How history makes the future of police media relations clearer

In the first publication of this regular column for, I addressed the commonalities that are attributed to both the police and the press. Law enforcers and the media share many characteristics that make their seemingly different stances really a mirror image of each other.

In this second column, I want to examine the evolution of the police journalists' perspective and how it has changed over time. This is a key part of understanding how and why the press act and what the police stance, both reactive and proactive, should be.

1950s: Police-media partnership

Many years ago, law enforcement and the media were partners. Many reporters came from similar backgrounds as their friends in blue and thus shared a common viewpoint. Police officers and reporters, as well as police chiefs and editors would socialize. Reporters particularly saw the police as the fabled "thin blue wall" that kept the less desirable segments in line.

At the same time, a relatively few journalistic institutions held power with not much worry of contradictory coverage of their version of police events. Titans like the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and the venerable CBS News did little to rock the boat. Society's ills, and the police response to those issues, were seldom covered. Everyday policing duties were highlighted on television via Hollywood's version in the form of "Adam-12" and "Dragnet" at the expense of more critical portrayals.

1960s: The partnership crumbles

That sanitized version of American society started to crumble in the 1960s as the social unrest of the era changed the earlier perspective of policing. Americans got to see televised problems in society and the police response to them in the once protected confines of their living rooms. Events that disturbed the serenity of Americans included Birmingham Police Chief Bull Connor unleashing his police dogs on civil rights protesters and anti-war and political protesters meeting the guardians of the status quo.

As a result, the 1960s saw the media distancing themselves from their former drinking buddies and the beginning of a growing distrust. Over the next couple of decades, the institutional memories of the various riots and shootings (from Zoot Suit riot to Rodney King to Amadou Diallo) started to be retained within the media. The mundane view of policing gave way to the dramatic forces that were tugging at the nation's seams.

While these issues were taking place within the prism of police responsibility, they really had their cause within a larger context. As many veteran criminal justice professionals know, the police are called in to address people who have in some fashion failed to observe the social boundaries that bind the societal fabric. The general population did not understand the issues and increasingly demanded quicker answers and a tangible target upon which to lay blame: the police.

Into the 21st century

Add to this mix an increasingly fragmented and competitive media operating in a multi-channeled and fast-paced world, you have essentially sound-bite solutions to very complex problems. Many veterans have the opinion that a ten minute intervention at a domestic is unlikely to solve ten years of build up. The same can be said for the larger problems that the police are called upon to deal with daily.

Contributing to this bleak picture is the reticence of media executives to devote scant resources to cover stories both within and outside the police. A local television station or small newspaper rarely can assign personnel to a long, in-depth examination of a topic.

Adversarial stance

On the police side, police chiefs have shifted from their pre-1960s relationship with the press to an often adversarial stance. Precariously perched in a position that can be toppled with the advent of some negative coverage, chiefs and their executives zealously guard the information they have. The media, in turn, see the challenge they have in ferreting out the truth (a commodity that has different realities depending on the perspective of the truth seeker).

Hope for the future

With all this history of the media's difficulty in covering the police, is there hope out there? The answer is yes. Media savvy police chiefs and their top echelon have found that a proactive and open stance (although not going so far as to compromise any on-going investigations) reaps dividends both politically and operationally.

A high profile example of using an open and forthcoming stance with the media to get the police perspective out to the community was evident when former New York City Police Department commissioner Bill Bratton took over as chief of the Los Angeles Police Department. Chief Bratton was able to use the local, as well as national press, as a platform for many of the reforms he proposed and to focus attention on the larger societal ills whose by products had been simplistically shifted to the police

The same approach can work in jurisdictions other than the nation's top media market. As a police chief, one of the first things I did was to tour the local network affiliate TV stations and sit in on the news meetings. I met all of the station personnel and became a face on that enemy that I referred to in the first column. Coverage that heretofore had been negative became positive and the reputation of a once battered agency began to turn. The perspective of the media had evolved and so too did that of the community.

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