Sitting around a conference table I remember vividly pitching story ideas to my boss who headed up the television station. Each afternoon, my stomach would turn as I pitched “THE STORY,” riddled with controversy. As time went on, pitching “THE STORY” became less important to me. I wanted to focus on the positive, so I left the television news industry and began working with law enforcement. So many of the stories hitting the news centered on negative encounters involving police officers. Once the media puts its spin on a story, it can be hard to break the cycle and get the facts out to the public. That’s why having a crisis communication plan when the crisis hits will only help in a serious incident.
It starts by building rapport with reporters before “THE STORY” hits the news cycle, but it goes deeper than that. It’s about police agencies telling their own stories using social media. Facebook is the best place to do that. From a community engagement standpoint, there is nothing like it. It comes down to realizing that it’s not about you. It’s about the community you serve and your Facebook posts can help show that.
To engage your community, being consistent on social media allows for on-going dialogue. That means posting daily and replying to comments are critical in building a partnership with the community. This is time consuming, but it is the key to community engagement, growing your following and showing the public you care. The more you respond, the more comments you’ll get (and that means more work), and it shows people that you’re listening. You have the public at your fingertips with the push of a button. It pays dividends when the there’s a public safety emergency or a negative story arises. In many cases, your Facebook page will become the number one source for public safety information in your community and when the crisis hits, you’ll be able to get your message out to the public without having to go through the mainstream media. Reporters will still cover the story, but you’ll have your own voice, without being edited.
But what about when the story centers around deadly use of force incidents? In light of recent events such as the Louisiana officer involved shooting, transparency and explanation can help defuse the situation. Part of the problem is that by nature, police work is secretive. Yet in today’s world and culture, transparency is demanded. The community and law enforcement have different definitions of what transparency means and therein lies the problem.
It is law enforcement’s responsibility to explain their actions. A deadly use of force incident is used to save the lives of officers and community members. By explaining that fact, it builds trust and legitimacy.
Cell phones provide everyone a camera. Every officer should expect that if involved in a deadly use of force incident, it will be recorded by a member of the community and it will be scrutinized. The media will play the cell phone video over and over and over again, giving the impression that officers did something wrong. That already puts law enforcement at a disadvantage from the beginning. It’s important for the agency to get in front of the situation.
How? Get your Chief or Sheriff to release the details and hold the news conference with the media. Some will say that’s why the agency has a public information officer, but the community doesn’t want to hear from the usual mouthpiece. They want to hear from the boss. Because a life was taken, it demands accountability from the person who leads the organization.
Continuing to release new details on a daily basis also shows progress and transparency. These details need to be vetted first, but police agencies should consider releasing as much information as possible without jeopardizing the case. This is hard to do, especially in a deadly officer involved shooting. The initial reaction is to release as little as possible out of fear, but really what is there to be fearful of? The facts are the facts. They won’t change and if it won’t hurt the ongoing investigation, releasing more shows transparency and accountability. Police organizations can also consider releasing body-worn camera video. Of course, it shouldn’t be released in every situation. When appropriate, it can illustrate the dangers officers face in these incidents. If we don’t, then the alternative is letting cell phone video play over and over without context.
There’s nothing wrong with the media or the community holding law enforcement accountable for any loss of life. In fact, every officer should demand it as well. That’s why police agencies should consider explaining the circumstances surrounding the deadly officer involved shooting and why it’s necessary to work collectively with the community and the media to build trust and legitimacy in a post-Ferguson world.
Laura Cole is a media, social media, and crisis communications consultant working with law enforcement agencies across the state. She will be presenting the crisis communications portion of our training during COPSWEST. If you have questions for Laura please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 925-787-9121.