From Bad Press to Better Policing

They are the headlines that make you cringe. The kind that leave you looking for some other – any other - way to explain what appears to be ineptitude, bad judgment, or misconduct on the part of a fellow officer that has just made news.


 

Imagine these two headlines and subheads in your city’s paper:

 

Mayor announces huge budgetary surplus; City council to consider significant property tax rate reductions for coming fiscal year

 

     and,

 

Mayor, secretary discovered dancing nude in council chambers; “White, powdery substance” also found

 

So, which article is about something that will have the greatest impact on the largest number of people and for the longest time?

 

And which will everyone still be talking about next week?

 

If it bleeds, it leads is the old adage, and for good reason.   People love scandal; on some level they want to be outraged and, if the uniformed representatives of the public trust can be counted on for occasional public scuttlebutt (no matter how small or, for that matter, real) the press can be counted on to report it.  The hard part is that prevailing negative emphasis creates a lasting burden on how we are perceived by the public – and how we perceive them - and our efforts in the community.  

 

It has been suggested by some readers that police websites such as Officer.com should get out of the business of running news stories that show police in a negative light, that we face enough scrutiny in the mainstream media without having to endure it here.  Or that the profession would be better served if such online magazines were exclusively portals of trade information, absent any news content at all.  There are plenty of places for people to go for news besides here, even the negative stuff, so why be so indulgent.  And besides, some add, it just attracts trolls to the site to read the stories and stir trouble with inflammatory comments.

 

I disagree. 

 

As hard as they can be to read, and despite the inherent “cringe factor” they hold, these stories hold value for us.  First, if not featured on sites such as Officer.com, they will slip beneath most of our radars.  They will remain, at least for most cops, relegated to local coverage.  Not so for the cop haters.  These articles are being picked up and posted to their websites whether we like it or not; staying well-versed in the good, the bad, and the ugly of police news keeps us involved in the dialogue rather than relegated to a bystanders role.   

 

Second, they serve a cautionary role.  You know you’ll never go too far with your words, never cross a line using force, never break the public trust, and certainly never look the other way if your buddy does.  But are you sure?  Have you ever barely bit back a harsh epithet you would never want overheard or recorded?  Been first to lay hands on a suspect after a harrowing, adrenaline-soaked pursuit?  Been tempted by an illicit offer that would never have been made if not for the power or allure of the badge? 

 

Human frailty being what it is, all the moral foundation we bring to the job may not always be enough.  Sometimes simple fear of discovery lays check on our basest impulse.

 

And finally, they are instructive.  We can learn, individually and collectively, from the failure of others.  Whether the failure is small and inadvertent or a deliberate abdication of duty and honor, we can draw lessons from the fall.  Trainers and supervisors would do well to study the media and draw lesson plans from them.

 

Stories of police misconduct are embarrassing for all of us.  They should be.  But they should also serve us.  Learn their lessons, study their reasons, and arm yourself against their repetition.

 

We owe it to each other.

 

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Althea Olson, LCSW has been in private practice in the Chicago suburbs since 1996. She has a Master of Social Work degree from Aurora University providing individual, couple, & group therapy to adolescents, adults, and geriatrics. Althea is also trained in Critical Incident Stress Management & is a certified divorce mediator.

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