This is the first of three posts about police note taking.
In this, Part 1, I discuss the importance of good police note taking in the context of telling the story of the case in evidence in a criminal trial.
In 13 years as a prosecutor I dealt with hundreds of police officers during pre-trial interviews and at trial. These officers ranged in experience from new recruits to senior members. Many impressed me with their professionalism and dedication. They exemplified the reality that modern policing calls for intelligent, dedicated professionals who are capable of doing a difficult job in a way which gets results and withstands scrutiny in the arena of a criminal trial. These officers usually had certain characteristics which I believe contributed to their success at giving credible evidence in court. One characteristic they invariably shared was good note taking habits.
The importance of good police note taking
Good police note taking is important for two reasons. First, it invariably bolsters the credibility of the police officer giving evidence. Second, it promotes the proper administration of criminal justice by facilitating the proof of facts.
Conversely, sloppy police note-taking can be devastating to the credibility of the officer giving evidence and seriously, if not fatally, undermine the successful prosecution of the case.
The role of good police note taking in the telling of the story of the case
The prosecution evidence in a criminal trial is like a multi-chapter story. If one or more of the chapters of the story is missing, it provides defence counsel with opportunities to argue that the judge or jury should accept some alternative interpretation of what the chapters mean, one which will undoubtedly involve a reasonable doubt as to the guilt of the accused. Also, if too many chapters are missing, invariably the story as a whole does not make sense and the prosecution fails. Each police officer giving evidence contributes to the development and understanding of the story which forms the basis for the prosecution evidence.
The challenge for a prosecutor is to put the case together, thereby telling the story of the case in evidence. The challenge for defence counsel is to take the case apart and show the story of the case is missing some or all of one or more chapters, such that it doesn’t make sense, creating reasonable doubt as to the guilt of the accused. One way defence counsel can raise a reasonable doubt is through cross-examination of the police officer about personal diligence, or competence, or both, in note taking.
Next time, in Part 2, I will discuss the classic way in which a poor police note taker can expect to find his or her credibility under attack in a criminal trial. In Part 3 I will discuss the effect sloppy police note taking can have on the outcome of a criminal trial.
[Note: This post is the first part of an article I authored for the Canadian national policing magazine Blueline; re-printed with permission in The Notebook, newsletter of Atlantic Women in Law Enforcement.]