Media strategies following use-of-force incidents

Officer James Peters of Scottsdale (Ariz.) PD just had his sixth OIS — some reporters have decided there's something wrong with that on its face

Police officers should avoid press accounts of their justifiable use-of-force incidents, even if their public information officers are getting the facts to the news media in as quickly as possible. Investigators need to thoroughly investigate officer-involved shootings while police administrators need to shun the policy of appeasement and settlement in use-of-force cases. Why? Try to imagine the following newspaper article being written in 1945:

Lt. Murphy Under Investigation
Greenville man who killed 50 Germans is suspended from duty

GREENVILLE, Texas — A Greenville native, Lt. Audie Murphy, was suspended with pay on January 26, 1945 after personally killing some 50 patriotic Germans and directing U. S. artillery to kill hundreds more, while standing on a burning tank destroyer. There has never been a known case where someone climbed atop burning tank destroyer by themselves and killed so many Germans.

An unidentified source close to the investigation stated, “Those numbers are simply unbelievable and beyond coincidence, especially on the peaceful farm land just outside Holtzwihr, France, which is not normally a violent place.”

His superiors and fellow unit members were quick to defend the actions of Murphy saying, “Lt. Murphy’s actions went way above and beyond the call of duty.”

Still, that is a record that puts him far and away from any other active duty officer... and it baffles even his own compatriots.

Lt. Murphy has many critics. A source who has investigated Murphy before — and who asked to remain anonymous — questions not only Murphy’s prolific record, but the ability of the Department of War to truly be unbiased.

“A Record Far and Away...”
In reality, on January 26, 1945 Lt. Audie Murphy was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions. For a member of the press to disparage an American hero like Murphy would have been looked upon as an outrage in 1945.

Times have changed. Officer James Peters of the Scottsdale (Ariz.) Police Department recently experienced his sixth officer-involved shooting and some members of the Phoenix area press have decided there is something wrong with that on its face.

Past Shootings Defensible
Each shooting officer Peters was involved in was investigated extensively by outside agencies. There was the man with a shotgun, the hostage taker, the man who attacked him with a pipe and a man who exited his house with a gun in his hand.

In the most recent incident an armed robbery suspect fled, jumped into a car, and drove it directly at Peters and another officer, who for obvious reasons feared for their lives. Both officers fired their weapons.

This incident is under investigation and no determinations have been released. Yet some members of the local media are couching their reports as doubts cast about Peters’ prior life-or-death encounters, based merely on the fact that this was his sixth officer-involved shooting.

Post-Shooting Prescription
This incident illustrates why officers who use deadly force must avoid reading news accounts of their event. They should not watch the nightly news. It will impact more than one can imagine, when the “witnesses’ describe the man who tried to kill the officer as a “loving husband,” a “great neighbor,” a “quiet young man,” a “great employee,” or a “youth with unlimited potential.”

It will be incredibly troubling just to hear the words such as “allege” and “claim” when a reporter says, “Police allege that the suspect was armed with a sawed-off shotgun and claim that he fired it at officers.”

A wounded officer will rub the pellet wounds in their leg and proclaim out loud to themselves, “Claimed? What are they talking about claimed?”

Police officers involved in shootings should neither listen to radio talk shows discussing the incident, nor read blogs and reader discussion forums about the incident. There will be many supporters of police actions, but the personal attacks — by callers and bloggers who ALWAYS criticize the police — will be brutal, ignorant, and insensitive. Sadly, the officer involved will be fixated on the negative, even while knowing those critics are drowning out the supportive voices that do exist out there.

Police officers need to not only physically survive these incidents, but they also must emotionally survive. These commentaries can be as dangerous to the future well-being of these officers as the suspect’s bullets, and sometimes even more damaging.

Investigators need to thoroughly investigate officer-involved shootings. When they do this they should remember that these are “lethal assaults on officers,” and treat officers as they would treat any victim of a crime. Too often officers involved in justifiable uses of force have felt that investigators treated them as if they were the criminals.

Every time your Village, City, or County attorney decides to settle claims out of court in justifiable use-of-force cases, your agency is being set up for failure in the future, when that officer has to justifiably use force again. The prior settlement will be portrayed as some sort of admission of wrongdoing, rather than a prudent way to avoid costly litigation.

The attorney involved in this settlement will come after you again and again and again, recognizing that your jurisdiction is an easy pay day. In the long run, a policy of appeasement and settlement in use-of-force cases will cost more — not less — in litigation.

Proactive Media Liaison
Get the facts to the media in justifiable uses of force as quickly as possible. This may keep them from shoving their cameras in the face of “witnesses” who actually arrived three minutes after the smoke has cleared.

Agencies can offer media courses on use of force, explaining things like “Intervention options,” and “Continuums.” You can even let them run through firearms training experiences like Prism and FATS so they can see how officers have to make decisions in an instant or they do not go home. Agencies that practice this proactive approach in advance have found the reporting to be more empathetic later.

The Public We Serve
There are Americans who gather at prisons to cry and sing “Amazing Grace” as a cop killer is executed. There are fringe groups in this country who hold cop-killers up as heroes. Some Americans can’t fathom the need for anyone to shoot another person. The jaded as well as the passive will harshly judge and aggressively criticize any officer who shoots a criminal.

On the other hand, there are also Americans who are defenseless bank tellers, estranged wives, children, convenience store clerks, and at times fellow officers They are sometimes in grave danger, who call out for assistance. They hope someone like Officer Peters answers their desperate pleas and are able to instantly make a difficult decision. Their lives depend on it.

A police officer’s family also waits for them at home as they cautiously manipulate their way through each call and each shift. For their sake officers can’t allow hyper-critical journalism and concerns about the possibility of unjust litigation cloud their minds when clarity is needed to decisively save their own lives.

To Every Street Officer ...Especially Officer Peters
After you’ve had to fire your weapon to save yourself or someone else from imminent danger of death or great bodily harm, you’re going to be on leave. That’s just a fact of life. Don’t use that time to read the news or the blogs. After some time, your ability to really deal with the news coverage will come back, and over time the news coverage usually becomes more accurate. So when you do go back to your morning paper, and you face the editorializing of “unnamed sources” and “Monday morning quarterbacks,” you can think this thought:

“Thanks to God, my training, and my own decisive action I have made it to Monday morning.”

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