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Chiefs: You have the right to remain silent

Law enforcement leaders may feel the need to speak out when inflammatory statements are made against police – here are some things to remember


The badge of Davis Police Chief Darren Pytel is shown before funeral services for Davis Police Officer Natalie Corona at the University of California, Davis, Friday, Jan. 18, 2019, in Davis, Calif.

AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, pool

A California professor wants cops murdered.

He said so in a tweet in 2015: “People think that cops need to be reformed. They need to be killed,” and in 2014, “It’s easier to shoot cops when their backs are turned.”

After the death of officer Natalie Corona in his community, English professor Joshua Clover doubled down on his remarks saying that he will have a statement “on the day that police officers have as much to fear from literature professors as Black kids do from police.”

As a commentator on events concerning law enforcement from my perspective as a former college professor and former police chief, my first inclination as a response to this tax-funded molder of young minds is to ignore him and his statements. He is joined in a parade of incendiary remarks by assorted activists, politicians, athletes, actors and other malcontents vying for attention in the last half decade. But is no response the best response to such statements?

Law enforcement leaders may feel the need to speak out when accusatory or inflammatory statements are made by a personality who attracts media attention. Here are some things to remember when making that decision.

You have the right to remain silent

Chances are that most people agree with your sentiments about a patently irresponsible and disrespectful remark that makes news or a ripple on social media. The fact that it gets repeated is an indicator that people find it shocking.

After an initial wave of interest, it will likely fade out of view and the speaker will suffer the natural consequences of fomenting social harm. Letting the provocateur stew in their own juices is often the best strategy

You have the right to your own opinion, but not to your own facts

Famously credited to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, this sentiment urges that arguments be rational and based on facts rather than on emotion and mere opinion. If a response is to be made from a law enforcement executive or on behalf of a law enforcement executive, a factual response is more effective than an emotional one.

I recently wrote to some legislators in New Hampshire to speak against the proposed revision in their law relating to police use of force. Rather than an emotional appeal based on the “officers lay their lives on the line every day” diatribe, I cited a number of studies and examples that I thought applied to the issue. A state representative wrote back, “This is helpful. It’s the first of about 20 efforts I’ve seen trying to speak against the proposed change to the statute that relies on substance.” As I’ve said before, facts matter.

You have the right to stake out your media presence

If you haven’t already established an active public presence and commentary on conventional and social media outlets, a sudden appearance to remark on a controversy may backfire. Your public may wonder where you’ve been all this time, and why you only surface during controversy.

It is tempting to have a running commentary, like our current President, but we all see the perils of that. Having a carefully curated media presence will give you an audience and a voice when people most need to hear from you. If you’re not practiced at it, avoid jumping in during a viral moment.

You have the right to call it like you see it

Plain talk seems to have lost its popularity. Statements are measured, diplomatic, and carefully reviewed for triggers and political correctness all for good reason. There are some things, however, that are just stupid. We can use gentler synonyms – unwise, imprudent, thoughtless, ill-advised and unfortunate – but why not just say, “That was a stupid thing to say”? That doesn’t mean we are calling, for example, the professor a stupid person. It’s not about character assassination, just making a succinct assessment of a statement that merits little other commentary.

It is very easy to get drawn into a pit of trying to get the last word or best word or most quotable retort. I maintain that my first choice of remaining silent serves best.

Joel Shults retired as Chief of Police in Colorado. Over his 30-year career in uniformed law enforcement and criminal justice education, Joel served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and a bachelor degree in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the U.S. Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over 50 police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards, including the Colorado POST curriculum committee, as a subject matter expert.