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Photo of captured fugitive raises questions about police culture and public perception

One of the trickiest parts of police public relations is understanding the gap between police culture and the world of the average citizen


CBS NEWS Philadelphia KYW-TV via AP

This article originally appeared in the September 2023 Police1 Leadership Briefing. To read the full briefing, see Fugitive photo mishap | The dangers of gatekeeping | LEO medical training and add the Leadership Briefing to your subscriptions.

Perhaps sensing a historic moment, officers involved in the capture of dangerous fugitive Danelo Cavalcante gathered behind the captive for a photo. We don’t know if there was anyone present who thought that was at all controversial, but in what should have been a victory lap of a press conference, the critics soon wanted to know why the manhunt took so long, and why this photo was taken.

A helicopter from CBS Philadelphia station KYW captured the moment the photo was taken and once that image of law enforcement officials taking a photo with the convicted killer found its way into news stories and commentary, authorities were faced with how to respond.

The gap between police culture and the average citizen

One of the trickiest parts of police public relations is understanding the gap between police culture and the world of the average citizen.

There might have been a day when a controversial police interaction was met with a shrug of the shoulders and the assumption that the police had some good reason for whatever it was they did. Those days are lost for a variety of reasons including the omnipresence of video, the instant circulation capacity of social media, the opportunity for deep pocket lawsuits, and, of course, highly publicized cases of actual and alleged police misconduct.

What shocks the uninitiated to the realities of law enforcement is illustrated in the famous words of Sgt. Stacey Coon in testimony during the 1992 trial regarding the arrest of Rodney King “…sometimes police work is brutal. That is just a fact of life.” While many citizens shook their heads and dropped their jaws at such a raw statement, police officers would nod knowingly in assent to that sad truth.

When Ferguson (Missouri) Chief of Police Tom Jackson announced that Michael Brown, who had been shot and killed by a Ferguson officer had, on the day of the shooting, been suspected of a strong-arm robbery, the backlash was an unexpected criticism rather than a belief that Brown could have been a public menace.

Consider how headlines are digested

The point is that when making a statement in response to a potentially high-profile police interaction, spokespersons should create a mental image of how that headline is going to be digested by the average citizen. One cannot assume that the press release or impromptu statement will be quoted completely, accurately, or given appropriate context. Like any good writing assignment, the statement, where possible, should be reviewed by others for critique, looking especially for bits that could be quoted accurately but out of context.

In the case of the Pennsylvania photo-op, spokesperson for Pennsylvania State Police Lt. Col. Bivens chose to direct his response toward the positive, acknowledge the criticism but minimize it, and emphasize the work of the officers on behalf of the public: “They’re proud of their work. I’m not bothered at all by the fact that they took a photograph with him in custody. They kept the community safe. I say thanks to them and good job.” His boss Colonel Christopher Paris validated Bivens’ statement and added “The professional restraint that they showed and being able to take him alive and in relatively good health, we’re very proud of that professionalism.”


“They’re proud of their work. I’m not bothered at all by the fact that they took a photograph with him in custody. They kept the community safe. I say thanks to them and good job.” — Pennsylvania State Police Lt. Col. Bivens

CBS NEWS Philadelphia KYW-TV via AP

Conduct an after-action review of media communications

The fact that the photo incident has faded quickly from the headlines indicates that the response was effective, but leaders may want to examine those statements from the perspective of the police critic. After-action reviews and case studies aren’t just for tactical scenarios, they should be used for sharpening skills in making statements to the media.

An after-action review is a valuable tool for police departments, especially when dealing with media relations nightmares, providing opportunities for learning and improvement. Conducting an after-action review requires police leaders to follow several crucial steps:

1. Undertake a comprehensive review of the incident. This includes understanding the initial response, public communications, and media interactions. Gathering information from all involved parties is crucial, enabling a multi-perspective understanding of the situation.

2. Identify what went wrong or right in the response. This can include the timeliness and accuracy of information shared, the tone and appropriateness of communication, and the effectiveness of the department’s engagement with the media.

3. Seek to understand the public’s reaction to the incident and the department’s response. Social media sentiment, press coverage, and community feedback can provide valuable insight into the success or failure of efforts.

4. Critically analyze the findings to identify areas for improvement. This could involve training needs, policy changes, or reassessment of communication strategies.

5. Implement recommended improvements. This could mean establishing regular media training for staff, creating crisis communication plans, or improving transparency practices.

By implementing this process, police departments can turn a media relations nightmare into a catalyst for change and improvement.

What do you think? Share your opinions below.

Police1 Readers Respond

  • I believe that they could have taken a group photo but the suspect did not need to be in the picture. You can take a group photo to show all the efforts and manpower it took to get the suspect in custody, but to showcase the suspect, I don’t think that is necessary. Great job in the capture, and everyone making it home safely.
  • I have no problem with it. They are proud of the job they did and no different than any other civilian group would do for a great accomplishment. The media pushes an anti-police agenda and gullible people buy into it.

  • The bar was set with Ted Kaczynski. If it’s not a national manhunt of that caliber I would suggest not doing it. Remember the old days of not needing accolades and the intrinsic value of the job and those you were working with was enough.

  • I don’t have a problem with it. The supervising command’s response was PERFECT. Wish more would follow suit. It’s a picture to capture one of the biggest busts most of the officers involved will have in their careers. The profession will never be good enough for the small number of critics and the media.

  • It’s more of an ego boost for the criminal. An actual photo where he can say, “Look what it took to catch little ole me.” On the other hand, the photo expounds the fact that they were able to work together for the common goal of capturing a felony who is experienced in the art of evading LE. Everyone has an opinion, and most of them should be kept to themselves. When did we get so sensitive with such thin skins?

  • Unless you’re a cop you probably wouldn’t understand. I have 38 years in the business and I still would take a photo. It’s all in a career. Those who are offended…lock your doors and we will continue to keep you safe. No hard feelings. :)

  • Great photo of teamwork, a good catch and a success story. Just something the public doesn’t understand.

  • One issue is that the officers in the photo were by no means the only people involved in the incident. There have to be hundreds from administrators down to clerical staff who contributed each in their own way that will never be recognized.

  • When a photo is taken as it was in this case, the officers represent the whole department. It was great teamwork that was done by all the departments involved. If you don’t work for a police department it is difficult to understand how officers put their lives on the line every day to keep everyone safe. Everyone including the person they are pursuing. Great work to all who were involved and were able to go home safely.

Joel Shults retired as Chief of Police in Colorado. Over his 30-year career in uniformed law enforcement and criminal justice education, Joel served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and a bachelor degree in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the U.S. Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over 50 police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards, including the Colorado POST curriculum committee, as a subject matter expert.