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Back to Archives | Back to December 2007 Contents 

Adapting to Change in Law Enforcement Public Information

By Susan Braunstein, Associate Professor of Communications, Barry University, Miami, Florida

ew fields in the law enforcement profession are experiencing greater or more rapid change than public information; changes in mission, production, and delivery have begun, and continued change is inevitable. However, the future presents unparalleled opportunities for law enforcement leaders to deliver better public information services and to develop stronger ties with their communities.

The Good Old Days

In the past, working with the media for most police departments meant working primarily with newspapers and television. Newspapers provided the bulk of police news coverage. As many as 30 years ago, most police departments held press conferences when major stories broke or when the department needed public assistance. The department routinely issued releases about specific incidents, and “cop shop” reporters picked up these releases at police stations. Both radio and television usually followed the local newspaper’s leads, which often grew out of press releases and out of relationships that individual reporters developed with individual officers. However, in a wider sense, the relationship between the media and law enforcement agencies was often an uneasy one.

This uneasy relationship was based partly on the belief common to law enforcement agencies that public information was an ancillary function not integral to the agency’s mission. Most police and police leaders believed that the central mission of law enforcement was to react to crime; consequently, public information held high priority for agencies only when police needed public input or wanted to inform the public about specific crimes or issues.

Unfortunately, many departments still follow the practices of the past. Those departments are missing opportunities to reach out to their communities.

The Present Meets the Future

Policing is not homogeneous. Each agency or jurisdiction develops its own culture and responds to pressure differently. As a result, the current state of policing is not uniform for all police departments. Rather, different elements will be implemented at different stages for various departments. In other words, what is currently taking place in many departments may not happen in other departments until the near or distant future.

In the last two decades, major changes have occurred and continue to take place due to three separate but intersecting phenomena: the introduction of community policing, the evolving economics of the media industry, and the explosion of communications and information technology. These seemingly disparate areas converge in the practice of law enforcement public information.

Community Policing: The philosophical shift resulting from the development of community policing functioned as a catalyst for change in law enforcement practices in public information. Although not all agencies fully embraced the philosophy, many came to believe that the law enforcement community needed to address quality-oflife issues in their jurisdictions and to be proactive in solving community problems. Community policing trainers stressed police interaction with the community. Theorists and practitioners talked about community policing requiring the “Big Six” stakeholders, with one of those six requirements being the media.2 The media were seen as conduits to the community. Police were strongly encouraged to seek community input on the choice of problems to target and to build a mutually satisfactory relationship with the community they served.2

About the same time, community interest in police practices intensified, especially in the disposition of citizen complaints. Many communities began or improved their civilian oversight of police complaints. Although a report in 2002 indicated that “civilian oversight appears to arise in response to a specific crisis of confidence in the police,”3 community demands for police practices to be open to public scrutiny mirrored similar community demands for transparency in other government entities, as well as in education, health care, and corporate governance. The demand for transparency in policing appears to be a part of the social shift toward greater public participation in and overview of activities that affect public welfare.

The rise in the demand for transparency and the philosophical shift to community policing gave added significance to the role of the media in the law enforcement community. That importance was institutionalized when accrediting agencies such as the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA) required that police agencies involve the news media in developing public information policies.4 The specific media standard underlines the importance of effective, ethical communications with the media and, through them, with the public.

Changing Media: While police interest in using media effectively was increasing, the nature of the U.S. media was changing. “During the twenty-year period from 1980–2000, the media markets in the United States experienced an unprecedented historical explosion of mergers and corporate growth.”5 Many independent, locally owned media outlets were swallowed up by larger media organizations, which were, in many cases, swallowed by multinational conglomerates. Economics on a global scale affected local police coverage in ways unexpected and profound. Chains buying up local outlets meant that corporate ownership in distant places was making both business and editorial decisions that affected local news coverage. Fewer reporters covered more stories. Fewer expensive investigative pieces were funded. Features and “lifestyle” pieces, which were inexpensive to produce, increased as expensive hard news and investigative coverage declined. There were more sensational stories, more crime stories, and more stories that traveled well. Fewer slots were available for locally bound features because conglomerate ownership and profit-driven management made recycled content among outlets desirable. A story that was sensational or traveled well began to appear in two or more papers in the same conglomerate, and radio and television stations in the same conglomerate started to reuse the same content.6 The consequence of shared content was a smaller total number of different stories produced, although various media outlets packaged the same story in different ways.

The media also changed the handling of news. News now is often driven by surveys of what topics the audience would like covered. Every year finds that hard news on government and the military is losing space to features on topics such as entertainment, lifestyles, and celebrity crime.7 Audiences increasingly get their “news” from opinionated radio talk show hosts and/or from “argument” television programs. The goal of both appears to be heat, not light; in each type of broadcast, persuasion is more important than information.

Just when newspapers and television stations were tweaking their product to reduce costs, audiences began to escape to new media. The changes in technology that made it easier for the public to interact with the police simultaneously made it harder for police departments to find their target audiences. In the past, the simple press release picked up by reporters from local newspapers and television and radio stations would reach most of the people with whom the department wanted to communicate. Now, the market is so segmented that it can be difficult for police departments to find and reach their intended audience. In most areas, much of the public has access to over 100 television stations. Of even more importance for police, fewer and fewer people read daily newspapers, and local-news viewership continues to decline.8 Furthermore, many young people now get their news from the Internet.9

What all this means is that police public information officers (PIOs) find it increasingly more difficult to convey their message to their intended audiences. The ray of hope for PIOs is that newspaper Web sites are among the most popular news sites and that those sites are easy for police to access. Wise PIOs will add contact information for newspaper Web sites and other major news organization Web sites to their e-mail distribution lists. A release sent only to personnel at the office of a newspaper’s print version will result in a delay in the information reaching the Web site. In the current highly competitive, roundthe-clock news environment, even a few minutes of delay is a serious concern for online news distribution.

Technological Developments: Technology was the third significant area of change in the last two decades. On a simple level, cellular telephones made PIOs more available to media. E-mail made it possible to transmit multiple pieces of information almost instantaneously. But on a more sophisticated level, advances in technology make it possible for everyone to become a journalist of sorts. Video of perceived police brutality captured on a cell phone hits the Internet at the moment the activity occurs, and a police administrator may see and hear his people on YouTube almost in real time. As Jarett Lovell says, “[V]ideo and now the Internet promise to make every citizen a keeper of the police.”10

The notion of citizen journalism—the idea that everyone can produce news—is both appealing and frightening. For individuals and groups who believe that mainstream news outlets do not accurately or fairly report the news, citizen journalism offers opportunities to present stories unmediated by professional journalists. However, citizen journalism presents real dangers both to individual organizations and people and perhaps to democracy itself. Among the skills that traditional journalistic practices require are unbiased news gathering, a separation of fact and opinion, and research skills. Not all journalists or media outlets consistently perform to the highest standards; nonetheless, the industry values and lauds a nonpartisan approach. Citizen journalism, as it is practiced on the Internet, often adheres to none of these or the other basic tenets of journalism. Frequently, no attempt is made to separate fact and opinion; facts are not checked with multiple sources; and no research is conducted except occasionally the most perfunctory Internet search for entries that agree with the poster’s bias. Rumor is often printed as fact. A lack of objectivity is common; in fact, posters are often proud of their single-minded allegiance to a position.

In practice, this type of “journalism” presents great challenges to law enforcement agencies. Police departments across the country contend with Web sites that take continual aim at the law enforcement community. Individual police officers and police leaders have found that responses to anticop Web sites rarely work in favor of their agency. Because these Web sites do not take part in the journalistic tradition of fact-checking and editorial review throughout the process, the agency has scant chance of fair interaction. Rather, the police response usually serves merely to add to the conflagration.

The same forces that interact to accelerate citizen journalism create opportunities for forward-thinking police departments. Just as individuals can post their thoughts and videos on the Internet without the mediation of an established media outlet, so can police departments. Although many individuals use the freedom of the Internet to avoid responsible reporting, police can take advantage of the medium without abusing its freedoms. For instance, established news outlets always have space and time limitations. Those limitations often affect public perception of the story. In controlling their own Web sites, police departments can tell their stories at whatever length in whatever depth they choose.

Meeting the Needs of the Future

How can police departments reach their audiences now, when technology and practice have changed so much? What are departments doing to reach their intended audiences, and what must they do in the future? How can they capture their audiences, present the information they feel is vital, and fulfill their mission of seeking meaningful community input? They need to meet the following objectives:

  • Understand that public information is a vital and integral part of the mission and expend appropriate resources on it

  • Invest in people and technology

  • Hire, transfer, or promote people who have commitment to the mission, traditional public information skills, or the technical skills to conduct forwardthinking public information

  • Budget for the necessary equipment to meet today’s needs in public information

  • Provide quality training to all employees

  • Form partnerships with communities, schools, and colleges to obtain volunteers and interns who have the technical skills to augment department personnel

  • Use current thinking—not that old, dated thinking of even five years ago—to ferret out audiences and entice them to seek out the information they need

Sergeant Jones: The Proactive PIO

Let us look at how the changing media and technology landscape affects a department in a midsize market. The PIO position is often a stable one, so in this hypothetical municipal department, let us say that department PIO Sergeant Jones has lived in the community since he was 11 years old and has been a police officer for 14 years. For eight of those years, he has served as his department’s PIO, an ancillary duty. Sergeant Jones’s department has 25 officers. There are 17 police departments and two county law enforcement agencies in the area covered by the local television station and local newspaper.

The hypothetical community is served by one local television station, two majorcity television stations located about an hour away (each of which has a bureau in Jones’s town), one local daily newspaper, one daily paper from the major city that carries a local section for his community, one weekly paper, and many local radio stations. There are no second-language newspapers or television stations that routinely cover his department. There is a second language radio station that has a one-person news and management department.

The person in the position of crime reporter for the local paper changes frequently. Most of the time the reporter is young, inexperienced as a journalist, ignorant of the basics of the criminal justice system, and clueless about the community. The reporter is covering a wider geographical distance than Jones’s immediate community and is expected to cover routinely seven law enforcement agencies as well as the courts.

Jones knows his community and is deeply committed to the mission of his agency. He believes public information is real police work, and he performs it competently and with pride. To provide the best public information he can for his department, Jones has adopted the following strategies:

  • He has built a solid relationship with reporters. When reporters are new, he offers a copy of his state public information officers association guidelines for reporters, including a list of the state’s public records laws, with explanations.

  • He offers new reporters and reporters new to the crime beat a ride-along (with an articulate officer who buys into the department’s mission) to orient them to the community.

  • He tells new reporters about the local PIO-media committee that meets monthly and invites them to join the group.

  • He gives reporters his cell phone number.

  • He has learned the needs of the media and of each outlet. He knows their deadlines, and when appropriate, he tries to meet them.

  • He invites reporters to training sessions when the department obtains exciting new equipment. He encourages media to participate in training when it is both safe and appropriate.

  • He sends some press releases in a traditional format and others with much of the story work already done. He includes contact information for officers and volunteers involved in the stories after ensuring their availability to talk to the media.

  • He suggests places and times for good photo opportunities.

  • He knows if reporters are coming to the police department, they would rather pick up two stories than one. Therefore, he packages an additional story—perhaps a profile of an officer who volunteers at the humane society or a story on a new officer—with the primary story whenever possible.

  • Whenever possible, he provides context and background for breaking stories. Because crime reporters are often new to the area and new to crime reporting, they often miss nuances and occasionally miss factual connections that would improve their stories.

  • He spots trends and points them out to reporters so they can follow up with other agencies as necessary.

  • He uses appropriate channels to reach particular audiences, such as second language media, reverse 9-1-1 alerts, and social-networking media.11

  • He ensures that press releases to second language media outlets are useful. If the outlet cannot provide translation services, he taps a member of his department or a volunteer to translate releases.

  • He takes his own photos and/or creates stand-ups at crime scenes and transmits broadcast-quality material to news outlets.12

  • Over time, he builds a relationship of trust. He never lies to a reporter, and he always treats all reporters equally and fairly.

Jones takes further proactive measures in the form of self-produced projects:

  • He produces the department’s column in the city newsletter.

  • He hosts a radio show on a commercial station, if available.

  • Because he knows his agency is too small to manage a dedicated time slot, he has built a coalition of several local law enforcement agencies to share a single time slot on the government television channel.13

  • He ensures that the department Web site includes the mission statement, information about the chief, and/or perhaps a letter from the chief.

  • He knows that the department Web site is his. He can use it to tell his story, his way. If there are active antipolice sites in his area, he does not directly respond to them. He does, however, make sure that his Web site tells the department’s side of all stories as accurately as possible.

  • He posts “real” and “raw” images because he has them and knows that his audience values accuracy and authenticity over production values.14

  • On the Web site he posts news releases, crime statistics, and employment opportunities.

  • Hoping to encourage interaction with the community, he includes e-mail addresses for personnel.

  • He includes on the Web site forms such as requests for reports and complaint forms. Some forms may be downloadable, and others may be filed electronically.

  • On the Web site he includes links to important pages such as lists of local sexual predators.

  • He uses the Web site to post emergency information, and he has that emergency information ready to deploy instantly.

  • Keeping his target audience in mind, he uses the Web site for recruiting, using an action video and online application forms.

  • He posts regular Webcasts (see figure 1) because he agrees with Chief John Crombach of Oxnard, California: “With the serious time and space constraints faced by media, I often feel the whole story is not told. Our Webcasts allow us the freedom to give our residents all the pertinent information.”15

  • He is considering a blog because he knows that they are popular, they are an effective way to send his message, and many people believe that blogs are good reading and important news sources.16

  • He makes his Web site as attractive to his audience as he can.

Figure 1

Sergeant Jones is committed to the philosophy of police serving their community. He recognizes the astounding changes the news industry has undergone in the past 20 years, and he is aware of both the challenges and the opportunities these changes present. With the support of his chief, he will continue to deliver outstanding service to his department and to his community.■


1Robert Trojanowicz and Bonnie Bucqueroux, Community Policing: How to Get Started (Cincinnati: Anderson Publishing, 1992). The other five stakeholders are the police department; the community; elected officials; the business community; and other agencies, such as social services, public health, and nonprofit organizations.
2See, for instance, U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance, Understanding Community Policing: A Framework for Action, NCJ 148457, August 1994, (accessed October 29, 2007).
3Emma Phillips and Jennifer Trone, “Building Public Confidence in Police through Civilian Oversight,” Vera Institute of Justice, September 2002, (accessed October 29, 2007), 2.
4See the CALEA Web site at
5W. Lance Bennett, “Globalization, Media Market Deregulation, and the Future of Public Information” (presentation, UNESCO-EU Conference, Santiago de Compostela, Spain,November 2000), (accessed October 29, 2007).
7For statistics on such trends, see “Subject of Stories by Year,” Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) Web site, (accessed October 29, 2007).
8See the PEJ’s State of the News Media 2007 Web site, (accessed October 29, 2007).
9Jon Ziomek, Journalism, Transparency and the Public Trust: A Report of the Eighth Annual Aspen Institute Conference on Journalism and Society (Washington, D.C.: Aspen Institute, 2005), (accessed October 29, 2007).
10Jarett S. Lovell, Good Cop/Bad Cop: Mass Media and the Cycle of Police Reform (Mornsey, N.Y.: Willow Tree Press, 2003).
11For more information on social networks, see the article by Ed Buice, “Navigating the New Media Landscape: The More Things Change, the More They Need to Stay the Same,” on pages 56–60 of this issue.
12See Susan Braunstein, “The Future of Law Enforcement Communications,” chap. 5 in Policing 2020: Exploring the Future of Crime, Communities, and Policing, ed. Joseph A. Schafer (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, 2007), (accessed October 29, 2007), 133–172.
13The reason Jones likes both television and radio programs is that both allow the department to focus on a single issue longer than commercial news outlets will. For instance, police programs on government channels may spend 10 or 12 minutes on Christmas safety tips, whereas commercial television news might spend two minutes on the topic on a slow news night or else hook the tips to another news story.
14Larry Pryor, “Teaching the Future of Journalism,” USC Annenberg Online Journalism Review, February 12, 2006, (accessed October 29, 2007).
15E-mail communication to the author, August 28, 2007.
16“Most Say Bloggers, Citizen Reporters to Play Vital Role in Journalism’s Future,” news release, February 15, 2007, (accessed October 29, 2007).



From The Police Chief, vol. 74, no. 12, December 2007. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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