Cops Talk Funny

March 17, 2008
Quit "exiting the patrol vehicle" and just get out of the damned car.

What happens to police officers when they take the stand? I've been working with cops on the stand for over twenty years - first as a prosecutor and now as a national trainer on how to be an effective witness. From recruits in academies to senior officers and command staff, you talk funny when you take the stand. Is it in the water at the academies; is there a secret society where you're taught this special language?

Don't act like you don't know what I'm talking about. I hang out with you guys. I've worked cases with you, I prepare you for court, I break bread with you, I attend your banquets and award ceremonies... and your memorial services. In all those contexts, you guys talk pretty normal. But I put you on the stand and you sound like this:

Lawyer: Would you observe these photographs and tell me if these items were seen by you that day?
Officer: Yes, sir, all items depicted in the five photos were later observed by this officer while I was observing the said property which was observed in the trunk of the vehicle.
(Disorderly Conduct - Verbatim Excerpts from Actual Court Cases, Rodney R. Jones, Charles M. Sevilla, Gerald F. Uelmen (1978)).

Or this: After conducting a traffic stop on a vehicle for an equipment violation, I contacted the driver and immediately detected the odor of intoxicants.
(Plain English for Cops, Nicholas Meier, R.J. Adams (1999).)

Do you use a baton when you're "conducting" a "traffic stop?" Is a "vehicle" a car? How did you "contact" the driver - with sticky shelf paper? What "detection" device did you use to smell something and, if you're smelling something, isn't it obvious it's an odor?

How about this?

Lawyer: Officer, would you read the marked section from your report?
Officer: I attempted to apply an escort hold to the subject, but I noted resistive tension in his arm, so I applied pain compliance instead. The subject actively resisted, so I administered a focused knee strike to the lower abdominal area, and decentralized the subject.
Lawyer: In other words, Officer, you tried to grab my client's arm, and when he pulled away, you twisted his wrist, and then kicked him in the groin and threw him down on the pavement, is that about it?
Officer: Well, I wouldn't put it in quite those words.
Lawyer: No, Officer, I imagine you wouldn't. No further questions.
(What You Say is What They Write, Dr. Patricia Robinson, [email protected]).

What's the problem with talking this way on the stand? There's more than one.

  • The first officer sounds like a pompous idiot. (So does the lawyer, who should have asked, "Officer, do you recognize these photographs?" But the jury expects lawyers to be self-important jerks.) Who refers to himself in the third person (or is it second person - I'm so confused)? What the heck is "said property?" Is it property everybody's talking about, or property that was talking?
  • The second officer sounds like he's an extra trying out for a speaking part on Law and Order. That's it - maybe you guys are watching too much TV.
  • The third officer sounds defensive and evasive, as if he's trying to hide his real use of force from the jury. (For an excellent discussion on the use of plain but precise English in use of force police report writing contact Dr. Patricia Robinson at the email address above and ask for her article.)
If testifying like this just put my shorts in a twist, that would be reason enough to "cease and desist" (knock it off). But here's what a federal court judge had to say about how cops testify and it's in a reported opinion for all to behold.
The agents involved speak an almost impenetrable jargon. (The judge means you talk funny. Judges talk funny, too. But they're lawyers. Do you want jurors to hold the same opinion of you that they do lawyers?) They do not get into their cars; they enter official government vehicles. They do not get out of or leave their cars; they exit them. They do not go somewhere; they proceed. They do not go to a particular place; they proceed to its vicinity. They do not watch or look; they surveille. They never see anything. They observe it. No one tells them anything; they are advised. A person does not tell them his name; he identifies himself. A person does not say something; he indicates. They do not listen to a telephone conversation; they monitor it. An agent does not hand money to an informer to make a buy; he advances previously recorded official government funds. An agent does not say what an exhibit is; he says what it purports to be. U.S. v. Marshall, 488 F.2d 1169, 1170 n. 1 (9th Cir. 1973).
Sounds like his Honor has his shorts in a twist, too. But that's not even the main reason you need to knock it off.

When you talk like that, you sound like somebody who's full of himself or who's trying to hide the truth in a mountain of syllables - both are stereotypes we do NOT need to be reinforcing with jurors. You don't sound like a regular person the jury can relate to and identify with. So, when the defense attorney starts beating up on you the jury just sees two courtroom professionals - neither of which they can identify with (which means they can't empathize with) - going at each other in some highfalutin' word game that has little to do with them - or justice.

When asked what behaviors increase a witness' credibility in court, jurors responded that "uses understandable language" is one of the most important. (Trial Behavior Consulting, Inc., THE RECORDER, October 1997.) That's why we call it "straight talk." This is the critical reason to quit talking funny in court - it hurts your credibility. Credibility is the degree to which the jury believes you - and that's the one confrontation you must win in court.

This is important enough that I'm going to give you a homework assignment. Make up some flash cards. On one side, write a phrase or sentence the way you now talk on the stand. On the other side, write the same phrase in plain English. Have one of your kids work with you with your flash cards. It'll be a nice Hallmark family moment. I'll help you get started.

  • He indicated... He said
  • I have been employed by... I worked for
  • I exited the patrol vehicle... I got out of the car
  • I observed... I saw
  • I ascertained the location of the residence... I found the house
  • I proceeded to the vicinity of... I went to
  • I approached the entrance... I went to the door
  • The subject approached me... She came up to me
  • I apprehended the perpetrator... I arrested the man
  • I obtained an item that purported to be an envelope from the individual... I got the envelope from her
  • I observed the subject fleeing on foot from the location... I saw him running away
  • For accelerated learning and behavioral change, try some scenario-based training. Put yourself on the witness stand and testify for a 10-year-old. If you don't have one, borrow or rent one. Give the kid a TASER or some OC spray (if the latter, do this scenario outdoors on a calm day). Any time the kid thinks you're talking funny - ZZZAAAPPP or PSSSSSTTT!!! (I guarantee it won't hurt as much as losing your credibility in court.) When you're picking yourself up off the floor or ground, be sure and tell the kid he did a good job "decentralizing the subject." ZZZAAAPPP!

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