The recent police-involved incidents in Ferguson, New York City, and Cleveland have resulted in a national conversation – some might argue a crisis – about the status of the relationship between law enforcement and its community.
These tragic incidents have erupted in large and at times violent protests. They have also sparked heated exchanges among community members, activists, political figures, and members of the media alleging the existence of a trust gap, a lack of police accountability, and a broken justice system.
Regardless of a police department’s geographic proximity to Ferguson, the recent string of tragic incidents has created a public relations issue for all law enforcement agencies, particularly in urban settings. These challenging incidents require every police department to reflect on the condition of its community relations. It also presents a positive opportunity to assess the department’s external communications strategy.
The relationship between police and community must be based on trust and accountability. To achieve that goal, effective and frequent communication is required in both good times and in bad. There are a series of steps that every police department should take in order to improve overall communications, enhance the public trust, establish accountability, and prepare for the inevitable crisis situation. I would advise the following:
Take an inventory and develop a comprehensive and cohesive communications infrastructure
A crisis is not the time to bring your shiny new Twitter account out for a ride. It is imperative for a police department to have an external communications infrastructure in place before a crisis strikes. It is also necessary to have it in place to promote a police department’s endless availability of positive news stories about great police work, successful community outreach programs, and everyday examples of heroics. Police departments should begin by taking an inventory of the current methods they employ to communicate with the public. They should then assess their effectiveness and overall capabilities. Do the methods provide every demographic with access to information? Is there quality control in messaging across all platforms? Is social media being used by the department as a microphone or a telephone? Is there a one-stop shopping location that educates the community on the various ways one can access public-safety news, information, community alerts, and other department-related updates?
A department’s Facebook account or email alert system doesn’t work unless people know that it exists. Departments should establish a checklist of available methods of outreach, such as department website, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Tumblr. This collection of communication tactics must be used consistently, effectively, and in a manner that is truly useful to the public.
Pull up the shades and open the doors
One key element to establishing strong community relations and enhancing trust via transparency is by inviting community members over to your house. Literally.
Host an open house at a district station. Invite the community to sit in on an internal crime statistics meeting. Hold a civilian police academy, and invite a target list of community stakeholders, both advocates and critics, to learn about "use of force" training and other often criticized police strategies. Invite key stakeholders, such as members of the clergy and influential media, out for a ride-along, or better yet, a walk-along through neighborhoods experiencing public safety challenges.
It is also important to announce these initiatives to the public via the department’s communications infrastructure. The public will not know that these things are occurring unless you tell them.
Promote good police work and community programs
Each and every day at police departments across the country, there are infinite examples of great police work. They can be anything from dramatic arrests involving gun-toting perps to community service officers taking an afternoon to coach tennis to inner-city youth.
Police departments in the 21st century aren’t solely comprised of the dramatic arrests that are conducive for the 11 o’clock news. Today’s police officers are the communities’ problem-solvers, tutors, coaches, protectors, and providers. These are the stories and examples when told, and told consistently, that provide the local community with a perspective that is helpful and necessary in the wake of a difficult and inevitable police-involved incident.
Prioritize transparency during police-involved incidents
Now is not the time for a police department to pull down the shades and close the doors. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Transparency, availability, and dialogue during a crisis are paramount for navigating this difficult time and maintaining community relations.
The community deserves answers, and every officer deserves due process. At times, these two key principles are at odds. Police leadership must strike that necessary balance during this time. It is no longer feasible for a department to "decline to comment" due to an ongoing investigation. There is a genuine necessity not to disclose specifics details while the law enforcement agency involved is conducting an active investigation. However, the department must still promise a thorough investigation and pledge transparency. Most importantly, police departments must provide the community with an expectation on when answers will be available and then exceed those expectations. Police leadership should give frequent status updates to the public during the course of pending investigations by way of the department’s communication infrastructure.
Strive to function as the community’s ‘public safety news outlet’
With dwindling resources in newsrooms and the availability of budget-friendly tools to communicate with the masses through social media, police departments must seize the opportunity to directly engage and inform the community.
Like many organizations, the advent of social media has revolutionized a public safety agency’s ability to communicate with the public. Traditional media will always be an important part of the equation for police departments, but now, unlike before, a police department has the ability to deliver information, key messages, and when necessary – an explanation – directly to the public. It is important to use the department’s own communication tactics to distribute information to the public even when it is related to a potential "controversial" internal matter because it will increase the overall credibility of department communications.
A department cannot only use its communications to distribute "newsletter" type of material. A department will lose audience and credibility if it chooses to handle its communications in that way.
Every police department must proactively engage the community with a comprehensive communications strategy with a goal of strengthening trust and nurturing accountability. The presence of public trust and police accountability will empower a community. An empowered community is more likely to report crimes, work with their neighborhood officers, and have a favorable perception of police. Ultimately effective communication is the foundation for stronger community relationships, more effective community policing, and a safer city.
Elaine Driscoll-Holbrook is director of communications for the Massachusetts Gaming Commission. She is the former comms director for the Boston Police Department.