Five Questions with Chasity Branham: How Putting Public Safety Cadets on the Stand Prepares Them for the Future
As Polk State Kenneth C. Thompson Institute of Public Safety cadets near the end of their training, they have their day in court.
There is no subpoena. The cases are completely fictional. But the setting, attorneys and judges are real — as are the cadets’ nerves when they are called to “testify” on the stand.
Polk State’s public safety institute added the mock court exercise to its curriculum about six years ago. Several times a year, cadets take the stand at the Polk County Courthouse to answer questions about reports they’ve written on fictional crimes.
Real attorneys and judges volunteer their time to make the exercise as real as possible, grilling the cadets for hours at a time about the details of their reports. They also dissect the cadets’ demeanors, from their facial expressions to moments of hesitation in their testimony, poking as many holes as possible in the cadets’ testimony.
The exercise is not state-mandated, nor is something public safety academies typically require, but all involved — and even State Attorney Jerry Hill — have commended it for preparing cadets for their inevitable calls to testify.
Here, Chasity Branham, a former prosecutor for the State Attorney’s Office who is now a criminal justice professor, explains the mock court exercise and why it benefits not just the cadets, but the entire community.
- What is the impact of the mock court exercise? How does it help future law enforcement officers prepare for their careers?
Through the mock court exercise, aspiring law enforcement officers make the stark realization that they need to document, document, document. They must be accurate and thorough in their investigations. For the cadets on the stand, this exercise highlights the gaps in their “reports.” In a real court setting, the defense will use those gaps to challenge the law enforcement officers and their cases. For the cadets, the embarrassment and “sick feeling” that accompany the realization that they have left out pertinent information from a report are not easily forgotten.
This exercise also allows cadets to actually feel the nervousness that comes with being called to the stand, taking the “oath,” and being cross-examined in a public setting. It is a practical truth that a conviction or acquittal is often determined by the jury’s view of the officer’s credibility, as well as his or her ability to maintain self-control while testifying. The cadets are afforded the opportunity to learn what “nervous ticks” they may have — like saying “um,” biting their lips, or avoiding looking at the jury — so that they can work on becoming more effective testifiers.
Finally, learning the “do’s and don’ts” of testifying, such as where to look, how to ask for clarification if a question doesn’t make sense, and the ability to see what “arrogance and cockiness” look like on the stand — and how to avoid it in the future — are also major benefits of this exercise that can’t be taught in a classroom or by textbook. This mock court exercise allows cadets’ academic learning and necessary real-world skills to come together for one of the only times before a “real case” and a “real verdict” are on the line.
- What is the biggest mistake you see law enforcement officers make on the stand?
One of the biggest mistakes I see veteran officers make on the stand is not being prepared for testimony and/or appearing to “not care” about the case. Understandably, law enforcement officers can become frustrated with the system, especially when it often seems as though court subpoenas come at the most inconvenient times — during vacations, after they have worked all night, etc. However, juries, and often judges, don’t realize this. They don’t always know the officer just got off a 12-hour shift and hasn’t slept in a full day. When an officer comes into court on any case, juries and judges often believe that this case is the most important case the officer has ever worked, because to the jury in particular, it may be the first time they have ever been in a courtroom — so it is a big deal.
When an officer offers responses like “I don’t remember,” or “It was so long ago,” or “I didn’t have time to read my report before now,” that hurts the state’s case significantly. Prosecutors rely on law enforcement witnesses to be prepared and experienced in the testifying area. Often prosecutors are having to focus on their “lay witnesses” and aren’t able to give as much time and attention to their testifying law enforcement officers as they would like to. They hope veteran officers will call with any questions in advance and will be effective and prepared to testify.
When officers do not take the time to read reports, watch videos, review evidence, and reach out to the Assistant State Attorney if they have questions, the result is that they look unprepared in the courtroom. Juries and judges often mistake this for a lack of caring about the case. They get “turned off” by that, and often an acquittal is the result of that mistake by the officer while on the stand.
- If you could give one piece of advice to law enforcement officers preparing to testify in court, what would it be?
Take the time, even if it’s on your own time, to observe court when other officers are testifying to see firsthand how testimony looks to a juror. Complete your investigations and reports with the end in mind. In other words, investigate beyond probable cause, attempting to write reports that aid prosecutors in reaching the higher burden of proof of beyond a reasonable doubt. Once you receive a subpoena for court, prepare, prepare, prepare, and contact the State Attorney’s Office with questions. Once in court, remember, every step, facial expression and word is going to be scrutinized and dissected for credibility. Be ever so careful with your nonverbal communication and demeanor. And, lastly, never lose your cool. Never.
4. Can you describe the value that this kind of training brings to an entire agency?
The value of an entire agency’s officers being trained in the courtroom portion of their job cannot be overstated. The confidence it brings to the individual officers, as well as the standard it sets within the agency, is noticed by courtroom spectators, judges, attorneys and other agencies. It sets agencies that put a premium on this type of training up for excellence in both their investigations as well as their courtroom convictions based on credible and effective testimony of officers that work hard on each and every case.
5. Can you recommend any other sources of training/exercises for law enforcement officers interested in improving their skills on the stand?
I teach 40-hour courses at Polk State’s public safety academy that help veteran officers improve in the areas of case preparation and courtroom testimony. Based on Florida Department of Law Enforcement curriculum, these courses give officers the chance to attend trials and hearings and analyze the effectiveness — or lack thereof — of the testimony we observe. Veteran officers consistently tell me they wish they had been required to take those courses during their first year of employment.
In addition to training provided through the Polk State Kenneth C. Thompson Institute of Public Safety, Polk State Public Safety offers associates and bachelor’s degrees in Criminal Justice, as well as training and degrees in Emergency Medical Services and Fire Science.