Police and the press – a combination that sometimes mixes well and other times is more volatile than the deadliest standoff you will ever encounter. How many times have you read an article in the paper or watched a story on the news about a call you answered and shook your head asking, “Is that the same call I was on?”
My father and I shared many stories about the baffling and comical twists the press would put on descriptions of the calls we would answer. Press coverage can have a negative impact when you are testifying in court and defense counsel whips out the misstated press account to try to impeach you, your reports and statements. In all likelihood, proper objections are made and the erroneous news articles stricken. But before a jury, there is a chance doubt has just crept in.
On March 19, 2012, a Chicago officer tells a TV reporter he was going to “terminate” his First Amendment rights. The press, not surprisingly, has had a field day with this quote. The liberal mainstream media (NBC with whom the reporters were affiliated, CBS and ABC) reported this as a rogue cop overstepping his authority while the conservative press (FOX, Breitbart, etc.) labeled it another step by Barack Obama to trample the Constitution and strip us of our rights.
To me it appears to be a simple poor choice of words from a frustrated officer with dealing with the salivating vultures that care nothing about the grieving family of the innocent 6 year old child who was caught in the crossfire and died. Somehow there is glory in the grief of others. We all see it all too often. Families of the fallen, whether the victim, the innocent, the suspect or the fellow officer, have to run the gauntlet of cameras and microphones to get to the waiting arms of comfort.
The press is a necessary evil in the world, and one which our forefathers recognized as a needed component to a free country. When they fled their homeland, our ancestors fled nations where the press only reported what the governing bodies permitted so the citizens were kept in the dark. In America, we made sure that would not happen and granted the press the freedom to publish without governmental restriction or interference.
However, this does not give them license to trample the rights of others, violate laws and run amok. Some in the press seem to think it does. They like to think by stating “I have the First Amendment right” makes them a god among men. Well, my response to them is I have the First Amendment right to tell you to . . . take a hike! But be careful what words you choose and the tone you use.
First Amendment freedoms and cases have run the gamut and none have been more liberally applied than those dealing with the press. Other rights protected by the First Amendment include speech, religion, association, assembly, and redress of grievances. All of these have been upheld, but courts have limited them to a certain time and/or place. Protesters can be granted permits to assemble for periods of time and assigned an area to hold their protest. Counter protesters can be granted a permit but assigned an area away from the group they are countering. Provided a compelling interest can be shown where there is no less restrictive means to achieve the interest, that being public safety and order, the restriction should be upheld as Constitutional.
Paradise Valley (Arizona) Police Chief John Bennett is a longtime family friend serving in this affluent Phoenix suburb. In January, he commented that he had seen the work of Satan that day. I knew that could not be good coming from a guy who is usually upbeat in a quiet and beautiful spot of the country. He couldn’t reveal any information so I looked up the news stations on the Internet. A stolen car was found burning in Phoenix was traced to Paradise Valley. When officers responded to the owner’s home, they found it on fire. After dousing the fire, firefighters found the owners, an older, well known couple, bound and murdered in their bed before being set afire. Paradise Valley had indeed been visited by the Prince of Darkness.
The Paradise Valley Police Department wasted no time or resource covering every possible angle to hunt down and capture the vermin who would disrupt their peace and slaughter a kind and giving couple in such a heinous fashion.
Chief Bennett used several methods in dealing with the press during what became a 9 day marathon to identify and capture the actors in this crime. These methods may sound familiar to some readers. If you have attended the FBI National Academy, you will likely recognize these methods. Chief Bennett is a graduate and continues to put the lessons learned to very productive use.
First, Chief Bennett’s men know not to make any unauthorized statements to the press. To help them, the officers enter the building through a secured entrance which is inside a gated compound only accessible to authorized personnel. When the caravan of press vehicles arrived on January 30 after news of this horrific crime spread, they set up their encampment in the town parking lot in front of the police building.
During the course of the investigation, Chief Bennett held two press conferences. The first was after the crime was initially discovered, the second after the arrest of five suspects. During this time, news reports characterized police as “tight lipped” and “playing it close to the vest.” One station went so far as to interview a retired police officer who now works as a private investigator. This man’s speculation was so far off the charts, he only served to damage his own reputation when he offered some deep conspiracy theory involving the victims and a federal criminal syndicate. He based his theory on PVPD’s use of federal resources (Secret Service) to track the victim’s credit cards which were being used by the suspects.
Chief Bennett stresses you have to maintain control of the environment. You schedule the time and place for the press conference. Avoid the overused phrase “No comment,” but rather suggest a press conference will be scheduled at which time all relevant information will be released to all the media at the same time.
Forget the Hollywood stereotype of having a reporter who gets the scoop in exchange for tips and inside information. This is a black hole that will come back to bite you. By gathering all press representatives at one time and reciting the release once, you eliminate the risk of omitting a fact or phrasing something differently causing a reporter to draw a completely unintended inference.
Also, Chief Bennett says, “you have to know their game and play it.” Don’t let them back you into a corner or pepper you with questions that toss the topic to and fro. Stay on topic, stay in chronological or at least some reasonable and understandable order. Announce the time of the press conference and the time members of the press will be admitted to the site. Don’t give them time to mill about your station or wander the halls and make small talk with every employee they see.
I once caught a reporter reaching through a window onto the desk where I was working and shuffling through reports trying to get a “scoop” while waiting for a press conference on a homicide which had occurred overnight. He was escorted from the building, promised an arrest for trespass if he returned. His station was called and advised to send another reporter if they wanted to report the story.
When the announcement of the press conference is made, public information officers should make it clear whether questions will be taken and if the question period will be limited in time. We have all seen press conferences where a reporter has hundreds of questions about every detail of the investigation. Sometimes a reporter suddenly asks for information on a completely different incident. If the press is aware of the scope of the question and answer session beforehand, you don’t look like the bad guy when you cut them off, pass them over for another reporter or have them escorted from the room.
I watched the news conference raw footage online when Chief Bennett announced the arrest of the 5 suspects in the murder, theft, and arson. He very matter-of-factly stated the facts of the case and that suspects were in custody. He stated the investigation was still ongoing and they were not yet certain whether other arrests would be made. He explained how detectives from PVPD worked diligently around the clock followed clues, executed search warrants and conducted interviews and surveillances to identify and apprehend the suspects. When he completed his prepared statements, he turned and exited the room through a door directly behind his podium.
The Chief explained that he essentially choreographs his press conferences. They are held in an auditorium in the police building. His podium is positioned in front of a door clearly marked “DO NOT ENTER – POLICE OFFICERS ONLY BEYOND THIS POINT.” The press has been cautioned to obey that directive. Reporters enter the room from outside of the building and the door is unlocked for them to enter at the predetermined time. As the members enter, they are given copies of available hand-outs. The Chief has requested the TV crews bring one camera in as a pool camera and all work off one feed but has not had luck with that yet.
The end result is that the press is kept under a reasonable amount of control to avoid interference with or impede the investigation’s progress. The potential for departmental leaks or misinformation is kept to a bare minimum. Members of the press are treated with and responded to respectfully and given specific information as to when their questions will be addressed. No member of the press is shown any preference and all are given exactly the same information at the same time. In effect, the freedom of the press is preserved while the time and place is controlled in the interest of maintaining order and the integrity of the investigation.
Robert was raised by a 28 year police veteran in Marple Twp. PA where his parents taught him love and respect for the law and others. Robert served in the U.S. Marine Corps in the early 1980s as a Military Police Officer. After his discharge, he pursued a career as a municipal Police Officer in suburban Philadelphia in Radnor Twp. He was involved in an on-duty vehicle accident which caused him to leave law enforcement after 7 years on the force. Robert enrolled in college earning his Associates Degree Summa Cum Laude in Paralegal Studies with a minor in Administration of Justice from the Delaware County Community College, a Bachelor’s Degree and a Certificate in Paralegal Studies from Widener University in Chester PA and his Juris Doctor from the Widener University School of Law. During Law School, Robert served a clinical internship with the Delaware County (PA) District Attorney’s Office. He currently volunteers his assistance with photography services to the Delaware County Law Enforcement Officer’s Memorial Foundation and the Marine Corps Law Enforcement Foundation. Robert is currently not licensed to practice law and does not intend any information presented to constitute legal advice.