How police deal with negative public opinion

Georgene Rice of KPDQ-FM interviews Brett Smith, the Chief of Police in Canby and 29 year veteran of the Portland Police Bureau, to discuss the impact on families of police officers that are involved in an incident that draws a lot of unfavorable public attention.

Georgene: It always amazes me that there are people who are willing to serve their communities in ways that are often times quite thankless and dangerous. Among them are police officers. We are generally not aware of their presence until there is a headline saying something went wrong. I think we need to understand the strain and stress of the community that serves us, so we as Christians can encourage and support them. I can’t even imagine being the person running toward danger when most of us are running away.  What happens in a police bureau when there is a story that is unfavorable and the community is focusing a lot of attention on the incident?

Brett: From the individual officers’ perspective there is a lot of anxiety and speculation of what is going to happen. There is a lot of stress, especially if they end up before a Grand Jury or other court proceeding. Later, civil actions can go on for years.

Georgene: Does it impact how police officers relate to one another, how they approach their job or their community? Sometimes the entire force is suspect when there is a single or couple of officers in question.

Brett: There is always concern that the impact could be negative, depending on the situation. There could be a lack of focus. It could be very distracting. It could create doubt about ones support or role. The individual or organization could be hesitant to engage or be proactive in the work they have been challenged or asked to do in the service to their community.

Georgene: What about the families, who know every day that you could be walking into a dangerous situation.

Brett: I can talk from my own personal experiences in my own career. My wife is highly interested in my work especially if I am involved in something dangerous. Many officers are participating in other organizations and community activities such as coaching or school related activities in which their families are connected. It is not unusual for the family to be asked about their mom or dad who is a police officer and what kinds of dangerous things they may be involved with. Those questions can be very stressful and challenging for the family, especially if you have a controversial incident.

Georgene: What’s the most challenging thing for police officers that we should know about in order to better understand the role that you play in serving in our communities?

Brett: One of the most challenging things can be for us to hear an incident discussed by the media or individuals and hear it portrayed as fact and paint it with a broad brush—especially if it portrays the officers or organizations in a negative way. Many times these discussions aren’t based upon a lot of fact, but instead on biases or beliefs.

It is very hard to hear that when you know there are members of the organization who truly want to serve the community, to do the work, and are dedicated to serve in a way that no one else would want to serve. It is difficult to hear the reason they may have been involved in an incident is because they had racist ideas, lacked training, or just had a poor attitude when they approached the situation, but those facts aren’t there.

The media often uses very descriptive adjectives that really may not be reflective of the facts of the case. Once damaging words get out, the inflammatory statements and descriptions are very difficult to correct, and many times are never corrected.

Georgene: I would certainly caution that we need to wait until the facts are known. Often the media wants to get on a story and get as much information out as possible because that is what drives an audience. Sometimes that is imprudent as it can present a situation that may or may not be accurate. I know I wouldn’t want the greater community judging me based upon what Howard Stern does.

We need to recognize the vast majority of those who serve are doing an honorable job and are taking a great personal risk and we need to be grateful. I think all people need to be held accountable for their actions but even those in uniform are innocent until proven guilty and we have an obligation to allow the facts to be discovered.

What can we do in a community to encourage those who serve us? Sometimes when I stop for coffee I’ll see a police officer and I want to go up to them and simply thank them, or buy them a cup of coffee, but I feel embarrassed.

Brett: As you touched on, one simple thing is just being willing to share. Most officers are very open and receptive to that. Who doesn’t like appreciation? When it is genuine people know it. There are a lot of people who appreciate the work but in our busy lives don’t take the time to give that support.

Georgene: When difficulty strikes, when crimes are being committed, we call for help from the first responders—police officers, fire fighters, and EMTs— to the tragic incidents. It is quite remarkable to find the kind of pressures these men and women are under by choosing to serve in their community. Most of them are never known, are working hard, are doing the right things and are serving honorably. I want to say thank you to them and to their families.

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