“What we’ve got here…is failure to communicate.” Remember that line from the warden in the Paul Newman classic “Cool Hand Luke?
Strangely enough, that’s my citizen-based assessment of the state of affairs between the vocal public and the Seattle Police Department. I’d like to make a suggestion: SPD needs to hire a public information officer, or communications director, as they’re also known.
I won’t deny there are legitimate concerns regarding incidents and training at SPD, but I’d like to know the rest of the story. Communications is not marketing: Leave that for companies with a product. The role of a communications director is to find ways to tell an organization’s story so that the public knows how and why they operate the way they do.
How many of us could answer that about the Seattle Police Department? Did you know there’s an Office of Professional Accountability, a civilian auditor, a web site for filing complaints, a department policy regarding use of profanity?
The Seattle Police Department does have Media Relations, headed by a sergeant along with four staff officers. For the most part, Media Relations responds to requests for information the way the Fire Department responds to 9-1-1 calls: They respond, which is different than communicating. Think of it as the difference in teaching the need for emergency preparedness in advance and responding to an accident scene.
The last press release not related to an incident in the Media Relations archives was in May 2010 New pilot program teams Seattle Police with mental health providers (http://www.seattle.gov/news/detail.asp?ID=10752 ); before that it was back to school safety tips in September 2009. (The SPD Blotter, while mainly detailing newsworthy incidents, occasionally has more general information, such as background on aggressive driving patrols or details of police involvement in the Special Olympics.)
I shared an office with a communications director at a local non-profit biotech a few years ago. I learned that educating the general public involves a very long growing cycle, with seeds being planted all of the time. Any organization, whether urban police department or research institute, is of greatest value to the community if they are able to provide context that allows both the general public and officers to have expectations of one another. Think education and prevention instead of damage control and clean-up.
I suspect the Seattle Police Department is doing hundreds of things right every single day, including examining their own mistakes. The public rightly deserves to know what they are doing wrong but should also have an opportunity to learn about what they are trying to do better. Make the next officer to be hired one wearing a public information badge. We owe it to each other.