Here's the Story on Cop-Media Relations

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. However, in doing so are we doing ourselves a disservice?

Author Dean Scoville Headshot

" 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."


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.


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.


Improving Communication

On the other side of the fence, David Krajicek is co-founder of the National Organization of Criminal Justice Journalists. The organization, which is compromised of representatives of print, radio, and television media, has similar hopes of improving communication between the police and the new media. Krajicek, who teaches a course on crime reporting at the Columbia School of Journalism, conceded that even today, many cops are paranoid to talk with reporters- and he doesn't necessarily blame them.

"They know nothing good will come of it. Oh, they might get to see their name in the paper, but so will their superiors, and time and again pressures are brought to bear on officers for not respecting the chain of command. Superiors are sometimes jealous of the exposure some cop gets, and he ends up taking the heat, simply because his name was seen in the paper once too often- especially in New York City."

Krajicek knows of what he speaks. Having covered the crime beat for the New York Daily News, he appreciates the need for departments to develop public information officers. But he also laments it when such positions are used as a new means of secrecy. "When I started out in this business back in the lat '70s, I had no problem getting first- hand information. I was able to talk to the investigator who actually handled the case and knew what he was talking about. Now, there are all these artificial barriers. Some PIOs have great public relations- type personalities, but little or no information. In effect, they serve as gatekeepers."

Krajicek is quick to point out that the blame for bad police/ media relations is to be shared. "Of course, we've got some considerable problems on out side of the fence. Most reporters don't take the time to initiate themselves to what the cop's job is. They don't know a UCR from a VCR. They're crank new kids, straight out of college, who are told to go down to the local precinct, look at the police blotter, and get a story. That's not investigative journalism."

Dan Vasquez's concerns echo Krajicek's. "The crime beat is an entry- level spot, a way station where a cub reporter can get a front page by-line before gravitating to a more glamorous position. The reporters know that, and don't take the time to 'background' themselves. There are generally two types of reporters out there covering the police beat. Those who are temporarily assigned to it, and those who are in it for the long haul."

Vasquez is one of the latter and, having covered familiar terrain for both the San Jose Mercury News and the Oakland Tribune, knows the importance of dealing fairly with police agency.

"Police agencies have different personalities, and a flexible reporter learns to deal with each," said Vasquez. Like law enforcement, you have to earn respect in this field, and sometimes it means having to deal with the legacies of some of your predecessors. For me, It's the game of longevity."

Hopefully, others in the news media will show such initiative in helping to foster better relations with the police. In the meantime, David Krajicek encourages his students to "go beyond the blotter and walk through the precinct to get some feeling for how and officer does his job."

Future Prospects

Which we may not be in a position to answer their every question, to placate their every photo desire, or to allow newsmen and their crews unlimited access, we can at least treat them with respect. And even if they don't get every pertinent fact they're looking for, they will get their sound bite. If they can't get the man in the blue uniform, they they'll settle for the shaved-head gang-banger pressing just beyond the crime scene tape. Do we in law enforcement really want this young miscreant to be the sole narrator of our involvements?

I encourage the men and women I work with to try to develop the sympathies of the people around them: You never know who may be a good witness to your defense later. The same holds true for the media, for it's been my experience that no man or woman can be truly objective, and it's better to have a person on your side than not.

Sgt. Scoville is a 15- year veteran of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and an occasional contributor to POLICE. His interview with, and profile of, ACLU President Nadine Strossen appeared in our October 1997 issue.

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