Communicating After an Officer-Involved Shooting: One Department’s Experience

by | October 17, 2016

On May 21, 2015, Chief Ronnie Roberts of the Olympia Police Department (OPD) got the call every chief dreads: One of his officers, who is white, had shot and critically wounded two young black males. With the country already bitterly divided over recent incidents like that in Ferguson, MO, Chief Roberts knew this incident could quickly boil over in his predominantly white community of 48,000.

The actions that the OPD took over the next few days were critical. And though they were not perfect, their experience provides a valuable blueprint for other agencies. Members of the OPD shared lessons learned from their experience during a session at IACP 2016.

Like many successful communication strategies, the OPD’s response to this event actually started long before it occurred. Chief Roberts explains that the department was actively implementing the recommendations in the Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, as well as reviewing reports from DOJ reviews. “We were also monitoring national events like Ferguson,” he says. “We wanted to set up the department to be prepared for an incident, so we began to put together a strong communications strategy. We watched press conferences, studied what reporters and members of the community were asking, and then began to talk about how we would best respond if similar questions were asked of us.”

That groundwork quickly came into play after the shooting. Following are some of the insights Chief Roberts and others shared during their IACP session:

Be quick, and provide updates often, but share only the facts. Laura Wohl, administrative services manager, explains that the first official communication about the shooting was done on Twitter, indicating that there had been a shooting and that the department would share more information as they got it. Less than 5 hours after the shooting, at 5:30 am, the department held its first press conference, but the chief did not take questions at that time. “We didn’t have more information, so there was no point in answering questions,” Wohl says.

Be as transparent as possible. Almost immediately, the OPD were faced with the question of whether they should reveal the race of the officer. “We chose to do so, because we felt it was important for maximum transparency,” Wohl says. Later, the question arose of whether to reveal the officer’s identity. After notifying him and placing security at his home, they released the information. “We knew this information would get out eventually,” Wohl says. “We thought it was better to be seen proactively releasing it ourselves.”

Consider timing and image when holding press conferences. The OPD held three press conferences in the day after the OIS, each timed to occur before major news deadlines so that reporters would have time to write their stories. The first was a quick briefing by the chief at 5:30 am, just about 5 hours after the shooting. Chief Roberts was the only speaker. “This showed that he was in charge, and that we were out front of the situation,” says Wohl. The second press conference was held around 10 am and included the mayor and the city manager. Again, this was no coincidence: including these officials showed that the city was united in its response and that the department had the support of key city administrators. The final press conference, around 3 pm, featured the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office talking about how they would be conducting an investigation into the shooting, and the prosecutor explaining how he would be conducting an independent third-party review. These speakers not only took some of the spotlight off of Chief Roberts, but stressed to the public that the department was following best practices in ensuring the incident was properly reviewed.

Make information easy to find and share. The OPD created a webpage that still exists to share information with the media and the public. Paul Lower, the OPD PIO, notes that this page was crucial in controlling rumors and in coordinating media requests. The webpage included an FAQ, reports on Olympia’s population and arrest demographics, statements from the chief and the mayor and an explanation of how an outside agency would investigate the incident. The OPD also gave media copies of relevant department policies and by 8 am had posted the 911 dispatch call audio. “This leveled the playing field,” Lower says. “It showed that we were not hiding anything, and it quelled public disclosure requests.”

SHANNON PIEPER is senior director of Marketing Content for Lexipol and former editorial director for PennWell Public Safety, publisher of FireRescue magazine and Law Officer magazine.

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