There's a new Sheriff in this media town
With the tragedy of Byrd and Melanie Billings, the adoptive parents murdered near Pensacola, Florida, recently, Escambia County top lawman David Morgan has become the face of the investigation and has embraced many of the most effective concepts for the conduct of media relations by law enforcement. The first-term Sheriff has been a fixture on national shows, filling the void in the 24-hour news cycle that would otherwise be filled by those with other agendas.
As I wrote in my first article about the conduct of media relations (back in 1992), and have repeated many times here on Police1, it is incumbent upon us as law enforcement professionals to embrace the media in a democratic society. We need to reach out and bridge barriers that exist between the general public and us.
As the first upswing in officer deaths in years is being tallied, we are reminded that the best officer safety is not that fancy new gun or house clearing technique (although those are nice). Rather, it is to create an atmosphere of respect. Most people (albeit not everyone) who come to view law enforcers as fellow stakeholders in the community with a human touch will in turn help to protect and foster cooperation. A respectful tone, in person and in the media, is the key to this equation.
Sheriff Morgan, a long-time military member who retired at the rank of major, has perfected that respectful and professional on-air tone with his “yes, sir” and “yes, ma’am” phrases. He’s consistent with that approach as he makes the rounds from the CBS Early Show to Anderson Cooper’s AC360 on CNN. To his credit the sheriff understands the sophisticated approach he needs to take with the media. As he told the Associated Press in an interview, Escambia County “isn’t Mayberry anymore.”
Nor is the field of law enforcement. Gone is the bad stereotype of the cigar-chomping flatfoot speaking of perpetrators and using incomplete sentences heavily laden with incomprehensible police jargon. His terms are ones that the public can relate to, such as “humdinger.” You have to love it. This man speaks plainly, but respectfully. The media and the public like that in a law enforcer.
The Sheriff has very astutely given the investigation, and consequently law enforcement, a human face. Contrary to what many folks think, we in blue (and green, brown, etc.) do care. The cameras were there when Sheriff Morgan interacted with representatives of the family. They recorded the resolve that the Sheriff and his deputies had in cracking the case.
Of course, the usual lament from veteran investigators is that media involvement will impair the integrity of the investigation. I heard it when as a police chief I alerted the media following a homicide. Credit goes to Sheriff Morgan for acknowledging that when discussing the aspect of the safe that was recovered at one of the suspect’s properties. He clearly understands the balancing act between the public’s “right to know” and our need for tips from the community versus the need to withhold certain key pieces of information. He understands that one of those big reasons is to help ascertain the veracity of statements that self-described suspects may come up with.
At no time does one get the feeling watching this justice executive walk the media tight rope. Anyone who has been on the other end of the questioning microphone can attest that the media is good at trying to get information. Sheriff Morgan never lost his cool. He was able to answer the questions along the lines of his talking points and would not be bullied to stray off the path.
The Sheriff, like law enforcement folks should, obviously noted the 24-hour news cycle and appeared not sleep. He seemed to know that if he did not provide the talking head commentary, someone else would be sought out by the booking producers. That person or persons may hurt the investigation and the image of the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office. The Sheriff knew he had to be available when the media needed him and fulfilled that part of his post quite well.
All criminal justice folks, especially those in executive posts empowered to speak with the media, should view themselves as ambassadors for their agency and policing. We need to reach out and encourage interaction with the community. We need to, as Sheriff Morgan has, put a human face on law enforcement.