Police Public Relations Suck
We complain that the media and public don’t understand what cops do and why they do it. This lack of understanding makes policing unnecessarily difficult. This applies to all facets of the criminal justice system.
Is the lack of understanding the public’s fault, or ours?
Big Cop Versus Small Woman
As a police officer, I received a report of a women walking on a travel portion of the Washington, D.C. beltway. Knowing the danger, I sped towards her location, found her, and carefully stopped four lanes of traffic. She was now in the middle of the beltway. Traffic quickly backed-up for over a mile.
I caught up with her and gently asked if I could be of assistance. She told me to “f” off.
The elderly woman appeared mentally ill thus I wanted to take her into custody for her safety as gently as possible. Ma’mn, let me help you. You’re in danger out here. That’s when she kicked me. It was the first of three; they were painful.
So I had no choice but to arrest her for her protection and mine. I was six foot three inches tall and in my prime. She was five foot two, elderly and frail.
Those I stopped had a ringside seat of this big cop cuffing (while avoiding more kicks) this small, older woman. She screamed for help. Some in the crowd started accusing me of using more force than was necessary. I did not strike her in any way. I was careful as possible. Still, a complaint went to my supervisor.
If this event occurred today, onlookers would have shot a video of me arresting this frail, elderly woman who was screaming for help. It would have gone viral. I would be subject to an infinite number of negative comments. Media would have covered the event. People would have called for an investigation. All of this would have occurred regardless as to the appropriateness of my actions.
I could go on with additional stories where I tried my best to be a gentleman cop, but being “gentle” just didn’t work at times. Sometimes, force is necessary, even compassionate.
My experiences come to mind when I read Heather Mac Donald’s account below in The City Journal:
On Friday, April 13, a little after 9 pm, campus health and police authorities began receiving calls about a student causing a commotion in the middle of one of Cambridge’s busiest streets. Twenty-one-year-old Selorm Ohene, a Ghanaian native, was high on LSD and naked, having thrown his clothes into a female passerby’s face. Three Cambridge Police Department officers and a transit cop arrived at the scene and for several minutes tried to calm Ohene down and persuade him to accept assistance. Their efforts were met with escalating “opposition and hostility,” according to Cambridge Police Chief Branville Bard, Jr. Ohene stepped toward one of the officers with his fists balled, according to the police report. Fearing that Ohene could run into traffic and harm himself or others, the officers decided to take him down.
As captured in a widely circulated cell phone video, one officer tackled Ohene from behind. Once on the ground, Ohene began swinging his arms and flailing wildly; the officers were unable to secure his arms for handcuffing. Another officer punched him five times in the torso with what are known as “compliance strikes,” designed to weaken a resisting suspect’s strength and reduce his drive to fight. As soon as the officers were able to cuff Ohene, they backed off. Two Cambridge officers were injured during the struggle. In the ambulance, Ohene spit saliva and blood in the face of a medical technician. The officers charged him with indecent exposure, disorderly conduct, assault, assault and battery, and resisting arrest, but the district attorney has yet to bring an indictment. Two weeks after the incident, Ohene was still being held in the hospital for psychological observation.
The resulting furor over the arrest involved every conceivable label you can throw at cops. In the minds of detractors, it was racism, the Hitler youth and the Matrix all rolled up into one, City Journal. The officers involved were attacked early and often.
There Are Police Abuses
Before getting too far, we in the justice system acknowledge that there are police abuses of power including unjustified homicides and assaults. Yes, there is a history of officers being used as tools of oppression. Yes, it was disgusting.
Cops know this better than anyone. We understand the history. We acknowledge the pain. The vast majority are dedicated to righting the wrongs.
But if you choose to lump 900,000 officers into a collective whole over the actions of few, you are guilty of massive stereotyping. Your generalizations have the same unjustifiable basis as racism or any other form of group prejudice.
Most cops are honorable people who are trying to do a dangerous job with as little friction as possible. Most are decent human beings. Most simply want to serve. Many engage in heroics on a regular basis.
Why isn’t this premise well established in the minds of the media or public?
We Are at a Crossroads
We have a massive problem with retaining and recruiting officers and I understand why. Within this environment, who would want to be a cop.
PTSD, suicides and massive exposure to trauma are creating real problems, Crime in America.
We are at a crossroad. Policing does involve ugly moments where the use of force, even lethal use of force are just not necessary, they are the only options available. We can all sit in our comfortable homes and criticize as events unfold, but being there and having to make that incredibly difficult decision in seconds is mind-blowing.
I watched a recent video of an officer following a suspect on foot who would not stop walking away or take his hands out of his pockets. This went on for about thirty seconds before he turned on the officer and shot him.
I’m aware of families that are urging their loved ones to stop proactive policing, stop taking chances, and to get out of policing now. I’m told that police response times are down considerably throughout the country. Crime is increasing some cities, Crime in America.
Are We Our Own Worst Enemies?
But we within the justice system may be our own worst enemies when it comes to everyone understanding what we go through on a daily basis.
What follows is a gameplan on improving our public and media relations.
Let’s assume that most fellow citizens are reasonable people looking for rational explanations, which could be a stretch in today’s polarized environment.
When I discuss controversial police actions with people, most, regardless as to who they are, seem willing to alter their perceptions when things are explained. “No, you can shoot someone in the leg at a distance while on the run. Hell, I have a hard enough time hitting a stable target at a distance.”
First, we have to recognize that our media relations people are the most important hires we make. They MUST have the time and ability to talk to reporters to explain context and circumstances. No, they can’t talk at length about something breaking or ongoing, but they can put similar incidents into perspective.
The media must have confidence in the spokesperson to know what she’s talking about and to have a reputation for impeccable accessibility, knowledge, and trustworthiness. These characteristics allow spokespeople to deny false accusations and kill stories.
We gag our spokespeople and scare the heck out of them by urging an abundance of caution. Rarely do we say, “Go out there are explain who we are and what we do.”
Within law enforcement and the justice system, we can be our own worse enemies. We are scared of our own shadows. Polarizing times do not encourage candor, but we need it more than ever.
We MUST be content creators. We must create our own audio and video and photographs. We need to get this information out to the public via e-mail lists and social media. We cannot rely on the media to tell our story. We must do it on our own multiple times a day.
Encourage officers to take their own video and photos when it’s safe to do so. Yes, it needs to be cleared and distributed through the media relations office.
In public relations, nothing is as powerful as content creation, especially video. Video tells powerful stories. Let your agency create short, story-based videos on every conceivable situation with staff doing simulations. For example, let the public see what’s it’s like to use a firearm in shooting simulators.
Let them view what happens when you are confronted with deadly force. Let them experience how officers interact with someone who is mentally ill. Let them see the videos we witness of officers getting shot or killed as they try to resolve difficult situations.
Let them see, taste, touch and smell what happens. Let them experience life as a cop. Make videos easily downloadable.
Share the videos with other police or justice agencies. Make the project statewide or regional. Create a searchable state, regional or national database.
There is an insatiable appetite today for crime and cop-related shows. Build on that interest.
Most agencies will tell you that they don’t have the resources or experience to do any of this, which is like saying that you can’t offer firearms or emergency training because it’s just too risky, hard and expensive.
We don’t do it because we’ve been trained to be overly cautious; “The more you say the more you get us (and yourself) into trouble,” is a common refrain.
Yep, the lawyers will always have a reason to say no. Yes, There are legal issues to overcome.
Well, how is this working for you now as to community relations and recruitment? Not so good? Crime rate going up because citizens are not cooperating? Are you enjoying the endless negative stories that turn out to be baseless upon investigation?
There is a point where what I propose makes people’s heads spin; it’s anathema to so many. They embrace caution. They fear making mistakes.
The US Department of Justice should provide the training and technical support necessary to pull this off. Most agencies don’t have clue as to creating video or other aspects of aggressive social media or media relations. States should be offering the same services.
There needs to be a massive effort to train justice agencies as to effective and aggressive media relations and to provide the technical support necessary.
This includes funding for staff and equipment.
I witnessed fellow officers save several lives at a horrible auto accident. When I asked supervisors if we were going to inform the media of their heroism, they stated that this was nothing new. “Leonard, we do this every day. It’s not newsworthy.”
I want citizens to see what it’s like to crawl into a dismembered car to save lives. I want every citizen to see shoot-don’t shoot simulations. I want them to feel what its like to deal with mentally ill people. I want them to experience every aspect of law enforcement or corrections or parole and probation.
I want them to know what it’s like to be dripping in blood after a fatal accident. I want them along for a death notification.
I want them to touch, taste, hear, smell and feel everything.
We can criticize cops till the cows come home. We can complain that reporters and the public don’t have a clue as to what it’s like to be a cop or other justice employees.
Or we can do something about it. But first, we need to get rid of the blinders and let them in.
No, I’m not naive enough to believe that aggressive outreach will solve all or most of our problems. Yes, I acknowledge that some agencies are getting better at releasing supportive media.
But for no other reason than to support our own personnel and to set the record straight, we should be training fellow citizens as to what it’s like to be a cop.
All of my academic and professional life we were warned about an all-powerful government controlling the lives of its people. But we can’t get up the nerve to tell the truth and provide the context of what we do.
Who’s controlling who?
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. Certificate of Advanced Study-Johns Hopkins University. My book, “Success With The Media,” outlines a comprehensive, doable gameplan, Amazon. You can contact me at [email protected].