Restoring Public Trust

By Dr. Jeff Bernstein

I think most of you will agree that we are losing the public relations battle. You see it every day on every news channel; there are so many negative stories about the police. I’m tired of all the negative press. I’m sick and tired of all the hate directed toward the police. Something is seriously wrong in our society when the police are viewed as the bad guys, and the criminals as the poor victims. This thinking needs to change, and we really need to do something about it. I believe that we need a really good public/community relations campaign! An effective campaign will help improve our public image, especially if labor and management work closely together on it.

As a group, I believe we actually have the power to help stop all this hate. In order to start changing the hearts and minds of the public, a concerted national effort needs to be made by everyone in law enforcement. Years ago, I was in a meeting at the Miami Police Department headquarters with Chief John Timoney. He said, “The media loves a good story about a firefighter and a negative story about a cop doing something bad.” Wow, he was so right! Think about the stuff you see on the news every day. A group of firefighters rescuing baby ducks stuck in a storm drain or a firefighter putting an oxygen mask on a cat after a fire. I’m really tired of watching that stuff on TV, by the way. While watching one of these rescues on TV with my wife recently, she turned to me and said, “Isn’t that wonderful?” I said, “Yes, dear,” and I immediately had to leave the room to go throw up in the bathroom. I think we can all agree: firefighters get great media coverage, and cops don’t. My former chief, Lou Guasto, was fond of saying, “While what the fire departments do is so important, our free society could not exist without the daily efforts of our police officers.” So true. I’m hoping that we can make it our turn now to get some positive press. If we all work together on a public relations campaign, we can win back the hearts and minds of the public! We had it once, so I am quite sure we can have it again.

Here are five things that every officer and supervisor can do:

1 We have to make sure that our officers stop doing stupid s— that ends up on TV. We have all seen a police pursuit on TV. A helicopter flies overhead, the pursuit ends in a crash, the bad guys bail out and then are caught, there’s no resistance, until, wait for it, wait for it, thump, an officer uses a bit more force than necessary. Stop the officers you work with from doing this. Save them from being arrested. Save their jobs and pensions. Stop the act, and these images won’t have a chance to appear on TV. It really hurts us when they do. We are the good guys, and we need to be seen that way.

2 Don’t get baited by people who dislike the police. Understand what these people are trying to do. The people who record officers on video are trying to get them to say or do something inappropriate. They are often hoping for a negative reaction from you. Remain calm and deal with the situation professionally. Think: If you respond in a professional manner, will that make for good video? Consider these two options.

Option A: “Sir, you are interfering with a lawful investigation. Please step back now and stop obstructing. If you continue, I am going to place you under arrest for obstructing. Please move over to the corner location now.” Now, contrast that with Option B: “Hey, asshole, I’m not going to tell you again. This is police business, get out of my face, and get the f— out of here now, or I will knock the dog s— out of you!”

I believe Option A is the better choice. And for those of you who are not sure which option to choose, just pick Option A, please.

3 Give good customer service. Most people who call the police are honest, hardworking citizens who deserve good customer service. Most have a legitimate problem or question and need your help. When they receive good treatment from the police, they tell people. When they receive bad treatment from the police, they tell 10 times as many people. That’s just how it is. Think about how you would want an officer to treat your family. If it were your mom who just got knocked down by a purse snatcher, how would you want the responding officer to treat her? You certainly would want someone who is caring, concerned, compassionate and comforting. For the most part, it’s just following the Golden Rule: treat people the way you would want to be treated. Always remember, giving good customer service makes for good video.

4 Use departmental social media effectively. Most of you who are actively employed are from Generation X and Y (millennials) and already know how to use social media. Just to be clear, I’m not talking about swiping on Tinder or liking pictures on Instagram. We need to keep the public informed about emergency situations, such as missing kids and bad guys on the loose. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, whatever! We need to use it, and use it effectively. Get the good news out as often as possible. Do what you can to improve the image and reputation of your department. Feed the public information officer good stuff.

5 Get those really good body camera videos to your public information officer. This is so important, and it really is the key to swinging the pendulum back toward respect for the police. Recently, Florida Sheriff’s Deputy Jeremie Nix did a great job saving the life of an infant. He was driving home and was flagged down in his patrol car by Nechole Cromwell, who told him that her 4-month-old son, Kingston, was completely unresponsive. After trying to revive the baby and not seeing any results, Deputy Nix decided to drive the baby directly to the hospital. He saved baby Kingston, and 100 million people saw him do it! He was hailed a hero and hugged by mom Nechole. Deputy Nix said, “God put me in the right place at the right time.” Wow, it doesn’t get any better than that!

These are just five things that all officers can do to help end this hate toward law enforcement. We certainly can do more. For example, if you see a firefighter put an oxygen mask on a cat and the TV cameras are there, just walk over and insert yourself into the frame. Then, immediately start CPR on the cat, and make sure your departmental patch is clearly visible to the camera! A similar technique will also work with the baby ducks stuck in the storm drain. While the firefighters are rescuing the baby ducks, you should personally bring the mother duck over so that she can reunite with her baby ducklings. Again, just make sure your police departmental patch is clearly visible to the cameras. The baby ducks will instinctively follow you and the mother duck, which is what we want. Also, don’t be afraid to just push the firefighters out of the way. We need to let the public see us continually doing good things, in person and on video! It works for the firefighters. Heck, even letter carriers had a kick-ass public relations video after 9/11. Yes, letter carriers. The U.S. Postal Service made one of the best public relations videos that I have ever seen. That video should have been about cops and firefighters, not the people who deliver my mail. (Watch it on Youtube here: We desperately need to improve our public image. If we try hard enough, we absolutely and positively can change the hearts and minds of the public. It’s up to you to help make that happen!

Note: In the interest of full disclosure, no firefighters’ or postal workers’ egos were harmed during the writing of this article.

Dr. Jeff Bernstein is a police psychologist who holds a doctorate in clinical psychology. He worked for the Miami Beach Police Department for 15 years as an officer, detective and supervisor. He is a Medal of Valor recipient and a member of both the FOP and the PBA’s Retired Police Officers Council. Additionally, he is a co-author of the best-selling book, Supervision of Police Personnel. Dr. Bernstein serves as a promotional exam resource expert for FOP lodges and PBA locals throughout the country. 

See this story in the Spring 2019 FOP Journal issue.

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