Why "no comment" no longer works after a critical police incident

When the public hear no comment they think the police did something wrong and are trying to cover it up — when the officers from the involved agency hear it they feel angry and betrayed by their leader

An officer is involved in a life-and-death struggle and in an effort to save their life they shoot and kill the subject. The lead for the six o’clock news simply states, “Police are involved in a shooting, and one man is dead. Details at six o’clock.”

At six o’clock, the members of your community are glued to their television sets. The news anchor provides brief details then turns it over to the reporter at the press conference. The people anxiously wait for the chief or sheriff to provide them with facts and insights as to what happened. Instead, they hear the two most dangerous words in a police executive’s vocabulary: “No comment.”

Why are these words so dangerous? Because as soon as they hear these words the public immediately thinks the police did something wrong and are trying to cover it up. 

Why would they think that? Because following every other major incident the police stand up at the press conference and provide the facts as they know them and the guarantee the public they are continuing their investigation to gather all the facts and evidence. 

If there is a murder we give the facts as we know them and talk about the ongoing investigation. 

If there is a school shooting we give the facts as we know them and talk about the ongoing investigation. 

If the police shoot a subject to save the life of a citizen we give the facts as we know them, praise the officer for saving a citizen’s life, and talk about the ongoing investigation. 

If, however, an officer finds one’s self in a violent struggle and shoots and kills the subject to save him or herself, too often the chief or sheriff stands up and says, "no comment."

"No comment" by the police opens the door for politicians, special interest groups, self-appointed experts and anyone else with an agenda to make comment. Their comments however, are usually based on rumor, innuendo, speculation, and emotions — not on the facts. 

"No comment" too often leads to:

1. Lack of trust between community and the police.
2. Lack of trust within the police agency.
3. Major disturbances sometimes leading to riots, looting, more violence, communities damaged, people injured and occasionally additional deaths.

If the stakes are so high and the consequences are so often negative, why do so many chiefs and sheriffs continue to fall back on “no comment?” Unfortunately, many are under the belief that any comments by them will be seen to inappropriately influence the investigation. Facts as they are known at the time leading to the shooting cannot inappropriately influence an investigation. 

A statement of support such as, “Based on the facts as they are known at the time, we believe our officer acted appropriately” will not inappropriately influence the investigation. A thorough and competent investigation will reveal all the facts and evidence. If the chief or sheriff was wrong, and the officer did act inappropriately (which sometimes happens) they can have another press conference and amend their position based on the new evidence. 

The Reality and the Answer
Among the tens of millions of interactions between the police and the public occurring every year in North America, police use of force is rare — officer-involved shootings are extremely rare. However, when officer-involved shootings do happen, they are sometimes high-profile and potentially volatile events in the community. The community wants information on what occurred especially when the shooting resulted in a death. 

The answer is to grow courage and to grow relationships. 

Have the courage to comment on the facts as we know them leading up to the event, and the courage to voice support for the officer’s actions when that is supported by the facts as they are known. We also need to have the courage to admit if the evidence shows the officer’s actions were not appropriate. 

I use the word ‘courage’ because these comments will be criticized by some members of the community, especially the family of the deceased. They will also be criticized by fellow law enforcement executives who are not willing to take the courageous position and do what is right for the community, the agency and the officer. . 

We need to grow relationships between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve and protect. These relationships need to be grown well before the shooting occurs. Relationships between the police and the community need to be based on courage, character and integrity and developed through dialogue, discussion, debate, and education. 

Education is Key
Not only do chiefs and sheriffs need to be educated on the ramifications of ‘no comment” statements, but agencies need to better educate the public and the media on issues surrounding violent encounters such as time and distance, action versus reaction, time to start and time to stop, the effects of stress on memory and performance, and other issues. This can be done through Citizens Police Academies and other forums, and is best done on an ongoing basis (although it can be done at the time of the event as well). 

For example, the word ‘unarmed’ has become synonymous in the media with ‘no threat’ and certainly ‘no deadly threat’. In fact, there are alleged experts who have publicly stated that a law enforcement officer can never justify shooting an unarmed person.

This misconception needs to be cleared up. In a two-year period in the United States beginning in January 2011, 1,406 people were murdered by ‘unarmed’ people using personal weapons. If you factor in strangulation, asphyxiation, and drowning the numbers jump to 1,796. 

In those two years three law enforcement officers in the United States were murdered by ‘unarmed’ people using personal weapons. In the last decade, 25 law enforcement officers were disarmed and murdered with their own weapons — prior to taking the officer’s gun, those attackers were unarmed.  

No More “No Comment”
When the public hear no comment they think the police did something wrong and are trying to cover it up — when the officers from the involved agency hear it they feel angry and betrayed by their leader. One of their brother or sister officers has just been in a fight for his or her life and their leader refused to educate the public about what happened express his or her support for the officer in that critical moment. 

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