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IACP 2010: A Chief's worst-case scenario

What should a police leader do amid a thermonuclear officer-misconduct scandal — something so heinous it rocks the squad room and the community?

It’s hard to imagine anything having a more adverse effect on the morale of your troops — or the faith the community has in its police force — than when one of your own has done something truly heinous. We’re not talking about run-of-the-mill cases when a citizen complains of minor officer misconduct. As regrettable as those are, they happen with some degree of regularity, and consequently there are plenty of examples from which a police leader may draw some clear strategies to follow. Instead, what do you do when that one-in-one-hundred-million event occurs — something so egregious that it actually seems as though a 150-kiloton thermonuclear device has detonated in your squad room.

We need to look no further than a handful of recent PoliceOne news articles — from January to March to September — to see how this challenge has been thrust upon a police leaders during the past several months.

PoliceOne spoke with a handful of well-respected police leaders to glean some best practices to follow, and get a conversation started among leaders and rank-and-file officer members in the comments area below. We asked questions like:

Jessie Lunderby, above, was fired by the Washington County (Ark.) Sheriff's Office following her nude appearance on Playboy.com. Although embarrassing for the agency, this is not what we'd consider thermonuclear officer-misconduct scandal — something so egregious that it could undermine the community's trust in its police force for years to come.
Jessie Lunderby, above, was fired by the Washington County (Ark.) Sheriff's Office following her nude appearance on Playboy.com. Although embarrassing for the agency, this is not what we'd consider thermonuclear officer-misconduct scandal — something so egregious that it could undermine the community's trust in its police force for years to come.

• What do you do to monitor and bolster troop morale across the department during and following a thermonuclear officer-involved scandal?
• What do you do to control the damage and keep the scandal from spinning out of control?
• When do you address the entire agency? What do you say?
• What should you do with (and for the media) throughout the process?
• What do you do about to policy revisions based on the offense?

From our conversations we formulated a list of five key mistakes to avoid in the wake of just about any officer-involved scandal, but these “don’ts” tend to become even more vital when the magnitude of the offense is beyond the pale. We also found five key strategies to be common in the successful navigation of a major agency scandal. Before we get into the anecdotal comments of our esteemed guests, let’s list those key observations.

5 Key Mistakes Following a Mega-Scandal

1. Staying silent — or saying too much
2. Throwing somebody under the bus
3. Leaving your emotions unchecked
4. Writing reactionary policies/procedures
5. Letting the press “own” the story

5 Key Strategies for Weathering the Storm

1. Reiterate your commitment to — and confidence in — your troops!
2. Allow questions in a protected atmosphere — a “cone of silence”
3. Go to the media first — don’t let the press “get the drop on you”
4. Watch the day-to-day details — to “see” a problem before it blows up
5. Remember that everything eventually ends — you WILL get through it!

So, in the wake of a major scandal involving one or more police officers, what steps would our panel of police leaders suggest top administrators take to control the damage and maintain some semblance of stability in the department?

Support the Troops
Deputy Chief Mike Williams of the Chattanooga (Tenn.) Police Department explains, “As the Deputy Chief I frequently make trips to lineup to interact with our line officers and give them a chance to ask questions or make comments. Dispelling the rumor mill can go a long way toward some level of harmony in the ranks. I want them to see me and know that I am there for them if they need me and know that I will do whatever is in my power to make our department a better place for them to work and our city a better place for our citizens to not only feel safe but to be safe.”

Joel F. Shults, PoliceOne Columnist and Chief of Police for Adams State College in Alamosa, Colorado adds, “One of our first customers is the officer who works for us. Each of them deserves due process free from political considerations. Sacrificing an officer or two with pressure to resign or dismissal on grounds unrelated to the controversy may seem to be a quick and painless way to ease the strain, but in the long term that weakens the department. Silence is usually advised by attorneys but they necessarily take a one-dimensional view and shouldn't be the sole decision makers in handling information. Information gaps will be filled with rumors that can haunt the department for years. Rumor control measures — at least for department personnel — are important and can be addressed with web presence or regular briefings. The comments will inevitably be made public, but they can be managed carefully and can ultimately build trust in a way that stonewalling cannot.”

Acting Assistant Chief Chris Moore of San Jose (Calif.) Police Department adds, “Just because someone is on administrative leave doesn’t mean they’re guilty of anything. It doesn’t mean you should shun them, because a lot of the time — not always, but a lot of the time — a charge this is bogus. We encourage people to not talk about the case for their own protection but don’t forget about them either. What sometimes happens when someone is on administrative leave is that they get frozen out — everyone is afraid to talk to them — and that’s the worst thing possible. So what we tell our folks is, ‘Listen, you know, these are your friends or your close colleagues. Reach out to them.’ But what we do insist is that they not talk about the case, because it doesn’t help anybody if you do. It doesn’t really stop anybody from doing it but at least you let people know, ‘It’s OK, don’t worry about it if the organization finds out you were talking to this guy, as long as you were not talking about the case’.”

Handle the Media
Deputy Chief Williams favors a strong, proactive, out-front response from the chief. “From the very start I think the Chief should go in front of the media cameras and microphones to let the public and their other fine officers know that he or she is in command and taking responsibility — that the problem will be resolved and the agency will move forward. Hiding or cowering from the issue will only make it worse so hit it head on — that’s just my personality I guess. It is not going to go away any time soon but a positive reassurance can help blunt the overall effect of the scandal. Officers go bad and do stupid things some times and it often has nothing to do with their training or the department’s policy. Most times they have acted outside policy and the scope of their training when they get in trouble so trying to find a scapegoat in either one policy or training can be ill-advised.”

Jerry Garner, Chief of Police for the Greeley (Colo.) police department adds, “I write and teach on the topic of police-media relations. The advice I give to law enforcement leaders is to be highly visible and accessible to both the media and your own people when scandal is in the news. Never adopt a “bunker” mentality. The key is credibility: tell the truth at all times. If you cannot talk for some good reason, say so and explain why. But say nothing at all as opposed to lying. When the news is bad, the head of the agency should be out front as the department spokesperson. That’s not a job for the PIO.”

Luke Hecker, Chief of Police for the Loveland, Colorado Police Department agrees. “As a pre-emptive strategy, the Chief should take advantage of public meetings where the media is present to acknowledge the Police Department is not perfect, but strives for excellence. If the scandal is blatant to the public eye, the sooner the Chief takes public ownership for known mistakes and commits to a resolution of integrity, the better it is for public trust. Slow ownership from the Chief for known mistakes can increase the risk of criticism and the perception of an official cover-up. The Chief should also ask for patience and public trust as an internal fact-finding investigation advances. Place the subject employee(s) on administrative leave with pay as the internal investigation advances and release that information publicly.”

Joseph P. Morris, Chief of Police for the City of Florence (Colo.) Police Department explains, “Administrators need to meet with the media and avoid a delay in their response, which could be conceived as a stonewalling effect. The Chief or Sheriff should be the person making statements concerning the investigation. In this situation, as with any high profile investigation, the agency head must be the one presenting a statement and fielding media inquiries. Administrators can navigate through these incidents by being accessible to the media and preparing to meet with them without delay and present a positive image. Show that your agency is operating with a business as usual atmosphere. Chiefs and Sheriffs have to be consistent with the media, showing they are accessible, without any inference that there is something to hide.”

Prudent Policy Changes
Rudy Sandoval, Chief of Police Morrison (Colo.) Police Department, offered, “Policies and procedures should be analyzed — looked into and revised or changed only if changes would prevent future scandals or incidents of the same nature. They should not be changed or revised for appearance sake only because the incident took place.” Chief Jerry Garner, “If policy or procedure revisions are needed to prevent the problem from recurring, say so and make them promptly. But changes must be based on fact, not a knee-jerk reaction to bad publicity. And actually MAKE the changes you say you are making.”

Writing in response to our series of questions on this issue, Chief Dan Losada of the Knoxville (Iowa) Police Department says in this week’s P1 First Person Essay, “If policy is a factor it should be reviewed and changed if needed. Instant policy changes are also seldom well received by employees and some people will consider them to be an admission the Department was wrong and possibly liable. Taking too long may be read as the department trying to cover themselves and protect a bad employee.”

Chief Hecker adds that follow through is vital. “Most agencies have policies that address conduct related to scandal. The Chief should commit early on and publicly that if policies need to be created or revised to guard against future scandal, that it will occur. If a policy is clearly weak or outdated and in need of revision, it should be addressed quickly.”

Chief Morris explains further, “As far as actions concerning policy, I would have to say that the best defense is a good offense, make sure your agencies policies are current to avoid a major negative impact. Personnel issues and Internal Affairs Investigative policies will be of critical importance here. It is probably best if your reaction is a mixture of being quick and firm, and moving in a calculated way, to avoid a major mishandling of the incident from the start.”

Weather the Storm
Chief Hecker opines, “This is a time for the administration to be present with staff. The Chief and the administrative team have to fight the urge to remain in their offices. Presence is powerful — sometimes more powerful than words — so be present. Be encouraging. Listen to your staff. Remind staff that hard times come to pass, and this difficult life experience is no exception to the rule. Consider ordering pizza for shift briefings or roll call, or at some point during each shift. Do not forget to include civilian support staff in the process. Often times they can feel isolated and marginalized during a department crisis. Civilian staff are usually the most vocal and appreciative when the administration remembers and supports them during difficult times in the department.”

Chief Garner concludes, “Public opinion and employee morale are equally important when bad news strikes. That’s why the Big Boss needs act like a leader and let everybody know that the bad times WILL pass; the department and its people WILL be alright. Everybody needs to hear that what happened was an aberration, not the norm.”

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