Police during the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, after the killing of Michael Brown

Inside police departments’ battle against a public perception crisis

From Baltimore to Ferguson, embattled police departments hope to foster community trust with specialized communication strategies and initiatives.

The nation has been rocked by the deaths of several black men at the hands of police including Eric Garner and Michael Brown. Outrage over the incidents, often covered in graphic detail by citizen journalist videos splashed across every newspaper, news cast, and social platform, have driven throngs of angry protestors into neighborhood streets and given voice to a collective Black Lives Matter rallying cry.

In the aftermath, police departments across the country are looking internally to redouble efforts to connect with communities and address a public perception crisis. Below, PRWeek talks to comms professionals in several cities about rebuilding relationships and finessing a new arsenal of comms skills to restore trust.

Ferguson, Missouri

By Laura Nichols

In August 2014, Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri, by Darren Wilson, a white police officer. Brown’s death prompted weeks of demonstrations and a police response that included tear gas and rubber bullets. Confrontations continued even after the Missouri National Guard was deployed to help quell unrest.

Later, in November, when a grand jury did not indict Wilson, protests broke out again. One year after Brown was killed by Wilson, a state of emergency was declared to control violence in the city after plainclothes police officers shot and critically wounded an 18-year-old black man who they said fired on them the night before.

In the 18 months since Ferguson made headlines across the world because of Brown’s death, the police department has ramped up efforts to build stronger ties between officers and the community.

Integrated into the community
Shifting officers “from randomly assigned areas to permanent sectors” was one such effort “so that the community can see the officers on a regular basis and get used to them,” says former interim police chief Andre Anderson — who left the force in early December. Senior officers with rotating hours were given more consistent schedules.

Events like “park, walk, and talk” brought police together with residents and local business owners.

“We have police officers parking their cars and getting out to talk to people, with an emphasis on conversations, not confrontations,” says Anderson.

Talking with the community has become increasingly important. In March 2015, former Ferguson police chief Thomas Jackson left his post after “a scathing Justice Department report that accused the city’s police and court system of racial bias,” according to NPR.

“I wanted officers to recognize there are times when individuals are protesting and they have a purpose”
- Andre Anderson, formerly Ferguson Police Department

Anderson says there have been talks with protestors since he was appointed to interim chief in July.

“I wanted the officers to recognize there are times when specific individuals are protesting and they have a purpose, and to make sure the department supports their constitutional rights, as well as understands exactly what they want,” he says.

In terms of the conversations, Anderson adds that police and citizens have “been speaking candidly about race and its relationship to the community.”

Outside help
The city took the step to bring in external help, calling on eLittle Communications Group, a full-service, minority-owned, advertising, PR, and marketing agency located in St. Louis.

“Transparency is key when it comes to the community, the police department, and also for city-elected officials,” says Johnny Little, president and CEO of eLittle. “When we came on board, that was one of the main tasks we wanted to achieve.”

In his roughly five months leading the Ferguson unit before returning to lead the Glendale, Arizona, department, Anderson says his biggest hurdle was trying to foster a culture shift around how the police department and city officials were viewed. He credits eLittle with helping to push out “positive branding on what police officers are doing in the community.”

In two months, Anderson was able to recruit four potential new hires. It’s also not lost on him that he was leading a unit the entire nation now knows.

“When I got there, I addressed the concept of being professional, respectful, and maintaining safety for the citizens and officers — three simple principles we used to address the changes we’ve seen,” says Anderson, who adds that on a national scale, the department he left is “relishing the opportunity to demonstrate they can perform well.”

Atlanta, Georgia

By Chris Daniels

While the city saw some protests as a result of the deaths of Freddie Gray and Michael Brown, the Atlanta Police Department (APD) has kept community tensions mostly in check thanks in part to using social media to show transparency in its actions, as well as to tell a counter narrative to the negative media stories of police negligence and excessive force. The department also credits several outreach and engagements programs, such as its Police Athletic League, in making a difference.

Atlanta police chief George Turner, who grew up in the city’s housing projects, was appointed on a reform platform six years ago that included community policing.

“Community policing involves establishing relationships with broken communities on a day-to-day basis,” he says.

“Social media gives us a way to push back with a more positive, but accurate narrative”
- George Turner, Atlanta Police Department

The department’s programs include positive loitering, whereby command buses set up in high-crime areas and encourage residents to work with police to better their areas. Other outreach efforts include the tactical neighborhood canvas, in which police partner with community leaders to go door to door when investigating a crime.

“It is about solving problems collectively and helping change the dynamic of an area by giving people a different vision for their community,” says Turner.

At the time of the Ferguson decision, APD was in the midst of focus groups with community groups, including faith- and business-based leaders, in addition to residents who had graduated from its Citizens Police Academy, which offers training on the force’s procedures and protocols.

“We told the groups afterward: ‘This is what you said we’re doing right, what you said we need to do differently, and where you said you think we can do better,’” Turner adds. From that dialogue, APD established an advocate group that will help champion some of the force’s initiatives.

Measuring success
To measure the effectiveness of its community policing, APD looks beyond participation rates in programs. The stats the department cares most about include crime rates and clear-up rates, meaning the percentage of crimes that are solved each year. In 2014 the number of Part 1 crimes, which include homicides, assaults, and larceny, was 31,691, a lower number than the 32,095 incidences in 1969.

In 2015, the clear-up rate exceeded 80%, well above the 57% average nationwide for comparable-sized cities.

“You don’t solve crimes unless people talk to you,” he notes. “A number that high says, ‘Our community trusts us.’”

To maintain the trust earned through its community outreach, APD is using social media to operate more transparently. Last October, the department began holding public roll calls streamed via Periscope.

“We had a series of violent crimes that took place in a particular area. We did roll calls in the streets so everyone could see that we’re active in those areas,” he adds.

The force is also on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube, where it has started posting videos featuring officers explaining, “Why I Wear the Badge.” The social channels are managed by a small team of public information officers led by Elizabeth Espy, APD’s director of public affairs. In addition, social media has also become a key tool for APD to celebrate successes with the community.

“There’s a perception that a police force’s relationship with the community is represented by the sad stories you see on the news,” adds Turner. “Social gives us a way to push back with a more positive, but accurate narrative. To continue to turn perceptions around, we need to get bigger on social.”

Atlanta’s police unit creates mentors for young people
When George Turner, who lived in Atlanta’s housing projects for the first nine years of his life, became the city’s police chief, he set out to grow the department’s Police Athletic League program.

“I was fortunate enough as a kid to be in programs where the police engaged in the community in the right way,” he explains.
 “The truth is, those officers looked like me; that was amazing for me as a young man to see.”

Atlanta has two athletic league centers offering summer camps and after-school programs. To start, APD made sure it had the right officers in the centers trained and experienced in working with youths, not only in sports, but also in helping them with things such as their homework.

“You want to foster mentors for young people who without those relationships might later become negative elements in their areas,” he adds.

Five years ago, it also started an annual fundraiser called the Guns-N-Hoses boxing tournament, which pits local firefighters against police officers in a boxing ring. The 2015 edition in December included an exhibition with former heavyweight boxing champion Evander Holyfield, who is an APD board member.

Attendance in the summer and after-school programs have more than doubled in the last six years to more than 250 and 200 kids, respectively. Turner says they are relying on social media, in particular Facebook and Instagram, to continue the positive word of mouth.

Profiles of three additional police departments - Baltimore, Los Angeles, and Seattle - can be found on PRWeek’s website: http://bit.ly/1O0jcpX

Like what you read? Give PRWeek a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.