By Mark Bond, professor of criminal justice at American Military University
One of the most important aspects of policing tends to receive the least amount of training attention. Testifying in court is not a glamorous part of policing, but it’s one of the most important skills to master as a professional law enforcement officer. Officers have reported that testifying in court is one of the most stressful parts of their job, however, historically it ranks among the lowest training priorities.
Practice Before you Testify
Courtroom training does not need to be expensive or time consuming. Setting up a modified “moot-court” to practice delivering meaningful testimony will build confidence for future court appearances. Agencies should coordinate with the prosecutor’s office for such training. A good prosecutor is aware of the psychological impact and pressure that can occur when testifying in court and will work to help officers prepare. Many prosecutors will sponsor and conduct training for officers on case preparedness, evidence procedures (new protocols and laws), and testifying. Such collaboration can also build respect, trust and professionalism between officers and prosecutors.
Unique Challenges for Officers in Court
Officers are trained to take command of a situation and control their environment. In court officers are not in control of the direction of the case, which often leads to feelings of frustration, anger, and loss of patience. Combine these emotions with fatigue from just completing a midnight shift and the stress levels rise quickly. The reality is, officers are not always at their peak performance at a vital time in the case when their individual performance is on public display. Fatigue can cause perception and miscommunication issues which can also trigger stress.
What to Expect on the Stand
The officer’s responsibility at trial is to be a professional witness for the prosecution. However, it is easy to become emotionally invested in a case, even when you know you have no control over it. When we perceive a threat (real or not), our body’s natural defenses kick in to prepare us for the threat. We call this the “fight or flight syndrome” and it is associated with heavier and deliberate breathing, sweating, faster heartbeat, and fidgeting. If you begin to feel these symptoms while on the stand, start putting your personal stress management plan into action and work to stay in control of your emotions.
Part of an officer’s responsibility is to maintain a presence that displays credibility and truthfulness through professional behavior. Remember, you only get one chance to make a first impression with a jury, so make it one that has the best chance for justice to prevail by projecting respect and truthfulness.
Tips on Testifying That Reduce Stress:
- Dress professionally in a clean uniform or business attire
- Be confident and calm, not cocky
- Be prepared (review your case notes, reports, evidence, etc.)
- Be on time and check-in with the prosecutor’s office
- Look at the judge/jury when answering the attorney’s questions
- Speak slowly and clearly. Project your voice so all in the courtroom can hear
- Do not be argumentative in your responses on the stand. Remember the courtroom is designed to be an adversarial arena, and expect aggressive cross-examination by the defense attorney
- Be consistent with your tone and show respect to both the prosecutor and defense attorney
- Learn to paint a picture with words and articulate your response with clear common language, but do not appear rehearsed with your answers
- Be aware of your body language as well as your facial expressions
- Stay in control of your emotions, even if a court ruling goes against the prosecutor or the defense attorney is aggressive in his/her cross-examination
Because of the high stakes, testifying in court is, and will always be, a stressful situation no matter how many times you do it. The key is to be mentally prepared for the experience, which will allow you to be an effective witness for the prosecution.
About the Author: Mark Bond worked in law enforcement and has been a firearms trainer for more than 29 years. His law enforcement experience includes the military, local, state, and federal levels as a police officer and criminal investigator. Mark obtained a BS and MS in Criminal Justice, and M.Ed in Educational Leadership with Summa Cum Laude Honors. As a lifelong learner, he is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in education with a concentration in distance education. Mark is currently an assistant professor of criminal justice at American Military University & American Public University and is one of the faculty directors in the School of Public Service & Health. You can contact him at MBond(at)apus.edu.