Drop the cop jargon! It hurts you in court

Quit “proceeded to the vicinity of” and just say where the hell you went


From academy recruits to senior officers and command staff, cops talk weird when they testify. I hang out with cops. I break bread with them, and attend their banquets, award ceremonies and memorial services. In all those contexts, cops talk normal.

I’ve also worked with cops on the stand for over 30 years – first as a prosecutor and then as a national trainer on how to be an effective witness. Put cops on the stand and they 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. [1]

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. [2]

Do you use a baton when you’re “conducting” a “traffic stop?” Is a “vehicle” a car (or truck)? What “detection” device did you use to smell something and if you’re smelling something, isn’t it obvious it’s an odor?

Then there’s 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. [3]

There’s more than one problem with talking like this on the stand. 

  1. The first officer sounds like a pedantic grammarian mudwrestling the English language. [The lawyer, who should have simply asked, “Officer, do you recognize these photographs?” sounds weird, too, but jurors expect that of lawyers.] Referring to oneself in the third person may work for Dwayne Johnson asking, "Can you smell what The Rock is cooking?" to exaggerate his self-importance. But cops shouldn’t be exaggerating their self-importance. It’s bad branding. Also, is “said property” something everybody’s talking about, or something that was talking?
  2. The second officer sounds like an extra trying out for a speaking part on Law and Order. That’s it. Cops watch too much TV.
  3. The third officer sounds evasive, as if he’s trying to hide his real use of force.

Here’s what a judge had to say in a reported opinion about how cops testify:

The agents involved speak an almost impenetrable jargon. [The judge means you talk weird. Judges talk weird, 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.

It’s not even so much what the judge and I think. But it is critical what jurors think. When you testify like that, you sound like somebody who’s full of themself or trying to hide the truth. Neither is good for your credibility with lay jurors.

You don’t sound like a regular person the jury can identify with.  When the defense attorney starts beating on you, the jury just sees two professionals – neither of which they can relate to – going at each other in a highfalutin’ word game that has little to do with them or justice. 

When asked what behaviors increase a witness’ credibility in court, jurors respond that using understandable language is important. That’s why we call it “straight talk.”

Let’s try re-training. Make up some flashcards. On one side, write a phrase you use on the stand. On the other side, write the same phrase in plain English. Drill yourself. 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, have a kid drill you. Let them break a raw egg on your head each time you falter. If it’s your kid, it’ll be a nice Hallmark moment. If it’s a neighbor’s kid, consider it community-oriented policing.

References

1. Jones RR, Sevilla CM, Uelmen GF. Disorderly Conduct: Verbatim Excerpts from Actual Court Cases. W. W. Norton & Company, 1987.

2. Nicholas Meier N, Adams RJ. Plain English for Cops. Carolina Academic Press, 1999.

3. Robinson P. What You Say is What They Write.

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