Fact: Most police officers don't like attorneys! Fact: Many attorneys don't think much of the police profession either! Surprised? Probably not. A relationship tenuous from the start has gradually deteriorated with repeated unsatisfactory contacts.
Excessive media coverage of high- profile criminal trials often puts police officers in a bad light. And previous unpleasant courtroom encounters lead many police officers to dislike attorneys and to resist dealing with them if at all possible.
Similarly, some attorneys have a noticeable tendency to look down upon the law enforcement profession as being too aggressive, biased, judgmental, and ham-handed with its cases. They also tend to see the police officer as primarily a blue-collar worker bent on issuing heavy doses of street justice or locked into a totally inflexible position that doesn't consider the needs of the community.
In either case, lawyer jokes and cop jokes abound on both sides, and each appears to treat the other the same way a cobra treats a mongoose-very carefully.
All this animosity, justified or not, can put you in a precarious position as a paralegal. If your law firm has any dealings with the police or with police-related matters, e.g., clients in traffic collisions or criminal defense cases, you can find a number of figurative and literal barriers in your path.
Just getting a copy of a police report can turn into an all-day affair
Police agencies, as with most bureaucracies, are stifled by rules and regulations that interfere with their ability to help the public. As the old sage Will Rogers so eloquently put it, "The last thing a public servant wants to do is serve the public."
You may have a tough time locating a specific report, but that effort pales in comparison with the assignment of getting any help, new information, or even a return phone call from a detective about your case. This task can be an entirely different exercise in futility. If you're the one asked to track down information from police officials, better put a seatbelt around your desk; it can be a bumpy ride.
Police professionals tend to see lawyers as people who only come around to undo the good things the police have done. Lawyers capitalize on seemingly small technicalities in the law to free known criminals from jail, sue officers and their departments for superfluous civil cases, point out report-writing errors and magnify them to the nth degree with judges and juries, and finally, embarrass or humiliate officers on the witness stand.
Many officers have learned painful lessons from criminal defense attorneys and civil litigation attorneys who have "barbecued" them for their errors. The officers have long memories about who reddened their cheeks in the courtroom. From the first day of the police academy and throughout their careers, the police are taught to speak carefully around attorneys or risk looking like fools in front of the public and their courthouse peers. These lessons run deep and probably do much to interfere with the flow of information between attorneys and the police. Most officers have clear memories of courtroom encounters that made the minutes tick by like days. Whereas many defense and civil litigation attorneys consider their treatment of police officers as just another part of the job, the officers themselves can recount each encounter verbatim.
This "enemy camps" mentality only gets in your way. Unfortunately, years of historical animosity precede you. Keep this story in mind whenever you prepare to deal with police officials: One of the largest police training companies in the country offers a three-day police officer survival seminar. This program appears in various large cities and is well-attended by officers looking for new tactics. Besides the usual collection of police books, video tapes, and sports clothes, the firm sells a t-shirt with Shakespeare's well-quoted line, "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers." Do you doubt that this t- shirt sells like hotcakes to the officers in attendance? Forewarned is forearmed.
Making Contact with a particular police officer
Getting through to a selected police officer can be easy, moderately difficult, or next to impossible. Just calling up the police station, leaving your name, law firm name, and telephone number, probably won't help much.
Since most officers still remember their last painful run-in with an attorney (either professionally or personally, as in a nasty divorce case), they can rarely think of any reason to go out of their way to help an attorney or paralegal who calls them for assistance.
To help you locate an individual officer, consider the following checklist of questions:
- What is the officer's full name and ID number? A large police agency can have three or four R. Garcias, D. Smiths, or M. Washingtons. Look at the bottom of the report for the officer's ID number (it's not usually his or her badge number, but an identifying number that stays for the entire career).
- Where and for whom does the officer work? As we discussed in the chapter on locating police reports, you need to know where the officer works to find him or her. Some cities have several different substations, precincts, or divisions. Armed with a name and ID number, you can call the agency's Personnel Division and explain that you've trying to find the officer. The Personnel Division may send you in the right direction.
- What shift hours does the officer work? Some police reports will give this information at the bottom, near the officer's name, e.g., W-l, E-2, or N-3. These mean that the officer works at the Western Division station (first watch, or "day shift" hours), at the Eastern Division station (second watch, or "swing shift" hours), or at the Northern Division station (third watch, or the "graveyard" shift overnight hours). Or you may see "1, 2, or 3" or "A, B, or C" to indicate first, second, or third shift. Finally, you can look at the time the report was written for one last clue to the officer's working hours. Reports taken at 11:00 a.m. indicate a day shift; 6:00 p.m. indicates a swing shift; and reports penned at 4:30 a.m. indicate a graveyard shift. This time reference doesn't appear on all reports, but it may give you a window of opportunity to help you reach the officer. Knowing when a patrol officer works can help you plan your calls to arrive before he or she goes into the field or at the close or start of your business day.
- What are the officer's days off? Knowing this valuable information can help you plan your calls much more effectively. Calling for officers on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday when they are off will only irritate the message takers (usually other officers or overworked secretaries) and cause you to look unprofessional. Papering their mailboxes with pink return-call slips may even be counterproductive. Some officers work five eight-hour days with two days off, while others may work four 10-hour days with three days off. Find out when it's best to call for the officer, and schedule your phone time to increase your chances of reaching him or her.
- What is the officer's job title or rank? Most crime case, arrest, and injury/death traffic collision reports are originally taken by patrol officers and later handled by detectives. For error corrections, you'll want to speak to the patrol officer who took the case. For case updates or other significant information about your client, you'll usually want to speak with the detective assigned. In some cities, the detectives are assigned to area stations and work on everything that happens in that area. In others, they work on only one type of crime, e.g., burglaries, robberies, narcotics, etc. Finding the appropriate detective is usually harder than locating the originating patrol officers, but in most cases, the detective will be in more of a position to give you help or information.
- Are other officers named on the report? Will you need to talk to them? If so, consider leaving messages for each and improving your odds that one or more will return your call.
The best way to leave a message for an officer is to give only your first and last name and phone number. If you have a direct phone line right to your desk, so much the better. Leaving a message with the name of a law firm on it is a sure way to help your message slip hit the wastebasket. Remember, as noble as your client's case may be, and as right as you think you are, helping attorneys make money is not very important to the police. Be subtle and just leave your name, number, and the best time to call.
So what happens when you actually reach these officers at their station or they return your call? Kill them with kindness. Overwhelm them with your politeness. Startle them with your professionalism and courtesy.
Imagine what typically races through an officer's mind when he or she receives the following phone call: "Officer Johnson, this is paralegal Smith from the law office of Jones, Jones, and Jones. . . ."
Immediately, two things spring into the officer's mental frame: "What do THEY want? What, if anything, have I done wrong?" Imagine how you would respond if those two items were first and foremost in your mind. Suspicion, hostility, and wariness become the officer's watchwords. Meet these barriers head-on by being as friendly, open, and professional as possible, but don't beat around the bush or keep these officers guessing what you called about. Tell them the client's name, ask if they recall the case, and ask if they have time to speak with you about the matter.
Be aware of police department protocol when you speak to officers. Most agencies do not allow their officers to comment on pending criminal cases or arrest reports, especially those that are still in the investigation stage. Furthermore, most officers will not answer any questions about cases or reports awaiting trial. These inquiries must go through the appropriate city or district attorney. Don't expect much help if you fail to go through the appropriate channels.
But while most officers will not speak openly about criminal cases, traffic collisions are a completely different story. In these matters, the majority of police officers will be happy to speak to you about their view of the case. Since officers know most of these matters are handled civilly, without a court trial, they are less cautious with their opinions. They may answer your telephone queries with complete disclosure or they may simply say, "If you want to know what happened, review my report, and if necessary, I'll testify at a deposition or hearing, but you'll have to pay my department for my time."
In either case, thank the officer for his or her time and continue to be as professional as possible, even if you didn't solve your immediate concerns. There are other ways to get information.
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