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Cover Story

Here's the Story on Cop-Media Relations

It's a classic case of 'can't live with 'em, can't life without 'em,' but handling the press inquiries takes calm nerves, tact, honesty and a plan.

May 01, 1998  |  by - Also by this author

" I won't be able to directly answer that question until our work is concluded."

"generally speaking, I cannot speak to that right now."

"It would be irresponsible for us to perpetuate allegations that may prove to be unfounded."

"We must defer any public statement until all the facts are in."

"I am not in the position to make any published statements at this time."

Sound familiar? They're some of the usual catch phrases. We cops can be masters of circumlocution: If we can't dazzle them with brilliance- we'll baffle 'em with "b.s." Sometimes it seems that we can be notoriously inventive in just about everything, short of public relations.

We're wary of the press and its ilk. We dread morning headlines and greet the Cyclopean red- eyed of the video camera with all the warmth and ease that we'd grant the crimson glow of a laser sight- and often for good reason. We've been targeted, have taken out hits before, and respond with Pavlovian defensiveness. Monday- morning quarterbacked and Tuesday- morning vilified, we're not only tempted to take our football and go home, sometimes we act on it. However, in doing so are we doing ourselves a disservice?

Double- Edged Sword

As much as the news media has hurt us, it'd be disingenuous to not acknowledge that we've also profited by them. The same news stations that tirelessly played the video of Rodney King's beating have vindicated us elsewhere. As an example, coverage of the LAPD North Hollywood shoot-out was quite sympathetic to what the officers encountered, and the videotaped heroics of the involved officers received international exposure. Subsequent news commentary ultimately helped garner strong public support for the deployment of better police equipment and weaponry.

Such episodes perhaps best illustrate the dichotomous relationship between the police and the news media. Quite simply: The media giveth. The media taketh away.

This percieved fickleness of the media can in turn make us reticent to deal with them. If they're obviously not for us, then they must be against us. Ideally, there should be no alliance between our two professions, only a bid for mutual candor and parity.

Dan Vasquez, a veteran beat reporter for the Boston Globe, believes he has a good rapport with the cops on his beat. "But then, I'm  in it for the long haul," he added. "Say I find out that a particular type of weapon was used in a crime, and the investigating officer doesn't want that information released. Sure, I can scoop my fellow reporters and identify it. But is it really going to help my story? Is it going to be worth destroying any trust between myself and the agency in the future?"

"No. It's just not worth disrespecting a detective's request- especially when it can hurt his case. I don't want a suspect to skate on a charge any more than the cop does. But at the same time, we don't want to burn ourselves by honoring some cop's request and get scooped by the competition. This is where things can get a little tricky."


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