Why we should not defund the police PIO
Cutting communities off from information about public safety is short-sighted and reckless
By Judy Pal
With ongoing debates about what should and shouldn’t be funded within police departments, the public information officer has come under scrutiny. The Minneapolis City Council recently voted to shift media duties from the Minneapolis Police Department to city staff. Cutting the PIO will not only hurt the media, but it will also hurt communities.
PIOs build bridges
When run and staffed correctly, the PIO works 24/7 to keep communities and cops safe by creating relationships, building bridges and working across the agency to be more transparent, not less.
We live in a world of social media where police share important information instantaneously online. PIOs are correcting misinformation, recontextualizing issues and often fighting the good fight against age-old internal culture to get information out. Take it from someone who has been in the trenches with seven different police agencies, PIOs fight strong and hard to do the right thing by our communities, knowing that in the end, transparency breeds trust.
Every police PIO can share experiences of heated debates about releasing information. I remember many years ago an incident in which a woman and her newborn were strangled to death in their home. Investigators knew right away it was domestic violence-related. The detective stated he didn’t want that information released. I asked if he wanted the community to think a stranger was breaking into people’s homes and strangling mothers and babies? He saw my point of view, and together we were able to determine the best information to release to both calm the community and maintain the integrity of the investigation. Working together, investigators and PIOs make a great team.
PIOs have complicated roles
If elected officials believe the job of the police PIO can easily be taken over by city staff, they need to think again.
First, city staff would have to be completed immersed and versed in police work and lingo. I’ve seen the cringeworthy result of untrained PIOs trying to talk about the law, and it’s not pretty.
Second, they will not be fully trusted by the people they are going to have to get information from, which will result in a lack of information being provided to the media and the community.
Third, I’m not so sure they will be happy responding to media calls at 3 a.m.
Fourth, and perhaps most important, where is the guarantee that they will not be swayed by political influence about what they should or should not say about an incident?
This should be a giant red flag to every advocate group, community member and member of the media. My biggest hurdles in police communication involved convincing city hall to allow us to release information. In Baltimore, it took a brave commissioner (Tony Batts) and a slightly naïve chief of staff (me) to publicly announce we had a gang problem. This was something the political establishment never wanted to admit, but every reporter and citizen knew the truth. I recall being called into a meeting by the mayor’s assistant and being so severely verbally assaulted for 45 minutes about how it was my responsibility to “control” what my commissioner said, I almost filed a hostile workplace suit against the city.
Good PIOs work tirelessly during crises to ensure people get the right information so they can be safe. We make sure the media can cover the entire story. We are communicators dedicated to helping inform, engage and empower our communities. Cutting communities off from information about public safety is short-sighted and reckless.
About the author
Judy Pal is a former PIO for Halifax Regional Police in Canada, the City of Irvine, and the Atlanta and Savannah Police Departments. She also served as chief of staff for both the Milwaukee and Baltimore police departments and as an assistant commissioner for the NYPD. She is a long-time communications instructor with FBI-LEEDA, ILEA in Texas and teaches at FBI Regional Command Colleges across the country.