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Leadership in the face of scrutiny: 5 strategies for offsetting negativity

Law enforcement leaders must accept the fact that there is — and always will be — a disparity between public perception and the actual facts surrounding a high-profile incident

Every day, the law enforcement profession holds its breath in anticipation of another “viral video” capturing an incident where the actions of an officer will be criticized and scrutinized.

Law enforcement leaders must accept the fact that there is — and always will be — an inequality between public perception and the actual facts surrounding a high-profile incident. But what should law enforcement leaders be doing to prepare for the prospect of this negativity?

Here are five leadership strategies to consider before, during or after a high profile incident with negative implications:

1. Prepare for the Inevitable
Don’t wait for the crisis to come to your jurisdiction. Take the time to scan the media sources constantly to evaluate each incident and ask yourself, “What would we do if that happened here?” Consider planning a tabletop exercise with your staff and elected officials to brainstorm scenarios and discuss response options.

What systems are currently in place within your organization for notifications to key stakeholders and leaders? What about the members of the organization itself? Do you have an infrastructure in place to notify all staff at every level during a critical incident? There is nothing worse than for the employees to be forced to rely upon newspaper, television or social media for updates. Consider implementing an information tree that can be activated immediately with reliable information.

2. Develop Strong Community and Media Ties
In the face of a crisis, the community leaders and key media stakeholders are the best portal for outreach. Everyone from the clergy, non-governmental agencies, service clubs, youth sports leaders, community volunteers, and neighborhood watch groups are invaluable during a time of crisis.

These lines of communication must be established well in advance of a crisis. If you don’t already have these people on your speed-dial, you are way behind the curve. They should be among the first people contacted when the crisis unfolds. The more people within the community that understand the situation, the greater the likelihood of mitigation.

3. Release Information in a Timely Way
The old adage “information is power” is definitely applicable during a publicity crisis. Scheduling regular press conferences or releases is the key to managing negativity. The public and the media will rely upon rumor control and the grapevine — which is exponentially more prevalent with the advent of Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and the like — to get information if they are not getting it timely from the agency.

The person who disseminates this information must be reliable and credible. With all due respect to the department’s Public Information Officer, they should not always be the person thrust into the limelight when the publicity is overwhelmingly negative. The highest ranking agency head — Chief, Sheriff, Director, Commissioner — should be the one fielding the questions.

It’s not an easy job, but neither is policing. More likely than not, a local elected official or other political figure will probably insert their opinions into the fray. It is very difficult to navigate through these waters, but remaining engaged with the community and press can serve to offset the negativity.

4. Monitor Morale
It’s easy to get consumed with managing the crisis itself, but don’t forget about the troops. The best leaders are those who recognize the importance of maintaining high morale at all times, especially during a crisis. When a department is under scrutiny, the organization feels the pain much like a family member aches for a sick relative.

Avoid the mistake of getting so wrapped up in managing the crisis that you forget about the most important assets of the organization: the people themselves. Try to show up at roll calls and special events despite the need to be visible in the community. It is essential to keep the home fires burning.

5. Seek Guidance from Others
It is important to garner input and support from other colleagues who have previously managed negative situations. Reach out to other chief executives through professional networks. It may be worthwhile to hire a consultant who specializes in managing a crisis. Don’t hesitate to call someone who has been in your shoes.

A word of caution in this regard: hiring the expensive public relations firm to handle the crisis after the fact is too little too late. Some departments have tried to offset a publicity crisis by attempting to showcase all of the good deeds. This is a non-starter for the zealots who fuel the anti-policing movement. Stay focused upon the facts surrounding the crisis itself, and work closely with key stakeholders to build trust.

Police leaders must be vigilant in ensuring that the highest level of professionalism exists within their policing organizations. Much like the concept of “wellness” in healthcare, law enforcement professionals must do everything humanly possible to anticipate a catastrophe. Consider the management of negative publicity as an open wound that must be triaged immediately to prevent further complications.

Expand the paradigm of emergency preparedness planning to include publicity and public relations following a controversial incident. The hard-working men and women of law enforcement are counting on the leaders to be ready, willing and able to preserve the sanctity of the profession. Be strong, be supportive and be prepared. Above all else, do not rush to judgment. It is paramount to preserve the rights of the personnel at the center of any controversy.

Many good leaders have lost their credibility in an instant by caving in to the temptation to throw someone under the bus in an attempt to get the heat off their own back. Police leaders must be as impenetrable as the heat shields on a spacecraft.

Paul Cappitelli is an honorably retired law enforcement professional with over 45 years of experience. From 2007-2012, Paul served as Executive Director for the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST). Prior to his POST appointment, he retired at the rank of Captain from the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department in California, following 29 years of service. Paul is a past and present member of several professional groups and associations. He holds an undergraduate degree in business management and a master’s degree in public administration. He is currently a public safety consultant and police/corrections practices expert. Visit Contact Paul Cappitelli.