'Take care of your cops': 2 career lawmen talk the benefits of building a relationship with the media
Former Police Chief Jody Fanning and Deputy Stacy Ettel offer insight on how building a relationship with the media can help departments in high-profile incidents
By Hanan Esaili, PoliceOne Staff
PLANO, Texas — Former Cottonwood Police Chief Jody Fanning received a call on the night of March 21, 2015 that no chief wants to answer.
“Chief, an officer’s been shot.”
“Who? Where at?”
“I don’t know.”
Fanning arrived to a full-on parking lot brawl between eight officers, a family of nine and a WalMart employee trying to help the police.
What began as an assault call turned into a fight that left one suspect dead, a Walmart employee with a broken arm, an officer injured with a gunshot wound and seven other officers with injuries.
An altercation between a 15-year-old ﹘ who was watching the bathroom door while his sister and mother bathed ﹘ and a store employee escalated after the employee attempted to enter the bathroom. The teen pushed the employee, prompting security to call the cops.
When police arrived, they attempted to separate the family, a traveling Christian band who lived in their car, to question them. That’s when the fight broke out.
“Their father taught them from a young age that if they were separated, they would be beaten, raped and then killed,” Fanning said. “So you can imagine they’re going to fight hard.”
Officers deployed multiple TASERs, batons and punches with the Gaver family members, but nothing could stop them from fighting. David Gaver, 18, was shot in the stomach when he charged an officer with a weapon. Police didn’t know he had been wounded until they searched him at the jail because he showed no signs of a gunshot wound. Enoch Gaver, 21, charged Sgt. Jeremy Daniels from behind and was aiming the gun at his chest when Daniels was shot in the leg. Enoch was fatally shot during the struggle.
The next day’s headline was “Cottonwood PD shoots and kills unarmed Christian traveling band member”.
Due to the Department of Public Safety investigation, Fanning was told he couldn’t release footage of the fight. But Fanning wanted to make the truth known, so he called a press conference.
“Too many times I’ve watched the media, during Ferguson and others, take the video and run with it,” he said.
Fanning showed the full-speed footage, then broke down the incident with a slow-motion video. By doing that, he said he could hold media accountable to tell the same story. He said that with the exception of one news station, the truth behind the story was told. In part, the community and the social media world supported the department.
“My guys didn’t do everything right, but they did the best they could in that situation,” Fanning said. “Stop allowing media to skew the story. Make them look through your eyes.”
Social media and negative news narratives are what cost Deputy Stacy Ettel his career. Ettel, who was watch commander during the “Don’t taze me, bro” incident — one of the first viral LE incidents filmed on a cell phone, found himself struggling to support his family after he lost his job. He said he was torn apart by news outlets and social media after responding to a mental health call.
Both Fanning and Ettel spoke Friday afternoon in Plano, Texas during the “Behind-The-Line Leadership Series,” which discusses contemporary issues in law enforcement.
Ettel’s story began when police received a call that graduate student Kofi Adu-Brempong, 35, was screaming and delusional inside a University of Florida housing building. When they arrived on scene, officers spoke with Adu-Brempong for 90 minutes before he stopped responding.
They had responded to multiple mental health calls at his residence before and multiple students who worked with Adu-Brempong had said they were scared and believed he was going to kill someone.
After police obtained a key to the apartment, they discovered the door was barricaded. So officers used a battering ram to break the door down. They discovered Adu-Brempong armed with a knife and cane. Police deployed four bean bag rounds and two TASERs that knocked the suspect unconscious. Adu-Brempong woke up shortly after and attacked officers, prompting them to fire rifle rounds twice. He was shot in the face and transported to a local hospital where he was treated. An investigation found he hadn’t responded to the less-lethal rounds because he was heavily medicated and intoxicated.
Although all officers were cleared, the media frenzy pushed the department to not renew Ettel’s contract after he was found in violation of seven department policies. Ettel didn’t pull the trigger, but he told the administration that the officer who had did everything right. He said he wasn’t going to let the officer take the fall just because the media and officials were looking for someone to blame.
He struggled to find work and when he eventually did two years later at Ohio State University, they terminated him because the impact of what happened during that call was still following him on the internet.
“It doesn’t stop at losing your job. Because of social media and the internet, it takes off,” he said. “When this happens to good cops, society loses good cops.”
He currently works as an officer in Florida and if he has one piece of advice for police departments it’s that incidents pass.
“Don’t let the media and internet dictate what you do,” Ettel said. “Build a relationship with the media so they like you and want to tell your side of the story.”
Lavon Police Chief J. Michael Jones, who attended the discussion, told PoliceOne his main takeaway was to continue to care for officers and give them a place where they can be successful.
“[Officials] make rules and decisions based on the moment and we’re sacrificing cops for expediency,” he said.
Ettel and Fanning agree that working directly with the media to tell the real story can help officers in the long run.
“There’s always been a battle between the media and police because we [police] have a lot of power,” Ettel said. “We take away people’s rights. When you have that much power, they’re going to attack you when you’re out of line or it looks like you are.”
Ettel said it’s all about how you use your situation to impact and teach others.
“Every one of you has a deck of cards,” he said. “How do you deal with it?"