How To Spin Officer Involved Shootings

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The Force Science Institute’s latest email blast features Rick Rosenthal. Rick’s a “veteran TV news anchor” (left WGN TV in ’93) turned law enforcement consultant. In other words, he tells the cops how to spin the news. And when it comes to an officer involved shooting (OIS), the po-po see the largely sympathetic mainstream media as the enemy. The email’s title—“Feeding the Animals”: 10 tips for winning with the media after an OIS—sets the tone. Here’s an abridged version of the abridged version of Rosenthal’s advice on post-OIS PR delivered to an ILEETA (International Law Enforcement and Education Training Association) conference. His bullet points in bold. My comments after.

1. Build rapport with reporters before you need it. Rosenthal reckons it’s all about trust and credibility. “Part of the media’s job is to witness what law enforcement does, but that doesn’t necessarily make them the enemy,” the newsreader writes. “Working with them and helping them now on other stories will give you a better chance of exercising some control over them when a crisis hits.” So trust, credibility and control.

2. Provide 24/7 accessibility. Rosenthal reckons police departments need a trained officer ready to go when the cops’ lead hits the fan. Apparently, it’s a thankless task with career-killing capability; whomever is recruited “should have some rank and street experience and want to do the job–not someone being punished with the assignment.”

3. Protect your officer and the scene. “The media are not entitled to any greater right to penetrate the incident scene–don’t call it a crime scene–than any other private citizen.” In case you didn’t get the need to maintain command and control, “Reporters can be arrested for interfering with law enforcement if they intrude on the scene against orders, but by the same token for the police to try to control the media’s movement outside the perimeter is a dreadful mistake. That opens you up immediately to charges of suppression and cover-up.”

4. Feed the animals early and often. Rosenthal recommends an initial press briefing no later than two hours after an OIS, followed by three formal updates per day: midmorning for noon newscasts; mid afternoon for the evening shows; and early evening for nighttime news. The veteran newscaster seems to have missed that whole 24-hour internet thing.

5. Skip the spin cycle. I entitled this article a how-to for spinning an officer involved shooting. To his credit (and my shame?) Rosenthal advises cops that the best “spin” is no spin.”To win with the media, you have to give it to them straight. The minute you get imaginative and try to spin the facts or speculate about elements that are unknown, you have chosen to be stupid, because that kind of creativity will ultimately trip you up.” Make of that what you will.

6. Consider an outside investigation. Starting to like this guy? It’s nice when PR and morality line-up. To wit: “Even if you don’t have to do this, it’s smart public relations.”

7. Promptly douse flaming arrows. If those pesky victims’ families start dominating the coverage, Rosenthal counsels his clients to go on the offensive. “If you feel you’re getting the short end of biased coverage by news outlets themselves, it may help to remind media brass that reporters are expected to adhere to a detailed Code of Ethics issued by the Society of Professional Journalists. This provides specific guidelines for ‘seeking truth and reporting it,’ which specify, among other things, that distortion of the truth ‘is never permissible.’ . . . Law enforcement often feels it has no recourse against mistreatment by the media, but there is accountability. If you’re treated unfairly, you need to rear up on your hind legs and fight back.”

8. Don’t swat every mosquito. Mosquitos R Us. “[Bloggers] can annoy you, like a mosquito in a camping tent but they can’t really do you much harm if the facts are on your side and you argue them forcefully with the mainstream media. You need to know what bloggers are saying, but you can’t swat every mosquito. If you’re open, the conventional media will report what you’re doing and this will be enough to significantly tip the scales in your favor.” Yes but what of “the down-and-out hacks from trash TV, like Nancy Grace and Geraldo Rivera”? “What they do is spectacle, and that is not a game you should play. Odds are that cooperating with these sensationalists will be a losing proposition. You’re within your rights to [just] say no.”

9. ‘Fess up to UgSits. That would be ugly situations. And Rosenthal believes in doing so by confronting reality—and throwing the officer involved under the bus. “You’ll take hits, but don’t try to defend the seemingly indefensible, justify the unjustifiable, or excuse the inexcusable. In the case of an unjustified shooting, stress that it was the behavior of an individual officer, not of the agency. Empathize with the situation and the complainants. Focus on discipline and, where appropriate, on changes in policy, procedures, and/or training.”

10. Have the patience of a saint. “Reporters aren’t stupid,” Rosenthal insists. “but they are generalists and in some cases they may be ignorant about specialty areas. They may argue with you, repeat questions you’ve already answered, criticize you and the department, bait you, and frustrate you. . . You must not respond in kind. Ever. You must always be deliberate, calm, cool, and courteous. If you lose your head, you will become the focus of the story instead of the OIS, and your outburst will inevitably end up forever on YouTube, a personal and professional nightmare.”

Not quite as bad as the nightmare experienced by the person or persons (or the friends and family of the person or persons) shot by a police officer, but similar. And that thin blue line needs protection, no matter what. Know what I mean?