Marvin Gaye was masterful at the art of singing, and one of his best was “What’s Goin’ On?” As I prepared to write this blog entry, I keep hearing his refrain in my head, “what’s goin’ on?”……
Police departments and the traditional news media have a long history of interacting, and the relationship truly varies from agency to agency and from one news outlet to the next. Overall here in the Hampton Roads, police enjoy a relatively healthy relationship with the media, although there are variations between broadcast media and print media and between public safety agencies. Most agencies have assigned public information officers who have the day-to-day responsibility of fostering the unique relationship with the media. Here at the Newport News Police, we have several folks who work in our PIO office, including a social media content specialist, and we’re soon to add a Communications Manager to oversee both our internal and external organizational communications.
We are deeply committed to being a transparent organization, and we pledge to post information as factually as we know it to be at the time of its publication. The previous sentence may be straightforward to read, but very complex to execute. First, given the nature of conducting criminal investigations, it is not uncommon for us to necessarily withhold information that might interfere with the ongoing investigation, or jeopardize a successful prosecution. Second, most of the cases we’re involved in include multiple people, whether it is a victim, offender, witness, investigating officers, etc. Everyone has and deserves some level of privacy and protection against retribution or other unintended consequences. Third, in reporting out on dynamic situations, we typically find that what we know hours after an incident is completely different than what we knew both DURING the incident and days after the incident….meaning, information we may release at one point in time may not prove to be fully accurate later. This creates a balance beam; do we risk putting out what might prove to be inaccurate information to feed the public’s need and desire to know, or do we wait until we know with greater certainty?
Another challenge of being transparent is that pushing a high volume of information out means that some of it is going to be published without context or under a misinterpretation. This is why some police agencies are much more restrictive in what information they release; if they can’t ensure proper context, they’re going to withhold the details. As a result, when the NNPD releases details about almost all activity and incidents and it is broadly reported by the media, and other communities may follow a more moderate level of release, it can make our community believe that we experience a disproportionate level of activity. This doesn’t mean that we don’t consider the level of crime in some of our neighborhoods as excessive; we have a lot of work to do in getting some of our neighborhoods more engaged with us to lower crime and raise quality of life. But I believe our very open policy about releasing information on incidents may sometimes decrease resident perceptions of safety, and that is an unfortunate and unintended consequence of transparency.
In the final analysis, statistics and press releases are meaningless if you are a victim of a crime. On the other hand, the percentage of residents and visitors to our community who become victims is low. Trust me, when the doctor says “well, you’re the FIRST patient I’ve ever had that THIS has happened!” it doesn’t make you feel one bit better about the situation, or say, “well, I’m so privileged to be the first of your patients that has suffered this extra malady, how lucky for me!” This is why, when traditional media reporters ask me about murder rates from year-to-year, I ask them, “what level of murder IS acceptable to you? How many lives lost to violence is ‘ok’ compared to ‘not ok’?” My belief is: none. Zero. We should not be complacent over any loss of life to violence.
This blog, our recurring press briefings, our PIO office, and our social media efforts, all reflect our efforts to be increasingly transparent. Transparency is a foundational piece of public trust, and the police cannot carry out our mission without public engagement and to get that requires public trust. We welcome your input on how well we’re striking the balance to keep you aware of “what’s goin’ on”.