November 7, 2016, by Sara R. Brady
Police are trained for and accustomed to managing crises of all kinds from helping retrieve keys from a locked vehicle to mass shootings like that which occurred at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando earlier this year.
But like the cobbler’s children having no shoes, when it comes to handling their own crises, law enforcement agencies around the country have proven to be challenged in responding. The succession of racially charged shootings by police officers has forced municipalities and their police departments to stumble across the thin blue line trying to balance a city’s legal rights and the rights of the public.
Crisis communication is tricky business with the suffocating number of non-stop news outlets and social media channels such as Twitter and Facebook where information, including public comment, is posted in real time. The pressure from citizens and advocacy groups – legitimate and not — is fueled by aggressive news reporters competing against each other and the pressure of 24-hour news. Within hours, protests flourish raising an issue’s visibility and controversy and compromising police credibility. In an instant, public perception about what actually happened can be tainted in spite of the actual facts.
So many decisions: cave to news media pressure and fight your battle in the court of public opinion, or take the slower route of abiding by the legal procedures and the court of law. To be clear, the cops understand and value the public’s right to know; the issue is when that right takes priority over law enforcement’s obligation to follow the law.
Events have shown that it doesn’t take long to attract the world’s attention to enhance the velocity and intensity of a controversy between police and a distrustful public. Investing in a strategic crisis communication approach to managing controversy speaks volumes and can preserve a police agency’s integrity. And building that strategy in advance, provides an underappreciated layer of protection that can restore the credibility and stability of a police agency. Police prepare and train for a variety of life threatening issues, except public communication which can be equally as deadly.