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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

Unfortunately, some within Vasquez's vocation will take such stories and run with them, often with adverse speculations and malicious conclusions. Such episodes directly compromise our ability to effectively do our jobs. And when we don't quite measure up, they are often the first to criticize us for jumping the fun. Ironically, they have not proven immune to the temptation.

A recent use-of- force incident, involving Riverside County Sheriff's deputies effecting arrests of illegal aliens, illustrates the point: A local television station covering the incident live assumed that since the incident was taking place within Los Angeles County, Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department personnel must be involved. Viewers were then advised to call their local sheriff's station to register their protest. They did- in droves- effectively tying up the 9-1-1 emergency system and preventing people with legitimate needs from getting through.

In light of such histories, cops tend to believe that no matter what we do or ask for, media loyalty can ultimately be test by "If it bleeds, it leas." Not surprisingly, the love/ hate relationship between the media and cops predates Rodney Kind, Malice Green and the '68 Democratic Convention.

Pursuing Professionalism

There have been some improvements. Police agencies have hired trained media liaisons and appointed department spokespersons. Thanks to in- house and professional assistance, our sound bits sound more intelligible and we project a more professional image.

But no matter how many spin doctors we might hire or how hard we work at establishing strong ties with the communities we serve, we're still subject to the editorial and political agendas of others. And if movies like Naked Gun aren't enough, cartoonists and columnists are fond of portraying us as buffoons, racists or murderers. Playing straight man and being the punch like for every other media joke soon wears thin, however, and we instinctively tend to withdraw and go back into our protective shell.

It's true that dealing with the news media can be enormously aggravating and emotionally enervating affair. Our deadlines do not coincide with theirs. We need time to collect evidence, collate interviews, wade through the reports, and arrive at objective conclusions. They need time to get the story they want, and get it to press under the gun.

With such seemingly antagonistic ends at hand, how can we improve our lot in the press? One way is by preparing for our contacts with them. Many agencies have taken the bull by the horns and developed their own- in- house media relations bureaus.

San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department's Sgt. Paul Cappitelli is a strong advocate for candor in dealing with the media. Not surprisingly, some of his recommendations may raise administrative eyebrows.

"If you're dealing with something that's inevitably destined to be discovered, why not just tell the media?" asked Cappitelli. "Weigh the odds of releasing such information proactively as opposed to sitting on it. It might be more beneficial to volunteer the information. That way they can never say you were trying to cover it up. Otherwise, you're being reactive, which can around some undue suspicions."

Such considerations fly in the face of the conventional "If they don't ask, don't tell" philosophy. But failing to be candid from the get-go can create some obvious repercussions. Early in the JonBenet Ramsey investigation, Boulder County (Colo.) attorney Madeline Mason argued that disclosing the autopsy report would severely hinder the murder investigation. Tom Kelley, an attorney representing several media groups told the judge that law enforcement officials often exaggerate their need for secrecy. Eventually, the autopsy report was released- with no apparent damage to the case. Such incidents tend to offer anecdotal ammunition to the news media and make future reticence to communicate with them suspect.

Cappitelli recalls a journalist whose renown for giving a department a bad time was legendary among the officers it employed. Eventually, someone decided to do some digging and find out just what the woman's grievance was with the department. It turned out that the journalist had been promised some documents by the department, which then faxed the information to her- but only after it have deliberately omitted several pertinent pages. It took some considerable campaigning by the department to make amends, but it finally succeeded. This illustrates what can happen when we get caught running interference with the media.

A Precarious Relationship?

As cops, we can certainly relate to the frustration created by such subterfuge. We don't appreciate it when people- be they informants, attorneys, or the media- fail to deal with us "on the level," and we're not apt to let such transgressions slide by unacknowledged. Neither are journalists.

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