Recently, an officer was walking down the hall from court. He was sullen and nearly about to trip over his bottom lip. When I inquired of his day in court, all he could mumble was, "not guilty." He had gone to court that day with an open and shut case; so what went wrong? I went to review his case; it was strong. He had a great prosecutor working with him. What could have gone awry? It was the police officer's old nemesis--courtroom testimony! Once again, it is not what you do, but how you say it; that leaves us coming up short more than often.
I was taught a valuable life lesson about this topic by a wily old sergeant. He started the informal class with a question. "What the most dangerous piece of equipment that you carry on your uniform?" As a journeyman officer, I immediately answered--the handgun. I was told, "Yes, and no." I was thinking like a rookie and not with my head. The seasoned sergeant of thirty-plus years pulled his ink pen out of his pocket and smiled; my life lesson was soon to begin.
What he told me was a very valuable point. If your preliminary or investigative report is well written, it can change peoples' lives forever, and rightfully so. The accuracy and credibility of the report stands for itself. If your reports are complete, you will not be called in while you are on shift work. Your prosecutors will be able to arm themselves with good, credible reports. Even the defense attorneys, yes, the perennial Philadelphia lawyer, does not want to argue senseless points of law. There are two clear points made here: accuracy and creditability. A sound report can change a person's life forever. From day one in your police career, you should establish your credibility; this is a valued and respected trait of a police officer.
Pick your words
Through the years, I have a collection of faux pas in reports and testimonies that have been used and abused. Words, like projectiles, once hurled, cannot be brought back. Let's try to learn from others' mistakes...
"He is a good aggressive officer..." This statement was in an officer's annual evaluation, which surfaced in a federal court case. Of course the supervisor meant to say this officer performed well without supervision, handled calls without direction and performed self-initiated duties. Most would agree this officer was a self-starter, did solid, high-activity work, and a top performer. However, the jury did not grasp this understanding, and only attached a negative connotation to the word "aggressive." Supervisors should be very cautious in using "aggressive" in evaluations. "Aggressive" does not sound like the community oriented officer that the jurors were trying to see in a positive light.
"I placed the drunk driver on the machine." This was a trifecta! First of all, you do not pass the judgment or even use the word "drunk;" it's too much of a pejorative. Try to use the words "impaired" or "less safe driver" (refer to your state's motor vehicle code). Then, your testimony should also address the physical manifestations of a "less safe driver," not a "drunk"!
Now, the judge and jury (if there is one) know that an officer has administered a breath test to determine blood alcohol levels, using a device with a brand name like Intoxilyzer or Intoximeter. In this case, however, there were two additional points they had to ponder. One, had the officer, in fact, picked up the suspect and placed him on top of the "machine," and does this "machine" take the reading from the buttocks? Get real. Finally, the jury would hope that the law enforcement officer would use some form of a scientific instrument rather than a "machine." All I could think of is when I get the soda, and then the ice, but no cup--that is a "machine." Law enforcement uses scientific instruments for testing, not "machines." This may be just semantics, but there is no reason to make jurors interpret what you meant, when you can tell them explicitly. With the "CSI Effect," juries are becoming more demanding with regard to scientific data. Think about this the next time a bag of chips hangs up on you.
Probably the worst case was a use of force report which read, "I then struck the suspect with my club." Enough said there! What came to mind here was a mental image of either a caveman or a bad gang fight. What should have been said was, "I deployed my department issued straight baton..." but not a club. Additionally, this use of force was not checked for accuracy and balance; and then it was approved by a supervisor? "Balance" here means that the report and the use of force policy are in sync with one another. If there is something written in one, it will be in the other, no surprises--balanced and within policy.
Have I covered them all? No way! Leadership from instructors, FTOs and chiefs means instilling credibility in the words officers use in all reports. You can't call them back once you use them. Words don't recycle. Your credibility in reports and testimony is a valued trait; cherish and guard it...always!