September 16, 2020 | View as webpage

It is said that successful communication is a two-way street and that is especially true when it comes to the dialogue between law enforcement agencies and the communities they protect and serve.

In today’s technology-driven world, where interactions between cops and civilians are videotaped and broadcast online within seconds, police leaders can no longer wait to communicate about critical incidents. In this Leadership Briefing, Fort Collins Police Services’ PR manager Kate Kimble outlines five ways leaders can engage in meaningful discussion without compromising an investigation or stepping outside of their lane.

Part of communicating with the community involves outlining the unique challenges officers face every day. Police1 columnist Chief Joel Shults writes about a proposal offered up by one police advocate that could help better communicate those challenges to elected officials, the media and civilians.

P.S. Continue the communication by forwarding this newsletter to your professional contacts to ensure they stay informed and encourage them to sign up here.

Stay safe,

Nancy Perry
Editor-in-Chief, Police1 

Silence is not a winning strategy: Why police leaders must speak up in times of crisis

By Kate Kimble

Every law enforcement agency will experience a negative spotlight at some point. Large or small, urban or rural, it’s only a matter of time before your organization finds itself subject to intense public scrutiny. Too often, leaders fall silent during these times out of perceived necessity – an ongoing investigation, an external agency assigned as the communication lead, or simply the fear of saying the wrong thing and making the situation worse. 

These are valid concerns, but silence is never a winning strategy. If we expect our communities to trust us, law enforcement agencies must show up during challenging times. Here are five ways to engage in meaningful discussion without compromising an investigation or stepping outside of your lane.

1. Acknowledge the emotional impact on your community 

Community members want to feel heard, seen and valued. When emotions run high and spark a variety of reactions, it becomes virtually impossible to move forward until those needs are addressed. You can help diffuse this tension and move the conversation forward with simple statements like the Mountain View Police Department shared during summer unrest: “We see you. We hear you. We are here to make change with you.”

Acknowledge the emotional landscape, and avoid assigning judgment to emotions others are experiencing. Reserve that for actions such as when people are damaging property or engaging in violence. Keep the emphasis on your community and their experiences; when you're in the hot seat, focusing too heavily on internal feelings can frustrate your external audience.

2. Focus on your values 

Your guiding principles uniquely belong to you as an agency, and you alone know how they shape your operations. Values are just words on paper until you live them and apply them to real-life situations, so take this opportunity to connect those dots:

  • What do you stand for?
  • How do your programs, processes and policies reflect your values?
  • What is the cornerstone of your department’s culture?

Don’t wait until a crisis strikes to apply this concept; encourage leadership to bring values into everyday communication practices. When challenging situations strike, leaning on these tenets will already be second nature.

3. Find common ground 

Divisive incidents create or deepen rifts in the community, but we can build bridges by listening, acknowledging and identifying common ground. Whenever possible, validate and focus on areas of mutual agreement. Look beyond the surface of what people are asking and find the places where your values align.

Shift the conversation from a narrowly focused (and perhaps unattainable) demand to the resolution people are truly trying to achieve. Start community conversations with outcomes:

  • What kind of environment do we all want?
  • Are there great programs we agree are working?
  • What positive interactions do we want to emulate?  

The partnership between Grand Junction Police Chief Doug Shoemaker and Colorado Mesa University Football Coach Tremaine Jackson is a great example of this concept. Together, the chief and coach have laid the groundwork for ongoing dialogue, active listening and mutual understanding between student athletes, community members and local police. Through this connection, they've been able to share common leadership values that are relevant on the field, in a team environment and in policing. 

4. Point to processes and policies 

At some point, every organization will deal with employees who break rules. The actions of one person should not define your agency. If bad news breaks about misconduct, join that conversation and define your position immediately. Don’t focus on the individual whose actions are under investigation. Talk about your hiring standards, training, policies, and processes for holding people accountable. Define your agency by its expectations, not the unfortunate exceptions. This is relevant beyond conduct complaints – use existing documentation to correct inaccurate or incomplete information that’s spreading.

Kansas City (Missouri) Police successfully integrated sharing policy information in its overall communication strategy, including during the June unrest that shook their city and others around the country. Despite the intensity of negative sentiments, the agency stayed engaged in the conversation, shared policies related to discussion topics, and created a resource page on their website with additional information. This has been a successful strategy in rumor control during a time of information overload.

5. Talk about what’s happening right now

Acknowledging the past is important, but avoid staying there. Instead, focus on present efforts and future plans:

  • What action are you currently taking that your community will value?
  • Are you still showing up to serve and protect 24/7?
  • Are you engaging in discussions with community groups, faith leaders, activists, concerned residents?
  • Reviewing your processes for improvement opportunities?
  • Cooperating with outside investigators to provide information in a timely manner?
  • Take opportunities to highlight collaborative actions and any new efforts based on constructive community input.

After a video of an August altercation between protest groups caught national media attention, Fort Collins Police Chief Jeff Swoboda released daily video updates across social platforms to share investigative developments, shed light on processes, and affirm the organization’s values. This consistent presence and ongoing communication anchored the agency’s voice in the discussion.  

Making the situation worse is a common concern, and joining controversial conversations does require strategy. Before jumping into public discourse, develop your speaking points, anticipate possible questions, and plan for navigating topics you can’t discuss. Share this internally as well. Employees will appreciate hearing it first, and front-line staff will likely encounter questions at some point. Providing this insight will support your team and amplify a consistent message.

No agency is exempt from a media storm. By maintaining a steady presence throughout difficult situations, your agency will strengthen its roots for a successful long-term relationship with the community.

NEXT: Keep your community informed with a transparency hub

About the author

Kate Kimble is the public relations manager for Fort Collins Police Services in Fort Collins, Colorado. She has experience in strategic communication, journalism, small business marketing and social media management. She leads the FCPS Media Response Team, manages the agency's digital presence, and facilitates meaningful interactions between police and the community.

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A police advocate’s simple suggestion: Walk a simulated mile in a cop’s shoes
By Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D. 

In Washington State, a local police department needed supplies for a K-9 bomb detection dog, including the dog. Police civilian volunteer Kendra Cook took up the challenge and began what is now a nationally recognized fundraising program for K9s and K9 protective gear, along with other equipment for handlers.

Her advocacy did not stop there.

When helping to present the debut of the new K-9 for her police department at a city council meeting, she was stunned to hear how little the council members knew about the police operations of their city. Knowing about police simulation training available through VirTra, she reached out to the company for help with an initiative to get simulation scenarios made available to government policymakers.

Challenging policymakers to become educated

While corresponding with VirTra, Cook reached out to political leaders in her region to ask if they would be willing to engage in a simulation experience to enhance their understanding of law enforcement issues they legislate about. She received boilerplate responses saying “Thanks for writing and we’ll pass that on,” but no affirmative responses to the offer yet.

Cook began to think about how to connect with lawmakers in more effective ways:

  • Could police agency websites include sample simulations?
  • Could agencies make simulation training more accessible to their service population?
  • Could simulation vendors develop more citizen-oriented programs to help their law enforcement customers educate their citizens?

Corporate cooperation

Meanwhile, a representative from VirTra stayed in contact with Cook, offering availability of their products already deployed in the region to council members, commissioners and legislators. The company already had simulation scenarios for civilians for community engagement and education purposes. Careful to keep tactical information confined to law enforcement professionals, the civilian scenarios have had a universally positive impact on helping civilians understand the complexity of decisions officers face.

Potential additions to current civilian simulation scenarios could include protocols for concealed carry permit holders when in contact with police officers, how citizens can respond near a K9 operation, or best general practices if pulled over by police.

Public expectations

At a time when voices are repeating the need for de-escalation training, some fear that simulation training is a course in how to kill. This misunderstanding is the opposite of what has been the result of years of development in simulation training.

Legacy systems from the 1980s started as training in simple decision-making – shoot or don't shoot. Early systems showed a video on a laserdisc that froze once a sim shot was fired. Subsequent products began branching into more complicated scenarios and more realistic weapon reactions.

Today's most sophisticated systems provide the trainee the opportunity to engage with de-escalation techniques like slowing things down, listening to the simulated subject and responding to an Autistic person, and include a variety of non-force scripts that can lead to successful de-escalation without the use of force.

The science behind simulation

Simulation training developers incorporate the best of what is known regarding human performance limitations and adult learning when developing training curricula. This knowledge is not widely known by the public, or by many in police leadership.

Experiencing the physical and emotional factors of decision-making may be the only way to help policymakers understand the impact of limitations on force options and expectations for success in de-escalation in all situations.

A lesson for locals

Citizens deserve accountability from elected leaders and policymakers who create rules that affect public safety. Requiring members of legislative bodies and police review boards to have some level of training and knowledge about the matters over which they preside is sound policy. Just as government leaders are currently required to take training from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to be eligible for grants and disaster funds, such leaders could also be required to be exposed to police training before judging police matters.

It is not likely that politicians will impose education requirements on themselves, so the burden is on the citizenry to make those demands, as Kendra Cook has. Citizens like Cook and other advocates can publicly request that law enforcement policymakers know what they are talking about. Engaging in simulation training is a reasonable demand that should generate public attention, especially if the public is invited to participate in that training as well. This can bring pressure on politicians to respond by agreeing, refusing, or ignoring the demand, each of which has its political consequences. If those policymakers refuse, that refusal can be publicized as part of the debate on how police reform is being managed. This potential strategy by citizen advocates could be one key to keep those calling for police accountability to be accountable themselves.

NEXT: Setting up use of force training for community education

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3. Improving police decision-making and de-escalation skills: The Brentwood (Tenn.) Police Department’s new facility will house a state-of-the-art firearm training simulator system that will allow both officers and citizens to train in a virtual climate on decision-making scenarios.

2. Trust initiative report: Findings and recommendations of IACP-hosted sessions offer critical insight into the concerns of community members and provide law enforcement leaders with a head start on how to address them.

1. The PIO is an invaluable part of police transparency: Why misguided attempts to reposition the duties of police PIOs to non-law enforcement folks will end in failure.
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