Across the nation and in Northeast Ohio, claims of unlawful shootings and excessive force are making headlines in alarmingly increasing numbers, resulting in heightened scrutiny of police policies and protocols related to the training of law enforcement officers and the use of force. Suddenly, Mayors, Police Chiefs and other city officials are finding themselves having to spend more time addressing public relations issues arising from such allegations, which can very quickly make a police department the focus of local, state and national news, if not subject to a Department of Justice investigation.
Legally speaking, when a claim of excessive force is asserted, the priority is to minimize, if not negate entirely, a city’s financial liability. Beyond money, however, the police department’s credibility and goodwill with the local community are at stake. Without appropriate action before an allegation of excessive occurs, the result could be a complete public relations nightmare.
The key to avoiding such a nightmare is proper planning. When a claim of excessive force is made, there can be demands placed on the police department and City Hall from a number of sources: TV cameras will be running; families will be demanding answers; news organizations will be making public records requests; and unions will be demanding fair treatment of the officers involved. At that point, public officials are so inundated that there is very little time to do anything but react; proactively managing the situation becomes difficult, if not impossible, without appropriate measures having been put into place long before the allegation arose.
There are things that can be done, however, to prepare a City and police force for such allegations, including:
- Designate an appropriate spokesperson–typically the Police Chief or Mayor–as well as other members of administration in the absence of the lead spokesperson, to address the media and other community leaders in the event an allegation occurs.
- Create preliminary “template” messages that can be used in the immediate aftermath of a potential crisis event. These messages can be used to respond to the onslaught of media inquiries before there is time to fully investigate the incident. These messages should be housed in a convenient location where they can be quickly and easily accessed and, if necessary, revised to fit the particular situation.
- Determine how communications with family members of alleged victims will be handled. Will they be handled by press release or in person and, if so, by whom? What could and should be said in various circumstances? For example, is it appropriate to express regret or not?
- Determine if there is a need to hire an outside crisis communications firm or if resources exist in-house to handle specific situations. Do your homework on outside crisis communication firms so that you have an immediate contact to call when an event occurs.
- Carefully consider manpower needs and determine how the department will promptly and accurately handle the potentially large number of public records requests, which often include requests for personnel records, training records, 911 recordings, dashcam videos, etc.
- Consult legal counsel to determine what is required to be released immediately, what can be delayed from release, and what is wholly exempt from release under Ohio Public Records Law.
- Review and maintain copies of any internal procedures and relevant collective bargaining agreement provisions relating to conducting internal investigations of law enforcement personnel.
- Provide up-to-date training for all personnel on use of force and firearm proficiency, search and seizure procedures, and community relations. Document all such training.
- Train your police officers to recognize situations that could result in an excessive force claim to ensure that officers accurately complete the police report and follow all departmental policies and procedures with the processing of the crime scene, as the handling of the incident by the department will be heavily scrutinized if an allegation of excessive force is made.
- Create a venue for officers to confidentially report the conduct of other officers that does not meet the standards of the department. This is an especially sensitive issue given the “family” culture that permeates most police forces and creates a sense of needing to protect or cover for fellow officers.
Finally, consideration should be given to creating a joint task force to make recommendations if an excessive force allegation occurs. This task force should be comprised of public officials such as the Mayor, Safety-Service Director, Police Chief, and/or Council members, as well as the local union leadership and non-profit and private sector community leaders. It is important to create the task force before an allegation of excessive force is made to ensure that there is ample time to outline not only the scope of the authority of the task force, but also how the task force will implement that authority. The use of such a task force can be controversial, but if comprised of the right individuals, it can be effective in fostering and, if necessary, repairing the relationship between the police department and the community.
Locally, we don’t have to look far to see the real world impact of charges of excessive force. Cities such as Cleveland and Cincinnati are currently under increased scrutiny due to claims of unlawful shootings and excessive force. Even smaller cities and municipalities, however, can be subject to such claims as it only takes one incident to put a department in the spotlight. If that happens, a huge amount of time and resources will be required to address the immediate aftermath, but once the dust settles and things calm down, the ramifications of the allegation remain: lawsuits may be filed, criminal investigations and trials may occur, jobs may be lost, and reputations may be irreversibly damaged. Appropriate planning and training not only may minimize the impact if an excessive force allegation is made; they may prevent such an allegation from occurring in the first place.
Contact: Susan Keating Anderson