Author: James Dudley
Law enforcement officers around the country are aghast when they read public reactions to high-profile incidents. The public often second-guesses the actions of police officers days or weeks after events after hearing from the “experts” on the news and social media. Questions are asked as to why the police did not respond swiftly enough or, alternatively, why they overeacted. This is often followed by the public offering a dichotomy of proposed actions such as:
“Why didn’t the police just shoot them in the arm/leg/gun hand?” or “Why didn’t the police just shoot that guy before he could do more harm?” to “Why didn’t the police rush in/or de-escalate?” (depending on the desired outcome) or “Why didn’t the police search the person/vehicle/house?” to “Why are the police hassling those people?”
The most frustrating issue for law officers is that while the court of social justice is in session, their agency heads are often silent. The public’s unreasonable and uninformed suggestions often go unanswered by police leaders. It is not necessarily the public’s fault, as they are sometimes led into believing what individuals commenting on social media or in the free press have to say about police policy and procedure. Police agencies need to respond to these mistruths or outright “fake news” and provide the correct information. Those agencies with a media department or public information officer may be able to correct the inaccuracies, while smaller agencies may need someone from city government or a neutral expert to explain an incident.
The value of educating the public
Inaccurate portrayals of law enforcement-related incidents, such as vehicle pursuits, high-profile arrests, use of force, or officer-involved shootings may give a negative impression of an otherwise proper handling of a situation. The resulting impact of the negative perception may range from a lack of trust from the community and fewer calls with information from the public, to a loss of funding or support for additional law enforcement resources and personnel.
For example, in Northern California in April, police observed an individual parked in a car late at night in a parking lot. An officer diligently ran the license plate and discovered there was a notification that the registered owner was reported as a missing adult by her parents located in Southern California. Three officers approached and conducted a thorough investigation. The officers queried the adult woman about her intentions along the lines of her mental health status. One officer did a check of a firearms database and received a negative response. Once satisfied, the officers noted the woman’s condition and told her they would contact her parents with a status report. Several hours later, the woman went on a rampage and shot three YouTube employees, eventually turning the weapon on herself and committing suicide.
Once the media reported the investigative stop by police, social media chatter demanded to know why the police had not searched, detained and arrested the woman when they had the “opportunity.” The shooter’s brother blamed the officers for contributing to the shootings and death of his sister. Although the law enforcement agency did respond to defend the officers’ conduct, they missed the opportunity to educate the public on how this particular interaction did not qualify for a search, detention or arrest. This was a chance to detail not only department policy, but to also describe the Fourth Amendment considerations that protect Americans from unwarranted search and seizure of their persons, vehicles, homes and property.
Failure to respond with a message about an incident is common in policing. Law enforcement has been blamed for not doing enough to doing too much. There has been criticism ranging from slow response to acting too swiftly; from over-policing neighborhoods to neglecting them; from training in a military-like fashion to being under-trained to handle large-scale events.
The reasons for the delay or response to queries and explanations vary. They include the following:
The overwhelming spectrum of the incident (such as in mass casualty incidents); The reluctance to divulge SWAT or special operations tactics; Fear of liability issues and lawsuits; Administrative restrictions (including release of personnel information and release of disciplinary histories); Ongoing investigative issues that call for shielding of officers, victims and witnesses, or that which may hinder identification of the suspect(s); Paralysis by analysis when agencies take too much time to get a press release exactly right.
Each of these issues may delay the release of information, but that delay should be minimal before a false narrative is allowed to take root. With that in mind, here are six steps LE agencies should take to respond to a high-profile incident:
- Pre-plan: Prepare a “worst-case scenario” public information release policy regarding events such as an officer-involved shooting, a mass casualty incident, an active shooter response, or high-profile arrest or use of force incident. Command staff should consult with their unit commanders and legal team to determine what can and cannot be revealed. This should not be a templated response, but should identify the issues beforehand, not during the critical incident. The policy guide should be updated as situations arise. Rather than create a policy playbook of press releases from scratch, use model policy examples from the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) and state Police Officers’ Standards and Training (POST) sites. The IACP has launched information papers on issues such as its Police Use of Force Consensus. Transparency: Seize the opportunity to be transparent and explain laws and procedures with the public. Correct the false narrative or incorrect information already given out by the news media. For example: Explain why one group at a protest was not shut down by giving a brief on the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights. Describe the Fourth Amendment when addressing searches and seizures. Take the time to talk about Graham v. Connor when discussing use of force cases. Demystify the police and debunk urban legends. Verify the facts: Confirm information before making the release to the media. That is, information should be taken from a credible and reliable source, not someone guarding the outer perimeter of a crime scene. Do not speculate. Once the information is released, it cannot be retracted. Have a third party and legal team vet the information release before giving it to the media. Speak with one voice: Choose one spokesperson from the organization. Have that individual be consistent, especially regarding incidents that may unfold over extended time periods. Conflicting information from multiple sources within the organization can appear to be a cover-up or a lie. Make sure the individual is up to the task and has had enough training to be the face and voice of the organization. Explain the release of information policy throughout the organization, to all members, sworn and civilian. Nothing can be more damaging than a “unnamed source” with inside information who releases falsehoods to the media. Consider a level of discipline for breaking the policy. Explain that leaked sensitive information may ruin an on-going investigation, search for the suspect and possibly one’s career. Get the message out quickly. Once a preliminary investigation has been conducted to address major points of the incident, craft a press release and send it to the media. Live interviews should not stray too far from the press release. Caveats should be given such as: “The investigation is ongoing, and more information will follow, this is a brief from what we know right now.”
Clearly, law enforcement agencies need to address crime and incidents with training, tactics and weapons that are appropriate to handle each situation. Agencies should also be equipped to handle the media and public response to incidents and prepared to provide some fundamental public education on why a police response was necessary.