A forthcoming article in the Harvard Law Review questions whether the use of police officers as “experts” on the witness stand is helpful to juries and judges, or an attempt to “expand police authority in multiple areas of the law.”
The article, entitled “The Judicial Presumption of Police Expertise,” observes that the notion that police testimony should be granted special deference coincided with the growing professionalization of police forces starting in the 1950s. But while officers may witness events and behaviors the average person does not, relying solely on their field experiences may also leave the door open to biased interpretation of the facts at trial.
Police officers are now asked to testify in court on complex questions ranging from gambling and prostitution to narcotics. But presumptions about police competence in these issues can be “deeply distorted,” and can lend themselves to conflicts of interest, argues Columbia Law School Academic Fellow Anna Lvovsky.
“In many if not most narcotics cases, the policemen who testified as expert witnesses were also responsible for the original arrest,” she writes. “Especially in cases involving the influence of drugs, these officers functioned both as expert analysts of the incriminating facts and as crucial fact witnesses, testifying to the underlying evidence necessary to establish guilt: a victim or defendant’s physical demeanor, bodily marks and injuries, or other visible facts at the scene.”
The author also explores the role of the Fourth Amendment when evaluating the legitimacy of police expertise, as well as how the professionalization of the police in the public eye may have added to the distrust between officers and communities in which they “[face] most opposition.”
“More rigorous oversight of the police will remain elusive,” Lvovsky writes, “until we learn to recognize the extent to which the courts’ many diverse encounters with the police shape their regulation of police competence—both through their substantive content and their more subtle systemic effects.”
Read the full paper here.