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October 27, 2005

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News Worthy: The media actually do provide some important functions

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Dear Bullethead:

I'm so fed up with the media. It seems like our department keeps taking a bashing on things that really aren't that newsworthy, and when we do something right, nothing shows up in the news. Then there are those stupid TV shows, like Reno 911. I have actually had people ask me if those are real cops and if there are police departments that really act like that! I feel police work is a profession and I try to do my best, but sometimes I'm tempted to write a really sarcastic letter to our newspaper's editor and set him straight about what life is really like on the street. No one really knows what we have to deal with out here until they work a month of graveyards and see all the crazies. One more article on bad cops or excessive benefits and I just might blow my top! Is it like this everywhere, or just in my town?

-Mad@Media

Dear Mad@Media:
 
I'm not sure how long you've been a cop, but we haven't had a good relationship with the press-hounds since the 1950s. If things have only recently changed in your town, you're doing pretty well. More likely, you've only recently started to pay attention, and they're starting to get under your skin. Consider getting some skin ointment for that, or maybe a hobby to get your head away from the badge for a while.

Let's not forget some of the good things the press has done. Although cops do not always like the media, they're still important for our profession and our professionalism. As cops, we're accountable to the public. We don't always tell the public all we should, and if there were no press, I'm sure we wouldn't tell them anything. The media scrutiny helps us all by making sure law enforcement stays on the correct side of the law.

How many times have you relaxed your stance a bit because you saw some pothead at a party pointing a video camera at you? Sure, he's not the press, but if you or one of your aggressive partners decides to go "in-service" on some drunken, big-mouthed kid, you know where that video is going to end up. The last time I checked the penal code, the punishment for mouthing off to a cop did not include catching a baton across the jaw line, but unfortunately we all know plenty of cops who believe in this sort of street justice. Without the constant threat of media coverage it would probably happen way too often.

Using this filter, try taking a more critical look at the incidents you think aren't newsworthy, and you may end up changing your opinion a bit. The rest of the time, when you and your department are acting professionally and doing the right thing, think about how nice your pay and benefits package is.

The other side is that the media certainly do focus on the negative side of police work. Even when they cover crime and disorder stories, they slant things away from us. They end their story with the picture of officers manhandling the homeless woman into the back of the black and white against her will, but they leave out the part about her using the doorway to a local business as her bathroom.

Hey, that's just the way it is. You can chalk it up to a number of things, including their need to sell stories and their belief (probably a correct belief) that sensational stories against the police sell papers and air-time. You can also give at least part of the credit to the antagonistic relationship between cops and the media to attitudes like yours.

Stupid TV show? Are you kidding me? Reno 911 is a great show; I hear the patrol dogs I work around quoting it at least once a week. Lighten up a bit and learn to laugh at yourself. If citizens in your town actually asked you if those are real cops, you might want to consider launching a problem-oriented policing project that checks the town water supply for lead content because those people are losing it! If your project works out, you will end up being a big hero and probably get some good press coverage. Either that, or they will concentrate on how you ruined the taste of the water by having the lead removed.

It's been awhile, but I still remember what one of my academy instructors said about the first traffic stop we would make when we were finally on our own: "You will realize that everyone is looking at you. The reason they are looking at you is because you have a bitchin' job and they wish they had it." Consider Reno 911 a form of humorous flattery. Next time it's on, drop into the La-Z-Boy, crack a beer and have a good laugh.

You can write that letter to the editor if you want, but all it will do is make you look like that guy on Reno 911 who wears his vest outside his uniform. Get it? You'll be the idiot. People do not want to know what it's like working around all the crazies we come into contact with on the yard-or on days or swings for that matter. Step back from your computer and think for a second before you write an angry letter to the editor. You're upset the press focuses on the negative aspects of the job, but this is the stuff most of us thrive on. Don't believe me? Go to any cop party and listen to the stories. We all tell them, and we all listen. We try to one-up each other with the stories of the craziest crazy.

And here's one last thing you need to try: Write a plan that outlines how your department can take advantage of the press. Human-interest stories, a cop-hero story, anti-victimization stories, etc.-every department needs more of this, and if you show the leadership and initiative, you might get something for your efforts. At the very least, you will have the satisfaction of knowing that you aren't the guy wearing his vest outside of his uniform and crying about a problem without offering a solution.   

Got a question or complaint? Let Bullethead hear about it. He'll give you his opinion with both barrels. E-mail him at bullethead@ lawofficermagazine.com or fax him at 619/699-6246.

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