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How should your department handle negative incidents?

By Lindsay Gebhart
PoliceOne News

Event summary: On May 9 Los Angeles County deputies responded to a call that a white SUV that was involved in a gang-related shooting in Compton, California. The deputies spotted a vehicle matching that description and a chase ensued. The vehicle was stopped and 10 deputies surrounded the vehicle. They then shot an estimated 120 rounds at the vehicle, injuring a deputy and the unarmed occupant in a case of contagious fire.

So what do you do in a PR nightmare like this?

It's not that complicated, said Steve Whitmore, senior media advisor to the LA County Sheriff's office and mastermind behind the department's quick recovery. He said the key to damage control is releasing the whole story then backing up what you say you are going to do with action.

After the incident, the sheriff's office took an unusual approach. Not only did the chief apologize, nine out of the 10 deputies involved in the incident, including the injured officer, apologized.

"That was different - never seen before.," said Lt. Joseph Hartshorne of the department. "It went over really well. The public…understood what we were trying to do."

Some points to keep in mind should you have to deal with the media after a negative incident:

  1. Get out in front of the news story
    Go to the press with the story without fear or prejudice. Whitmore said it is important to drive the news cycle rather than have the story found, reported then defending yourself later.

  2. Put in a corrective action plan
    Whitmore said his department scheduled a press conference right away and he arranged to get the chief on a number of television morning shows, including CNN and Fox. He also had the chief appear on the local morning news. He said Baca isn't necessarily a good public speaker, but that doesn't matter. Transparency is much more important and press conferences are essential to achieving it.

    In addition to the press conference, officers readily immersed themselves in the public scene. For example, when Whitmore heard Al Sharpton was coming to town, he told Chief Baca to go on a walk through the neighborhood with him.

  3. Explain the situation the best you can
    Since details are generally still sketchy at this time, Whitmore recommends explaining what the department plans to do next to handle the situation.

  4. Develop a good relationship with your local press

    "Law enforcement does amazing things everyday and can't get the message out," said Whitmore. Regardless, you have to learn to work with the press because they shape public opinion. Since both professions are working in the interest of the public, their relationship should be more genial. The reason the press "messes up" so often is usually because they don't understand, not because they are purposely biased.

    Whitmore said opening communication is easy. Give them your cell phone number, give them stories and have lunch with them. This partnership is essential to doing your job better: serving the public.

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