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Media Savvy: Plano Police Department Pioneers Efficient Way to Monitor TV Broadcast News

By Gregory W. Rushin, Chief of Police, Plano, Texas, Police Department; and Rakesh K. Agrawal, President and CEO, SnapStream, Houston, Texas

Click to view the digital edition.

Television search technology allows a police
department to record all local TV programs and
find clips of interest using simple text search,
similar to Google searching the Internet.
This graphic shows how a search for the term
“police chief” works.

hen it comes to public perception, television wields a great deal of influence. How a police department communicates with the media and manages press coverage of its operations can affect its reputation in the community at large, for better or for worse. Staying on top of the news—and even getting out in front of it—can make the difference between constantly having to deal with media crises and frequently getting to tell law enforcement’s side of the story on your own terms. How? The old adage “You can’t manage what you don’t measure” is instructive here. In other words, law enforcement officials need an effective means of monitoring news broadcasts in an efficient, timely manner. Approaches to television media monitoring vary, but traditionally fall into one of two categories: external or internal.

External Tracking

Police departments looking to outsource the task usually hire press-clipping or press-cutting services. These agencies, which have existed almost as long as television, typically charge a monthly fee to search media coverage for names or other key words of interest to the client, such as “police department” or “highway robbery.” They then sell any relevant clips they find on a per-clip basis or as a package, along with radio, print, and online content.

Clipping services also tend to offer custom-tailored media monitoring reports and analyses. Although thorough, their work can be expensive: Agencies charge up to $200 per clip, which makes acquiring all mentions of law enforcement actions—a mainstay on the local news—a pricey proposition. Even the smallest police department might get mentioned on television a few times a day and possibly 20 or 30 times a week. Purchasing all of these clips could cost $4,000 to $6,000 per week.

Internal Tracking

Other law enforcement agencies choose to follow the television news themselves. They typically use in-house banks of recording equipment to grab various local, regional, or national broadcasts at preset times. A staff member then reviews the recordings, searching for mentions of the organization. This time-consuming approach requires one or more employees to manage each device manually and then watch or scan the individual recordings to find the segments of interest. This approach is tedious, labor-intensive, and costly from a manpower perspective. For example, one law enforcement agency had two officers devoted to watching television full time, manually monitoring for mentions of their department. To do so, they collectively managed more than 25 VCRs and used hundreds of VHS tapes every week.

Dangers of Passive Tracking

Of course, some organizations do not proactively monitor news broadcasts at all. They passively rely on friends, family, or colleagues to notify them, as a courtesy, whenever they see the department mentioned on television. This is a dangerous approach to media relations. If agency executives are the last to find out that some catastrophic event has made headlines, they have no choice but to attempt damage control—all while they could have prevented or addressed the problem before it became big news, had they known. Paying attention to and monitoring the media are essential to nurturing good community relations.

The Plano Police Department (PPD) in Plano, Texas, knows this firsthand. The police department’s public information office (PIO) is among the first in the nation to implement a new tool designed especially for media monitoring: the SnapStream Server. The technology allows officers to record multiple TV news broadcasts on a single device—a centralized computer server—and isolate mentions of the department by performing a keyword search of the programs’ closed-captioning text. It’s an efficient, effective system that has helped save the PPD time and money.

Plano in Profile

Plano, Texas, is home to more than 250,000 people, making it one of the largest suburbs of Dallas. The city ranks among the safest for its size: it is the 6th safest in Texas and 63rd safest in the nation, according to CQ Press’s City Crime Rate Rankings 2009–2010, which is based on Federal Bureau of Investigation data.1 Plano is also part of the massive Dallas–Fort Worth media market, which is the fifth largest in the United States. To serve this thriving community, the PPD employs 347 sworn officers, plus about 250 more nonsworn, full- and part-time personnel. Its public information office is led by veteran officer Rick McDonald. McDonald reports directly to the chief of police and manages one full-time assistant; he also oversees three acting public information officers from other divisions who occasionally are called to assist the PIO.

One of the PIO’s most important jobs is to act as the liaison between the PPD and the local, regional, and national news media. The department actively works to maintain a healthy relationship with the press. As a result, the PPD is often the subject or the source of TV news, for which officers and other staffers frequently provide on-camera interviews. To keep tabs on what is said about the department, McDonald’s office monitors, catalogs, and archives any report that features, includes, or even just briefly mentions the PPD or its employees. It is a crucial task—one that keeps the department’s leadership and other city officials abreast of the news and thus able to respond quickly and appropriately.

The Problem

Many law enforcement agencies of PPD’s size rely on external media monitoring services, but the PPD PIO decided to keep its process internal. This was primarily to keep costs down. Although the department had considered using clipping services several times, it was always deterred by the expense. Instead, personnel handled the task themselves, using a bank of televisions and digital video recorders (DVRs). Before DVRs existed, the PPD did not have a routine means for monitoring media coverage.

Under this system, each DVR was connected to a separate television and tuned into a single channel. PIO staff took turns handling the task of manually setting up the machines to record the four different local news broadcasts that air daily at 7:00 a.m., 12:00 noon, 5:00 p.m., 6:00 p.m., and 10:00 p.m. Personnel would then closely review these recordings, watching or fast-forwarding through literally every minute of footage, for any references to the Plano Police Department. This process was tedious: the PIO would monitor at least 12 hours of programming each day; that’s 4,380 hours a year. Even the most efficient staffer spent 20 hours each week sifting through footage to find relevant bits. But, albeit time-consuming and mind-numbing, the system was far more economical than hiring an outside service.

Beyond the substantial drain on human resources, the technology wasn’t really up to the task. The DVRs’ memory maxed out at 40 hours, so new content had to be downloaded and burned to DVDs every day in order to create space for the next round of recordings. That meant buying boxes upon boxes of blank DVDs. On top of that, the DVR hardware, purchased in the early 1990s, was beginning to burn out, and the department was having trouble finding similar models that were cost-effective. The PIO’s price of scheduling, downloading, searching, and archiving recordings was about to go up exponentially. McDonald began seeking a better means of media monitoring, but without hiring a potentially even more expensive clipping service.

McDonald initially sought a hybrid setup or a software-based solution that would allow the department PIOs to use their desktop computers to quickly locate the needed footage. He explored numerous options before a colleague from the city-owned television network recommended the system from the vendor PPD now uses. After researching the system, the department decided to purchase one because it was easy to use and offered clever, innovative features, such as the ability to search closed-captioning.

The Solution

In 2007, the PPD deployed a Snap-Stream Server. With it, public information personnel can record up to eight TV shows simultaneously and store up to 2,300 hours (2 terabytes) of video on a single, centralized server. They access the system from their desktop computers, telling it which news broadcasts they want to capture and when. They can watch the shows live while the server is recording, or come back later to view the saved footage. When pressed for time, they don’t have to watch anything at all—they can simply search the closed-captioning text for keywords, such as “Plano Police Department,” “Chief Gregory W. Rushin,” or “crime rates.” It is as though PPD has its own Google search engine, but instead of having to sort through everything on the Web, the results that come back are retrieved only from the specific archive of information that the officers created. Once the sought-after content is located, officers can make a video clip and download it to their computers, burn it to a DVD, or send it to a colleague via e-mail.

Since the server was installed, the PPD PIO has dramatically improved its media-monitoring accuracy and efficiency, without having to enlist any outside help. Scheduling recordings is now a one-time task, and the server’s disk space more than doubles the size of the previous multidevice setup. PIO staff no longer has to sift through volumes of mostly irrelevant news coverage just to find sought-after tidbits of relevant footage; they quickly locate, clip, save, or send video from their desks. The department also now saves money on optical media and, surprisingly, climate control. Officers are no longer buying boxes of CDs, and replacing a huge bank of electronics equipment with a centralized server has caused the office temperature to drop at least five degrees Fahrenheit, which means the office uses less air-conditioning at certain times of the year.

In addition to media monitoring, the new system has helped PPD to become more proactive about working with the press. The PIO has started using the system to put together media kits, prep its personnel for on-camera appearances, speed its responses to breaking news, and even bolster its interoffice communication and collaboration on team projects.

Media outreach. An important part of a PIO entails regularly alerting the news media of exemplary police work and pitching stories that highlight the accomplishments of the PPD in a positive manner. The comprehensive, searchable archive of broadcast media coverage enabled by the new monitoring system provides officers with a means of not only finding footage, but also of studying and analyzing it. By knowing what the local and regional media most frequently cover, officers can offer reporters better fodder for future stories. Then, when subsequent media coverage appears, the PIO can repurpose the pieces in several useful ways, such as a visual aid for community presentations or for speeches given by Plano officials.

Media training. Good spokespeople are trained, not born. By reviewing their own television appearances, officers—and anyone speaking for the department—can improve their delivery and prepare for future interviews. Preparation ultimately improves the public’s perception and image of the PPD.

Spin control. Media monitoring also allows the PIO to react rapidly to events and monitor nondepartmental news that affects Plano residents and visitors. For example, as a crisis event unfolds, TV media, in its haste to inform the public, may broadcast contradictory or even erroneous information to the public. The new system’s technology at the PPD allows the PIO to catch and correct or rebut any misinformation. In turn, law enforcement executives can use the same resources to keep officers and other staff apprised of any events that may impact the department.

Teamwork. The PPD’s new system connects to the police department’s internal computer network, making collaboration a breeze. Whereas the department’s old system of media monitoring required sending an actual DVD to another office, the server allows coworkers to share data via e-mail. An officer across town in another substation can access the server for recorded content just as quickly and as easily as someone sitting in the PIO. ■


1Kathleen O’Leary Morgan and Scott Morgan eds., City Crime Rankings 2009-2010: Crime in Metropolitan America (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2009), (accessed September 13, 2010); and City of Plano Police Department, “Safest City Award,” press release, December 2, 2009, (accessed September 13, 2010).

Please cite as:

Gregory W. Rushin and Rakesh K. Agrawal, "Media Savvy: Plano Police Department Pioneers Efficient Way to Monitor TV Broadcast News," The Police Chief 77 (October 2010): 118–126, (insert access date).



From The Police Chief, vol. 77, no. 10, October 2010. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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