Give a kid Pepsi for breakfast once and see what happens.
What does that have to do with police-media relations? In the simplest sense, it’s about expectations and consistency – two things most parents work on constantly with their offspring. Teach them what’s expected behavior and be consistent in whatever message you’re trying to get across: “Breakfast is an important meal, so Pepsi probably isn’t the best choice for a healthy start to your day.”
But, let that kid have Pepsi just once with their bowl of cereal and you know what happens from there – “Why can’t I have Pepsi? You let me do it before?”
Cops aren’t parents to reporters, who themselves aren’t kids. However, when police departments break routine with the media, it opens doors that can become hard to close in the future – just like the kid who won’t ever let you forget about that one breakfast Pepsi.
Take for instance one department’s recent decision to issue a press release about a public figure’s non-violent misdemeanor arrest that included a reference to a previous, unrelated arrest. I knew this person had come under local scrutiny because of the incidents, but it still jumped out at me that the department deviated from its usual stance of not discussing criminal history.
There are two standards for police when it comes to talking about arrests. Press releases always remind the public that someone charged with a crime is innocent until proven guilty. That’s boilerplate.
Another common thing is not delving into an arrestee’s past because, one, it doesn’t relate to the current charge and, two, departments almost always err on the side of caution when it comes to saying too much about someone involved in a pending case.
As we all know, it doesn’t take much to find out if someone has ever been in trouble before. Court records are online in most counties. And, an old-school trip to the clerk’s office can provide plenty of color for stories that most cops aren’t going to hand over with any regularity.
That said, this isn’t about police withholding information that is readily available, it’s about police being consistent in their approach with the media.
I checked in with the department’s PIO to find out if, based on this instance with the public figure’s arrest, reporters could now expect to see criminal background information doled out in future press releases.
While being told it was a fair question, the PIO explained the reason for doing so in this limited instance was because of its relevance to the person’s public role. You can email me to find out whether I buy that reasoning.
Part of being a reporter is knowing what questions you have to ask that won’t ever get answered. It’s just how the game is played. Reporters might not like it, but they can accept the consistency of certain types of denial.
When a department breaks from its usual approach, it should elicit questions from reporters and PIOs should be prepared to explain why. How you do that depends on department policy and leadership, but there are a few general ways to frame a departure from usual media practices in a couple of common situations:
- Rule: Departments discourage the media from reporting on charges before the suspect is arrested because of concerns the person will flee if they know they’re wanted.
- Exception: Police enlist the media’s help to alert public in effort to track down wanted suspect.
- Explaining the change: Emphasize public safety or general well being as reasons the department wants the suspect stopped before committing another crime. Mention the important role citizens can play by providing information, especially when reward money is involved. Promote tip lines, such as Crime Stoppers.
- Rule: Departments decline to comment because of a pending case and a desire to not interfere with the work of prosecutors, or simply because past charges aren’t related to new charges.
- Exception: Providing context in major or high-profile incidents; other individual factors which are sometimes left unexplained.
- Explain the change: Describe how an event’s magnitude requires a greater level of detail to be released, especially when the demand for information is higher. In situations unique to your community, offer some reasoning that indicates a law enforcement purpose for discussing criminal history – frequent calls for service, habitual offender, etc.
Person of Interest:
- Rule: Departments use the phrase to avoid labeling someone who is in custody during the investigative phase.
- Exception: Department refers to person as a suspect to alleviate public safety concerns.
- Explain the change: Define how your department differentiates between a person of interest and a suspect, whether procedural or based on specifics of an incident. Explain who you wouldn’t describe as a person of interest.
The theme for these exceptions is the public’s best interest. Reporters believe everything you do is in that respect, which is why they perk up when even the smallest change of routine occurs.
Remember, if you make an exception once, expectations will change and you’ll forever be reminded about that one time you served Pepsi at breakfast.
Dan Campana is a Chicago-area freelance writer and communications consultant. Send questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.