Three ways police are communicating to regain public trust

Fatal incidents involving officers tore the Band-Aid off the often-tense relationship between the public and police in many American cities. Law-enforcement communicators explained three ways they are working to bridge the divide.

Photo via the NYPD's Twitter account
Photo via the NYPD's Twitter account

Fractured relationships between the police and the public were underscored in late 2014 by fatal events in Ferguson, Missouri; New York City; and Cleveland.

As the calendar turned to 2015, New York Police Department officers turned their backs to the city’s mayor at a number of public events, including funerals for two officers slain at the end of December. Their murders followed several weeks of protests after a Staten Island grand jury declined to bring charges against officers involved in Eric Garner’s death last summer.

Protests have also regularly taken place in Cleveland after an officer there reportedly shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was playing with a toy gun.

Both incidents followed unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, after a grand jury declined to bring charges against Darren Wilson, the officer who shot and killed Michael Brown in August 2014. Unlike in New York and Cleveland, demonstrations in Ferguson, both before and after the grand jury decision, often turned violent.

While a breakdown in trust between police and communities is by no means uniform across the country, the divide is dominating the headlines and is forcing many departments to soul-search about how they operate.

Experts spoke with PRWeek about the steps police departments can take – whether beloved by the people they serve or at odds with local leaders – to building a lasting and trusting relationship with communities.

How the COPS office helps police on the beat

COPS’ Collaborative Reform Initiative for Technical Assistance was started in 2011 as a voluntary way for police departments to overcome issues that need attention but haven’t reached the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division.

"We are looking to help the field transform themselves," says Robert Chapman, deputy director in the division.

The process, as stated in a COPS document, has six steps:

1. Parties, such as law enforcement, the COPS Office, and its technical assistance provider, agree to work together on an "independent and objective comprehensive assessment of key issues" that may include excessive force, racial profiling, or stops and frisk.

2. The parties lay out goals and objectives.

3. The COPS Office, technical assistance provider, and subject matter experts "conduct a comprehensive assessment of the agreed goals and objectives."

4. An initial findings and recommendations report will be released.

5. A public interim report will assess how the department has carried out the recommendations, at which time it will have support from the COPS Office and its technical assistance provider.

6. A final report will be released one year after the initial report to evaluate the department’s progress.

The Las Vegas Police Department is the first alum of the program. Police departments from cities such as Philadelphia, Baltimore, and St. Louis County are all currently taking part.
--Laura Nichols

Repair relationships and rebuild trust with transparency
The Seattle Police Department has more than 94,000 followers on Twitter and 11,000 likes on Facebook. It employs a social media strategic adviser, tweets the SPD blotter as well as "tweets by beat," and is even ramping up its presence on Reddit, says Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, Seattle PD public affairs director.

It traces its online presence back to at least 2008, but it more recently developed an outreach approach in the aftermath of a Justice Department investigation launched in 2011. 

"What we’re really doing is virtual community policing, and the 2011 communications plan that we moved forward through 2012 and beyond set out to do just that – to improve our standing in the community and try and rebuild some of the trust that was lost," Whitcomb explains. "[There were] several incidents that really eroded community trust in our department and ultimately resulted in a federal consent decree. Throughout that process we’ve worked really hard to maintain that presence and level of engagement."

The Justice Department investigated "an alleged pattern or practice of excessive force and discriminatory policing" by the department, according to documents.

Seattle PD spokesman Det. Drew Fowler adds that at its core, rebuilding public trust starts with the truth, whether positive or negative for the department. Transparency is key, he explains, noting people are going to see though the spin.

"Transparency is not a buzzword we throw around," says Whitcomb. "It’s part of our culture – everything’s public at one point or another."

Show the community the value of the police
The Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), values the procedural justice principle, which can be an integral cog in strengthening the relationship between the police and the public, says Robert Chapman, deputy director of the division. He adds that research shows people will form a bias on their local police force based more on how they’re treated during interactions and less on the end result.

"It’s the way in which officers [act] that matters," adds Chapman. "Police can achieve positive changes just by adopting some fairly basic and straightforward practices, [and] treating people with dignity, fairness, and respect."

Identifying and forming relationships with influential community members, such as clergy or members of the media, can benefit a department’s efforts toward trust and transparency, says Elaine Driscoll-Holbrook, director of communications for the Massachusetts Gaming Commission.

When she was communications director for the Boston Police Department, Driscoll-Holbrook said she engaged beat reporters by offering them demonstrations of officer training – even the chance to volunteer in a simulation. She says it helped them better understand law enforcement’s response – or lack thereof – during an investigation.

"We’re not trying to be obstructionists, but there are real reasons why we can’t answer questions," she explains.

John Guilfoil, CEO of the eponymous PR firm that represents clients across the public safety sector, says he advises them to "embrace PR," which he describes as going beyond public information and posting just what’s required. Police departments should push out fresh content daily, acting more like a brand rather than only engaging the community during an emergency.

"I tell every police officer and firefighter, if you want people to think better of you, it has to start with you," he notes. "Crises strike police departments every single day, but when there’s a major crisis or scandal, like a brand or corporation, if you respond effectively and you already have a basic level of trust and you’ve done relationship building, you have a better chance of defending your brand from attack."

Meet the community on its turf – social media
Effective social media use can ultimately result in a beneficial, two-way street for some police departments. Seattle’s police, Fowler says, strive to "add the social to social media," meeting community members "on their terms."

"It’s 2015. People expect more than a talking head on a TV interview," Fowler adds. Residents have become "participants of public service," he says, in some cases helping to quickly locate a missing child.

Social media can also streamline information during a crisis. Guilfoil points to the Boston Marathon bombings of 2013, when he was Mayor Thomas Menino’s deputy press secretary. He recalls that by using the Twitter accounts of Menino and the Boston PD, officials reached reporters and the public despite a plethora of information on the Internet.

Yet certain topics are best avoided by the police, he notes.

"I tell my police clients that they are not politicians, so say nothing political," says Guilfoil.

Driscoll-Holbrook says while she was never a proponent of individual officer accounts, that can vary by department.

"The more Twitter accounts you have – particularly for large departments where you have to be sensitive to the kind of information that goes out – you increase your margin of error for that errant tweet," she says.

Seattle’s Whitcomb says nixing police jargon in outgoing information can make messaging more inclusive, prompting a community to get involved and grow a bond between the two sides.

"It’s about creating access – demystifying police reports and procedures, and explaining them in a way that makes sense," he says.

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