Are you prepared for court? 4 keys to courtroom demeanor for correctional officers
Correctional officers appear in court more often than we realize
I was recently in a courtroom and witnessed two state correctional officer sergeants appear by subpoena from the defense attorney to testify on behalf of a state prisoner. As each officer took the stand the state attorney and I made eye contact not saying a word, but knowing what each was thinking. The lead bailiff and I made eye contact not speaking a word, only slightly shaking our heads. The judge’s facial expression during testimony made it obvious we were not the only ones in the courtroom witnessing a poor representation of the corrections department.
The two sergeants – one male and one female – both wore wrinkled uniforms that looked like they had been slept in. Their hair was out of regulation and neither had polished their boots. Before they ever reached the stand to testify their appearance had already set the stage.
The testimony from both sergeants was poor. They were unprepared and caught off guard by the state attorney. Remember the defense called up the two sergeants on their behalf. It was now the state's turn with cross-examination. What the sergeants did not know was that the state attorney was a former classification officer who had worked in a maximum-security prison for several years.
The “off the cuff” answers, lack of knowledge of agency policies and poor geographical knowledge of the prison were taken note of by the state attorney who tactfully dismantled and consumed the sergeants on the stand. I was embarrassed not only for the sergeants but also for the agency.
On another occasion, I witnessed a jail detective testify in court regarding a dormitory incident in a jail. The detective himself had never worked in a jail. It was also obvious he had not taken the time to learn the operations of the dorm. The defense attorney asked the jail detective to explain the tier rotation of the dorm. This particular dorm would have the top tier locked down for two hours while the bottom tier was released and then rotated every two hours. The detective could not explain how the rotation worked. It was not going to make a major impact on the case but it did not help either.
The defense also asked how many inmates were free to exit their cells during the time of the incident. This again was not a major impact on the case but the detective did not know the answer. The defense then asked the detective that if he did not know the answers to those questions, “How can we be sure you are correct with your other answers.” The defense attorney was trying to build doubt in the mind of the jurors.
Preparing for court
Correctional officers appear in court more often than we realize. As COs must know how our prison or jail operations are conducted as a whole and as individual housing units or dorms. We also have to know the geography of the prison or jail. Be knowledgeable of your agency's policies and procedures. If you are involved in an incident and have to write a report, write the report as if you had to appear in court. Know how many inmates were in that dorm at the time of the incident.
Make sure all your facts and details are correct in your report. You can refer to your report in court so write a detailed account. You are not expected to remember every detail from an incident that occurred six months to a year ago. You will have your court date in advance with the defendant's name and case number on the subpoena. This provides you ample time to refresh your memory, read over your report and prepare yourself for court testimony.
The following considerations will help make you an impactful witness in court:
1. Personal appearance
Every officer should come to court with a pressed or ironed uniform and shoes or boots with at minimum a semi-gloss shine. A well-groomed haircut or hairstyle within the agency's guidelines and policies should be mandatory. If your agency allows facial hair, it should be well-groomed and no longer than one-fourth of an inch.
Your appearance tells a story about you. Inmates can tell the difference among officers in the way they carry themselves and how each officer wears the uniform. If your uniform is sloppy looking, wrinkled or dirty, inmates see you as a weak officer. A well-dressed CO keeps inmates wondering if you are as sharp as your uniform.
The same principle is true for the judge and jury who are expecting to see and hear a professional who looks sharp, is articulate and represents the agency well. It does not matter if you are dealing with inmates or the judge and jury, your appearance is half the battle to gain respect and make people listen.
2. Knowledge of your job
Inmates watch us closely to see if we know what we are doing and how we handle ourselves. When the inmates realize you do not know what you are doing they will manipulate you and take advantage of you.
The same applies to the courtroom. When the defense attorney realizes you do not know what you are doing, he or she will manipulate you and take advantage of you. The jurors will also pick up on your lack of knowledge. Never underestimate a juror’s knowledge or think you can outsmart them. You never know the background of a juror. The jury is made up of a group of citizens from all walks of life, some with common sense and street smarts and some with higher education than you have.
Do not try to fool the jury panel or the defense attorney. Instead have a working knowledge of the case and your agency. Remember that “knowledge is power.” Win with knowledge of your job.
3. Courtroom demeanor
When testifying in court all eyes are on you. The pressure can be intense but do not allow it to get to you. You must remain cool and calm and listen to the full question before answering. Pause for a second and then answer. Never argue with the attorney asking questions, it makes you look bad. If the defense attorney wants to be argumentive, then let him or her make themselves look bad but you remain calm.
Do not be witty. Nobody likes a smart ass and it will make you look like you think the whole matter is a joke. Maintain a good sitting posture, not stiff but also not slouching. Make eye contact with the jurors, they are the ones you must convince not the defense attorney. As long as you know the case and your job the defense attorney is no worry but you must be prepared.
Be serious but friendly at the same time. Speak loud enough for everyone to hear, do not be timid. Do not joke, laugh or reply with clever remarks. You may think you look smart but a trial is a very serious matter and joking takes away from your testimony and intelligence. You are a public official and citizens expect you to hold your character and not become angered or cave in to pressure.
Avoid non-verbal gestures such as rolling your eyes, shaking your head, or huffing and puffing. All of these things will be seen by the jurors and their interpretation of your non-verbal gestures can be taken in a bad light. Be truthful with your answers as the truth is easy and it is the proper thing to do.
Personal beliefs are generally appropriate if they are supported by the facts. For example, you believed the inmate had a weapon as he was approaching you and that is why you used force to stop him. Do not go beyond the scope of the question by going into a long story. Provide direct answers to each specific question. If you do not understand the question ask the attorney to repeat or re-phrase the question.
The judge may instruct the jury not to hold officers to a higher standard than any other witness but like it or not human nature will have some of the jurors holding you to a higher standard.
4. Professionalism and civility
Do not be a “Rambo” in the courtroom. It won't impress anyone. The key to winning in the courtroom is knowledge, civility, professionalism and honesty. Treating your profession with honor and dignity reflects on our profession as a whole. We must bring honor and respect to our fellow correctional officer brothers and sisters. Bring positive attention to our career by giving the media only positive issues to portray us by.
This article, originally published 05/17/2016, has been updated