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TASER and Media Coverage: Good Press is Our Responsibility

Written by Cara Donlon-Cotton

Whenever law enforcement agencies start using, or even think about using, a new technology or tool, the public gets a little antsy. Think about some commonly used law enforcement tools and the initial public reactions.

• OC spray? You’re going to spray what into my eyes?
• Red light cameras? But what if I’m not the one driving my car that day?
• Dashboard cameras? Is this going to wind up on “COPS?”
• AlchoSensor? You’re going to arrest me for using mouthwash, aren’t you?
• Passive alert K9s? Is that dog going to tear up my seats and scratch up my car?

And so we come to the use of the TASER®. TASERs have become one of the most controversial law enforcement tools, and the media are only partly to blame. The other party to the problem? Us.

TASERs are essentially just another new technology that law enforcement is using to do a better job at policing. Like all new technologies, some people are a little squeamish about what this means for them. And because the media sniffed out controversy, i.e., a big-selling story, the TASER “issue” took on a life of its own.

What law enforcement public information officers and agency heads did wrong was to come out on the defensive. We waited until after the media started erroneously linking suspect deaths to TASER use to start explaining how the device works. We waited until after the media came to us with accusatory questions to defend our decision to use TASERs. And some agencies catered to public outcry based on wrong information and actually pulled TASERs from their officers.

What we should have done, and what we still can do, is to be proactive. Instead of waiting for the media to come to us with a medical examiner’s report on an in-custody death, we should be actively seeking out the media and touting our new technology and all of its benefits.

PIOs and agency heads should be educating the media about TASERs and winning them over with information. When we do this the correct way, the next time an educated reporter gets a call from someone claiming “the police killed that man with a TASER,” the reporter will be able to say, “TASERs don’t kill people.”

And yes, that blunt and truthful fact needs to be said loudly and clearly by any law enforcement officer who carries a TASER, by any chief or sheriff authorizing the use of the tools, and by every PIO or department spokesperson.

It is advisable to host a TASER information training session for all members of the media as soon as your agency begins to even consider issuing TASERs. Invite every newspaper reporter, photographer, TV reporter, anchor, producer, editor, layout person, radio personality, radio news guy, even the station intern who answers the phones. Invite them all and educate them.

Come right out and tell them that TASERs are a less-than-lethal weapon, and the alternative, in many cases, is a very lethal bullet. Explain how TASERs incapacitate a person, and then show them how they work by “tasing” a person in front of them. Allow them to volunteer to be tased, and allow them to film it. Create a situation where they can see a person being tased and—more important—talk to that person afterwards.

It would be very beneficial to address the myth of TASERs killing people. You need to do this for two reasons: to correct misinformation and to pre-answer the inevitable questions about the topics. Think of it as preventative maintenance—you know the media will bring it up, so bring it up first before it blows up.

Be specific, use statistics and outline how in the majority of deaths in which a TASER had been deployed, factors such as illegal drug use were involved. Provide the media with contact information of people who can medically explain the concept of excited delirium.

Essentially, you are convincing the media and the public that TASERs are a safe tool that will aid officers doing their jobs and help save the lives of the public. Do the same dog-and-pony type show for TASERs as you did for your other technological additions. Did you brag to the press when you got new mapping computers in patrol cars? When you acquired stop sticks to use to stop a police chase? When you added K9s to the drug unit? It’s the same principle.

The main difference in TASER public relations is that TASER use has become a national issue. No matter how successful your agency’s TASER use has been on the local level, there will always be CNN or MSNBC or The New York Times with the next TASER exposé. For this reason, you need to implement some other tactics when it comes to TASER public relations—cautious defensiveness.

Cautious defensiveness needs to be used because, unfortunately, the media are still waiting for someone to screw up with a TASER, and they’re waiting to jump on the national story bandwagon. So what to do? Train accordingly.

Anyone who carries a TASER needs to not only be trained in the use of the device, but also in the media aspect surrounding it. They all need to be able to articulate your department’s policy on TASER usage and also the recommended usage as dictated by TASER International. And your TASER carriers need to be made aware of your state’s open records laws and their implications.

Why open records laws? Because at some point, depending upon the rules dictated by your state, TASERCams will be made available to the media and the public. Much like dashboard cameras, TASER cameras will become public information. And TASERCams record not only video—they also record audio.

Officers deploying TASERs and officers surrounding the deployment need to be defensively aware that anything they say or do in the vicinity of the TASERCam is fair game for the national news. Laugh about “taking the ride” or threatening to light up a suspect’s posterior does not exactly aid in “Operation TASERs Are Good.” Tasing a handcuffed suspect who is obviously complying with commands does not bode well for maintaining the public’s trust.

But professional actions and professional words speak volumes. Train your TASER-carrying officers to utter the same words when a TASER with a TASERCam is unholstered: “TASERCam is active” or “TASER is on” or something along those lines. This is different from the deployment warning. This alerts everyone on the scene that the camera is on and recording. The alert might not even be captured as the camera has a 1.5 second delay, but if it is, there’s no detrimental PR damage from hearing the warning.

TASERCams, like dashboard cameras, can be used to document the totality of the scene. Much like a dashboard camera, the TASERCam can validate your actions, or it can document wrongdoing. You can use the TASERCam to document the suspect’s actions before, during and after the TASER is deployed. Likewise, the TASERCam can document your actions during the situation and the actions of others, like EMS’s precautionary response.

Open records laws encompass more than just TASERCams, though, and will also address videotapes made of TASER training. These tapes, as they are government records, will be accessible to the public and the media at some point in time. Again, it depends upon the specific laws of your state as to when—not if—the recording becomes releasable. So it behooves your TASER trainer to maintain professional decorum in his class.

And do not forget, if participants have brought their personal recording devices on government time to record government business, those tapes will also fall under the spectrum of the Freedom of Information Act. Be wary of what is spoken, and be wary of what is done—and remember, what law enforcement agents find amusing is not necessarily found to be appropriate by most members of the public. Have you ever laughed at a crime scene? Surprisingly, gallows humor just isn’t appreciated by some.

TASERs are beneficial tools. They are too beneficial to be lost because the media convinced the public they are dangerous. Take control of TASER coverage by offering the correct information and by not waiting for the media to draw their own conclusions. Be proactive while being cautiously defensive, and do not be afraid to tell the truth about your agency’s TASER usage. And when you’re demonstrating how a TASER works for the media, go ahead and tase a reporter…but for no more than five seconds.

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 Law and Order, May 2009

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