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Public Relations for Tactical Teams

Written by Cara Donlon-Cotton

Some SWAT teams have a big public relations problem. Either they are the heroic rescuers, rushing to a job that is too dangerous for the “regular police,” or they are the overzealous and trigger-happy cowboys just itching to violate civil rights. Very rarely do the media report on a SWAT team for anything other than its purely good actions or its purely evil actions. And because of such coverage, public opinion follows the same train of thought.

When SWAT teams are portrayed as the “Good Guys,” the media throw around words like “elite” and “heroes.” “Thanks to the actions of the police SWAT team, little Mary Sue is safe and sound tonight. Mary Sue told us she knew everything would be OK once the elite team of heroes burst into the living room and saved her from the armed man who was holding her hostage. She calls the officer who carried her outside her SWAT savior.”

But when something goes even remotely wrong, the good guy image goes right out the window. Instead, the media will say “SWAT team” in the same tone of voice as they would use for the biggest criminal entity they have ever covered. “The Smiths woke up to an armed SWAT team breaking down their door and screaming at them to get on the floor. Mrs. Smith said she feared for her life while a masked officer kept a huge machine gun pointed at her the whole time.”

Good SWAT and Evil SWAT are compelling stories, especially for the news media. When SWAT is good, we have a true life action story where the good guys win and everyone goes home happy. When SWAT is bad, we have a true life nightmare where the conspiracy theorists rule unchecked. A mistake is no longer a mistake; it is now a sign of government run amok with jackbooted Nazis with badges stomping on the Bill of Rights.

We know the media are going to cover a SWAT action and peg it into just one of these two holes, so what do we do? We sit back, wait for the coverage and then react. Why not address the PR problems head on and try to eliminate the Evil SWAT portrait?

Think About Imagery

To civilians and the news media, any type of aggressive response is going to look as if it is too aggressive, even when warranted. Think about it. To a civilian, any time a SWAT team makes entry with subguns at the ready and flash-bangs flashing and banging, that is aggression.

The inherent problem with the media coverage of aggressive police action is that it is being judged by people who were not present at the scene and who are also unfamiliar with how law enforcement works. (These are the same people who want to know why the officer just didn’t shoot the gun out of the suspect’s hand rather than shooting him in the center mass.)

The media need to be educated about how a SWAT team works so they, in turn, can educate the public about why they may see what looks like a small army storming a house. Once the media are on your side, the aggressiveness of a SWAT team will be viewed as necessary and as a blessing.

So give the media just enough information to lead them to the conclusion that SWAT teams are the good guys. How? Invite the media to a SWAT dog-and-pony show: qualification testing, tryouts or a training session. Put them in BDUs and a tactical vest, load their holsters with red guns, and slap on some goggles. Let them get the feel for being weighted down and then tell them to walk quietly. Put them in the center of an entry team and disorient them with a flash-bang and then tell them to keep moving. Have them get inside your training house and let them see SWAT guys use Simunition® on the bad guy while rescuing the baby doll.

Why will this imagery be viewed as less aggressive and less violent? Because the media played along, and they saw things from behind the gun sights. And now the story is not how SWAT teams are too aggressive and too militant. Now the story is how well-trained the SWAT team is and how the members use just the right amount of force to save the innocent victims.

Plus, the reporter playing SWAT officer will explain to the public how hard the SWAT team members’ job is and how they have to wear 50 pounds of extra equipment and be ready for anything. In a nutshell, you have a reporter in your corner. The next time SWAT has a call-out, you know that reporter will fall back on his knowledge and report the story from the hero angle.

Moreover, the “trained reporter” now knows the answer to some potentially inflammatory questions. He now knows when a SWAT teams makes entry, potential threats are told to get down on the floor for their own safety, not because SWAT is flaunting its power.

They now know how teams have plans and back-up plans and how team leaders assess every risk before even thinking about going into a situation. These are positive things for the media to report to the public. Essentially, they serve as reassurances to the public. But those reassurances are much more than a proverbial hand-holding, they also serve as a means to justify SWAT actions.

Planning a media-friendly media event is not easy. You must plan training so sensitive information, like team movements and codes, is not revealed, among other considerations. Plus, you have to make sure you have enough gear and training equipment to actually let the reporter “play along” as opposed to just observing. The pre-planning headache is well worth it, though, for if you do not make the media aware of what a team does, the media will be looking for the good or evil SWAT angle.

For those choosing not to have the media training event, the next time your team has a call-out, the media will want to know “Why did the SWAT team have to go in?…And why did they need to break down the door?...And did they really need to carry all those guns?…And why did they make that poor old lady get down on the floor?” By being proactive and allowing the media to gather their information before all hell breaks loose, you can avoid all those dangerous media waters.

Hit the Wrong House

When SWAT storms the wrong house, the media will seize on that like a bulldog with lockjaw. They will want to know why it happened, how it happened, has it happened before and will it happen again. They will report the mistake and interview the poor old woman who got thrown to the floor, and they will show precious puppy pictures of the poor pitbull who made the mistake of charging at the team.

This will be Evil SWAT in full effect. So what to do? Explain it. Immediately. Do not wait for the media to come to you, go to the media. Don’t hide, don’t pass the buck, don’t pretend it didn’t happen, and don’t say you don’t know why it did. Come clean and come clean quickly.

If the SWAT team hit the wrong house because it got the address wrong, explain how it was an egregious error and safeguards are being put in place so such an error will never happen again. One hopes that such safeguards are already in place for your agency’s team so this is not likely to happen. Explain that SWAT does not initiate the investigation that led to the SWAT raid, rather they react to information given to them. If this means you have to explain why your investigative unit generated wrong information, go ahead and address that.

If the SWAT team hit the right house but was given bad information, reiterate the reason why SWAT was hitting said house in the first place. Fall back on your policy, which surely states SWAT must be the ones to enter places believed to be inhabited by heavily armed and dangerous individuals. Explain how SWAT relies on the element of surprise and force because that’s going to make things safer for them. And, if the current mood of your community permits, you can even go so far as to state how dangerous criminals might warrant swift and strong police action.

Even when SWAT hits the wrong house, the situation can be positively spun, but only if the agency is proactive. If you wait until the media have put you on the defensive and they are grasping at straws for information, be prepared for the Evil SWAT story.

You Call Yourselves SWAT?

Thanks to countless movies and TV shows, which are far from reality based, the public and the media expect their SWAT teams to rush in and save the world within an hour. After all, SWAT is the cavalry, so why aren’t they charging full steam ahead?

When standoffs go long, the public, especially displaced residents, want to know what all the waiting is about. Again, educating your media about the role of SWAT and the role of the negotiation team would be helpful. Be sure to reiterate the safety of all involved when faced with these questions during the standoff. After the standoff, praise the actions of all involved, and be sure to thank the patience of the public for letting your agency do its job successfully.

However, the nightmare of all PR nightmares is when SWAT is staged outside a residence and the suspect shoots, harms or executes a hostage. When this happens, the public and the media are confused, outraged and demand answers. Do you blame your negotiator? Do you blame the SWAT commander? Do you blame yourself? It is probably a sampling of all of the aforementioned. But the reality is, no one is to blame but the suspect. Place the public blame on the suspect but also tell the media and public of how things, if any, will change in your agency. For example, Columbine led to changes in active shooter training across the country.

You should be quick to point out that while SWAT is an elite unit, it is not a team of RoboCops who will resurface in the next summer blockbuster feature. Remind the people that they are human and willingly put themselves in harm’s way to keep the people safe. And yes, that does sound like a movie tagline, but at least that one is true.

It is imperative to explain SWAT’s priorities: victims, hostages, civilians, police, suspects. Once the media and the public understand just where SWAT falls in the hierarchy, they may have a new appreciation for the team.

SWAT Equals Good Guys

The media need to get to know the SWAT team as more than just balaclava-wearing gun-toters. While the public information officer should be tasked with arranging your SWAT dog-and-pony show for the media, SWAT members should be the ones doing the PR work. You should assign your most well-rounded SWAT officer, not necessarily the commander or assistant commander, to that reporter. Let the seasoned SWAT veteran, who has a life outside of SWAT, talk with the reporter while keeping the 22-year-old, adrenaline-infused newcomer otherwise occupied.

Let the media see SWAT as a team composed of your elite officers, ones who have to train to make the team and sacrifice to remain on it. Let the training and discipline speak for itself and pre-answer any lingering doubts about the cowboy stereotype.

Convince the media that Good SWAT does exist, and you have, in turn, convinced the public. If you sit back and let the media draw their own conclusions, you’ve just relinquished control of your situation. No SWAT team worth its salt would dare do that.

Cara Donlon-Cotton is the former media relations instructor for the Georgia Public Safety Training Center and a reformed newspaper reporter. She can be reached at cdonloncotton@yahoo.com.

Published in Tactical Response, May/Jun 2009

Rating : 9.0


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