Trending Topics

If you mess up, dress up and fess up

Confronting bad news head-on is the best way to maintain public trust

press conference

Put on your Sunday best, stand up publicly and own the mistake. If an employee failed to meet the standards your department has set, say so. If there is a plan to evaluate how the mistake occurred and you’re working on process improvements to prevent a recurrence, make that known.

Getty Images

In a perfect agency, no one would ever make a mistake. Every employee would obey all the laws, and the perfect decision would be made every time. This utopian department does not exist, and never will as long as there is a human factor in police work. Even RoboCop made mistakes. One key to being a great agency despite the human factor is how you handle mistakes when they occur.

Crisis communications start well before the mistakes do. Engage the community on a regular basis, and that means daily. Chief Kara Riley of the Oro Valley Police Department in Arizona often refers to the “emotional bank account.” This is the reservoir of goodwill police departments hold with the public. There need to be regular deposits into this account with the citizens we serve so that when a mistake is made, we have a solid balance from which we can make a small withdrawal. Just like our own bank accounts, if there is not enough in the account to cover the amount needed, we go into the negative.

We cannot do our job without the support of our communities. They can help us acquire needed funding, obtain equipment and, most important, have support when needed. If we damage the trust we have with them, we lose the support we need. Gaining the trust and support of the community is at times challenging, but regaining lost trust is nearly impossible.

Get in front of bad news

Let’s take an example that has played out in at least three departments I know of, one of which was my previous department. You are advised by a partner agency that they are conducting a “net nanny” operation targeting online predators. These operations locate, identify and arrest persons who target children for sex crimes. One of the arrests they’ve made during their operation is an employee of your agency. This employee has been entrusted with authority and sworn to protect others, not harm the most vulnerable of our community. This trust has not only been broken but shattered.

What course of action should you take? Do you have a plan to deal with a situation like this? Time is critical. With my agency, the standard is to release the names of those arrested in a press release at the conclusion of the operation. Our neighboring department reached out to us as a courtesy but was not going to suppress the information, and rightfully so.

First and foremost, do not in any way attempt to have the arresting agency cover, delay or treat this situation any different than any other arrest. It will come back and bite you, I assure you. The situation is embarrassing for your agency, but remember this: The employee messed up, not you. You must deal with it, and how it is handled can determine how the public views your agency in the end. If the situation turns into a story about covering for this employee or any other perceived mishandling, it will be far more damaging than the actual crime that took place.

Our plan, when this happened to our employee, was to face it head-on. We chose to be the first to announce it and get in front of it. Obviously, very few details could be released due to the active investigation by another agency, but we announced the basics of who was arrested, what the charges were and what we were doing as a result. We made it a point to assure the public that until the case was settled, this employee would have no authority or contact with the public in any official capacity.

Bad news is like garbage. It does not smell any better if you wait to take it out; in fact, it gets worse. It is even worse if someone else finds it. Trying to recover from the stink is an uphill battle. Sitting on information, hoping no one will notice or discover it, is a gamble with bad odds. Today everyone is on social media, and every person with an iPhone is a reporter wanting to capture that viral video or story and get their 15 minutes of fame. They do not have any restrictions on what they post. They have no need to verify facts or vet their sources. Rumors and hearsay are good enough, so be in front of the situation with facts to help reduce misinformation.

If a member of your agency makes a mistake, have a plan to respond to it. A cost-benefit analysis can help determine whether a proactive or reactive approach will be best. The communities we serve deserve to know what their police are doing, the good and sometimes not-so-good. Transparency is critical to a strong relationship with the public.

In the previous situation, getting in front of the situation and being proactive with the information created a surprisingly small response from the media. It was a blip on the radar, and then it was done. Had there been any cover-up suspected, or if they had found out before we mentioned it, I am positive it would have been a much larger story and rehashed for many days, if not weeks.

This is not to say that every time there is an internal affairs investigation, the public needs to know. But if there is any potential for criminal charges, termination, or impact that may affect the public, then a plan to address it should be developed.

Taking ownership is vital to transparency

When should you be proactive with a mistake, and when is reactive a better choice? Many factors will come into play with this decision. Is the mistake egregious, criminal or does it involve a breach of trust with the community? If any of those are a factor and there is any possibility of the public finding out (which there always is), then consider a proactive approach when possible. Obviously, criminal investigations must be respected, and employee rights will affect when and how much information you can release.

[Related: Why the MOP approach to public statements may serve chiefs well]

When all investigations are complete, there should be a plan to address the issue as soon as possible. This may be as small as a press release timed to work in your favor. If it is going to be a major news story, consider a press conference and say it once.

Taking ownership of the mistakes we make is vital to transparency and maintaining the trust we have asked our community to place in us. If we violate that trust, everything we say and do from that point on is subject to question and critique. This is not to say being questioned is a negative, but when the integrity of the department is intact, the answers to those questions are more likely to be trusted and believed.

So the best response plan to a mistake we will inevitably make is, if you mess up, dress up and fess up. Put on your Sunday best, stand up publicly and own the mistake. If an employee failed to meet the standards your department has set, say so. If there is a plan to evaluate how the mistake occurred and you’re working on process improvements to prevent a recurrence, make that known.

Do not make excuses or try to deflect blame. Our communities expect a professional level of service, and making excuses diminishes that. Making mistakes is part of being human, making excuses is part of not being accountable.

Taking ownership of the mistakes will bring unflattering attention to your department, but being transparent will usually reduce the amount of exposure and negativity that comes with it. If there is a perception of a cover-up or not being honest with the community, the story will have a much longer life.


The public does not need to be told about every mistake we make. They should be made aware of the ones that affect them or the trust they place in you. Don’t wait for the media or public to be the first to report an incident. It is much easier to catch a train at the station than to catch up to it after it has left.

The law enforcement profession has a history of being humble and just going out and doing the great work of keeping our communities safe. We as a profession have not done a particularly good job of marketing ourselves. Although we need to be careful about tooting our own horns, those deposits into the emotional account need to be made. Be confident in that account you’ve built, and when the time comes, make that withdrawal and own the mistakes.

Topics for discussion

1. The role of transparency in policing: The article suggests that transparency is crucial in maintaining trust with the community. How does transparency affect the relationship between law enforcement and the community? What are the potential impacts on the community when law enforcement fails to be transparent?

2. Crisis communication and response: The author stresses the importance of being proactive in releasing bad news and taking responsibility for mistakes. How does a strategic response to an incident shape public perception of law enforcement? What can be the consequences of poor crisis communication?

3. Community trust and the “emotional bank account": The article introduces the concept of an “emotional bank account” as a measure of goodwill between the police and the community. How does the regular deposit into this account help in times of crisis? What are some practical ways for law enforcement to make these deposits?

4. Handling internal affairs: The article suggests that not every internal affairs case needs to be made public, but those with the potential for criminal charges or public impact should have a response plan. How should we balance the need for transparency with the protection of employee rights and the integrity of investigations?

5. Mistakes and accountability in law enforcement: The author encourages law enforcement agencies to own their mistakes and avoid making excuses, arguing that this is part of being accountable. How does this approach relate to the broader expectations of police professionalism? How can agencies implement this in their culture and practices?

Darren Wright is the public information officer for the Oro Valley Police Department in Arizona. He retired from the Washington State Patrol as a sergeant after serving 31 years. His final assignment was the headquarters public information officer (PIO), where he handled major media inquiries and statewide impact incidents and oversaw the district PIO program. He has a bachelor’s degree in communication and a master’s degree in communications with a public relations concentration from Southern New Hampshire University. He is an honorably discharged veteran from the United States Marine Corps.