A simple PR lesson for community police

If police report that all is quiet in a community, does it mean they're overstaffed or does it mean a reporter is asking the wrong questions?

As a young reporter in a radio and TV newsroom in Saint John, N.B., I had to do police checks every night. I’d call the duty sergeant of the city police and the local detachment of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. I’d ask if there were any events I should know about and report on.

“No, quiet night,” was the regular response.

In a way, I was relieved. I didn’t know much about policing or the law, so I suspect I would have been confused if the duty sergeant began explaining something to me. They probably would have spoken in that backwards cop-talk anyway – “weapons dangerous … proceeding northerly … person of interest …” and such.

I bet the duty sergeant was relieved, too. They didn’t have to explain something to a novice reporter who’d probably get the story wrong. They didn’t have to worry about blowing an investigation or screwing up evidence in an upcoming court case.

But what I didn’t have the experience, skill or temerity to do is question whether the duty sergeant was being forthcoming. Today, I’d ask a series of follow-up questions on about the third night I received the response that all was quiet in town.

“How many police officers are on shift each evening?”

“How many police cars are on the road?”

“What does this activity cost the taxpayers?”

“Why don’t we save money by reducing the budget, number of officers and cars if there’s never any need for them?”

But you can’t rely on a young journalist to ask the right questions. How would they know what those right questions might be? You can’t expect the young journalist to try to build a trusting relationship in three minutes over the phone.

Newsmakers should consider the big picture: What’s in it for them to take a risk with a journalist?

What’s in it for the cops is to build trust with the community so that witnesses will come forward and support investigations and court cases.

Why didn’t the Saint John police invite me for a ride-along?

I went on one recently in Toronto. I put on a bulletproof vest and drove around with a staff-sergeant for the evening. In 10 minutes, I realized how hot and uncomfortable it is in a bulletproof vest.

The evening began with a call about a naked woman on the railroad tracks, progressed through looking over some homeless people in a park, and was punctuated with complaints and reports from citizens on foot.

This experience would have been very valuable to a young journalist. So might have been a 10-minute explanation three times a week about what police work entails. Or how about police training, recruitment, retention, use of force or any other police-related topic?

By the way, the RCMP aren’t off the hook. I did three daily TV programs, a weekly TV program and weekly radio program in Regina for about four years. I never received any communication from the RCMP Depot Division while I was where. This facility has driving tracks and instruction, horses, a museum, forensics and physical training. Had I been pitched, or known, I would have done two items a years about the facility.

But I guess things were “quiet” there, too.

So if you’re a police officer, a business person or in city government, one day when it’s quiet, talk to a local journalist about why – carefully.

 Dr. Allan Bonner has consulted on some of the major planning and public policy issues of our time on five continents over 25 years. He is the author of Safer Cities. 

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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