Lawyers' Perceptions of Police Officers' Performance in Court

By Kebbell, Mark R.; O'Kelly, Caitriona M. E. | Canadian Journal of Police and Security Services, September 2003 | Go to article overview
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Lawyers' Perceptions of Police Officers' Performance in Court

Kebbell, Mark R., O'Kelly, Caitriona M. E., Canadian Journal of Police and Security Services


Police witnesses often provide crucial evidence in court. However, little research exists concerning positive and negative aspects of the presentation of police evidence in court and ways in which the presentation of police evidence can be improved. The present paper seeks to shed light on this issue through a survey of 15 lawyers who have experience of examining English police witnesses in court. The results showed that lawyers perceive that many police officers are giving effective evidence in court but that problems do exist that can be improved on, potentially through training. Issues of particular importance seem to be that officers thoroughly investigate the crime, take their own detailed notes, familiarise themselves with details of the case before attending court, give evidence confidently, concede points to the defence where appropriate demonstrating objectivity and honesty.

Witness evidence is central to most court cases (Zander & Henderson, 1993) and research indicates that jurors rely heavily on such evidence to decide whether to convict or acquit (Cutler, Penrod & Dexter, 1990). The nature of police work means that officers frequently give evidence in court concerning the way in which they conducted an investigation or because they have personally witnessed an offence (Eames, Hooke, & Portas, 1994). Thus, it is important that police officers give accurate evidence in court yet, to our knowledge, the quality of police officers' evidence in court has received little academic attention.

The questions that witnesses, including police witnesses, are asked may vary according to whether the witness is undergoing "direct examination" or "cross-examination". Direct examination is supposedly a relatively open account of what happened by the advocate that called the witness (Evans, 1995; Murphy & Barnard, 1994; Stone, 1995). Cross-examination, on the other hand, follows direct examination and while the open nature of direct examination is likely to encourage accurate accounts, cross-examination has many features likely to adversely influence accuracy. A substantial volume of literature indicates the difficulties expert, professional witnesses such as psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers face in giving accurate evidence under cross-examination (e.g. Bernstein, 1979; Gothard, 1989; Gudjonsson, 1987; Margolin, 1983; Weissman, 1984) for that reason we will concentrate on cross-examination next.


Evans (1995) identifies four broad objectives of cross-examination including "laying the foundation", "putting your case forward", "eliciting extra and useful facts", and, "discrediting the evidence". The lawyer is not allowed to comment on matters that have not been touched on during direct examination. Laying the foundation and putting your case forward involves asking questions concerning the case that support the cross-examining lawyer's explanation of events which have not been covered by the opposing lawyer in direct examination. Eliciting extra and useful facts involves the cross-examining lawyer asking questions to elicit evidence that is again favourable to the lawyer's case.

According to Evans (1995), however, the most important aspect of cross-examination is discrediting the evidence. Interestingly, he points out that this "is not a procedure which is aiming to find out the truth" (p.150). Lawyers have a number of techniques that can help achieve this aim. One method is to not allow the witness to give an open account through asking closed questions and frequently interrupting the witnesses' responses. An anecdotal example of this technique is illustrated by the following interchange given by Evans (1995) concerning a police sergeant who had come across two burglars attempting to rob a jewellery shop in the early hours of the morning.

LAWYER And you say you approached to within twelve feet of these men without their seeming to notice your arrival, sergeant?

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