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What law enforcement can learn from the Caylee Anthony case

You would have to be under a rock not to notice the large volume of press coverage garnered by the Caylee Anthony missing child case here in Orlando, FL. Police professionals interested in how the media interacts with law enforcement should take special notice of the media’s quest for information in the Caylee Anthony case.

As someone with law enforcement and media interviewing experience, who lives and works in the area, it’s not terribly surprising to be asked by local press to grant interviews on the topic – many of which are on PoliceOne’s sister site, BLUTube. Even more than before, this investigation has lead to an incredible number of people coming up to me seeking answers to their many questions.

Related BLUTube videos:
Caylee Morning News Interview
TV Morning News Caylee Anthony Case

To their credit, the Orlando-based Orange County Sheriff’s Office has handled the media onslaught quite well. They have offered some information, but have kept quiet when such information might impair the integrity of their investigation. As I have said many times, including when I was a police chief and had to contend with the media following a homicide or other high profile crimes, if law enforcement agencies and experts (“commentators” in media parlance – a group in which I now find myself) do not interact with the media, other, less responsible parties will step in and fill the void.

Those other folks, while colorful and entertaining (and useful in boosting TV ratings) frequently work at odds with law enforcement and spew out misinformation. The Caylee Anthony case proves once again that it is incumbent upon us as professionals in the field to fill up that airtime with responsible information.

We can’t censor the press nor should we be able to do so in a democratic society. We can’t stop them from using as talking heads any person they deem appropriate. But what we can do is provide them with meaningful statements grounded in solid law enforcement training, educational credentials, and experience. And we can do so in an open and non-defensive manner.

All too often, law enforcement agencies circle the wagons when they see the media approaching and issue a terse “no comment.” That way of doing business has long gone the way of the covered wagon. Ask yourself: “Has my agency gotten savvy in its dealings with the media?”

If they haven’t become progressive in their approach, than they need to do so.

The media here in Central Florida, as well as nationally (think CNN Headline News’ “Nancy Grace” or Fox News Channel’s “On The Record with Greta Van Susteren”), has been hungry for any perspective. News executives have told me in their offices that their “numbers are up” (that means ratings) and that the “Caylee story has worked for them.”

To that end, the media folks have consulted psychics such as The Body Hunters. Doesn’t it make more sense for them to talk with trained professionals with proven track-records? I like to think that my commentary filled up some airtime and prevented even more fringe folks from confusing viewers.

And now we have the emergence of the bail bonds man from Sacramento, CA, Leonard Padilla, as well as PR handler Larry Garrison of Natalie Holloway and John Mark Karr fame. At the same time, the airtime is being filled up with more noteworthy events such as Hurricane Fay. The hurricane further illustrates my point that the media must burn minutes to make its money.

It’s been a long time since I wrote my first law enforcement media related article in February 1992. Now that we are in the era of the 24-hour news cycle with its insatiable appetite, the need to interact with the media is underscored now more than it ever was in that old article. Dated but not out-dated, the concepts I felt were true then are even more true today.

Police chiefs, sheriffs, public information officers, and other interested parties should take heed of the lessons of the Caylee Anthony media storm. I believe that we will see more and more of these types of cases played out very publicly with armchair sleuths scrutinizing what their tax dollar-supported law enforcers are doing to solve the mystery.

Richard B. Weinblatt, a former police chief and police academy manager, has amassed quite a bit of education, training and experience in training law enforcement officers.

This column, made up of officer safety advice, training guidance, and other tips, is written to assist you in the discharge of your duties as you serve your community.

Please feel free to contact him through with your ideas and input for future columns.