Ferguson case shows how law enforcement messages need to be quick and consistent

By Joe Vargas

I’ve been asked over and over again my thoughts about what is going on in Ferguson, Mo. There are so many areas I could comment on that it’s a bit overwhelming.

Crisis communications, militarization of the police and crowd control tactics are just a few. It may take a few columns to get my hands around them.

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Joe Vargas

To give you some insight, Ferguson is only 6.2 square miles and has a population of approximately 21,000. News reports say the department has 54 officers. That would put it at the high end of small and low end of medium-sized police departments.

I believe Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson never thought his small department would be the center of international news overnight. It’s been aggravating watching him at news conferences. Could you picture yourself in front of a slew of microphones knowing that millions of people across the world are hanging on to your every word? That would make anyone’s palms sweat.

There have been many complaints about the slow speed at which information has been flowing. Mainstream media and social media have exploded and turned this shooting into an international event overnight. Hearsay and speculation have flowed rampantly. Yet information coming from the law enforcement agencies involved has come as a trickle.

In an age of social media law enforcement leaders must be more skilled than ever in communicating with the public. They must act boldly and courageously in providing timely information and actively work to address inaccurate and inflammatory speculation.

This, however, runs counterintuitive to decades of law enforcement investigative practices. Good investigations take time. Slow and deliberate analysis of the evidence, interviews and follow-up interviews with all the witnesses and suspects. Then there is the compiling and comparing of all the evidence. The accuracy of the information is absolutely critical in any future findings.

Sometimes chiefs have been too quick to release information that was later found to be wrong. The public then questions the integrity of the investigation, the police chief and the agency.

So what is a chief to do? Chiefs must be at the podium addressing the legitimate concerns of the public. Chiefs must speak with sincerity and empathy knowing the emotional state of the community. The chief must update continuously on what is known and what actions are taking place now.

I have seen many courageous police chiefs do just that. In cases where the public is reassured and communication is handled with confidence, empathy and timeliness problems have been averted.

Standing in front of a podium over and over again while the whole world watches must be scary but a police leader must courageously step forward and lean into their discomfort. The public demands it and the profession of policing is better because of it.

Joe is a retired Anaheim Police Department captain and its first public-information officer. He can be reached at jvargas@behindthebadgeoc.com 

Photo courtesy of audiolucistore.