Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Big-City Police Officers Get Lessons in `Courtly' Behavior

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Big-City Police Officers Get Lessons in `Courtly' Behavior

Article excerpt

In a brightly lighted room with crisp white walls, Terry Gotlieb paces back and forth, shrugs and waves her hands in the air as she drives home her point.

"We want to make you as human as we possibly can," she intones.

Her audience is young, mostly white and male. Some have military-style haircuts, others long locks dangling over their collars. A few have guns on their hips.

Gotlieb, an assistant district attorney in New York City, is instructing law enforcement officers from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut on how to testify in drug cases and win the confidence of jaded jurors who are suspicious of police officers.

"There is this big blue out there," she says. "Some people like it, some people hate it. You're not big blue. You are who you are. And you want to say, `I'm here, I put my life on the line, I made a buy, I made an arrest, I took risks, I'm a person, here's my story.' The most successful police witnesses are the people who do that well." Police Lose Credibility

That sounds easy, but it is difficult to do, especially in cases such as the sale of small amounts of drugs or possession of a gun that hinge almost entirely on the word of a police officer against the word of a defendant.

Although there is disagreement on the causes, prosecutors, police officers and academics agree that Americans are increasingly suspicious of police officers.

"There is the image right now in the minds of some people that every cop is corrupt," says Robert Silbering, special narcotics prosecutor for New York City. "They come in and sit on a jury and even before the cop testifies, they question his credibility."

Defense lawyers agree that police are taking a beating in the courtroom, especially in large cities.

"I do get a sense that there is this erosion with regard to police credibility," says Manhattan defense attorney Kenneth Paul. "There may be more jurors who don't take the police at their word."

The result is that some juries are expecting a higher standard of evidence from the police before they hand over a guilty verdict.

Paul defended one person who was seen by several police officers disposing of a large quantity of cocaine. It seemed a tight case for the prosecution, but the defendant was acquitted, in part, because police officers contradicted one another on the stand.

"I spoke to the jury afterward and some felt the police just didn't do enough," Paul says.

But even though many jurors hold a jaundiced view of the police, Paul and other defense attorneys insist the legal playing field is still stacked against defendants when, because of the presumption of innocence, it should be tilted in their favor. Scandals Erode Confidence

Corruption scandals blow confidence in the police "back and forth like wind chimes," says John Henry Hingson III of Oregon, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. But misconduct doesn't have a lasting effect on jurors' faith in police, he says.

"It just depends on how recent the last corruption story was," he says. "Very quickly, the public's vision will once again be clouded and jurors will blindly accept any story so long as it is told by a person wearing a uniform, wearing a badge, carrying a gun."

The way people evaluate the police in court also depends on where they live, says Merri Hankins of the National Drug Prosecution Center in Washington.

"In North Dakota, the prosecutors say all they have to do is put the cop on the stand and they get a conviction," Hankins says.

Jurors from retirement communities in Florida and Arizona are also more respectful of authority and more likely to bring a conviction, Hankins says. Similarly, police officers home-grown in small towns are likely to be believed by jurors from their communities.

But back in the big city, police officers are treated with suspicion, says Manhattan defense attorney Michael Hurwitz, who points to video technology as one of the causes. …

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