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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Raise Your Right Hand...Preparing to Offer Legal Testimony

Article fromPublic Safety Communications Magazine, January 2009
Written by Bob Smith, Director of APCO International's Comm Center & 911 Services Div.

Anyone who has every spent any time in the public safety communications industry knows that legal testimony--whether in a courtroom or for an affidavit--is part of the job. Providing background information, deciphering audio recordings, explaining policies and procedures--the list of things one can be called upon to testify about is endless. As a former supervisor and comm center director, I have spent my fair share of time in courtrooms. For many, these court-required appearances will be a first-time experience with the legal system beyond their own function in public safety. So it is vital that you be prepared for these appearances and familiar with your role in the overall proceedings.

Here are a few simple guidelines to help you prepare should you be called upon to testify in a courtroom or for a witnessed affidavit:

Dress Appropriately. This should include any form of dress uniform your agency may provide. If your agency does not provide a uniform, then business or business informal attire is the most appropriate form of dress. This is usually one step above business casual and includes a suit jacket and tie for men and a pantsuit or other appropriate dress for women. This is especially important in a courtroom setting where your appearance will reflect on you and your agency, and will help set the level of credibility for your testimony. Juries tend to look down on anyone appearing in a courtroom wearing less than professional attire, and this may inadvertently sway their opinions of the witness and his or her testimony.

Be Prepared. Review all CAD entries or written incident cards related to the call or incident in question. Review any written radio logs. And listen to any audio recordings associated with the incident, both telephone and radio. If you're a supervisor or dispatcher or were otherwise not directly involved in the incident, then take the time to discuss the incident with any staff members who were involved in the call, if appropriate, and review any perceived sequence of events. The more information you have at hand when entering the legal proceeding, the better equipped you'll be to answer questions and give relevant testimony.

During your preparations, you'll probably be meeting with legal counsel. The attorney will prepare you for the testimoony by giving you some insight regarding how the proceedings will progress and what your role will be throughout. There may even be a simulated examination, with the attorney playing the role of the cross-examining lawyer, if this type of testimony is expected.

Clear your Schedule. Although legal proceedings tend to start relatively on time, they rarely stay on schedule. You'll be told what time to arrive and what time you're expected to appear. Although initial expectations may be that your participation in the session will fall at a certain time or following another person, this may quickly be derailed, depending on the proceedings and the setting. In addition, you may be required to remain available following your testimony should questions arise. So arrive early, and be prepared to stay late.

Once the proceeding has begun, some tips to follow while providing testimony include:

  • Answer questions narrowly and specifically. Just like any other form of communications we participate in, you should be accurate, brief and concise. Do not elaborate unless asked to do so or unless you feel it is absolutely necessary to make the point or clarify, such as explaining what acronyms stand for or defining other technical or industry jargon.
  • Do not let emotions guide you. Attorneys may try to evoke displays of emotion, such as anger or defiance, during cross examination. Remain calm and cool.
  • Before answering any question, repeat it in your head. This gives you time to think about your response and time for your legal counsel to object if they desire.
  • Above all else, always be 100% truthful. Always answer every question asked of you as honestly as possible.

After you have provided your testimony and have been released, you may be asked to remain available and easily accessible for further questions or follow-up. Following your appearance, you should refrain from discussing your role in the proceedings or any other information you may have received as part of your participation with anyone not involved in the process. Above all else, consult your agency's legal counsel prior to participating in any testimony.

The Bottom Line: Testifying in a courtroom or in some other form of legal setting is part of the job. Being prepared for these types of appearances and knowing what role you will play in the overall proceedings ensures that you will professionally represent yourself, your agency, and the public safety communications industry.

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