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IACP Quick Take: Rapid response during a crisis helps PDs get ahead of message

Police departments are adopting new policies that are forcing them to get in front of the press to mitigate public and media uproar


Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson speaks at a panel on crisis management at IACP 2016.

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Police response to crises has significantly changed in the last five years. Video is everywhere. The public is demanding transparency. The days of simply saying that information can’t be released because of an ongoing investigation are gone.

In light of recent events in Ferguson, Baltimore, Charlotte and Milwaukee (to name a few), police departments are adopting new policies that are forcing them to get in front of the press to mitigate public and media uproar. At the 123rd annual International Association of Chiefs of Police Conference, a panel of police chiefs discussed how the current climate is impacting their departments and shared how they’re adopting a head-on approach to addressing public outcry and demands for immediate evidence release during and/or following a major event.


  • Kathleen O’Toole, chief of police, Seattle Police Department
  • Terence Monahan, chief of patrol, New York Police Department
  • Brandon Del Pozo, chief of police, Burlington, Vermont Police Department
  • Eddie Johnson, superintendent, Chicago Police Department
  • Edward Flynn, chief of police, Milwaukee Police Department

Quick summary
While the fundamentals of crisis management are the same, there is a need for agencies to adopt a rapid response approach to major incidents. Police departments are adopting this new tactic for some reasons from helping to preserve peace and community trust to maintaining department morale and steering the angle of the media’s coverage as a crisis unfolds.

3 key take-aways
1. Share your side of the story with the press to control the message and tone.
The panelists generally agreed that in today’s climate it is necessary for agencies to hold a press conference as soon as they can during a crisis. According to Chief Kathleen O’Toole, the Seattle Police Department adopted a policy in which they have to release any evidence they have available whether it’s video, audio, pictures or 911 calls within 24 hours of an incident. She said Seattle PD does this to make sure they stay in front of the story and to help maintain the public’s trust in the department’s proceedings. Chief O’Toole emphasized the need to collaborate with city attorneys to make sure that any release of video doesn’t impair a criminal investigation.

Regarding transparency, Terence Monahan, chief of patrol at NYPD, said his department requires a response to the media on the same day of an event. He also echoed O’Toole on the need to work closely with the district attorneys to make sure there is no compromise to an investigation.

According to Chief Brandon Del Pozo, Burlington PD will release any evidence they are able to depending on the circumstances of the investigation. He mentioned that while they do not have a same-day or 24-hour policy like NYPD or Seattle PD, they maintain transparency by keeping the public informed as much as possible.

Chief Edward Flynn of Milwaukee PD shared that when his department releases videos if it’s for officer misconduct they will include text on the video that the officer was fired for misconduct. Chief Flynn said they do this if they perceive the video will negatively impact the agency. This innovative idea of branding the video also helps the agency mitigate public recoil if the video goes viral on social media.

2. Build community relations.
Chief Del Pozo frequently interfaces with Burlington community leaders and citizens. He conveyed the importance of reminding citizens regularly that the police department is always planning in advance for the next crisis. Superintendent Eddie Johnson with Chicago PD echoed the same sentiments and took it a step further by releasing his personal cell phone number to activists so they can reach out to him directly at any time to discuss their concerns.

During the Milwaukee riots, Chief Flynn asked community partners to be the front line to help restore the city.

The panelists all agreed that it’s important to build genuine relationships with everyone from faith-based community members to schools and local businesses to the media. They collectively emphasized the importance of acknowledging the incident, the need to make a change and to advertise when the lessons learned from the incident are adopted.

3. Train your officers.
Make sure officers are trained on how to respond and interact with mentally ill subjects. Chief Flynn discussed the importance of crisis intervention teams and referenced how his officers were trained using the Memphis model. To take this a step further, it is also advisable to make sure your department’s 911 call takers and dispatchers are also trained so they know what questions to asks before an officer arrives on scene and to help identify if the caller is in crisis. Every officer should have all the tools to make sure they know how to communicate and interact with the mentally ill to result in a peaceful response.

It is also important to make sure all officers are properly trained and able to correctly use any technology they have in the field. Also, make sure officers are regularly reminded about the prevalence of video and they should always assume they’re being recorded whether it’s through their own equipment (in car video or body cams) or private video (citizen cell phones or CCTV).

Memorable quotes
• O’Toole: “Stand up, address it head on, tell the truth, share as much information as possible and be able to look yourself in the mirror at the end of the night.”
• Terry (NYPD): “Number one focus in policing is to prevent crime and disorder.”
• Terry (NYPD): “You may not have the full story but get in front of the camera with what you have.”
• Chicago: “One piece of technology that has changed policing forever is video.”
• Flynn: Negative media coverage is to be expected. “Do the right things for the right reasons, but don’t expect to get credit for doing it.”

Other observations
This was the first session of Monday morning and it was a full house, standing room only. The panelists shared lessons learned from incidents that yielded positive results and also incidents that negatively impacted the agencies’ public perception. While there was a significant amount of information shared during this 90-minute session, the audience walked away with new strategies for how to address the media in the current climate and were reminded about the importance of ongoing community relationship building.

Heather R. Cotter has been working with public safety professionals for 20 years and understands the resource challenges and constraints agencies face. Heather is a Captain in the United States Army Reserve and holds two master’s degrees from Arizona State University and a bachelor’s degree from Indiana University. Contact her at