opinion: Part two: Knowing how to handle media relations big part of solving big cases
The work of the I-96 Shooter Task Force marches on. In a society where we are used to instant 24-hour news and information, where instant gratification takes too long, working on such a task force can be an exhausting endeavor. The demands placed on all involved are extreme. No one in southeastern Michigan wants to catch the I-96 Shooter more then the men and women who spend most of their waking hours working through this investigation.
Communication still is the single most important aspect of this investigation. All the different departments and investigators involved in this massive investigation must communicate and coordinate their efforts. The task force and administrators involved must also keep all of the first responding patrol officers of southeastern Michigan engaged in this investigation.
Chances are good that a sharp road patrol officer, deputy or trooper will stop the right guy and provide the information that cracks this case wide open. That only can happen if they are given the most up-to-date information of what to look for.
Chances are even better that with tens of thousands of sets of eyes on the road, belonging to a well-informed public, a 911-call about a suspicious vehicle or person will start the avalanche that will end with the shooter in handcuffs. The key is that everyone must know what to look for.
This is where the delicate balance of law enforcement and media relations comes into play. The balance lies between “the public’s right to know” and compromising an investigation. Releasing too much information can drive a suspect deeper underground and potentially destroys evidence.
A related problem facing multiagency task forces are egos. Everyone assigned to such a task force must leave their ego at the door and work as a team. There must be central coordination with one task force leader and all members within the task force must understand their individual roles as well as the direction the investigation is heading.
The sheriffs and police chiefs of the agencies supplying personnel and resources to the task force must be kept apprised of the investigation, but must agree that all media communication coming from the task force be controlled. This is much easier said than done.
It is natural and necessary that police administrators be leaders and concerned with keeping the public safe and informed. The problem becomes when so many agencies are involved and the leader of each agency wants to show their citizens that they have a good handle on a situation, they necessarily jump in front of microphones and cameras.
That is fine when the media releases are agreed upon and coordinated in advance by all the agencies involved.
Unfortunately what often happens is that the media competes to get the most current and complete information. If a chief administrator does not have any new information—or “news” — to report they will be ignored.
Those with larger egos or running for office may have to give “a little more” information in order to show their bosses and the public that they are on top of this crisis. The problem becomes that “hold back” information can be leaked and evidence can be destroyed.
“Hold back” information is a necessary part of police investigations. Say a suspect wears a very distinct piece of clothing like a navy blue baseball cap with a certain logo—like a company logo—sharp investigators will only release that the suspect was last seen wearing a dark baseball cap. The police will hold back the exact description of the hat. The reason for this is criminals read newspapers and blogs. They watch television and listen to radios like the rest of us.
If the police are too specific and mention the exact color and company logo—say navy blue is the color and “ACME” is the company—you can bet when the suspect hears or sees the media account, his or her navy blue ACME baseball cap will end up in the trash. A valuable piece of evidence thus is lost.
Hold back information about a serial criminal’s method of operation can solidify genuine confessions and disprove hoax confessions. Yes there are some individuals seeking attention who are whacky enough to admit something they did not do, just for the attention and perhaps even publicity
Therefore it is much more effective if press releases are controlled by the task force leader. It is best if the task force commander or one designated administrator gives the daily media briefing. The duty of briefing the press can be spread out among the chief administrative officers of the involved agencies, but all executives must agree that nothing be given to the press unless it was agreed upon by all parties and most importantly the task force commander in advance.
Individual investigators of the task forces also must realize they can not leak information to the press. There is an old saying around task forces. “If you want to get information spread quickly, telephone, telegraph or tell a cop.” “Anonymous sources” can sink an investigation.
Nothing is more disconcerting for an official giving a media briefing than being shown a copy of a “classified” document or memo full of “hold back” information. When this happens, steps must be taken to shore up the “leak” of information.
In one task force I was in, multiple copies of memos and emails were circulated each with a different typographical error, text or font. In this way the task force leader when shown a “leaked” document by reporters looking for a scoop, could ascertain where the leak was coming from. The leak was then either reassigned or merely not given the latest information.
When the leak is a top administrator, that person’s information dries up or purposely is delayed in delivery so that they have nothing of substance to leak to the press.
For those on the task force, hang in there and realize that although you hope this is a “sprint” you are probably in for a “marathon” investigation.
UPDATE: On 11/6/2012 I was informed that an arrest had been made in the case. Congratulations to all those on the task force--looks like it was a sprint afterall!
Lock it up, don’t leave it unattended, be aware and watch out for your neighbors.