Communications in Law Enforcement and the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing

DC Public Safety Radio

See the main site at http://media.csosa.gov

See the radio program at http://media.csosa.gov/podcast/audio/2015/05/law-enforcement-and-justice-communications-presidents-task-force-on-policing/

Leonard: From the nation’s capital this is D.C. public safety. I am your host Leonard Sipes. Communications in law enforcement and the president’s task force on 21st century policing is our topic today. I want to make it clear from the very beginning that the discussion applies to all of us within the criminal justice system. To discuss the issues I’ve asked two experts on criminal justice and communication to join us today. One is Deborah Winger, she is the director of undergraduate journalism, associate professor of the Meek School of Journalism at the University of Mississippi. She is at www.advancethestory.com. We also have Ted Guest, he is the Washington Bureau Chief of the crime report, www.thecrimereport.org. To Deb, and to Ted welcome to D.C. public safety.

Ted: Thank you.

Deborah : Thank you.

Leonard: All right, the president’s task force on 21st century policing, I’ve read this several times. I’ve had one of the two co-chairs Laurie Robinson, who used to be a deputy attorney general at the U.S. of Department of Justice on the program previously. I’ll put the connection to the prior program in the show notes, in essence, I’m reading the report as dealing with communications, a fundamental pillar. They indeed did call their particular sections that they wanted to draw attention to pillars. I am going to read just a couple. Building trust and legitimacy, guardian mindset rather than a warrior mindset, culture of transparency and accountability, dealing with social media and a focus on community policing. All of these suggest to me a different way of communicating between law enforcement and the community and the criminal justice system in the community. So that’s my understanding of the president’s task force of the 21st century policing, that the big focus is on communications.

So I wanted to ask you a series of questions about that. They are talking about issues; creating a positive interaction with the police? My question is, with the focus on social media and the focus on communications do we in the criminal justice system and to those of us in law enforcement, are we really equipped to have a sophisticated conversation with the public as to policing or other aspects of the criminal justice system. Ted did you want to go first?

Ted: Yeah, I would say we don’t have such a sophisticated system. By the way, I don’t think the criminal justice system is much worse than any other government agency or any other entity in the United States, some specialize in this so I don’t want to be seen as saying the criminal justice system is the worst. One thing we should keep in mind in this conversation, the criminal justice system in this country is very diverse, it has various elements, the basic ones, the police, the courts, corrections agencies. We should keep in mind there is something like 18,000 police department in this country.

Leonard: Yes.

Ted: There is not a central authority. So when, we are going to have to make generalizations in this broadcast. We should all keep in mind, most of our listeners will know this there is no central authority telling people to do. This task force I thought had a lot of good ideas but it’s basically an advisory body of a bunch of experts but no one has the authority to implement this on a national scale, an individual police department or part of the justice system could agree or disagree with any of the recommendations, I think the recommendations are basically good. To answer your question, I don’t think on a broad scale I don’t think we are really equipped right now to implement them.

Leonard: Deborah, did you want to tackle that question?

Deborah : Yes, I want to follow up on something that Ted said about entities in general. Whether it’s a governmental agency, a law enforcement agency, a brand, a news organization, we are witnessing a major paradigm shift in the way communication happens in general. The rise of audience power, for law enforcement agency the audience is anyone you’re serving or protecting, right? Their ability to communicate with you and to engage with you if you do practice social media has never been greater. It’s really changed the dynamic of the relationship for communicator’s. We used to be able to simply broadcast to simply publish, and have very little knowledge about how we were being perceived or whether the information was understood. When you use these new technologies effectively you should be able to communicate in real time with real people. Most of us do not have the infrastructure to make that happen. Even news organizations that this is their reason for being, right, to communicate information. They are not always doing as good of job as they should at engaging and interacting with the audience.

Leonard: The processes of communicating is changing rapidly. It’s changing rapidly, for mainstream media, its changing rapidly for organizations that are trying to communicate. In the middle of all of this whirlwind of change, new technologies, new apps, new social media platforms, podcasting is going through a resurgence. How are we going to expect law enforcement agencies, Ted said it, 18,000 individual law enforcement agencies around the country. There’s certain police department, like the Washington D.C. police department, the New York police department, they do an extraordinary job of communicating with the public but most law enforcement agencies and I think most of us within the criminal justice system do not know how to communicate. When the president task force in 21st century policing comes along and since communicates a huge part of our ability to do a better job to serve the public. I’m sitting there whoops there’s a disconnect here.

Ted: It depends when we are talking about communications we are talking about a wide range of things. Some of the communications are coming from the police department or law enforcement authority to the community. Let’s say alerting people to some kind of emergency, I think on that level we are certainly doing a better job then we are used to. Of course, a lot of people in the public may not have the technology either may not own it or may not have it available and may not be hearing the message. That is just one very elemental level of communication. Let’s remember why we are having this discussion about the 21st century policing task force.

Why did this happen? It happened essential there was a big episode that most of our, all of our listeners should know about. Last summer in Ferguson, Missouri in which the shooting of an unarmed black man got a huge amount of publicity and generated a huge amount of controversy. A lot of the controversy, I think as far as communications was concerned had to do with the police departments not talking about it when it first happened. Again, that kind of thing I am not sure the 21st century policing task force really make a firm recommendation on. That’s the kind of thing that I would like to see among many other things. When should a police department, or law enforcement agency be talking about an incident that is controversial. Again there are many different kinds of communications. Not to forget the obvious, just basic communication about crime in your community.

One thing that has changed a lot in recent years, is much better communications to people there used to be a police blotter that used to be published, and still it’s published in a lot of newspapers but now we have the available via social media so just again that is a very basic thing when did the crime occur in the community just so you know that information. In this conversation we should take into account there are many different levels of communication, many different kinds of incidents we should be discussing its just not one central thing, communicating everything.

Leonard: That’s my point. My point, Deborah in all of this is that the average police commander in the average police department in this country reading the president task force on 21st century policing with its emphasize on social media, with its emphasize on communication, with its emphasize on building trust, with its emphasize on building legitimacy, he or she is sitting there going “Oh my heavens, what in the name of heavens am I supposed to do with this information, what communication platform should I engage in, what builds legitimacy, what builds trust”. I think it is very confusing to them unless someone comes out and provides some sort of firm guidance in terms of what we means in terms by communications it’s all going to go by the waist side. Some have suggested that to me. Do you have the sense Deb?

Deborah : Well one of the things to follow what Ted was saying with Ferguson is I would say that any police or law enforcement organization needs to understand a couple of things the control of information, we no longer control as much information as we had in the past. To think that we don’t say anything about the incident, that someone else is not going to say anything about the incident if anybody still believes that they should quickly disabuse themselves of that perception. I would say that any organization that is going to be involved in communication information to the public that every organization needs to have a crisis communication plan. They need to be prepared for information about an incident involving law enforcement to not go there way and to know how to respond to that and to be prepared to monitor twitter, to see what topic’s are trending relating to this issue. To be able to quickly leverage the trust that they’ve built prior to the crisis occurring to have people who are going to already be followers re-tweeting the correct information if wrong information is getting out there.

Go ahead.

Leonard: No please.

Deborah : I was just going to say all of this needs to happen on the front end before the first crisis occurs, you cannot try to tackle this when there’s an incident.

Leonard: Law enforcement is no different than the average organization. They all believe it is not going to happen to them. I am not quite sure that Ferguson the day before the incident  ever dreamed that they would be up against national and international media and be up against hundreds of thousands if not millions of social media messages. That takes organization, that takes pre planning, that takes an offal lot of preparation to handle something like that. The average police department is not going to deal with that, heck the average company is not going to deal with that. My guess is that there is a reluctance to invest that level of time and trouble and energy into something most people feel they are not going to face until it actually happens.

Deborah : I think you are correct. I think you could look at it as this incredibly time intensive, resource intensive effort. I think if that had … again we weren’t there, in the middle of it with the law enforcement officials, I think you are probably right that they never did have a discussion about how are we going to handle the communication around any type of crisis. I think that is where it has to start. You at least have to, you might throw the plan out but you have to dedicate some time to at least discussing on a very fundamental basic level. Who are we going to pull in to manage the twitter account or the Facebook account looking at the report we that we referencing today. It looked like a majority of law enforcement have either a Facebook or a twitter account. We know we can narrow it to that, but who is going to be there monitoring what is being said and responding with accurate information in a professional manner, again leveraging the trust that you hopefully have built through your efforts in social media prior to this event occurring.

Leonard: That’s my fear. Ted go ahead.

Ted: One thing, going back to my 18,000 police departments statement, we should keep in mind here some of our listeners may not know this, most of these police departments are very small. I think Ferguson actually was one of the bigger ones which may surprise people, like fifty officers. Sometimes we think of New York City which has 32,000 officers but they are way on the extreme. Many departments in this country I think as many as a third or more have ten or fewer officers. These people no matter how well meaning they are really don’t have the time and expertise to develop these kinds of policies which is one reason why possibly this policing task force is good because it will help focus people’s attention on some of these issues. Even focused people’s attention on them, you have to think of these small police departments of 10 people are they going to have this has high as high on their agenda. They probably have it higher on their agenda now then they did a couple years ago, we should keep that in mind.

Leonard: Let’s go back, I do want to refocus away a little bit from crisis communications to day to day communications. They are talking about creating a positive interaction with law enforcement, levels of trust, diversity, recruitment, a regular forum, recognizing the voices of youth, interactive distance learning, public engagement all of this signals a digital platform of communicating. Before the show I said, either an individual police officer can go to a community meeting and discuss their plans with thirty people or you can have individual police officers taught how to better interact that they encounter within the community or you can go to a digital strategy and talk to thousands or tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands at the same time. So it seems to me that clearly that a digital straggly would and a social media strategy that the report calls for would be a productive way to interact with citizens as long as citizens had a way of answering and responding the polls, so police officers or anybody in the criminal justice system can learn from the interaction. It seems to me a digital strategy is vital.

Deborah : I agree.

Ted: It certainly is. Again to go back to what I said before and I am pretty sure that Deb will agree with you have to know what the message is, what are you trying to get across. We could have all of the techniques in hand which a lot of departments do and a lot don’t. We don’t have time on this show to go into all the controversies about policing but there’s a big dispute right now going on around the country about what should police be doing about minor offensives. You know, there’s one argument is they should be very aggressive about dealing with every kind of minor offense because the person involved could end up in major offensives. Then there’s another group of people who say no we should emphasizing violent crime, serious crime, police shouldn’t be dealing with people smoking pot on the street. That kind of thing.

Well a police department has to have its own policy, I am just using that as an example, decided so it can communicate that kind of thing to the public. We assume police want to communicate more than what I described earlier as the police blotter there was a burglary  yesterday on Pennsylvania Avenue, that’s one thing to communicate but do communicate policy issues you got to have the message straight as well as the actually technique of doing it.

Leonard: Ladies and gentleman, I want to reintroduce our guest Deborah Winger. She is the director of Undergraduate journalism, associate professor of the Meek School of Journalism at the University of Mississippi. She has her own site advancethestory.com, which I find fascinating and I’ve gone to several times since I’ve done the last radio show. We have Ted Guest, he is the Washington Bureau Chief of the crime report, thecrimereport.org, to be unquestionably best daily summation of crime news throughout the country.

Let me swing it back, because if we got a discussion what police should do we would be here for the rest of the show. Ted is right, I’ve read a variety of reports, a variety of newspaper articles through Ted’s service I should say thecrimereport.org and there is massive disagreement all throughout the United States in terms of what we want to do operationally in terms of law enforcement. If we don’t have a core message, if we don’t have a core national understanding as to what it is we want to do within law enforcement what in the name of heavens are we going to be communicating to citizens.

Deborah : I think that is exactly what any agency regardless of size needs to figure out. What is the purpose of our social media account and to be realistic about the resources. I think a mistake a lot of organizations have made is to try to put all the social media control in to one person’s hands and you know you certainly understand the rational behind that is because you want a controlled message. If it’s only in one person’s hands and there on vacation you are out of luck. You know the social media works best when you have lots of people in your organization allowed to post to social media that there’s a clear understanding throughout the organization of what is the type of content that we are going to share and how are we going to interact and again that takes training, that takes time. If the end result is better policing, a safer community then it certainly seems worth it. The very beginning you have to decide what resources do we have that we can put towards this effort and what is our goal. Is our goal to reach youth? Well then we are going to have a very different strategy then if our goal is to communicate crisis.

For me part of it again having that first conversation and making sure everyone in your organization law enforcement or otherwise understands what you are trying to do with your social media account.

Leonard: That’s part of the divergence and complexity of social media, with every audience you may have different strategy. There are some people out there that use Instagram as an example to communicate with younger audiences, and a possibility of using Facebook to deal with older audiences. Yet [inaudible 00:20:38] can out with a report that basically said, “No, the young folks are still on Facebook and there hasn’t been a huge shift to Instagram”.

Deb, you may know this because we are part of the social media community and Ted is part of this discussion but how is the average chief of police in the average city going to figure this out. A new form of communicating with the larger community if it’s indeed podcast or television shows or Instagram or Facebook or Twitter, where does he or she go to for guidance to learn all this stuff, to implement it in a meaningful way in the community and figuring out what measurement tools are available so he or she can get the feedback they are looking for from the larger community. That is an unbelievable difficult task for the average law enforcement agency or anybody within the criminal justice system.

Deborah : I think I would say two things right off the top of my head. One is don’t get attracted to the shiny. Just because Meercat and Periscope are available for live streaming for Twitter doesn’t mean you have to jump on it. I mean, yes experiment with tools and somebody in your organization should be that perons who is geeked out by communication technology and it’s always experimenting. I would actually consider trying to hopefully you have a relationship with local media and leveraging their knowledge about the community and the social midday tools that are used most commonly in the community. Meeting with the webmaster or the digital producer of the local television station or someone in the newspaper and say, “How are you reaching audiences?”. I mean learn from what other people are doing versus reinventing the wheel. Especially if you don’t have the resources to send your PIO to training or you know you don’t have a staff of people in your communication office. I would say try to learn what other are already successful in these platforms what they are doing well. You know try to translate that to what you are trying to accomplish as law enforcement agency.

Leonard: Ted, can the average chief of police go to the average newspaper and television station and say “Help me engage in social media platform”.

Ted: Yeah they can certainly go, I mean I think every news media organization in this country wants to have relationships with the police departments. They might not always be pleasant and positive relations but a lot of are. We deal with police departments daily. I am talking about the news media in general. I am sure that news directors and editors would talk to that doesn’t necessary have to be the police chief but as least the department have a public information officer or as Deb said someone designated to be the social media person.

Also again we have been talking about talking to the community a lot of the bigger police departments do periodic surveys of the police department. Whether it’s an informal thing or some kind of an actual survey, not only what you think about our policy on this or that but they could include in that how do you get information, which social media do you use, is their any information you think you should be getting you are not getting. Again I realize we are talking about we are talking about a small place department is not going to be able to do what huge [inaudible 00:24:23] type survey but I think police department should be able to do that in some way. Actually as social media makes it easier when we are talking about e-mail when we are talking about doing a survey. Again not that you would necessarily be guided by everything the public said but at least it would give you a better idea about what information they are getting and what they would want.

Leonard: There are free tools out there like Survey monkey that can allow them to do that. I am going to throw out another suggestion. Partnering with colleges, partnering with the communications and journalism classes with colleges and sit down with them and say, “How do I communicate, how do I get feedback, how do I quantify that feedback, how do I make that it a meaningful exchange”. I think journalism is changing, they are just as challenged as everybody else, the journalism schools. At least they are examining this issue they would be wonderful places to assist local law enforcement agencies. Agree or disagree?

Deborah : Absolutely, I mean certainly here in beautiful Oxford, Mississippi where the University of Mississippi is located our local police department is very active on Twitter for example, and if someone came to us and said “Hey, we want a crash course in better engagement on Twitter”. I know there are several faculty that would be delighted to do something like this. I think that is an excellent idea as well.

Leonard: So I am not suggesting replacing community meetings, community meetings are essential. I go back to the idea where you can go and sit with 100 or you can go and talk with social media and talk with thousands. I am suggesting the possibly of doing both. If you are going to do it digitally it has to be not just you suggested a little while ago Deb, not just the public affairs person, the chief the deputy chief the commander at various districts need to be able to do this as well correct? They need to have this constant check in with the community, what are we doing right, what are we doing wrong, where are we messing up. That has to be across the board throughout the agency, there has to be a larger sense not I think what others have said more communication with media. Media is in the position of being in the conduit to get the word out beyond social media. Correct?

Deborah : Absolutely, and something that you said, “Not giving up on the community meeting”. Why not make the impact exponential go to the community meeting come up with a hashtag for the meeting and encourage everyone at the meeting to tweet about what they are hearing at the community meeting. Then you had the one on one interaction then you spread it to those who cannot be included to that particular meeting. Figure out how to leverage the things the things you are already doing and expand them through the use of social media and part of that is to train more than one person in the department on how to do this properly and effectively.

Leonard: Ted, we have one minute left. In terms of working with the media being more open and approachable to and more cooperative to with the media, we in the criminal justice system we have a hard time doing that. Do we not?

Deborah : You know…

Ted: I don’t know its hard to generalize that. Some agencies do it every well, other agencies don’t do it very well. A lot of agencies unfortunately perceive that the media is interested in so called bad news about your agencies and in those cases it can be pretty hard to communicate

Leonard: A question to either one of you. Can we partner with the media then? Can the criminal justice system partner with the media, in terms of communicating with the public and getting reation to the public? Is that permissiable?

Deborah : I think the media and law enforcement need each other. I think most smart folks in both areas understand that. I think the more they can do to build relationships and whether that’s you know, training for each other or simply sharing the practices the better off the community is and each of the individual entities.

Leonard: It’s a fascinating conversation with both of you. I appreciate so much both of you being before the microphones today because this is a very complexing issue, the proper communicating between law enforcement, the criminal justice and the public it is a very complex issue. So thank you very much for being at the microphones today. Ladies and gentleman we had Deborah Winger, she is director of undergraduate journalism, associate professor at the Meek School of Journalism University of Mississippi. She has her own blog, extraordinarily interesting, advancethestory.com. Ted Guest is the Washington Bureau Chief of the crime report and somebody who has been around journalism for decades. Somebody who I really trust, thecrimereport.org. Ladies and gentleman this is D.C. public safety we appreciate your comments we even appreciate your criticisms. We want everybody to have themselves a very pleasant day.

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