Media outlets have influenced police recruitment policies at every level of law enforcement, including federal, state and municipal jurisdictions. Sensational allegations of improper use of deadly force often go viral in a matter of hours, regardless of their merit.
Many incidents, after proper investigation, do not rise to the level of criminality. But once negative news stories have spread, especially through social media, the danger of the Ferguson Effect - wherein higher police scrutiny yields higher crime rates - is real.
The impact on recruiting has been noteworthy, as qualified candidates reconsider careers in public service.
1. A Tarnished Image of Law Enforcement Leads to Difficulties in Recruitment
Good police recruits are hard to come by if they harbor a tainted view of law enforcement. While news media outlets have a responsibility to report information as they are, accurately and without sensationalism, the reality is that sensationalism sells.
Despite this journalist code of ethics, hyperbolic headlines of police violence do enter the news cycle. Rather than simply reporting the number of lives lost, The Atlantic recently ran a headline that stressed the "57,375 life-years" lost to police brutality.
Traditionally, law enforcement agencies maintain close ties with local media for the sake of public safety, but slanted news coverages are straining this relationship. News outlets play a key and sometimes life-saving role in informing the public at large. In return, citizens help law enforcement by reporting crimes and giving eyewitness testimony.
But when the police get bad press, good cops may choose a different path and potential recruits forego plans to join the force.
2. Positive News Stories Can Restore Faith In The Law Enforcement Profession
In similar fashion, news stories of heroic and selfless deeds of a police officer on and off-duty inspire more people - especially the qualified ones - to take up a career in law enforcement. This is the opposite of the effects of a sensationalized negative news story on the police.
Today, law enforcement agencies can coordinate with media outlets in ways that were not possible a decade ago. For example, the Deer Park, Texas police department informed their citizens of a new program, Silent Witness, via news media and social media simultaneously. Silent Witness is a public-private partnership that grants law enforcement permission to access home security camera footage.
Local news media publicized the program and invited local residents to contact Deer Park police if they wanted to participate. This is a good example of how the police and news media can work together and achieve positive results.
Recruiting officers requires law enforcement agencies leverage the influence of positive news stories against negative coverage that public perception. Lives are at risk when citizens lose confidence in the ability of police officers to enforce the law fairly.
Community outreach programs such as Silent Witness give agencies a way to use positive news to influence public opinion.
3. News media outfits can help boost police recruitment, but …
In reporting positive stories about police officers, media organizations indirectly aid in increasing the ranks of police recruits. But in sensationalizing what it casually labels as "police brutality" stories, it further erodes public confidence in the profession.
The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 mandated that the federal government officially document officer-involved shootings. Two and a half decades later, the federal government has yet to create this database. As such, reliable statistics on police shootings come from other sources.
The Washington Post publishes an interactive database that counts the number of people killed in officer-involved shootings, regardless of whether the officer justifiably discharged his weapon. Investigations remain open, yet the Post has updated the database regularly since 2015.
KENTECH's approach to police recruitment
Positive news about community-oriented policing programs saves lives, so disseminating good stories is critical. Technology can be the doorway that agencies use to recruit better, retain more officers and reach out to communities.
During previous eras of law enforcement, public relations was not such a concern. But in the social media age, it helps to use technology to stay proactive. Technology works well to keep potential police officers from a media-driven disillusionment; a more direct benefit is police recruitment.
KENTECH's High Tech-High Touch approach aims to supplement field investigations, conducted by experienced former officers, with digital background checks. Performed in-house, recruiting and background checks can tie up law enforcement resources, which now comes at a premium.
As social justice reform remains a hot topic, the onus is on law enforcement agencies to adapt recruitment policies to a new age in media. KENTECH partners with agencies to solve these hiring challenges.