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The Big Picture: Working with the media

By Rachel Fretz, PoliceOne Editor

In situations that involve a barricaded and/or active gunman, stealth tactical movement is critical. The recent Virginia Tech shooting stands as a reminder of this, as responding officers needed to focus on locating and stopping the shooter without giving up their positions and becoming targets. Doing this is challenging and dangerous in and of itself, but in some situations, the challenge and danger is magnified by the media. 

Case in point:

A Miami man made headlines several months ago when he led police on a three-day pursuit that ended in a nine-hour standoff. The man, a gang member sought for shooting at officers two days prior, had barricaded himself in a house, firing a high-powered rifle at a tactical unit pinned to the pavement outside, waiting for reinforcements.

It was a nightmarish scene — rooftop snipers, Black Hawk helicopters, schools on lockdown. And of course, local television crews there to document the whole thing — broadcast live. All of the Special Response Team’s tactical positions were being aired live to millions of South Florida households.

Was the bad guy watching all of this on TV, too? No one could say for sure. (Despite electricity to house having been cut, nearly every home in Miami is hurricane-ready and equipped with a back-up generator.) But if he had been watching, the coverage — essentially a real-time map of tactical positions, if not a twisted video game for a dangerous gunman — would have given him all the information he needed to resume his fire with deadly precision.

What are the laws governing media? “There aren’t many on the books,” said PoliceOne Columnist Richard Weinblatt, a former police chief in North Carolina and current criminal justice instructor in Florida.

Despite the potentially fatal consequences of such media interference, there is surprisingly little legal protection for officers in these situations. State attorneys general can issue guidelines, but many don’t. Likewise, some police departments have media access policies, but they tend to be dusty, and lack legislative teeth.

“A reporter runs the risk of being arrested for obstructing justice if he leaves the designated media area during an emergency,” Weinblatt said, “but more likely, he runs the risk of being injured.”

By all standards, public safety trumps the public’s right to know right now, but diverting resources during a crisis in order to manage the media falls somewhere between improbable and insane.

The trick is to establish agreements with media organizations ahead of time.

“When I first became police chief,” Weinblatt said, “I immediately called the head of each TV affiliate, newspaper and radio station, set up an appointment, and went to meet them in full uniform. Meeting and greeting the press in their own building gets an entree to many more folks than if they came to the law enforcement building.”

A few months later when the PD had a homicide scene to deal with, he said, “I called the press, gave them their information, gave them their visual — gave them something to fill airtime. Otherwise, they’d find another way to fill it.”

Rick Rosenthal, president of RAR Communications in Winnetka, IL, and a former news anchor, is emphatic on this point.“The most important step any police department can take is to create an open and accessible relationship with the mainstream news media,” he said.

Here are a few key principles to keep in mind:

1) Media doesn’t have to be the enemy.

We are all used to thinking about the media’s negative impact on law enforcement. However, managed correctly, the media can be an asset in certain situations. Law enforcement can give the media an accurate, compelling product (the Big Story), and the media can send out public safety messages, which elevates the department’s image.

Chief Jeff Chudwin of the Olympia Fields (IL) PD has worked with Rosenthal for years on developing cooperative media strategies, and as a result has never been in a situation where the media have jeopardized tactical operations.

In fact, not long after September 11th, Olympia Fields hosted the U.S. Open. “This is a sporting event with a huge worldwide following, so of course questions of security came up," he said. “I went to the media beforehand and told them, ‘We are fully staffed, we are fully ready.’ But once uniformed officers were in place, end of discussion.”

In this way, Chudwin left no room for ambiguity, while not shutting the press out. “It’s important to ask what their expectations are,” he says. “Otherwise we’ll wind up in a high-stress situation with competing interests.”

2) Go the extra mile once the relationship has been established.

“Relationship-building is not an event, it’s a process,” Rosenthal said, stressing the importance of maintaining positive momentum. Try taking the sympathetic approach. Many officers feel the media have no concept of the level of stress associated with police work —“Hey, if they did, they'd give us a break.” But Rosenthal points out that street reporters, like cops, are first responders and are forced to deal with the stress associated with that responsibility.

Police can try “riding with the media.” Reporters are always interested in what you are doing and will often ask permission to ride along with you to witness your work up close.

"Try calling your local news station and ask them if you can ride along with a news crew," Rosenthal said. "You'll gain a firsthand understanding of who these people are and how they work, plus you'll add a face to your badge and the reporters will begin to see you're not such a bad person after all. This friendly relationship may catch you a break the next time you encounter each other on the street."

These proactive measures turn “us vs. them” into win-win, and foster critical cooperation between media and law enforcement — two highly motivated, highly visible and high-risk professions that, in fact, have more similarities than differences.


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