Monday, August 25, 2014

Observations from Ferguson

By now we are all aware of the unrest that began here in Ferguson, Missouri following a strong-armed robbery and officer involved fatal shooting of an 18-year-old. Overnight, this St. Louis suburb of 20,000 became the national flashpoint in the debate over race relations and the appropriate use of force by police.

I came here to interview as many people as I could to learn as best I could, what happened and how we can keep it from happening again. It is too early to draw any conclusion, but a lot has been learned so far here in Ferguson. For one thing, we know the robbery, shooting, demonstrations, looting and confrontations with police have created a public relations nightmare for law enforcement.

The sooner law enforcement can get in front of a controversial news story, the better chance it will have of affecting public reaction and the direction of the coverage it generates. I learned this in my previous life as a television news reporter for NBC, Fox and local affiliates. Today, my goal is to assist law enforcement in communicating effectively with the public and media in times of crisis and during their routine day to day operations.

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Many of those who came here to protest tell me they felt local officials were not as open to the public as they should have been. That is often the perception when law enforcement is so busy responding to the event itself that it delays its public response. That’s why many public agencies appreciate that good Public Information Officers are worth their weight in gold. Ferguson police waited nearly 24 hours before making a public statement about the incident. While police are always cautious about saying too much too soon, because they don’t want to jeopardize the integrity of an investigation, there are things they can say that will help to reassure the public without hampering the case.

Captain Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Police addresses the media
Anytime an event occurs that affects public safety, police need to make a public statement, usually within a couple of hours. Even if you have very few facts to report, there are things that you must say to the public to assure them that you are on their side, because once you disconnect from the public, it’s going to be hard to regain that trust. Keep in mind that when you are talking to the public, you must identify with the public and address their concerns. What police should have said was, “It’s always tragic when an 18-year-old loses his life, and our hearts and prayers are with all of those families that have been impacted. Be assured that we take this incident very seriously and it will be thoroughly investigated. If you have any information about this case, we encourage you to contact police.”

Citizens protest in Ferguson
I am teaching a media relations class to St. Louis area law enforcement officers next month. Even if the Ferguson event had not occurred, our message to police would be the same: “Always remain open and transparent with the public and the media on a daily basis, and when a major event happens, get out in front of the story as soon as possible.”

Our hearts and prayers remain with the brave men and women of law enforcement and the people they risk their lives to protect every day.

Russell Ruffin
Public Safety Media Training
Denver, Colorado"rusty"-ruffin

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