How command presence can hurt correctional officers in court

Jurors may decide whether they believe a CO based on the 93 percent of communication that has nothing to do with what the officer says

By Val Van Brocklin, C1 Contributor

One essential tool correctional officers are trained in is command presence. When I ask officers to describe it (beyond a sharp uniform), they explain that command presence is:

•    An air of authority.
•    Decisiveness.
•    Firmness.
•    An air of invincibility.
•    Communicating that an officer is fully in control of situation.
•    Demands respect. 

How an officer appears to jurors may be as important as what the officer says.
How an officer appears to jurors may be as important as what the officer says.

Officers explain that command presence isn’t communicated so much by what an officer says, as how it is said and displayed in non-verbal body language. Officers’ comments on internet forums about command presence say they’ve known 5-foot-1-inch, 110-pound female officers who had it in spades, and 6-foot-2-inch, 250-pound male officers who couldn’t muster any. 

Command presence is communicating in a way that makes others believe and accept you are in charge. It can be critical to CO and inmate safety in many situations.

How we decide whether we believe someone

Courtroom credibility is the degree to which the jury believes you, and therefore, accepts your testimony. It can be challenging in a confrontation with an experienced defense attorney whose white-hot, focused purpose is to discredit you. Defense attorneys know if they can raise a doubt about a CO’s credibility it may cause the jury to doubt the credibility of the case.  

As in many confrontations, how a CO appears to jurors may be as important as what the officer says. An explanation for this can be found in an often cited study conducted by UCLA Professor Albert Mehrabian in which he and his researchers concluded that what we communicate is made up of: 

•    Seven percent what we say.
•    38 percent how we say it - our voice volume, tone and pitch.
•    55 percent non-verbal body language, gestures and demeanor. 

The Reid Technique of interrogation recognizes this hard-wired human behavior when it trains interviewers on non-verbal signs of deception that run contrary to what a suspect is saying. 

Jurors may decide whether they believe an officer based on the 93 percent of communication that has nothing to do with what the CO says. This explains why some testifying officers can make honest mistakes in what they say and still be found credible. It also explains how an officer may tell the objective truth, get the seven percent correct and still be doubted. 

Inmate credibility may not equal courtroom credibility

Command presence is a very effective tool in gaining the credibility to win inmate confrontations. Research strongly suggests it may not be an effective tool in achieving the credibility to win courtroom confrontations.

Jury research shows: 

•    A witness will be seen as more credible if he or she testifies, in part, in a way that runs counter to his or her interest or the position of the side he or she is testifying for.
•    Consistency is important. Jurors look to see if what you say matches how you say it and how you behave when you say nothing at all. Sarcastic, defensive, hostile or belligerent expressions weaken credibility.     
•    Witnesses who show respect to the process and others such as the judge, both attorneys and the jurors are viewed as more credible.  
•    Witnesses who treat jurors as their equal and as intelligent adults are seen as more credible.
•    A witness will be perceived as more credible if he or she is not arrogant. Arrogance suggests you don’t listen to or value others ideas and opinions and put yourself above others.  

I ask law enforcement officers what the opposite of arrogance is. Humility, they say. Humility is not a hallmark of command presence.

The first item above seems counter-intuitive. You can actually strengthen your credibility by candidly conceding a point to the defense attorney or readily admitting you made a mistake. Remember, if an officer made a mistake that left a reasonable doubt about the defendant’s guilt, the officer isn’t in court in a criminal trial. 

The defense attorney wants to put you on trial and make you defensive. What kind of people act defensive? Guilty people. That’s what the jury will see more than what the officer says. It can be a hard trap to avoid when officers are ingrained to take charge and command of situations. Let it go. You’re not on trial. Look for opportunities to be humble, respectful and admit you made a mistake – even with the defense attorney.

Different arenas call for different tools

Many prosecutors fail to properly prepare officers to testify. If they conduct pretrial preparation at all, they usually focus exclusively on what the officer is going to say. I’m trying to change that in my training of prosecutors and law enforcement officers.

The courtroom arena can be similarly challenging. A firm, commanding, authoritarian presence effective in correctional settings may not be nearly as credible in court as an open, thoughtful, considerate, humble one. Armed with the right research, I know COs will be able to be just as adaptive in court to most effectively protect and serve as they do while on shift.

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