Officer involved shootings (OIS) grab the media’s attention and the rest of the public, very quickly. The media and the public often develop and posting an opinion of an event even before a formal investigation has been completed and all the details are discovered.
The following five aspects attract media attention to officer involved shootings quickly and have a negative effect on an OIS incidents. Even if one of the following aspects originally appears to be insignificant in the media coverage, the negative publicity can later become radiate additional negative exposure on the incident. Awareness of these realities of media coverage and social media scrutiny of officer involved shootings may help to minimize the impacts of OIS on local governments and public safety agencies.
#1 The Race of the Police Shooter, and the Person Who was Shot
Race has become one of the largest aspects that newspapers and the Internet focus on. When a white police officer shoots an African-American protests and sometimes riots have occurred.
A city’s demographics can also alter media response. Many cities and towns demographics have changed over the years. Historically, many towns may have initially been settled by those with European backgrounds, but as cities and towns grow, they become culturally diverse. In many towns, their police force demographics may not have changed. The town’s residents and the media may say that the residents are no longer being treated correctly by the local police agency, and may allege racial issues.
#2 The Number of Shots Fired
The number of bullets that strike a person has become another large factor in an OIS garnering increased media attention. When the number of involved shots gets posted to the Internet and reported in newspapers, many people share their opinions regarding the incident. Even though most of them were not on the scene when it occurred, people do not hesitate to post negative opinions or beliefs, including beliefs about your city’s public safety agencies.
Multiple shots tend to be fired when involved officers believe their lives or others may be at risk. Suspects may have been charging at them with knives, or firing multiple shots at the officers, but media and social media hype and hyperbole tends to focus on suspects hit by multiple bullets.
Many incidents involving multiple shots often result in officers having criminal charges filed against them. In Chicago when a young man was shot by an officer, after he walked toward several officers and would not respond to their commands, the young man was fatally shot, and struck by 16 bullets. When the incident occurred, there was not a large amount of media involvement or public protests. For several reasons, the police did not release any of their videos for close to a year after the incident had occurred. When a video was released, the involved officer had murder charges filed against him. When his case went to trial, the jury found him guilty of second degree murder. That officer is now serving jail time and has been experiences problems with prisoners who do not like officers.
When a lawsuit is filed against police for a shooting incident, jurys’ opinions tend to become negative if there are a large number of shots fired, As the plaintiffs’ attorneys will make that a main part of the trial.
#3 The Release of the Officer’s Name and Career History
When an OIS hits the media, the agency is often quickly asked to release the name of the involved officers. Most agencies do not release names immediately, but when they do, members of the media try to learn if named officers have a history of being involved in other shootings, or had complaints filed against them in the past. If any of the officers have past issues, publicity can turn negative quickly.
#4 Videos Taken by Witnesses and Posted on Social Media
Videos are a major attention grabber, too. Many people who are witnessing an event are recording videos with their phones, and post them to social media quickly. Many police departments are using body cams, and because they do not always provide a clear vision of what occurred, agencies will not always release them as soon as the media would like. It is important for the agency to research and determine when would be the best time to release their videos to the media.
Videos will often not be released if internal or external independent investigations are still underway. If the media’s request is refused, negative publicity starts to arise, especially, if there are many other videos already posted on the Internet. If videos are often withheld, the media may begin to make it appear that the agency has developed a reputation to withhold them too long.
Other issues arise with body cams. Sometimes, they are turned on late, or forgotten. On some occasions, they can be turned off at the wrong time, or a negative verbal response from an officer gets recorded without the preceding incident or comment recorded. A body cam’s line of sight can become also become obstructed by the officer’s body position.
Pro Tip: It is essential that departments train on proper body cam utilization. Many lessons can be learned from prior events.
#5 Bringing Up the Past
Details about the officer’s past may get entered into a court case, while a judge may throw out the past of the person shot as ‘No Impact on this Incident’.
If a lawsuit is filed and as litigation gets underway, the plaintiff’s attorney will try to add to the court records anything they have learned about any prior negative events or complaints filed against the involved officers. When they seek to add these records to the case, the judge usually allows it. Because the media has likely already tried to obtain such information on involved officers, that can amplify negativity surrounding the case. Government risk managers have noted that prior negative events can have a large effect on a jury’s opinion.
A large Wisconsin town experienced several highly publicized shootings and many independent investigations conducted justified officers’ actions. The town did not attempt to settle a case, and did not generally hesitate to take a case to trial. Several of the cases involved a white officer and a black man, and protests began taking place. The town typically did not consider making settlement offers on cases, despite many nationwide OIS cases with high amounts of money awarded via trial or settlement were being publicized. However, the town did settle one of their largest cases for just over $3,000,000. In an OIS that occurred just after that settlement, a white woman locked herself with a gun in her apartment’s bedroom after threatening her boyfriend for several hours. Multiple officers were on the scene with a negotiator, and when the woman finally left the bedroom she walked out with the gun pointed at her head. Verbal report indicated that when she moved forward, her gun moved forward, which resulted in her being fatally shot by the officers. Independent investigation justified the officers’ actions, and the town believed a jury would not find the officers guilty. The town did not think the fact that the woman had been struck by seven bullets would be an issue for the jury. The jury decided that the town was guilty, and that two of the several officers on-scene were not justified in shooting at her. The award was a $7,000,000 verdict. The plaintiff’s attorney made the number of bullets a main aspect of this case. Then after the verdict, some town residents raised concern that the family of the white woman fatally shot in an OIS was granted $7M while the family of the black man in the OIS settled by the town was offered $3M.
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