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Critical incident videos improve police transparency, community engagement

The goal of these videos is to provide the media and community with a view of as many relevant facts as possible

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There are many perils associated with releasing raw police video without context.

San Diego Police Department

This article originally appeared in the December 2020 Police1 Leadership Briefing. To read the full briefing, visit Perils of raw video | Leadership playbook | Community engagement, and add the Leadership Briefing to your subscriptions.

It was June 27, 2020. A cloud of scrutiny loomed over police departments across the country following the death of George Floyd. For the San Diego Police Department, an officer-involved shooting was immediately met by strong community reaction and an avalanche of social media “facts” about the incident.

According to social media, the man was unarmed and was trying to surrender. Both were untrue.

Shortly after the incident, a large protest was planned fueled by tweets spreading a false narrative.

No press release or press conference would have quelled the outrage felt by the community nor diminish the large protest expected on the streets of San Diego.

However, the release of a critical incident video less than 24 hours after the incident did both.

In a clear, simple, and matter-of-fact presentation, the video provided background leading up to the incident, the moment the man reached into his waistband, the discharge of the officers’ service weapons and a clear photo of the revolver the man attempted to use on the officers. It laid out the events with minimal edits to the video, leaving viewers to draw their own conclusions. It was clear the video didn’t fit the narrative trending on Facebook and Twitter. Despite the maelstrom of misinformation, the conclusion was self-explanatory based on the video.

Social media soon went silent. The large protest withered once the visual facts were known.

The perils of raw video without context

My company, Critical Incident Videos, has produced around 70 videos for law enforcement agencies since June 2019. The idea was born from a change in California law that required, in some cases, the release of raw body-worn camera video to the media and public. My firm was already representing law enforcement agencies with external communications and transparency engagement when we saw an immediate concern for our clients under this new law.

As former journalists with a combined 40 years of experience, we saw the perils of releasing raw video without context:

  • How would different media organizations interpret the raw video?
  • How might different members of the community, without any description of the circumstances around a body-worn camera video, draw a reliable conclusion about the incident?
  • Would well-intentioned law enforcement agencies attempt to provide the context in a manner that raised new media questions, effectively prolonging the story?

The role of context

For many agencies, the production of a video may seem like a daunting task considering the editing equipment and time involved. In truth, that is the easy part and something any video production company could be hired to accomplish. The missing element is the role of context when it comes to transparency and how the media and community will receive your message. These videos are and should be structurally simple in their presentation with complex thought given to the potential communication outcome.

Our goal in producing these videos is to provide the media and community with a view of as many relevant facts as possible. We want any media that ultimately find any raw video to realize everything worth reporting was found in the contextual video already released by the agency. We do not want them to generate a story because important information was left on the cutting room floor.

The value of an outside perspective

Producing a critical incident video in-house or by hiring a video production company can be problematic. There may be aspects from a law enforcement perspective that seem obvious to most people, but not to others. This puts clarity at risk. A video production company will “do as the agency says.” However, pushback on editorial decisions made in these videos is the best way to protect an agency.

It is important to have an outside perspective. Allow people who are not in law enforcement to view your video and see what questions they may ask. Are there acronyms or procedures that escape them? Do they feel the video is highly edited or are missing something important?

Early in the endeavor, we ran across an example of a law enforcement agency that strongly desired transparency but was on the cusp of making a potentially media-generating decision – and not in a good way. The unnamed police department was set to release a body-worn camera video of an officer-involved shooting. Their team believed that the video showed the suspect going for his gun. However, when we reviewed the video, it was clear that to a reasonable observer the suspect was reaching for his seatbelt. It was a potential mistake born not out of an attempt to deceive, but rather viewing an incident from one’s own insider perspective.

Things to avoid

Critical incident videos should be dry. When there is a need to release a critical incident video, it almost always deals with a loss of life or a very serious situation for the agency.

Avoid anything that appears to be of a high production value. This is not a movie or a TV show; it is a statement of facts.

Avoid multiple speakers. If the situation is of great community concern, having the sheriff or police chief do an on-camera introduction and conclusion is appropriate. Be wary of voice narration as it is more difficult to avoid bias in vocal inflection than in an on-camera presentation. Narration is a skill not suited for amateurs.

Avoid justification of an officer or deputy’s actions. Leave that for the investigations and reviews that follow. Simply state what the viewer will see and what the viewer cannot see in the body-worn camera video.

Serving the community

Context is key and it goes beyond an explanation of just a few seconds of a body-worn camera video. In our videos, we often use maps, a narrative of what led to the incident, 911 calls, dispatch calls to officers, civilian cell phone video, business security camera video and more depending on the situation. You do not want the viewer to simply see a tragic or gruesome video. You want them to follow the story and become vested in the narrative. You want them to have an idea of what brought your officers to the event. You want them to be analytical by giving them a narrative approach to an uncomfortable moment.

That is not spin. Critical incident videos serve the community by giving them the context and backstory they need to understand, as best as possible, a gut-wrenching moment only law enforcement can experience.

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Laura Cole is the president and founder of Cole Pro Media and Critical Incident Videos. She operates two transparency engagement advising firms that take an innovative approach to helping law enforcement agencies build trust and legitimacy with the communities they serve. As a former notable news reporter who has worked at every level of the industry and served as a White House Correspondent, Cole is passionate about teaching agencies the best practices for engaging with the public. With a “no spin” policy, Cole places a strict emphasis on transparency. She specializes in releasing body-cam footage with context that focuses on open and honest communication.

As a sought-after speaker, Cole has shared her Crisis Communications philosophy at several events for the California Police Chiefs’ Association. Cole Pro Media is the transparency engagement advising firm for the California State Sheriffs’ Association. With commitment and dedication to strengthening the relationship between law enforcement and the community, Cole continues to lead the charge in steering agencies in the direction of best communication practices.