enhancing your effectiveness on the stand I have heard from folks over the years.
First and foremost, you will find that mock questioning is a valuable exercise. Try to find an officer who would be willing to engage in this kind of practice with you. Any motivated officer will do, but in an ideal situation you’d find an officer who’s experienced a lot of court time and who has navigated many lines of questioning (and who will be open enough to share mistakes he or she may have made so you can learn from them) or an officer who’s also an attorney who can accurately predict the kinds of tactics and techniques opposing lawyers will use.
Here are a few others. Add your own ideas in the comments area below.
1. Remember that your physical appearance makes an impact. Take the time to make sure that your appearance reflects the fact that you’re self-respecting, well-collected law enforcement professional. Is your uniform clean? Tie tight and straight? Shirt neatly tucked in? Hair combed? Shoes clean? These may sound like little things, but the physical impression you make on a jury can play a key role in how they receive your testimony.
2. Avoid behavior pitfalls on the stand. Remember that little things can affect how your testimony is received, so try to avoid some of the things that put you in a less-than-flattering light. Take sarcasm, for example. Although in rare instances, and if perfectly planted and skillfully and sparingly applied, sarcasm might (stressing the word “might”) work for you, it’s a dangerous area to play in. The chances of making yourself look like a cynical, disrespectful, unprofessional—and ultimately unlikable—individual are pretty high so it’s a much safer bet not to go there, even if it’s near impossible to avoid given the attorney you’re facing (who hasn’t had THAT experience!)
Another dangerous enemy on the stand can be fatigue. Being tired can put you at risk in a number of ways. You won’t be as mentally sharp, a temper might be closer to the surface than usual, your body posture might unintentionally slouch, you might even yawn, which can give the impression that you’re not really taking thing seriously. Whenever possible, get your rest before appearing in court. The benefits can be numerous.
3. Keep your cool at all times. In many cases, especially those involving uses of force that are being questioned, an attorney will try to make an officer become his own worst enemy by intentionally pushing emotional buttons in the hopes that he can trigger an outburst. Be aware of that and when you see this kind of strategy being played and remember that it’s just that – a strategy designed to lure you into unprofessional behavior. Prior to appearing on the stand, mentally steel yourself against frustration, disgust and anger and keep reminding yourself that staying calm and professional is one of the most powerful ways to successfully counter an attorney’s claim that you’re a pressure cooker just waiting to explode.
4. Don’t be afraid to pause long enough to gather your thoughts. Some officers have a tendency to feel that the quicker they can answer every question they’re asked, the better. Not true. Take the time to carefully consider the questions you are being asked and if you need a little time to compose your thoughts before speaking, by all means take it. Better that than to blurt out answers in haste in an effort to appear more honest and forthcoming with your testimony and have to repeatedly backtrack and explain, or even counter, your initial response. Remember that attorneys may try to use pacing against you, particularly if they see that you’ll match the speed of their rapid-firing questioning, in the hope that they’ll get you to stumble on your own answers.
5. If you don’t know, you don’t know. Period. …which means DON’T MAKE IT UP. Remember that you’re human and there will be instances where you simply don’t recall something or you don’t have an answer for a particular question. Good jurors will understand that, and a good attorney will remind them of this. You do not – repeat, DO NOT – need to know it all. One of the most dangerous things you can do is to try to fill in memory gaps or to provide an explanation or answer when you really don’t have one. This holds true not only for court appearances, but for departmental investigations as well.
6. Look for opportunities to refine your courtroom skills. Being skilled on the stand can play an important role in solidifying cases and maybe even saving your career, depending on the case you’re facing. With that, consider how much time and effort you’re putting into preparing yourself. Is it enough?
As with any skill, purposeful study and consistent practice can yield great results. Consider taking the time to sit in on court cases that don’t involve you and take notes on those who testify — particularly police officers. Imagine that you’re a juror, not an empathetic fellow officer. What could he or she have done differently? Are there any mistakes made that you can learn from and avoid? Are there carefully phrased responses to common questions that you found particularly impactful? If so, remember them. Do you notice any body language that you’d like to mirror or avoid?
The time you put into refining your skills BEFORE entering court will most definitely improve your experience and effectiveness IN court.
Doug Wyllie is Editor in Chief of PoliceOne, responsible for setting the editorial direction of the website and managing the planned editorial features by our roster of expert writers. An award-winning columnist — he is the 2014 Western Publishing Association "Maggie Award" winner in the category of Best Regularly Featured Digital Edition Column — Doug has authored more than 750 feature articles and tactical tips on a wide range of topics and trends that affect the law enforcement community.
On a daily basis, Doug is in close personal contact with some of the top subject-matter experts in law enforcement, regularly tapping into the world-class knowledge of officers and trainers from around the United States, and working to help spread that information and insight to the hundreds of thousands of officers who visit PoliceOne every month.
Doug is a member of International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), an Associate Member of the California Peace Officers' Association (CPOA), and a member of the Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA).
Even in his "spare" time, he is active in his support for the law enforcement community, contributing his time and talents toward police-related charitable events as well as participating in force-on-force training, search-and-rescue training, and other scenario-based training designed to prepare cops for the fight they face every day on the street.
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