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10 keys to managing the narrative of a critical incident captured on body camera

How you approach the release of BWC video could mean the difference between driving the narrative and trying to catch up


PHILADELPHIA –  Policy regarding the release of body camera footage to the public is a complex and hotly-debated topic with no easy answers. What is clear is the public expects to see videos of use of force incidents, and how your agency approaches the release could mean the difference between being in the driver’s seat and trying to catch up as things spiral out of control.

At the 124th International Association of Chiefs of Police Conference, six experts offered lessons on how to best manage the narrative when releasing these videos. As one panelist put it, “It’s not just about the facts of the case in this day and age - it’s about how you handle those facts.”

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The panel used the example of the Keith Lamont Scott shooting and the ensuing riots to illustrate the importance of managing rumors. (Screengrab)
The panel used the example of the Keith Lamont Scott shooting and the ensuing riots to illustrate the importance of managing rumors. (Screengrab)

James Coldren, CAN Institute for Public Research

Christopher Cook, Arlington (Texas) Police Department

Laura McElroy, McElroy Media Group

Laura Meltzer, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department  

Damon Mosler, Deputy District Attorney, San Diego County

Imam Mujahid Ramadan, Ballard Communications

1. Speed of information is critical.

While it’s challenging to “feed the beast” in the early stages of an investigation, the reality is that if you don’t, the media and the public will create a story. In the absence of facts, misinformation fills the void, and it’s an easy way to quickly lose control of the narrative. You need to get timely, accurate information out there as quickly as possible. Twitter and Facebook are your best friends. If you’re speedy, people will go to you as the source of information. If you’re not, they’ll go elsewhere. If you’re not ready to release information, explain to the public and the media why – illustrate the process. 

The panel pointed to how police handled the release of information in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing as a good example of this strategy. The Boston PD put out information as soon as they had it and established a single hashtag that accompanied all their social media posts so people knew to go to their page for updates. 

2. Monitor social media and the news for rumors or misinformation.

It’s not enough to get the information out there – you need to be monitoring social media and local news for rumors and misinformation about the incident. 

The panel used the example of the Keith Lamont Scott shooting and the ensuing riots to illustrate this. In that case, police quickly released information that Scott was armed, but a false narrative that the gun was actually a book started to take root shortly after. That information went unanswered and control of the story (and city) was lost.

If you have a relationship with your local news channels, they’re often more than willing to correct their misreporting if you reach out to them. But if you’re not monitoring the reporting, you’re not going to have any idea what misinformation is being spread out there.

Your agency needs at least one person (PIO) dedicated to the task of monitoring the media during an incident like this, ideally two people (one for social media and one for the news media). 

3. Keep messaging focused on the facts of the case.

The delay in the release of the Scott shooting footage eventually became the story – dominating both local and national headlines. You need to keep the messaging focused on the facts of the case, and releasing available video goes a long way to keeping the dialogue on the incident itself. 

4. Be a leader. 

In the post-Ferguson age, a controversial use-of-force incident can put a city in crisis, and the public will worry about the potential for violence in their streets. In a crisis, people look for a leader – and your agency should be the leader that emerges.

Assure your community that they are safe; this will help you earn their trust and strengthen your case that your agency is the place they should be looking to for guidance – both from a safety perspective and for the facts of the incident. 

5. Put the video out – even if it reflects poorly on your agency.

Even if video of the incident doesn’t cast your agency in the greatest light, it’s best to get out ahead of it. Not releasing video elicits accusations that you’re hiding something, which only escalates tensions. If you have body cameras, chances are you’ve released video – particularly the positive moments. 

Consistency in practice is one of the first things the public will look for after a critical incident. While there’s a big difference between releasing video of a feel-good moment on patrol and evidentiary footage of an officer-involved shooting, it ultimately doesn’t matter in regards to public good will. If you’re only releasing the positive stuff, community trust in your agency degrades (“If you usually release video, why aren’t you releasing it now?”). Even if an incident results in charges against the officer or termination, the public will remember you were transparent. 

6. A consistent release policy will help quell outrage.

While there will always be exceptions, strive to be as consistent as possible when it comes to the release of BWC footage. The Las Vegas Metro Police Department typically releases video within 72 hours. The media and the public both know this, and as a result, they have a level of patience that you wouldn’t find in a city with an inconsistent or undefined policy.

7. Avoid putting out cut up versions of the video.

There’s a difference between blurring faces or editing out audio of sensitive information versus releasing a video that has portions cut out. All this does is cast doubt that you’re telling the whole story and opens you up to conspiracy theories.

San Diego County blurs the faces of people in the videos (but does release their names) and stops the video at the point of the shooting. San Diego County Deputy District Attorney Damon Mosler argues that from a prosecutorial standpoint, the aftermath of the shooting is irrelevant, so there is no need to release footage of it. This strategy also respects the dignity of the person who was shot.  

8. Be the information hub – don’t trust the media to do it for you.

The Arlington, Texas, PD films every press conference they have regarding critical incidents. Immediately after, they put the press conference on all of their web channels. If you’re only depending on the media to film your press conference, you risk them cutting it up. Don’t rely on the media to broadcast your message – be the source.

Set up a dedicated webpage for the incident and house all of your updates, press conferences, videos and any other relevant material there. Promote it and make it easy to find. Remember: the goal is for the community to be using you as the source for information, not someone else. Cataloging the story is vital to retain control of it.

Chris Cook, who oversees the Public Information Office for the Arlington PD, gave the example of his chief attending a rally and meeting with the family of the deceased after an officer-involved shooting in the city. Cook was there to document the chief in photos and videos and share them – moments like those are less likely to be covered by the media. Don’t assume they’ll show up. 

9. Engage with the community before a critical incident.

Community engagement before an incident occurs makes a big impact. Cook described it as “depositing in the bank of community trust.” If you develop positive relationships with your community, then you have emotional currency and can make a “withdrawal” when an incident occurs. 

10. Be an educator. 

Educate the public and the media. Hold press conferences in tandem with the release of the video and put things in context. Help the public and the media better understand use of force. Explain your public release policy.

If you’re releasing a video earlier than the policy dictates or you’re releasing more footage than what is required, make it clear that what you’re doing is voluntary.

Meet with members of the media, community, organizations like the ACLU, and explain your process. Continue this practice and with time, you’ll likely find people aren’t asking the same questions over and over as much as they were before. 

 

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