By: Rob Tufano | Published August 28, 2023
Something blew me away during a keynote speech I was delivering at a police chief’s conference.
I asked the attendees how many of them would encourage their children to pursue a career in law enforcement.
Out of the seventy-plus police executives in the room, only three of them raised their hands.
Take that in, because I have.
To think, that the men and women at the top of the food chain of a profession that has arguably been very good to them wouldn’t encourage their own flesh and blood to take on the gig was striking.
The sentiment underscores just how much public perception of the profession has shifted.
The fact that fewer and fewer young people find a career in policing appealing has thrust the profession of law enforcement into a staffing crisis.
Major city police departments across the country have frantically focused on “the what” by spending a windfall to address the issue.
They have launched slick marketing campaigns and offered signing bonuses, incentives, and sweeteners that have netted little ROI.
Perhaps we would be better served to examine “the why”.
Yes, it is a strong labor market and there are more lucrative careers to pursue, but the why behind the apprehension for many young people transcends dollars and cents.
The Image Issue
In recent years, negative public relations have delivered a body blow to the profession’s image that can no longer be ignored.
It has created an environment that has left the young, best, and brightest reluctant to serve.
One of the most significant contributors is the skewed portrayal of law enforcement by the media.
High-profile cases involving the use of force, racial disparities, and allegations of misconduct dominate headlines, leading to a perception that such issues are systemic within the profession.
That constant drumbeat has dissuaded potential recruits who fear being associated with a tarnished profession.
Can you blame them?
They may be young, but they are not stupid.
They have eyes.
They see the wall-to-wall media coverage following Incidents involving the use of force.
They see viral videos on social media accusing the profession of targeting or unfairly treating people based on race.
They see the body-worn camera footage of the misconduct, the missteps, and the misrepresentation of a profession that was once heralded.
What they rarely see is the impactful work that is changing lives and at times, quite literally saving them.
They rarely see it because far too many departments rarely prioritize proactive story-telling and leveraging the influence of the media by cultivating professional working relationships.
Art of Persuasion
The absence of positive story-telling perpetuates stereotypes and negative perceptions about law enforcement.
Without proactive efforts to engage with the public and share positive stories, the prevailing narrative can become one of suspicion and distrust.
Its residue yields unbalanced coverage and impacts the perception of policing by the shallow pool of young candidates willing to give the profession a look.
The reluctance to engage in positive story-telling leaves room for misinformation to proliferate.
When law enforcement agencies do not actively communicate their achievements, values, and community involvement, the void is often filled with narratives from less reliable sources.
This information vacuum often leads to speculation and conspiracy theories.
It makes the challenges of recruiting far more difficult to overcome.
Law enforcement agencies that choose not to counterbalance negative stories with well-documented positive examples inadvertently empower alternative narratives and a misguided image of the profession, making it challenging to offset once it gains momentum.
Ultimately, the failure to prioritize public relations exacerbates the disconnect between law enforcement and the media, hindering the creation of a more open, informed, and harmonious relationship with the communities they serve.
By neglecting efforts to share success stories, community engagement, and instances of officers positively impacting lives, law enforcement agencies miss a vital opportunity to persuade the young hearts and minds they so desperately need.
Now more than ever.