Called to a classroom for a report of a fight between two students, the School Resource Officer plunges into the fray, tossing chairs aside and lunging at the students. Within seconds he has one of the students on the floor, arms pinned behind his back. “I can’t breathe!” the student shouts. “You’re hurting me.” “Well you should have thought of that before you started fighting,” the officer yells back. He yanks the handcuffed student to his feet, then pushes him up against the wall. Behind the officer, multiple students are filming. In minutes, the videos are posted to social media; within the hour, reporters descend on the school.
These days, it can take mere minutes between a call to 9-1-1 and an incident hitting the news. Although the above example involves a law enforcement officer, no public safety agency is immune. As incidents go viral on social media, the risk of lawsuits with large potential exposure is very real.
We can’t change the fact that everyone is carrying around a high-definition video camera in the form of a phone, or that platforms like Twitter magnify incidents and sometimes spread bad information. But we’re not helpless either. This article is designed to provide insight on the importance of training your staff to handle critical incidents, with tips on how to quickly identify the circumstances that can generate a highly publicized incident and effectively manage these situations.
First, let’s look at four factors that can provoke media scrutiny of public safety agencies.
An entity’s demographics can dramatically alter the media’s response. Many town demographics have changed over the years. Towns may have started with most of their citizens having European backgrounds and, as the town ages, more residents are African American and Latino. This can become an image problem if public safety personnel demographics do not change in the same way. The media may become quick to jump to allegations of racial bias. Did a black patient have to wait 9 minutes for an ambulance to arrive, when response times in the predominantly white neighborhood are under 5 minutes? Suddenly there’s a story.
Obviously, you can’t change demographics overnight. But if your town faces such demographic disparities, you can prepare messaging to combat such stories. You can ensure recruitment practices are aimed at hiring personnel who reflect the community you serve. You can demonstrate how your policies prevent racial bias and unequal treatment. And you can use performance measures to determine whether in fact there are racial disparities—and if there are, address them.
Caught on Video
Videos are becoming the major attention-grabber. Many police departments and some corrections agencies are using body cams. Such cameras do not always provide a clear picture of what occurred or what happened before the camera started filming. In addition, departments often don’t release body-cam footage as soon as the media would like.
But that doesn’t mean the footage remains in the agency’s control. Many witnesses record their own videos with their phones. There have been several occasions when an incident occurred and the department’s video was not released right away, but the witnesses’ videos were posted online in less than an hour. The media then starts requesting the agency to release their video, which cannot always be done as the internal investigation may still be underway. If the media’s request is refused, negative publicity can result, especially if there are many other videos posted online.
Body cameras can grab the media’s attention in other ways too. Sometimes, the body cam is turned on late, or not at all; on occasion, they have been turned off at the wrong time. A body cam line of sight can also get unexpectedly restricted by the officer’s body position. It is very important to train your department personnel to use body cams properly. Many lessons can be learned from prior events in your town or others. Your department should have a robust body camera policy as well as clear direction on when to release videos to the media.
*The views and opinions expressed in the Public Risk Management Association (PRIMA) blogs are those of each respective author. The views and opinions do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of PRIMA.*
By: Richard Spiers, CPCU, ARM, ARe, AIC
Consultant, Spiers Consulting, LLC
Richard has been in the insurance industry since 1980 and was a claim executive in the reinsurance and excess marketplace since 1985. He was with Genesis Management and Insurance Services for over 20 twenty years. He is currently doing claim consulting work. Richard has extensive experience handling the wide array of claims faced by public entities, K-12 school districts and the higher education sector. Based in Chicago, he has also worked for Transamerica Insurance Group, Northbrook Excess and Surplus Insurance, CNA and Allstate Reinsurance. He is a graduate of Northern Illinois University, a member of the Society of CPCU, and holds associate designations in risk management, claims, and reinsurance. Richard has been developing and presenting insurance industry-related training sessions to a variety of client and industry groups for over 25 years.
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