How every police officer can positively influence our collective image
Some agencies are better than others at getting across a positive message
Article updated on September 4, 2017.
These are tough times for cops when it comes to image and media coverage. We’ve all seen the pendulum swing both ways on how the public views police officers. Some agencies are better than others at getting across a positive message.
The FBI is famous for its PR machine. While that has led to more than a few jokes about the federal agency, the fact remains they rarely get cuts in funding and when someone from the general public meets an FBI agent, they are generally impressed. That’s just one example of the power of a good public relations machine.
But most agencies can’t even afford a public information officer, let alone be the subject of TV shows and movies. If you are like most cops working on the street, you are your agency’s best chance at projecting a positive image.
It’s important to remember that from big news stories all the way to a simple hello from a cop walking a beat, the general public is always forming opinions about us. How we are perceived directly affects not only our agency, but each individual officer across the nation as well.
Control and Influence
There are generally two types of power in police work: control and influence. We can control a situation, control a person and even control a neighborhood, but cops generally don’t fully utilize their power of influence.
Talking to people on your beat or explaining things thoroughly to witnesses and victims are a few examples of how engaging with the public can have a profound influence on their overall view of your own agency and law enforcement in general. This is part of the basis behind the DARE program – it’s basically saying that cops are not jerks.
Studies have shown that other people’s perceptions affect our own self-evaluations and can lead to a pattern that could influence your whole career. We are the frontline of our agencies in so many ways – from public service to criminal interdiction – and this is especially true of public relations. Each one of us represents many, many more.
We have a tendency to be on the defensive and use phrases like, “It’s cop thing.” But if recent events have shown us anything, it’s that this leads to an extremely negative view by the media and promotes an “us against them” syndrome. In the most practical and obvious terms, this can cost your agency public support, which ultimately leads to a decrease in funding, as well as the public’s ability to look at each incident involving a police shooting with an open mind.
It’s Up to Us
The days of TV shows like “Dragnet” or “Adam 12” – where cops were depicted only in a positive light – are long gone. That’s something that is out of our control. But every police officer in uniform – whether on the street or working homicide – can take it upon themselves to represent their department in a positive way.
This can start with something as simple and corny as saying hello or smiling to a civilian as you pass them on the street. This is especially true for kids.
I know every encounter is different, and police often find themselves dealing with the worst of society or an average citizen at the worst possible time. An easy technique that I learned as a rookie – and use even today – is to smile politely and listen to what the person has to say while quietly making your own judgments about their statements in your head. It’s shocking how effective this can be for your own mental health and keeping people happy and moving quickly on their way.
Consider your position and that one of your job responsibilities is as a representative of a proud, honorable and noble profession. It’s a cop thing.