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4 ways officers can help prosecutors prosecute

By Tony Polse
Assistant State's Attorney, Lake County, Ill.

All too often, I hear police officers complaining about prosecutors. And I hear the prosecutors complaining about the police. We need to remember that police and prosecutors are on the same team and are there to achieve the same goal: doing justice and putting the bad guy away. In my time as a prosecutor and police officer, I have found that the same problems come up over and over again. Here are some helpful hints that will hopefully alleviate some of the problems:

Orlando police officer Teresa Joyce, right, shows prosecutor Mark Graham in the Orange County courtroom how she attempted to get a suspect off the street. (AP Photo/Joe Burbank, Pool)

First of all, the process begins with you — at the arrest and the ever-important police report. I’m not going to go into the perils of not being prepared for court, but I will stress one point: Police reports are the foundation on which prosecutors build a successful case, so the stronger the report, the better off everyone will be. Equally important is familiarizing yourself with the case in which you’re going to testify, because it doesn’t do anybody any good if you write a great report but can’t remember a thing when you're on the witness stand.

Help the deer out of the road

This first tip is for seasoned officers. If you walk into a courtroom and the prosecutor has a deer-in-the-headlights look, do yourself a favor and go over and introduce yourself. It’s great getting into the courtroom and seeing all of your buddies — folks you went to the police academy with, officers from neighboring departments — but take some time to chat with the prosecutor. Let the prosecutor know that you are there for the trial or motion, and that you’ve done this before; you know the territory.

Lay the groundwork for a good rapport with the prosecutor. This will not only foster a positive relationship, but it will also greatly reduce your chances of getting that subpoena when you're on vacation.

Going back to the lines of the “deer-in-the-headlights look" ... We've all been there when the prosecutor forgets to ask a crucial question. Thankfully, it doesn’t happen very often, but it does happen. Finding a discreet way to remind a prosecutor that he or she forgot to ask a question (or forgot to get out a critical piece of evidence) is an art form, to say the least.

Seasoned officers usually have some sort of catch phrase they’ll use to alert the prosecutor of an oversight. In a perfect world, the prosecutor would have months to read the police report, prepare questions, file motions and prepare the officer for the trial or hearing, but this is rarely the case. If there is a piece of evidence that you absolutely think is crucial to your case, make sure you bring it up with the prosecutor prior to the trial or hearing. There may be some evidentiary considerations that need to be looked into before that piece of evidence comes in, or the prosecutor may tell you the evidence is good but not as crucial as you may think. This theory holds especially true in “cluster” or high-profile arrests.

Check "Officer 24/7" at the door

Now, let’s talk about courtroom testimony. There is nothing worse for a prosecutor than having the officer on the stand who is “Officer 24/7.” This is the officer who uses police jargon when off duty, only hangs out with other officers and/or has forgotten that a majority of the population is not made up of police officers. This is the officer who replies to questions in 10 codes and heedlessly throws acronyms around. This, in my opinion, is the number one destroyer of winnable trials. Remember, you want to project yourself as a proudly employed police officer, not some type of law enforcing machine who lives, breathes and sleeps law enforcement.

Avoid the traps

(AP PHoto/Pool/Don Kohlbauer)

If you are testifying in a jury trial, look at the jurors when you are testifying. Think of it this way. In everyday police work, if you ask a subject a question and he or she avoids eye contact when making a respone, we tend to think that this person is hiding something. The same thing applies to juries who rely heavily on instinct when it comes to trusting somebody. Make eye contact, personify yourself, speak in plain English and above all, be a professional.

One of the traps that I see officers fall into – especially new officers —  is arguing with the defense attorney. Nothing, and I mean nothing, makes a defense attorney happier than when you fall into this trap. Now, I’m not defending what some defense attorneys do in the courtroom, but part of their job in defending their client is to probe an officer's potential bias.

You will gain credibility with the court and the jury by not falling into this trap.

Remember, there's a right way and a wrong way to disagree with someone. When the defense attorney says something you don’t like or accuses you of acting unprofessionally, respond in a controlled, calm and professional manner. Don’t reply by telling him what a jerk his client is, and don’t make any comments about the defense attorney. Reply with ”Yes, sir,” or “No, sir.” 

As the defense attorney continues to grill you with questions that are designed to get under your skin, remain cool. The technique can easily backfire, making the defense attorney look cagey — and you look like a rock star.

So by all means, avoid the temptation to engage the defense attorney in an argument. This one of the easiest ways to blow the case, and it’s almost a 100 percent guarantee that, in the eyes of the jury, your "little disagreement" will will cast you in a very unflattering light. You may get a reputation of being That Guy, and I’m sure that I don’t need to tell any of you that these connotations travel like wildfire in the legal and law enforcement communities.

Leave the street on the street

If you want to project the air of a consummate professional (and you do), you need to dress the part. Nothing looks better than an officer who is put together. Conversely, nothing looks worse than the officer who comes into court looking like he is ready to invade a small country. When an officer walks into a courtroom wearing a tactical vest with more gadgets than Batman's utility belt, a thigh holster, BDUs tucked into highly polished boots and a huge patch on the back of the vest that says Special Operations Unit, jurors and judges will probably be offput.

Form over functionality is the name of the game here. What works on the street does not always work for the courtroom. I’ve had jurors come up to me after a “not guilty” in a case and tell me that they were actually intimidated by the officer because of what he was wearing. So, if you have that suit or uniform, now’s the time to break it out. You gain credibility with the court, you gain credibility with the jurors and you make the prosecutor look like he has everything in order.

After all, isn’t that what it is all about?

Besides being an assistant state's attorney in Lake County, Ill., Tony Polse has been a part-time police officer for the past 11 years. He has been extensively involved in the criminal justice system, and he has also advised police departments on numerous subjects, including sexual assault investigations, internal investigations and criminal investigations. He is also a graduate of the Police Legal Advisor Training Program, which is hosted at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, in Glynco, Ga.

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