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?

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About Robert Farago

Robert Farago is the Publisher of The Truth About Guns (TTAG). He started the site to explore the ethics, morality, business, politics, culture, technology, practice, strategy, dangers and fun of guns.

14 Responses to How To Spin Officer Involved Shootings

  1. avatarOHgunner says:

    “And that thin blue line needs protection, no matter what. Know what I mean?”

    Thin blue lines are never a good thing. Especially on a pregnancy test

  2. “[Bloggers] can annoy you, like a mosquito in a camping tent but they can’t really do you much harm… “

    Mike Vanderboegh and David Codrea must be some big ass mosquitoes.

  3. avatarSammy says:

    So, even if the cops are involved in an honest mistake they are advised to use sy-ops. and spin their story? This is Bizzaro World. I expect to hear their reconstruction of events as they see it, but to me putting a spin on things is like lying or tainting the truth. If you have ever been questioned by a police officer you know one thing immediately. They ain’t listening to your B/S point of view. I respect most cops I know but having two sets of rules creates a cast system I’m not sure how to evaluate. I wouldn’t want the job, especially now, though I don’t accept 2nd class citizenship, either.

    • avatarBruce says:

      See point 5. Skip the spin.

      • avatarSammy says:

        With all respect. premeditated responses are spin. The problem is who’s ox is getting gored? I can see the need to think hard before speaking because there are police vigilantes ready to pounce on the first stutter or type of “body language” as evidence the truth isn’t being told. But episodes like the ones in Oakland Ca don’t help their image much. No joke. Put helmet cams on armed officers. Hell some of them look and act like they are in Afghanistan anyway. Cameras don’t lie. As of now anyway.

  4. avatarRalph says:

    Catchphrases for the po-po after offing an unarmed man:

    He made a furtive movement.
    I was in fear for my life.
    Of course, I indentified myself.
    Talk to my union rep.

  5. avatarNelson says:

    this is WHY we love you Rob: against the policestate.

  6. avatarTotenglocke says:

    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

    Hahaha, oh man, I nearly fell out of the chair reading that line. A journalist that actually seeks the truth? I’d pay money to see that. All we have these days our journalists pushing an agenda and they’ll fabricate any “facts” they need to convince the masses to support their view.

    • avatarMatt in FL says:

      Totenglocke: I wandered down here to say exactly this.

      Re: Point 9
      “You’ll take hits, but don’t try to defend the seemingly indefensible, justify the unjustifiable, or excuse the inexcusable.”

      When was the last time you saw an unjustified shooting? And by that, I mean a shooting deemed unjustified after an investigation. I don’t remember the last time.

      • avatarpsmcd says:

        I do like this point, perhaps rule. It’s numbered “nine.” Then again, it’s only a suggestion, an idea. But a nice thought. Were they ever to employ it, it would make them seem ever so much more human.

      • avatarHasdrubal says:

        Seattle PD had a shooting where John T Williams was killed a while back, where the investigation showed that the officer was acting outside of policy and training, and ended up basically forcing him to resign.

        To sum up the case as best as I can from the reports, the officer saw a suspicious looking guy walking with a knife, approached him way too fast and way too close without backup, placing him in a vulnerable situation. Then when he got the guy’s attention (causing the guy to turn and face him) he felt threatened by the knife and shot.

        So in the end, they said he never should have put himself in that situation, and due to that, it was his fault but not criminal.

        • avatarhomobangbangamus says:

          Sure it was his fault and that fact doesn’t relieve the “disciplined” officer of his responsibilities in so far as he did in fact kill an innocent man, and faced no criminal sanctions. I dare say no citizen would have been afforded that luxury under the same circumstances.

          It boils down to this, the state needs it’s trigger pullers and if they start prosecuting them, their trigger puller will become far more reluctant to pull those triggers. That could cause your average politician a great deal of trouble, especially those with the knee jerk, Stalinist tendencies.

          Politicians really do view their police as their personal military force and like to have positive control of it, rules and laws be damned. You can observe what happens to personnel who do not follow their orders due to matters of law and regulation.

  7. avatarDerek says:

    #8
    I like that they differentiate between bloggers and “mainstream/conventional media”… cus ya know, nobody reads those silly blogs anyway. Cable news is as strong and influential as ever… :roll:

  8. avatarGS650G says:

    “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. ”

    Ask George Zimmerman about that. Or the other James Holmes in CO.

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