Early Media Intervention
At the onset of every critical incident, a process begins for the Department, the involved personnel and the LDF responding attorneys. Oftentimes, established protocol dictates how the witness officers should be separated from one another, how the directly-involved officer should be quickly sequestered and the attorney, if not already on the scene, will likely be in telephone contact with the various individuals, working to protect the interests of their client(s). By this article, I am suggesting that one more component be added to the initial stages of the critical incident response.
By the time the on-scene investigation is in full swing, the media are typically already there. As we have frequently observed, before the investigation is barely underway, the news media are racing to be the first to broadcast the events. Thus, they have only snippets of potentially erroneous information from the slew of gadflies and onlookers who are trying to get their five minutes of fame. “That cop just shot [or beat or Tased] that guy for no reason!” is a common phrase we tend to hear. These comments and others like them are unfortunately the first bits of information the public gathers about an incident for which the investigation is not even close to being completed, and help to form the public’s first and often lasting impressions.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, law enforcement does not work in a vacuum. We are public officials who stand in the limelight of public attention. Like it or not, the public attention and pressure can unduly influence the investigation or the legal actions arising from the incident.
I write this column as a call to action. Between the public safety agencies, the LDF panel attorneys and you, the members, we should have a policy and practice for engaging in early media intervention. The media are there and they are attempting to obtain information. That is their job. Instead of “no comment” or other similar responses, departments, with the assistance of their member associations and their legal advisors, should develop a policy of making a very early and accurate media statement. The likely result would be to quell any misinformation that would have otherwise undoubtedly been disseminated.
Hopefully, with the media and the public being more appropriately informed early in the process, this could enable the remainder of the investigation to be conducted and concluded without the public outrage and pressure that may have been ignited by only hearing false and inflammatory information. Criminal charging decisions can also be made with the facts being the primary basis, as opposed to succumbing to pressure by influential and oftentimes misinformed self-appointed community leaders. Finally, in all likelihood, a reduction in payouts on civil cases is also an obtainable goal.
Remember, you can’t un-ring the bell, but we can help to ensure that the clarity of that first ring is appropriate and accurate right out of the gate.