Silence is not a winning strategy: Why police leaders must speak up in times of crisis
By maintaining a steady presence throughout difficult situations, your agency will strengthen its roots for a successful long-term relationship with the community
This article originally appeared in the September 2020 PoliceOne Leadership Briefing. To read the full briefing, visit Media during a crisis | Civilian police training | Trust initiative report, and add the Leadership Briefing to your subscriptions.
Every law enforcement agency will experience a negative spotlight at some point. Large or small, urban or rural, it’s only a matter of time before your organization finds itself subject to intense public scrutiny. Too often, leaders fall silent during these times out of perceived necessity – an ongoing investigation, an external agency assigned as the communication lead, or simply the fear of saying the wrong thing and making the situation worse.
These are valid concerns, but silence is never a winning strategy. If we expect our communities to trust us, law enforcement agencies must show up during challenging times. Here are five ways to engage in meaningful discussion without compromising an investigation or stepping outside of your lane.
1. Acknowledge the emotional impact on your community
Community members want to feel heard, seen and valued. When emotions run high and spark a variety of reactions, it becomes virtually impossible to move forward until those needs are addressed. You can help diffuse this tension and move the conversation forward with simple statements like the Mountain View Police Department shared during summer unrest: “We see you. We hear you. We are here to make change with you.”
Acknowledge the emotional landscape, and avoid assigning judgment to emotions others are experiencing. Reserve that for actions such as when people are damaging property or engaging in violence. Keep the emphasis on your community and their experiences; when you're in the hot seat, focusing too heavily on internal feelings can frustrate your external audience.
2. Focus on your values
Your guiding principles uniquely belong to you as an agency, and you alone know how they shape your operations. Values are just words on paper until you live them and apply them to real-life situations, so take this opportunity to connect those dots:
- What do you stand for?
- How do your programs, processes and policies reflect your values?
- What is the cornerstone of your department’s culture?
Don’t wait until a crisis strikes to apply this concept; encourage leadership to bring values into everyday communication practices. When challenging situations strike, leaning on these tenets will already be second nature.
3. Find common ground
Divisive incidents create or deepen rifts in the community, but we can build bridges by listening, acknowledging and identifying common ground. Whenever possible, validate and focus on areas of mutual agreement. Look beyond the surface of what people are asking and find the places where your values align.
Shift the conversation from a narrowly focused (and perhaps unattainable) demand to the resolution people are truly trying to achieve. Start community conversations with outcomes:
- What kind of environment do we all want?
- Are there great programs we agree are working?
- What positive interactions do we want to emulate?
The partnership between Grand Junction Police Chief Doug Shoemaker and Colorado Mesa University Football Coach Tremaine Jackson is a great example of this concept. Together, the chief and coach have laid the groundwork for ongoing dialogue, active listening and mutual understanding between student athletes, community members and local police. Through this connection, they've been able to share common leadership values that are relevant on the field, in a team environment and in policing.
4. Point to processes and policies
At some point, every organization will deal with employees who break rules. The actions of one person should not define your agency. If bad news breaks about misconduct, join that conversation and define your position immediately. Don’t focus on the individual whose actions are under investigation. Talk about your hiring standards, training, policies, and processes for holding people accountable. Define your agency by its expectations, not the unfortunate exceptions. This is relevant beyond conduct complaints – use existing documentation to correct inaccurate or incomplete information that’s spreading.
Kansas City (Missouri) Police successfully integrated sharing policy information in its overall communication strategy, including during the June unrest that shook their city and others around the country. Despite the intensity of negative sentiments, the agency stayed engaged in the conversation, shared policies related to discussion topics, and created a resource page on their website with additional information. This has been a successful strategy in rumor control during a time of information overload.
5. Talk about what’s happening right now
Acknowledging the past is important, but avoid staying there. Instead, focus on present efforts and future plans:
- What action are you currently taking that your community will value?
- Are you still showing up to serve and protect 24/7?
- Are you engaging in discussions with community groups, faith leaders, activists, concerned residents?
- Reviewing your processes for improvement opportunities?
- Cooperating with outside investigators to provide information in a timely manner?
- Take opportunities to highlight collaborative actions and any new efforts based on constructive community input.
After a video of an August altercation between protest groups caught national media attention, Fort Collins Police Chief Jeff Swoboda released daily video updates across social platforms to share investigative developments, shed light on processes, and affirm the organization’s values. This consistent presence and ongoing communication anchored the agency’s voice in the discussion.
Making the situation worse is a common concern, and joining controversial conversations does require strategy. Before jumping into public discourse, develop your speaking points, anticipate possible questions, and plan for navigating topics you can’t discuss. Share this internally as well. Employees will appreciate hearing it first, and front-line staff will likely encounter questions at some point. Providing this insight will support your team and amplify a consistent message.
No agency is exempt from a media storm. By maintaining a steady presence throughout difficult situations, your agency will strengthen its roots for a successful long-term relationship with the community.