Brechner Center issues guidelines on informing public about police use of force
Public distrust has been aggravated by recent high-profile cases in which law enforcement agencies have failed to inform the public about police shootings in a timely manner. In response, the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information is issuing guidelines for agencies to consider in informing the public when officers use force.
The report, "Transparency and Media Relations in High-Profile Police Cases," was prepared at the request of the King County, Wash., Office of Law Enforcement Oversight, an independent oversight entity serving the county, which encompasses the Seattle area.
"We're excited to have the opportunity to work cooperatively with a forward-thinking law enforcement agency on formulating a set of best practices that will minimize friction in interactions with journalists in high-pressure situations," said Frank D. LoMonte, UF media-law professor and director of the Brechner Center. "When a newsworthy event occurs, people are bombarded with rumor and speculation on social media. Pushing out reliable information promptly and keeping that information regularly updated is the best antidote."
The report, which draws from best practices distilled by Brechner Center researchers from major metropolitan police agencies across the country, recommends proactive accountability measures for when the Sheriff's Office communicates with the press and the public following police shootings and other critical incidents.
Key recommendations include:
- Rapidly acknowledging and correcting inaccurate or misleading information, and transparently explaining how the misinformation occurred.
- Making special efforts to convey information to ethnic media that serve non-English-speaking populations and other nontraditional community media.
- Assuring that at least one officer who can brief the media is immediately reachable at all times to avoid breakdowns when a designated public information officer is away.
- Using social media and "open data" portals to affirmatively push out information to the public, instead of waiting for a journalist to file a request for records.
The report also calls for reminding officers that journalists have a clearly established constitutional right to record images and audio of police doing their jobs in publicly viewable spaces, and that federal law forbids seizing or searching journalists' recorders, cameras or other unpublished work materials.
"What appears in the press about an incident has a profound impact on the public's perception of an incident, as well as on the loved ones of anyone harmed during an interaction with police," said Deborah Jacobs, OLEO director. "We want the Sheriff's Office to have policies that build trust and legitimacy with communities by ensuring communications originating from their office are accurate, timely, and respectful."
Authored primarily by Brechner Center researcher Linda Riedemann Norbut, the report advises that King County and all law enforcement agencies adopt a "push, not pull" attitude toward releasing information:
"[W]here the legal entitlement to information is clear and where disclosure (either directly or through eyewitness accounts) is inevitable, the better practice is to affirmatively and proactively 'push' information to the public rather than to wait until the information is 'pulled' by way of media request. This may preempt public outcry for more facts and decrease the public's impulse to fill in the gaps with speculation and rumor."
OLEO presented the recommendations to a committee of the King County Commission on June 12, and will work with the King County Sheriff's Office to advance the recommendations into policy and practice.
OLEO is an independent office established by the County Council that represents the interests of the public in its efforts to hold the Sheriff's Office accountable for providing fair and just police services. It conducts systemic reviews of the Sheriff's Office's policies, practices and trainings, and makes policy recommendations to the Sheriff's Office and the County Council for meaningful improvements.
Because it is tailored to be compliant with Washington freedom-of-information law, the guide is intended as a starting point for discussion in other states. LoMonte said the Brechner Center is actively seeking partnerships with agencies elsewhere to develop comparable "best practice" standards to minimize the need for conflict and litigation.