Through the release of information, law enforcement departments have many opportunities to increase transparency, build bonds with residents, solicit the public's help in an investigation and ensure emergency information gets to the public in real time.
The Brechner Center for Freedom of Information's report, "Transparency and Media Relations in High-Profile Police Cases," offers guidelines for agencies to consider during a variety of situations, including instances when the department must explain an officer's use of force against a member of the public.
"In this environment, all law enforcement agencies should maintain and enforce 'model transparency practices' consistent not just with the disclosure requirements of state law but with best practices in the field, informed by the demands of a public accustomed to a 24/7 news cycle," reads the report.
There must be a balance, however.
"While we do want them to be proactive, if it is a situation that involves potential liability to the department or officers, then we would want them to consult with their attorney prior to releasing information to the media," said Heather Ricard, director of the Municipal Association's Risk Management Services.
In being proactive, social media can be a powerful tool.
In 2016, the Major Cities Chiefs Association and the Federal Bureau of Investigation National Executive Institute Associates placed the social media program of the Denver Police Department, which livestreams press briefings via Twitter's Periscope app, in a top 10 list of social media followers among law enforcement agencies around the world.
The report says a department's social media program — working as a complement, not a substitute, for traditional interactions with the news media — can increase public trust, community engagement, resident cooperation on investigations and a better response to a police department's honest mistakes.
The report states: "As part of a comprehensive social-media strategy, agencies should review and, where necessary, modernize their freedom of information policies to incorporate 'pushing' information to the public through social channels."
The following is a summary of the Denver Police Department's tips:
- Social media posts should include positive stories of law enforcement engagement with the community in addition to breaking critical or catastrophic events in real time.
- "Breaking your own news" requires law enforcement agencies to disclose information on social media as a story unfolds and allows the agency to control the message as well as timing. These messages can not only be useful for the sake of informing, but may also serve as an early warning system to followers when critical events are taking place.
- "Play show and tell." Law enforcement personnel can see what is being done within their department, how information is being communicated to the public and responses from members of the community.
- "Don't underestimate the power of fluffy bunnies." Human interest news "may be just as important as sharing critical information in order to develop community relationships and build trust in the law enforcement agency. Such stories draw community engagement through likes, shares and comments — especially when combined with multimedia components."
- Mistakes happen but should not result in hesitancy to disclose information. The correct response, according to the department, is to always tell the truth, admit making a mistake and explain the remedy.
- Track social media posts to evaluate which channels are most effective, and allocate resources accordingly.
Source: Brechner Center for Freedom of Information