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Written by Cara Donlon-Cotton
From the Puritans in colonial America placing people in stocks to crowds of thousands attending public hangings, the American public has always been drawn to public punishment. While the country has grown more civilized in its methods of punishment and the extent of exposure (the last public execution took place in 1936), one aspect remains the same: The public still expects wrong-doers to pay the consequences, and they are infatuated with knowing the details of the punishment.
Court TV made trial-watching something routine, and no longer did one have to find a place in a crowded courtroom—now all they had to do was switch channels. This voyeurism is nothing new; Americans have always been fascinated by how criminals and sinners are punished. From “The Scarlet Letter” to History Channel specials on crime and punishment, the public embraces a culture punishment.
We have become more civilized, so no longer does the public flock en masse to the latest scheduled death by firing squad. Instead, they flock en masse to news Web sites where they can anonymously vent about the state of justice, or lack thereof, in their communities. They may not be able to actively watch punishment in action, but they most certainly have their opinions on the matter.
When someone is arrested and charged with a heinous crime, the public sentiment does not rally around the upcoming fair and speedy trial. The public sentiment rallies around the phrases of, “Lock him up and throw away the key,” and, “I hope he gets what he deserves in jail,” or “Death is too good for him.”
And when the perpetrator wears a badge, the clamoring gets louder and louder.
Unfortunately, officers have made egregious on-duty and off-duty “mistakes” that are, in actuality, crimes. DUI? Bad judgment, but also a crime. Tampering with evidence? Even if the motive was pure, still a crime. Drunk and disorderly? Chargeable offense. To classify these crimes as “instances of bad decisions” will lead to one thing: public unrest.
Law enforcement officers are expected to abide by the laws they uphold. Any straying from this and the public smells a rat. If the officer is not punished as a civilian would be, the public believes the officer has been given preferential treatment. In fact, the public expects law-breaking officers to be punished more severely, as they have violated not only a law, but the public trust.
Is it fair? No. Is that what is expected? Yes. Compare same-crime sentencing for a regular civilian and an officer. Who gets more jail time, more fines and more judicial admonishment? Not the first offender civilian, that’s for sure.
So how does a chief or sheriff discipline one of their own? When the crime is significant in nature, the answer is: swiftly, as harshly as allowed and very publicly. The offending officer has not only violated his oath of office but tarnished the entire reputation of the agency. He is the proverbial bad apple, and the restoration of public trust falls on you.
Regaining Public Trust
Without public trust, the law enforcement agency will struggle to do its job. People will not willingly comply with commands, actively participate in community programs, report crimes or work with investigators. What they will do is put up as many roadblocks as they can. And when an officer tarnishes the law he was supposed to enforce, the public trust is hanging by a very thin thread. As an agency head, you can snip that thread or you can bolster it.
Making a media appearance as soon as possible will help. Note that you as the chief or sheriff need to make an appearance. You can’t pawn this off on a press release or your public information officer. You need to bite the bullet and make the appearance yourself. In that appearance, you need to not only state the facts but convey your opinion with genuine emotion. Opinion? Emotion? In a press conference? This might be one of the few times it will help as opposed to hinder.
Here’s a hypothetical scenario. Officer John Smith got stinking drunk, slapped his wife in front of the kids, left his house in his marked patrol vehicle and promptly wrecked it in the next county. Then he tried to badge his way out of it with the sheriff in that county.
The sheriff’s office released the information about the DUI in the patrol car. The city 9-1-1 center took a call from Smith’s family referring to the drunken slap and the possible DUI in the marked unit, and patrol was dispatched to take a report. All of this information is now public record. What do you do?
Option A: Restore public trust. Let that county do the releasing about the DUI, and then you can make a brief statement about it. Say something about the officer being in administrative leave while the incident is under investigation. It’s a safe, but passive way to go. A chief needs to be more aggressive and proactive.
Option B: Come out forceful about all the events, but say something about Officer Smith’s stellar career prior to these events and hide under the “It’s under investigation” clause. This is a better approach, but it still has a “blue wall of silence” stench.
Option C: Be honest and truthful by factually going over the events, mentioning how Smith never had any discipline problems previously, and how your agency will not tolerate such egregious actions by anyone, let alone someone sworn to uphold the law. This is a better option. The public doesn’t hate you but may draw the conclusion that “He’ll probably get away with it.”
However, Option D is to take Option C and then play the role of the disgusted and offended superior. Any comments offering your opinion on how disappointed you are and how you feel like the public has been betrayed will go over very, very well. This is probably the best option. It will come off like you will not stand for even the whiff of corruption.
Basically, what you’re trying to do is handle three things at once: the fallen cop, the reputation of the agency as a whole, and regaining the trust of the public. This is not easy. Don’t for a minute think one conference can fix it all, but it can make the inevitable public scrutiny a lot easier to handle. In a sense, your statements are guiding public opinion. Don’t take such a task lightly.
Allegiance to Officer
Right about now, you are wondering about the effect this will have on the officer in our hypothetical scenario. Doesn’t this just hang poor Officer Smith out to dry? What about loyalty to your own? Frankly, you almost need to be quite utilitarian about all this. Focus on the greatest good for the greatest number.
Do you go out on a limb for an obviously wrong officer and sacrifice the reputation of an entire agency? Clearly, the answer is no. But in circumstances that warrant it, you can soften the blow. For a genuinely honest officer with “issues,” you can mention counseling and your desire to help the struggling officer and his family.
By doing so, you can set yourself up as a character witness of sorts. You appear as the benevolent ruler, if you will, acting compassionately yet forcefully. This can work in situations such as when an officer with an impeccable record experiences some type of extreme off- or on-duty stress (along the lines of traumatic loss of family members, having been shot, etc.) and then, essentially, snaps. The public, if the situation is explained, will most likely take pity on the officer and tolerate “typical” punishment.
However, if the officer is charged with something especially grievous like child molestation, anything less than you being a forceful and disgusted entity will fall flat. If you simply state the offending officer has been terminated, the public will not be satisfied—they still want their public hanging, so to speak, and if you are the one denying it, you and your agency will pay.
The days of the public physical punishment and execution are over, but the fed-up-with-criminals mentality is hardly a notion of the past. You do not need to feed the bloodthirsty gawkers, but you do need to appease the ordinary citizen who wants to know what will be done about the situation.
Remember, in the jury of public opinion, one bad officer means your whole department is at risk for following suit. If you don’t take immediate public action, the trust the community has in its law enforcement agency can rapidly go from precipitous to nonexistent.
Cara Donlon-Cotton is a reformed newspaper reporter and a former course developer and instructor with the Georgia Public Safety Training Center. She currently teaches Media Relations and Public Relations to local law enforcement agencies. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at http://psten.com
Published in Law and Order, Aug 2010
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