Minute by minute: The communication response to the Highland Park July 4 shooting
Julie Parker speaks with Deputy Chief Chris Covelli of the Lake County (Ill.) Sheriff’s Office about the media response to the shooting that left 7 dead and 30 wounded
A critical incident can happen at any time, in any community, across the country. Sharing information about these incidents is one cog in the overall response wheel, but it’s one that cannot be overlooked. It’s crucial to effectively communicate both during and after a critical incident. Police1 has launched a new feature that dives into the communication response to some of the most significant incidents law enforcement agencies have recently faced. Julie Parker, who is President & CEO of Julie Parker Communications, specializing in law enforcement media relations and social media, is spearheading this spotlight on crisis communications.
In this article, Julie interviews Deputy Chief Chris Covelli of the Lake County (Illinois) Sheriff’s Office, about the mass shooting at a July 4 parade in Highland Park, Illinois in 2022. Highland Park’s Police Chief tapped Deputy Chief Covelli to handle all media updates on the matter.
Some content contained below may be difficult for some readers.
Julie Parker: Where were you on July 4, 2022, and how were you notified of an active shooter at the holiday parade?
Deputy Chief Covelli: My wife is a police commander in a neighboring town and was working their July 4 parade so I had brought my three children to watch. Shortly after arriving, my wife called me and asked me if I heard what was happening in Highland Park – at that time I had no idea. She said, “There’s an active shooter shooting people in the parade route.” She and her staff were headed in that direction to Highland Park and she let me know that her parade was going to be canceled so I hung up with her and called my dispatch center to get more information. Dispatch said that Sheriff John Ideleburg was actually at the scene and he was going to be marching in that parade. He had called in the dispatch and said: “Active shooter, start all available units” so we sent a couple of dozen deputies right out of the gate to Highland Park. They let me know that one person was confirmed deceased and there were numerous casualties.
By the time I hung up with my dispatch center, the news media was calling as they had received word of what was happening. I didn’t have a whole lot to share at that point. I loaded my three kids into my car, drove them home, geared up and headed out to the scene. While that was happening, I was making telephone calls internally to the commander of the Major Crimes task force. He let me know that we would be activating for it and headed to the scene. I connected with the Highland Park Deputy Chief to let him know I was headed out there and he was willing to help however they needed it and that’s kind of how I got involved.
Parker: Does Highland Park have a PIO?
Covelli: Yes, their deputy chief.
Parker: Why would she/he not be the lead?
Covelli: This was going to be the biggest incident Highland Park would ever handle and they certainly were completely inundated with operational tasks that needed to be done right then for public safety reasons. So, it’s not abnormal when Major Crimes responds to a local agency.
Pretty much every local agency in Lake County has its own PIO but often times when Major Crimes is involved they’ll defer to me or my colleagues in the Taskforce so they can focus on assisting whatever the investigation is. In this case, they were focusing on catching a mass murderer, so I certainly knew that this was going to be a major major media event given the fact that you got innocent people in a parade there to celebrate the country’s independence gunned down with close to 100 rounds fired by this person. Sadly seven people were killed and dozens injured.
It’s certainly all hands on deck when it comes to media relations when you’re dealing with a critical incident like this.
Parker: Who was the first organization/agency to push out the information publicly confirming there was an active shooter and how was that done?
Covelli: Initially Highland Park posted on social media and issued a press release indicating there was a mass shooting, and that the offender was at large. They did that pretty quickly. The first press briefing and subsequent press briefings occurred once I arrived at the scene and was able to connect and collaborate with the stakeholders there.
Parker: Can you give me a sense of the timing from when you say they posted on their social media and issued a press release?
Covelli: It was under an hour that they issued their first statement and posted on social media, then the first press briefing was just under two hours after the first call of “shots fired.”
Parker: For those either new to being a PIO or just haven’t been through something like this, they may not know that getting out your first briefing in less than two hours is pretty remarkable. How hard is it to pull off a press briefing in that short amount of time?
Covelli: While it can be challenging, it is very important to hold your first press briefing when the media is arriving at the scene if you’re able to, and start getting accurate information out.
It is challenging in a critical incident because you have a lot of players and a lot of information that is flowing and a lot of unknowns in the beginning. Naturally, there are going to be a lot of questions you can’t answer.
In this case, when I arrived at the command post, there were likely 150 people. It looked very chaotic. As soon as I got in there, though, what looked to be chaos was not and everyone had very specific tasks. The information flow up and down the chain was happening at an incredible rate, probably more so than I’ve seen in any other critical incident I’ve been involved in and that’s really important to the PIO because you need to know what’s happening at the scene.
You need to know what the police officers and firefighters are doing. Most importantly you need to know whether the public is at risk and what can they do to protect themselves.
We were able to discuss what happened at the scene. I got a briefing from the incident commander who was in charge of the initial response when the shots were fired.
We felt it would be really good to bring him to the first press briefing as well because he would give that first-hand account of what the scene looked like and how it all transpired.
We quickly collaborated on what information was going to be very important to the community and got out in front of the cameras just under two hours into the incident and were able to provide – not a ton of information – but most importantly what everybody in the community should do and where the danger zone was.
Commander Chris O’Neal was able to provide an update from the actual scene and I was able to provide some instructions to the community to shelter in place. The two blocks around the shooting were considered a “hot zone” and still was a “hot zone.”
At the time we believed there was only one shooter and that he is at large – we didn’t know if he was hiding with victims somewhere or had fled from the scene.
We had a vague description of him, which ordinarily in a normal incident we wouldn’t release because it wasn’t very good, however with this being of major importance to the community, we pushed out what we knew and his approximate height and age in a very general description because we felt it was very important that any information we knew at that time was delivered to the community.
Parker: Is there anything you would offer as a takeaway that people can do now to attempt to prepare for such a situation?
Covelli: It’s important for every chief to understand their PIO needs to be at the table for any discussion when it comes to external communication, especially when it comes to a critical incident. Your community will never forgive you if you’re failing to push out important relevant information to keep them safe or if you have information that won’t jeopardize whatever you’re working on and you sit on it or you refuse to push it out. The community won’t forgive that. You’ll lose trust with the media as well.
Chiefs need to understand they select their PIOs because they are trusted in their capacity and they have the skill set to go out and speak to the media. They should have the training to help them solidify their role but when it comes to it, they need to be at the table, and they need to be a strategic advisor. At the end of the day, the chief does have that final decision but if the PIO is making a recommendation to push out information, that should not be taken lightly. If a PIO runs into a situation where they feel the information should be going out but those they report to are uncomfortable with it, they need to respectfully push and let their commanders know how important it is to push that information out. That’s their role and that’s what the community expects in 2022. They expect to have the basics quickly.
Parker: What is it about a PIO and their advice that chiefs need to respect?
Covelli: The PIO is the subject matter expert in interacting with the media and providing external communication to the community. If the PIO is recommending information be shared, the chief or the decision-maker needs to take their opinion seriously and let them run with it. They can work together to craft the message. If the PIO is recommending information go out and that information doesn’t go out, that can be catastrophic for the chief of the agency.
Parker: Who was the lead on social media and what was the social media strategy?
Covelli: It was FB and Highland Park’s website primarily. They were driving people to see the updates. Broadly, it’s important for PIOs to understand information on social media is just as important as traditional news media in a critical incident. The PIO or PIO designees need to update social media every 10-15 mins while the incident is unfolding. Most people turn to social media to get live updates with the TV in the background. Also, it is important to remember to remind the community and media that all official information is coming directly from the Twitter/Facebook page so they know to turn to that specific page as a trusted source of information.
Parker: What advice do you have for new PIOs?
Covelli: I will say your first time going in front of the cameras is intimidating, and in a critical incident where you have national media responding to the scene, it's intimidating 10-fold. There are dozens of news cameras, microphones and reporters you’re standing in front of and you’re live. This puts you in a vulnerable state, especially if you’re not prepared or you don’t have the experience to do that.
For the new PIO, it’s very important to be proactive and meet your media. Go to your media market news stations and talk to the assignment editors. Talk to the reporters if they’re there. Talk to the camera operators. Try to make yourself comfortable. Have a friend or a family member put up a tape recorder and present news stories in front of it and watch that for what you did right and wrong. That will make you that much better when the big one comes so you’re prepared to go out and face the dozens of reporters, cameras and microphones.
Parker: How does a PIO stay calm during press briefings?
Covelli: I know I’m going to give honest information. I know that I’m only going to provide the information that I can without jeopardizing the picture. Knowing you’re going out there and being honest – I look at it like talking to a crowd, talking to a group of people, giving a presentation, that takes the nerves off. As long as you’re honest, you really have nothing to worry about. You answer what you can answer, you don’t lie, you don’t jeopardize your credibility ever. You don’t jeopardize the credibility of those you’re speaking on behalf of. You always have to remember you’re representing your agency and the men and women who work for your agency. You’re the face of them, so you want to do them proud and if you keep those things in the back of your head, it takes the edge off and takes the nerves away.
Parker: When you watch a law enforcement news conference, what things do you see that everyone needs to work on?
Covelli: One of the most important things is you need one voice in a critical incident. It needs to be one trusted critical person, primarily during the news. Certainly, there is a time for others to address the news media and bring in subject matter experts. Certainly, elected officials are going to want to address the community to talk to their constituents. There is a time and a place for that and that is not generally at the beginning of a critical incident. The start of a critical incident is all about public safety and keeping the community informed.
When I see 15 people standing behind the speaker, I feel that’s a distraction. If you don’t have something relevant to say, I don’t necessarily believe you should be at the microphone talking. There will be a time to talk to news media and address the community but it’s not when there’s important information to push out.
Parker: How do you know the event is “over” from a formal news conference perspective?
Covelli: In this case, the critical incident ended when the offender was taken into custody on day 1.
On day 2 we had a reduced number of news conferences, and they were further apart. We had three formal news conferences, the first two were to update where the investigation was and what investigators were doing. We confirmed the offender was still in custody and he had not been charged.
We ended announcing charges when the state attorney came in and announced those charges. We concluded for that day.
On day 3, we held one news conference following the bond court proceeding of the defendant. The investigation is not over but the information that’s going to be shared is going to be much more limited because now that need for the public to know goes down a bit where the investigative integrity goes up. In the beginning, it's reversed, the need for the public to know outweighs investigative integrity when their lives are at risk.
The final news conference made a point to have a lot of extra time for questions. I really wanted to get every question that every journalist had out there answered because I knew it was going to be our last press conference.
From that point forward, we transitioned to Highland Park being the face of the recovery and everything thereafter. The city should be very proud – the leadership I saw from the chief of police, the fire chief, the city manager and the mayor – it really was tremendous. They did an incredible job. As horrific and tragic of an event as this was, they were prepared, and they handled it extremely well and there’s no doubt if they weren’t as highly trained and talented professionals as they are, there would have been dozens more killed.