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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

In his book, The Reporter's Handbook, Steve Weinberg notes that dealing with cops can be a formidable affair, and characterizes the investigation of those within our profession as a particularly difficult challenge for the reporter. "One reason is the hostility law enforcement officers exhibit when journalists are around," he said. Still, Weinburg feels that such obstacles make the reporter's victories all the sweeter, and he is quick to note the success of people such as David Freed of the Los Angeles Times and his expose of the Special Investigations Section of the LAPD. To develop empathy with the street cop- not to mention contacts- Weinburg goes so far as to advocate journalists joining police academics as a kind of immersion journalist. (A kind of "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" mentality?)

Trojan Horse tactics not withstanding, it would appear that cops and journalists actually have quite a bit in common with one another: We're both inquisitive, prone to stink our noses when they're probably not appreciated, and obligated to tailor our written product to a variety of audiences.

"If you ever conceal information that you shouldn't," Cappitelli noted, "or are caught being untruthful, you can forever destroy your ability to deal with the media."

Mike Parker, a sergeant with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department Headquarters Bureau, agrees with the importance of being candid with the media- especially in those instances wherein the publicity for one's department might be unfavorable.

"Generally, most news stories have 24- hour cycles," notes Parker. "If you give full disclosure from the outset, (the media) can cycle through it and it will most likely be covered in a day. But if you start piecemealing out information, giving out just enough to pique the media's interest, then you can find certain insinuations being made."

"You also avail the media the opportunity to do follow-up story, and needlessly protract an episode we probably didn't want- or deserve- to have our noses rubbed in in the first place. Suddenly, this small incident has grown and is now looming larger and larger over the department. Sometimes, it's best to take your lumps from the get-go."

Paul Cappitelli draws an analogy between department spokespersons and the public relations arm of any private enterprise. "Because we're the mouth piece of the department, we're like the customer service representative of any company. Only the product we're selling is professional law enforcement. When we have poor communication and poor community relations, we have a difficult time selling what we don and what we have to say- because people won't buy it."

By the same token, Cappitelli feels that departments should hold reporters accountable. In matters wherein a department employees is misquoted or otherwise treated unfairly, the department should take every step to prevent the possibility of a recurrence, up to and including censure of the involved media contact.

Cultivating Responsibility

We should reasonably expect to get what we give, and part of developing a good rapport with the media is making oneself available and making good on one's promises. Unanswered messages and unreturned calls won't cut it. Only by being responsible and responsive can we create the credibility we have historically demanded.

In the field, we have out guns, pepper spray and mace, and are encouraged to wield these implements with some educated discretion. Yet the mere presence of these tools doesn't ensure compliance any more than our titles command respect, and when show-and-tell doesn't cut it, they sometimes come into play. When they do, we know that the media will be right there to report on why and how they did come into use. Unfortunately, time and again, we throw up yellow tape and declare with brutish command, "This is no natural disaster, it's a crime scene!" The complaint cameraman smiles good- naturally, ambles back a couple of feet, and waits to catch the authority figure off-guard. Then, and only then, does he press RECORD. This is where we sometimes lose the battle.

Mike Parker and Paul Cappitelli are both advocates of the Media Relations Course taught by Frank Cowan. California P.O.S.T. certified and University of California Santa Barbara- accredited, the course stresses the importance of developing a strong media relations team. Cowan likes to cite the dramatic turnaround of the Long Beach (Calif.) Police Department in its relationship with the news media as a shining example of what can be accomplishedCowan advised, "Hire a sharp public information officer (PIO). Build a team, train them, slug it out day by day, working professionally with the media. Be available for the media, 24 hours/ 7 days. Be honest, as open as you can. Be assertive. Call them when you have a story. Use MediaPage. Provide human interest stories. Be sensitive to the other cultures in your community. Treat other cultures' media the same as mainstream media, plus understand their special needs. Have a chief who understands how important it is to have a good PIO team. Work on the culture of the police officer. Speak often at roll call. Train in the academy. Have a clear media policy on working with reporters/ photographers.

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