Explain Yourself:

Communication Is Essential To Good Public Relations

October 18, 1997

... detained for 30 minutes, with no idea what happened, and the belief that he was just harassed.

The Internet has become a powerful source of readily accessible information. Some of that information is accurate, some is not. However, in the process of sorting through gigabytes of digital text, both valuable and worthless, one can occasionally find some "old-fashioned good advice" on important current issues.

A recent discussion in a Usenet newsgroup centered around the behavior of police officers. Many negative statements were made, the word "pig" was frequently used, and several users complained about police officers stopping and detaining innocent citizens. Numerous opinions (and insults) were exchanged, and hundreds of postings on this issue flowed across the Internet. But recently, one police officer inserted a voice of reason into the noisy conflict.

One user had posted the following complaint:

"Here is my own experience with the cops. I was riding in my car and suddenly 5 police cars surrounded me [and] put their bright spot lights toward my car, I was told to get out with my hands over my head, then they proceed to search me and my car, then put me in against the wall for an hour until another police car came with a female person inside, and then they let me go, no apologies no nothing, and left. There were at least 10 cops and no one said sorry or give any explanation!!!!!!"

Detective Sergeant Jay McKeen (mckeen@acy.digex.net) responded:

"I have been at felony carstop scenes where the car and operator/passengers match a description, are stopped, and it is determined that it is the wrong car, and the person(s) is released with little or no explanation. Sometimes it is a question of hurry (a rush to get to the location of another unit that has the correct car located), but public image damage is done."

"Five minutes by a street Sergeant explaining to the driver that, for instance, 'the Red Lobster was robbed... the car described was a red mustang like yours, it was reported to have two male occupants, just like yours, going west, like yours... we apologize for detaining you, and thank you for your patience and cooperation...' would, in most cases, leave the driver understanding and even appreciating what police were doing. "

"But, I've seen it. 'That's not them. Alpha-1 has the car. It's confirmed...Come on, let's go.' And the poor driver watches the police cars drive away after he had to listen to a PA, throw his keys out the window, and be detained for 30 minutes, with no idea what happened, and the belief that he was just harassed."

"Public relations (poor ones) is an ongoing problem for us. DARE, Crime Watch officers, and press releases aren't nearly as important as how you talk to people on the street and the time you take to be as open as you can without jeopardizing an investigation, or a call-for-service."

McKeen further stated:

"We have isolated incidents of improper police behavior, it's true. More often, though, we have incidents of poor communication; we forget the need to explain, and, thereby, to include. I think that is where the "us vs. them" attitude is amplified. There are people out there for whom "us vs. them" is a self-fulfilling prophecy; they start with the belief that police are primarily goofballs and gangsters, and their perception of events will support that foregone conclusion despite all fact and logic. But, we in police work do at times make it tough for fair-minded people to see a situation clearly when we don't take the time to explain ourselves."

There is an important lesson to be learned here: a little communication can prevent a lot of bad feelings. Every day, police officers and prosecutors must face situations where a criminal investigation leads to an unwelcome outcome. Police officers must stop innocent suspects in the search for a guilty offender. Prosecutors must advise police officers that there is not enough evidence to file charges. And both must tell angry citizens that their legitimate complaints are not adequate for criminal prosecution. Nobody enjoys these encounters, but a brief and honest discussion of the circumstances is usually enough to convince people that they have been treated fairly.

Take a few minutes to explain your decisions. If an emergency prevents you from giving an immediate explanation, then contact the person later, when time permits. We must always remember that we are public servants; it is our responsibility to maintain public confidence in our work. And you will often be surprised at the response you receive. Someone who was furious with your decision may eventually thank you for taking the time to give an honest explanation.

(McKeen's comments reprinted with permission.)

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