By: Rob Tufano | Published August 3, 2023
I am working with a police chief who recently locked up one of her cops.
An investigation revealed that the off-duty officer was routinely operating his take-home, marked patrol car at speeds exceeding 100 MPH.
If that wasn’t reckless enough, investigators concluded that his two-year-old daughter was in the back seat of the car on several occasions.
A disappointing situation for the chief to manage, no doubt.
But it also provided her an opportunity to publicly demonstrate her department’s commitment to accountability.
After all, her department proactively launched the investigation.
It was also her department that decided to charge and arrest one of their own.
Those decisions certainly offset the misguided notion that cops are above the law and are rarely held to account.
This was the very definition of accountability.
I worked with the chief to develop a communications strategy, draft a press release to announce the arrest, and waited for her sign-off.
It took nearly 48 hours.
The lag was a familiar one.
The chief was intent on allowing the police department’s attorney to review the press release out of an abundance of caution.
After two full days, the attorney’s legal recommendation was a head-scratcher.
She convinced the chief to forgo issuing the press release to minimize the possibility of the city being sued by the arrested officer.
It was a decision that did not square with long-standing precedent.
Pushing that press release would have been consistent with what the police department had traditionally done when citizens were arrested under similar circumstances.
So what was different this time?
Use your imagination.
That attorney’s legal recommendation may have been the safe thing to do but far from the right thing to do.
This outcome is far from an outlier.
It is a growing trend that is emerging in the profession with attorneys taking the lead in managing police department PR efforts.
While the approach may seem pragmatic at first blush, it is generating a variety of challenges that warrant thoughtful consideration.
I get it, attorneys are paid to protect their client’s legal interests, which often means minimizing liability.
Successful outcomes in the court of law are important, but no more important than successful outcomes in the court of public opinion.
It would be outrageous to consider allowing public relations experts to litigate court cases.
It is no less outrageous to allow attorneys to manage a police department’s public relations efforts, responses, or strategies.
While attorneys possess important legal knowledge, most are not well-versed in the intricacies of strategic communication and public relations.
It’s just not their lane or area of professional expertise.
Public relations efforts are not strictly limited to managing external perceptions, they are also about delivering transparency and accountability.
When attorneys manage PR efforts, there is the frequent temptation to control the narrative by gate-keeping or selectively releasing information.
This approach leads to diminished trust.
The community interprets those actions as an attempt to mislead, conceal misconduct, or avoid addressing systemic issues.
The public expects open communication and genuine acknowledgment of issues when they develop.
They are suspicious of the lawyerly approach that focuses on shielding the department from potential legal impact and short circuits transparency.
While attorneys play an important role in advising departments on legal matters, granting them the sole authority to drive public relations efforts is ill-advised.
Balancing legal exposure with the need for transparency, accountability, and positive community relations requires a multidisciplinary approach.
Ideally, departments should collaborate with PR experts and legal counsel to develop communication strategies that are honest, empathetic, and responsive to community needs.
It will allow police departments to earn greater trust, understanding, and respect.