We Can’t Agree on Basic Facts When Discussing Cops


How to communicate effectively when people can’t agree on basic facts.

Media and public relations are best served when we acknowledge that people hold beliefs that we may consider wrong or unsupportable, but insulting or disregarding those opinions causes people to entrench. When they do, they are no longer listening.

Respect for the beliefs of others and politely offering research or data to support your point of view doesn’t end opposition, but it causes many to reconsider and creates openness to your cause. This is public relations 101.


The last time I opined that there are probably better and smarter ways to communicate, The Media Is Not Our Enemy, I got blasted. I understand that many (most?) readers are angry with the misinformation about police and justice-related issues.

“The media are scum,” was the collective chant. “The media lies.” But where does that leave us? Don’t talk to the media? Don’t explain our positions? That leaves the discussion in the hands of others and that never works well.

The Public

I often wonder why people disagree about crime policy when the data seems so clear to me. It’s because we can’t agree on basic facts about anything.

For example, there is no national consensus as to what we want police or corrections or parole and probation to do. It’s all a matter of opinion. The only thing that separates fact from fiction is data.

While the research from Pew (below) does not address crime, it’s important for criminal justice policymakers and practitioners to understand that few Americans agree on the basics of any national issue.

A Research-Based Approach

I spent a professional lifetime in criminal justice public affairs for national and state agencies doing lots of talk radio and public speaking. I understood that a research-based approach to public discussions was a smart move that took some steam out of those questioning our positions. I try to take the same approach to my articles.

We live in a media-dominated world where discussions about policing or corrections have transitory themes such as excessive use of force or too heavy of a reliance on incarceration or advocacy regarding rehabilitation programs.

There is little definitive research on any of these topics. There is little to prove or disprove whether cops use too much force, but there is data from for US Department of Justice stating that in 90 percent of police encounters, the officer acted appropriately, Bureau of Justice Statistics. Too much or too little incarceration is a matter of opinion, but we do know that 5 out of 6 released prisoners will be rearrested, Crime in America.

Rehabilitation programs seem intuitive and reasonable until you look at the lack of success of these efforts, Crime in America.

Yes, I understand that data is cherrypicked to support a point of view and that anything can be “proved” with selective statistics, but research, especially Department of Justice funded studies, are often our best hope for a real dialog.

Strongly Held Emotions

It’s not in our best interest to go to war over strongly held emotions. The data on emergency communications applies where the more you disagree, the more entrenched people become.

I believe that the great majority of cops are decent people trying to do a dangerous job with as little friction as possible, and that the data mostly agrees with me. I understand that there are people who believe that most cops are less than honorable, and worse. When this happens, I go to the data on trust in police, (which is at an all-time high).

When someone states that cops are trigger happy, I refer to data stating that over seventy percent have never discharged their firearms while on duty. When people bring up the shootings of unarmed suspects, I state that fewer than one percent were unarmed.

No, it doesn’t change people’s minds immediately, but when you tell people who believe that cops are shooting people without a reason that less than one percent of suspects shot are unarmed, it does have an impact.

Opinions Are Meaningless

If you want to influence people as to criminal justice policy, you have to know the data.

During debates, your opinion is somewhat meaningless. You could say that you have been in law enforcement or corrections for three decades and you know what you are talking about, but that’s often dismissed by people who lived in their community for the same amount of time who think you’re nuts.

Data is the great equalizer. No, it’s not going to convince people that you are right and they are wrong, but it does get them to think about an alternative view.

By the way, when it came to doing talk radio, it didn’t matter if I was on an urban or rural radio station, or whether the audience was principally black or white, or liberal or conservative, I used the same philosophy. No question was silly, I complimented most on their points of view, I was not insulting, and every argument I made was based on national, state or local data.

For every interview, I prepared for probable hard questions. For every interview, I had something new to offer that was data driven so I could take control of the opening ten minutes.

Participating in all requests for interviews is a philosophy that pays off just because your ready and savvy enough to understand that 100,000 people will get to hear your side of the story.

Openness and an aggressive promotional campaign through audio or video or photography or blogging can make friends and influence people.

Who Are You?

In a day and age where few agree on basic facts, it’s important to let the public know where you stand and why.

Agencies and issues get creamed by the media and public if they have no prior knowledge as to who you are and what you’re trying to accomplish. Remember that the number of reporters has declined considerably in most markets so the journalist covering you may know little to nothing about the justice system. The days of the experienced police/justice reporter have largely disappeared.

A new and negative incident may be the only thing people or reporters know about you if you are not “out there.”

If you establish beforehand that you are honorable people doing an honorable job, it causes people to pause and consider that the current event may not be indicative of holistic problems. It’s even possible that the negative things people are saying can be diminished or dismissed entirely if they know you, and trust you, and you have good data.

Media coverage can go from incident to issue in a heartbeat if they know nothing about you. Don’t be that person or agency. Engage. Be a data expert. It’s in our long-term best interest.

New Research from Pew-Republicans and Democrats Agree: They Can’t Agree On Basic Facts

Ironically, Republicans and Democrats do agree that partisan disagreements extend to the basic facts of issues, according to a new Pew Research Center survey, conducted July 30-Aug. 12 among 4,581 adults.

About eight-in-ten Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (81%) say Republican and Democratic voters disagree on basic facts of issues. A similar – albeit slightly smaller – share of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents (76%) say the same. Just 18% of Republicans and 23% of Democrats say that voters of the two parties can agree on basic facts even if they disagree over policies and plans.

These views are nearly identical to the shares who said before the 2016 election that Trump and Clinton supporters could not agree over basic facts.

Ideological differences within the partisan groups are more pronounced than differences between the parties on this topic. While about seven-in-ten moderate and liberal Republicans and Republican leaners (72%) say that Republican and Democratic voters cannot agree on basic facts, an even higher share of conservative Republicans (86%) say this. Among Democrats and Democratic leaners, liberals are somewhat more likely than conservatives and moderates to think that the two parties disagree on basic facts (81% vs. 73%).

Opinion on whether or not Republican and Democratic voters can agree on basic facts differs by race and ethnicity. Whites (82%) are far more likely than blacks (70%) or Hispanics (64%) to say that voters cannot agree on basic facts. And while about a third (34%) of Hispanics and 26% of blacks say that voters of both major parties can agree on basic facts, fewer whites (17%) say the same.

These racial and ethnic differences account for the modest difference between Republicans and Democrats in these views: Among whites, nearly identical shares of Republicans (82%) and Democrats (83%) say partisans can’t even agree on the basic facts on important issues.

Younger Americans are less likely than older Americans to say that the two parties cannot agree on basic facts. About seven-in-ten (69%) of those ages 18 to 29 say Republican and Democratic voters cannot agree on basic facts. In contrast, those ages 30 to 49 (78%), 50 to 64 (80%) and 65 and older (83%) are much more likely to say the same thing. And while nearly one-third of 18- to 29-year-olds (29%) say that partisans do agree on basic facts, just 16% of those 65 and older say the same.




Leonard Adam Sipes, Jr. – Retired federal senior spokesperson. Thirty-five years of award-winning public relations for national and state criminal justice agencies. Interviewed multiple times by every national news outlet. Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse. Former Director of Information Services, National Crime Prevention Council. Former Adjunct Associate Professor of criminology and public affairs-University of Maryland, University College. Former advisor to presidential and gubernatorial campaigns. Former advisor to the “McGruff-Take a Bite Out of Crime” national media campaign. Certificate of Advanced Study-Johns Hopkins University. You can contact me at [email protected]