The PIO is an invaluable part of police transparency

Misguided attempts to reposition the duties of police PIOs to non-law enforcement folks will end in failure

By Christopher Cook

A quick search of recent news stories related to law enforcement will return a slew of articles about policing reform discussions in many cities across the country.

In a recent case, the Minneapolis City Council voted to abolish the media team from the Minneapolis Police Department and centralize public information flow from city hall. Other cities have taken note and conversations are beginning to be had on how police departments communicate. This is a dangerous trajectory and will not lead to the transparency that is being sought.

Today’s PIOs work diligently to project the truth to the community at all costs.
Today’s PIOs work diligently to project the truth to the community at all costs. (Photo/Christopher Cook)

Is this a meaningful change?

The very premise of police reform is predicated on the desire to increase transparency and accountability.

The law enforcement profession as a whole welcomes deliberate and thoughtful conversations to make policing better and build relationships with all segments of society. But reform efforts related to information dissemination must be free of political bias and interference.

All reforms should be carefully evaluated to ensure they bring about the meaningful change communities desire.

Will it lead to more transparency?

Today’s PIOs work diligently to project the truth to the community at all costs. There is no sugar coating or covering up because you are taught from day one that all you have is your credibility.

I believe this misguided attempt to remove spokespeople from law enforcement media roles and reposition their duties with non-law enforcement folks will fail. There will be less transparency, less responsiveness and less information that gets out to the public. The community in turn will suffer because of these approaches.

PIOs have many responsibilities 

Most PIOs do a lot more than talk to the media. They are responsible for internal communications, publications, video production, photography, legislative affairs, community outreach efforts, managing websites and creating engaging content for social media platforms. They wear many different hats and are responsive at all hours of the day and night. They love their communities and maintain their integrity and take pride in the job they do.

PIOs are storytellers who work to ensure the public gets to see the good side of policing that rarely makes the mainstream news. They respect the job of journalists and work to ensure reporters have access to law enforcement, regardless of the agenda or storyline.

They seek to restore order to a community that is in crisis. They serve their bosses well by preparing chiefs and sheriffs for their next speaking event or news conference.

Bridge-building in action

My team has innovated in the area of social media for years so that our community can get to know its hometown police department. We try to humanize our officers so that the public sees us as dads, moms, brothers and sisters.

We continually challenge ourselves to ensure we are getting the facts out to the public in a timely fashion. Arlington was one of the first agencies to routinely release digital media evidence such as body-worn camera footage within a day or two of a critical incident involving deadly force. Arlington also coined the term “tweet-along,” a virtual ride-along experience designed to demystify policing efforts.

In the tough times that we are experiencing now, communication can help heal communities through compassion and empathy. Eliminating the PIO is counter-productive to the positive change that we are seeking.

About the author

Lt. Christopher Cook is an award-winning speaker and subject matter expert in the field of social media for law enforcement and media relations for public safety. As a lieutenant for the Arlington (Texas) Police Department, he oversees the public information office and has led the Arlington Police Department’s public and media relations strategies since 2011.

Lt. Cook serves as the current chair for the PIO Committee for the Major Cities Chiefs Association. He is also the current vice president of the National Information Officers Association and will be sworn in as president in August 2021. Lt. Cook also served as the past chair for the IACP PIO Section from 2016-2018.

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