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A Better Way to Communicate Use of Force Incidents to the Public

Protests surrounding several high-profile use of force deaths in the past few years have made it clear where public perception falls on the topic. In 2020, nearly half of U.S. adults said “police brutality” is a very serious problem, compared with 32% of adults in 2015, according to The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

 

Such incidents have had an effect on police as well. In a survey of 7,917 officers across the U.S., the Pew Research Center, in partnership with the National Police Research Platform, reported that:

 

  • 86% of officers believe the policing profession is now harder and more dangerous because of high-profile incidents.
  • 85% of officers from large agencies (2,600 officers or more) are more reluctant to use force, even when force is warranted

 

Perhaps the most telling stats are these: Just 14% of officers in the above survey stated that they believe the public understands the job of policing and the risks and challenges officers face. Contrast this with the results of a separate survey in which 83% of civilians said that they have a good grasp of the risks and challenges officers face.

 

These stats show there’s a clear divide of understanding between the public and the police. The first step law enforcement agencies can take to bridge that divide is to educate the public on use of force policies and laws as they stand.

Telling the full story

Many agencies, and even some states, mandate the release of police video following major use of force incidents. But merely sending the video off to news organizations or posting it to the agency’s Facebook page without providing ample context can do your organization a disservice.

 

“In-car video and body-worn cameras are certainly game-changers, but without context of what occurred and why, it’s of limited use,” said Arif Alikhan, president of TacLogix Inc., a policy and technology consultancy to public safety agencies, during Axon’s recent Use of Force Reporting and Internal Affairs Investigations webinar. “The analogy I use is that watching what’s happening in one body cam video is like watching a baseball game through a straw. When you do, then you may be able to see who’s pitching. You don’t know who’s batting, you don’t know how many outs, you don’t know if anybody’s on first base.”

 

It’s up to agencies to provide a full narrative of the incident, including any previous history with the subject, what happened leading up to the use of force and why the officer took the action they did.

 

But starting the conversation only after an incident occurs is too late. It’s critical that agencies begin laying the groundwork now. The PIO’s communication plan should include regular educational content around use of force — what it means, when and why it’s used and more, even down to defining certain terms and explaining equipment, such as the function of a TASER weapon.

 

Alikhan helped draft a communication plan when the Los Angeles Police Department adopted a policy to release video of critical incidents, such as in-custody deaths and officer-involved shootings, within 45 days of occurrence.

 

“We try to tell the full story,” he said. “We actually cut a video that’s more of an explanation to help inform the public. We put in the 911 calls, we have narration, we’ll freeze things, we’ll even give some basic explanations, because this is for the public … and you’ve got to tell the full context. And then you can let people make that judgment.”

Striking the right balance

It can be easy for police to jump into defensive mode when it comes to high-profile incidents. And you may have confidence that your officers made the right decision to use force. But when it’s time to make an initial statement, empathy can have a significant impact on how the message is received by the community, particularly when use of force has resulted in death or serious injury. The standard matter-of-fact tone used when making public statements can feel cold and unrelatable to the public when it comes to use of force incidents.

 

It is possible to strike a balance between empathy and authority. That starts with first expressing sorrow for the loss the community is dealing with and acknowledging the pain the community is feeling. The community relies on law enforcement for protection and safety, and it’s important to help them understand that your dedication to their wellbeing is sincere.

 

Then, affirm your agency’s dedication to the investigative process — not based on the presumption that the officer’s actions were appropriate, but because your agency is committed to uncovering the truth. 

 

Let the community know that you will conduct a fair and thorough investigation, and follow through on it.

Streamlining the process

The right technology can help your agency get to the truth of what happened faster and communicate that truth to the community more quickly.

 

Axon Standards, a module of Axon Records, makes this possible by streamlining the report writing process and offering clear task delegation. This creates a more efficient process that gets to the root of what happened, faster. Plus, Axon Standards removes evidence-gathering barriers that slow the investigation down by uniting digital evidence from BWCs, in-car cameras, citizen devices and more to create the clearest possible picture of what happened in one place with one intuitive process.

 

Contact Axon to learn more about how Axon Standards can help your agency with use of force investigations.