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Media Training for Patrol Officers

Written by Brian Boetig

Law enforcement officers on the front line of responding to emergencies and major crime scenes, where unscheduled encounters with the media are most likely to occur, are perhaps the least likely to receive training on how to appropriately interact with the media.

Media training often is provided to agency executives, command staff and public information officers (PIOs) because they are the employees who often serve as the agency spokespeople. This media training focused at a narrow audience is problematic because it is more likely that non-PIO employees and the media will arrive at incidents earlier than the designated agency spokespeople simply because of the manner in which law enforcement officers, media and PIOs are deployed to media-worthy incidents.

While many law enforcement agencies’ media policies prohibit non-PIO employees from providing case-specific information to the media, little guidance is given on how to interact with them when they are present at law enforcement scenes. Furthermore, despite the best intentions and most well-written policies, many frontline law enforcement officers interpret media policies in very simple terms: Avoid the media.

While this abbreviated version of the policy might have some merits, it often is taken so literally that officers go out of their way to avoid contact with the media. When first responders not trained to talk to media try to engage in media-avoidance maneuvers, they can damage standing relationships built between the agency and the media. Even worse, not interacting with the media at scenes can give the appearance of stonewalling or uncooperativeness.

Certain avoidance measures by officers can create a negative impression of the law enforcement agency to the public, even in a situation where no negative perceptions are warranted. Finally, inappropriate interactions with the media can result in criminal charges and civil claims against agency personnel. These legal actions can pertain to First and Fourth Amendments rights violations.
Training

Media training for non-PIO employees is the responsibility of each law enforcement agency. Non-sworn personnel including crime scene technicians, communication officers, reserve and auxiliary personnel, parking and animal enforcement officers, correctional officers, secretaries and other staff members should also be involved in the training because of their potential to be contacted on or off duty by the media.

There are several goals of training non-PIO employees. The first goal should be to provide an understanding of the importance of positive and professional police-media relationships. Second, the training should provide an overview of the department’s media policy. Third, it should identify the role of the PIO within the organization. Finally, it should provide practical guidance on how agency employees should interact with the media if approached as a result of conducting official duties.

The role of a law enforcement agency is the protection of life and property. The role of the media is to inform, advise, entertain and often, make a profit. Sometimes these roles overlap. Sometimes they are at odds. For example, informing the public about a hazardous situation that is occurring or broadcasting the description of a missing person easily depicts mutually beneficial roles of the organizations. However, when a media broadcast of factual information might interfere with an undercover operation or cause a suspect in a case to flee, the roles can be at odds.

The media training should be designed to provide some actual examples of incidents within the agency where the media and the agency worked together and incidents where the media and agency were at odds. Even in the scenario where the media and agency were at odds, the outcome can still be positive because of a mutual agreement that was negotiated based on a standing relationship.

When a relationship exists between the police agency and the media, it is more likely that the mutually beneficial scenarios will materialize. This pre-existing relationship does not guarantee that the media will not print stories that could be damaging to the police agency’s reputation (such as reporting about abuses or training inadequacies), but a fairer representation of both sides of the story is more likely when one exists.

Media Policy

While every law enforcement agency should have a clearly written media policy that outlines the guiding principles of the agency’s interaction with the various media outlets, having a policy is not enough. Employees must be able to apply the media policy in real-world situations. Unfortunately, many officers and supervisors oversimplify media policies to read, “Avoid the media.” When remaining steadfast to this simplified interpretation of the media policy, major public image problems can result. The avoidance could make media viewers or readers perceive that the police are hiding information or involved in a cover-up.

A printed copy of the agency’s media policy should be provided to all of the participants during the media training. If the entire media policy is the culmination of several different written regulations, memorandums or procedural guidelines, copies of each should be provided. Where the policy and each supporting document can be found within the department should clearly be detailed. This section of the media training should not be used to simply read the media policy.

A brief overview of the policy and its general concepts should be explained to the participants, especially highlighting areas that articulate the overall purpose of the policy that specifically pertain to the participants and that have a history of misinterpretation, abuse or violation by agency members. It should also be stated during the course that the media representatives have and know the agency’s media policy and should be considered as a resource when questions arise about it.

PIO’s Role

Since media relations are not the primary duty or function of most law enforcement agency employees, this section of the media training should provide ample opportunity for the PIO to explain his or her role within the agency. While a PIO could spend hours explaining his daily activities to the participants, the objective is to briefly explain what the PIO does for the agency, specifically the participants.

The PIO should explain his overall mission in the department. This mission includes serving as the central liaison between the agency and the media, overseeing all incoming requests from the media and outgoing responses, maintaining contact with the media and ensuring compliance with appropriate local, state and federal laws pertaining to the media and dissemination of information.

It is also appropriate to give a small explanation of what the PIO is not. First, the PIO does not work for the media. He is a representative of the law enforcement agency who works with the media. The PIO is usually not the only person from the agency authorized to be on TV or in the newspaper. He might, however, be the person responsible for authorizing other employees or preparing them to do so. The PIO is also not responsible for investigating leaks to the media. This is the job of internal affairs or the chief’s office, with the assistance of the PIO.

Non-PIO and Media Interaction

Because the interpretation of some media policy language reading, “no interacting with the media” or “only the PIO or his or her designee” can be ambiguous, the media training should provide practical guidance on what can and cannot be said or done. For example, if the media approaches non-PIO employees, the literal interpretation of the policy may lead employees to believe that they cannot even engage in cursory greetings with the media.

Instead, the training should instruct employees to very professionally and corrigibly advise the media of certain facts. These facts include whether or not the PIO will be coming to the scene, if the PIO has designated someone on the scene as the spokesperson, who that person is, the approximate time of the spokesperson’s arrival, where the media should gather when the spokesperson arrives and where, or with whom, the media can obtain information on the case if no spokesperson will be coming to the scene.

While these facts may seem innocuous, they are very informative to the media and certainly avoid the negative connotations associated with a “no comment” response. In addition to explaining what can and cannot be said and done, conducting practical exercises can be quite beneficial.

The final section of the media training should represent a practical application of the media policy. In this section, the instructor should provide advice on how to interact with the media at the scene of an incident, if contacted while off duty and during routine requests for information from the media. Depending on the particular policy and philosophy under which an agency operates, the responses may differ.

The media quite often needs visuals to enhance their stories whether they are in print or TV broadcast. Because of this need, photos and videos often will be taken at the various scenes and at the agency’s headquarters as a backdrop. Realizing that the media are afforded no more or less access than other residents to public areas, non-PIO employees should treat them no differently as far as including or excluding them from conducting lawful activities.

The following guidelines should be emphasized for the non-PIO employees. First, if a media representative or any member of the public wishes to take photos or video from a position where they are lawfully located, no attempts should be made to restrict their activity. These attempts include putting hands in front of the camera or attempting to disable the camera.

Next, if an employee desires to remain off camera for any reason, such as being assigned to undercover operations or to protect him or her from retaliation, the officer can politely make this request to the media. The request should also be made by the employee to the PIO who can reiterate this request to the media representatives.

Finally, business should be conducted as usual. Employees should not act any differently when the media is around than they would normally act. Hiding in cars and rolling up the windows when the media approach gives the appearance of the police hiding something, whether they are or not. This type of avoidance maneuver will make much more dramatic TV footage, even if not representative of the story, than simply having an officer state that the PIO will be available at the police department in 30 minutes to make a statement on the incident.

Employees should be taught how to react if contacted about official business by the media while off duty, either in the agency parking lot when leaving a shift or while out of town on vacation. Employees should remain courteous and professional by following the techniques presented above for handling on-scene requests and being photographed or recorded. Guidance should be provided on how to report off-duty media contacts if it is not clearly articulated in the media policy.

Through the use of role players, the instructor should generate a series of mock police-media interactions in which participants can engage. Participants, both individually or in small groups, can simulate acting in their assigned agency roles and be approached by a member of a media organization. Here are two examples of scenarios that could be used:

Perp Walk Scenario

The agency has just arrested a notorious child molester. A local TV station wants some footage of the defendant for the evening broadcast. Although he will be arraigned the following day and will be walked through a public courtyard where video and photos can be taken, the reporter at the station requests that the officers just walk the defendant outside the police department, put him in a patrol car and drive around the block so some “authentic looking” video can be taken. The media representative wants to show the defendant so that other victims might come forward after seeing him and hearing of his capture. How will the officers respond?

This scenario is loosely based on the circumstances of U.S. Supreme Court case that held that the perp walk was unconstitutional because it had no legitimate law enforcement purpose and subjected the defendant to unreasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment.
Private Property Scenario

After the funeral of a police officer killed in the line of duty, the family of the officer and other members of the agency gather at the slain officer’s home. Immediately adjacent to the house is another residence where the media has gathered to take video and photos of the grieving family members. The family members ask the officer to “make them stop” because they want a break from the media attention.

This scenario addresses the rights of the media to be present on private property if invited. It is a good opportunity to discuss the fact that law enforcement agencies have little control in enforcing the moral and ethical aspects of the media. Also ripe for discussion is how discussing access and having a strong relationship with the media before the funeral might have prevented this situation.

Since media relations are not recognized as a primary duty of most law enforcement agency employees, agencies often neglect to provide guidance on interacting with the media even to frontline officers and other agency employees although they are the most likely to encounter the media. A failure to train the entire agency’s staff on the media policies could be the fatal flaw in developing positive media relations within an agency and the media community. Every law enforcement agency should be able to make a training program aimed at developing a media savvy workforce.

Brian Boetig is a supervisory special agent in the FBI’s San Francisco Division and was previously assigned as an instructor at the FBI National Academy. Before joining the FBI, he served as a university, municipal and state police officer. He can be reached at brianboetig@leo.gov.

Published in Law and Order, Aug 2006

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