4 lessons from Ferguson on how cops should communicate with the public

Ferguson taught us that in this era of instant information, we need to quickly use the tools that are available to us to educate and inform those we serve

In the moments after the shooting in Ferguson, American law enforcement entered an intense period of scrutiny and criticism that persists to this day. As a result of a justified use of deadly force by a police officer in defense of his life, we have been saddled with an ongoing international story of police abuse. 

All officer-involved shootings have lessons that can be learned. In this case, we learned that a failure to progress with technology can be almost as dangerous as bullets. We learned that failing to quickly communicate our message allows false information to become widely believed as true. 

Here are four lessons about police communication with citizens that should be indelibly etched in the minds of every officer and department across the country.

1. Participate in Social Media
In the moments after the Ferguson shooting — and in other incidents since then — false information was sent out at the speed of a text message. In fewer than 140 characters, the false narrative of “hands up” was spread so rapidly the department could not keep up with it. 

Once that false narrative started “trending,” the national news media picked up on it and it became a worldwide story.

Law enforcement has to prepare for this. Department s must have a robust social media presence and engage with the people that they serve. Like it or not, social media is here to stay and it will remain powerful. Law enforcement needs to empower itself with social media, not be defeated by it. 

2. Discontinue “No Comment”
As Brian Willis so eloquently states in his TEDx Naperville talk, “The Most Dangerous Weapon in Law Enforcement” when law enforcement fails to furnish timely information to those in the media who are seeking it, the press will find it elsewhere. Then, false information — often provided by people with no knowledge about policing or who have an anti-police agenda — will fill the void. 

Some departments have used this knowledge to quickly deal with the aftermath of shootings that could have been a repeat of Ferguson. They prevented a media fire storm by giving an appropriate media response through press conferences and announcements. When we leave things blank, the blanks will be filled in by others according to their own beliefs and agendas.

3. Educate the Community
By using programs such as Citizen Academies, departments have an opportunity to teach the community about the “how’s and the why’s” of the job. Most people have little knowledge about police use of force. Our job as cops is to educate people about the law. We do a good job when it comes to traffic law. We need to expand that education to those laws and situations that can cause the most negative responses from the public and do everything we can to bring about a positive response.

4. Engage Your Local Media
If you are knowledgeable about use of force, you can quickly identify those talking heads in the media who have a poor understanding of state statute and Supreme Court rulings regarding police use of force. I have lost track of the number of “experts” speaking on national television who clearly do not understand the basics of this complex matter.

By taking the time to educate your local media, your department becomes their source of knowledge. By creating that relationship, you can foster a partnership where your department becomes their local “experts” and the resource that they will seek out and trust.

Across the country, departments have taken the time and effort to invite local community activists to participate in use of force scenarios with some amazing results. Once the participants had an opportunity to be educated in the law and experience the physiological effects of stress and the tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving circumstances of a live force-on-force scenario, their attitudes about law enforcement’s response dramatically changed in a lot of cases.

Having only heard and seen one side of the issue, they had a one-sided perspective. It is each department and officers job to do their best to educate those that they serve. You won’t change everyone’s mind, but you will never change anyone’s mind until you try.

One of my favorite sayings is, “Never attribute to malice, what can be easily explained by ignorance.” Ferguson taught us that in this era of instant information, we need to quickly use the tools that are available to us to educate and inform those we serve — both when we get it right and when we get it wrong. Failing to do so is an invitation for others to rush in and do it for us, and we have seen the catastrophic results for those departments that have failed to learn the lessons from Ferguson.

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