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Newell: Police chiefs, sheriffs need to control messaging after officer-involved shootings

"If you don’t get out and tell your story, somebody else will"

Newell Normand
December 03, 2019 - 10:23 am
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Why has law enforcement become a whipping boy for politicians? After every officer-involved shooting, politicians are fast to condemn cops, and even if officers are later vindicated, no apology is ever offered. How does this pattern contribute to the hostility toward law enforcement in America?

Lance LoRusso is a leading attorney, former law enforcement officer, and the author of books “When Cops Kill” and “Blue News.” Newell invited him to join the program Monday morning to discuss the origin of the problem and what might be done about it.

“This subject always intrigues me,” Newell began. “Even after all my years in law enforcement, I am still mystified by this!”

“The short answer as to why cops become whipping post is that they can’t speak out,” LoRusso said. “The average officer is not able to take a microphone or show up to a meeting or hold a town hall. If you remember after the Michael Brown shooting, there was a small group of officers, mainly officer’s spouses, who tried to stand up for them. The First Amendment rights of officers and every public employee - if they’re acting in the course and scope of their employment, they have to be very very careful about what they say, and what they can’t say. So a lot of this untrue rhetoric goes unmatched, nobody speaks out. A lot of police chiefs are afraid for their jobs, there’s a lot of political maneuvering, and the officers end up in the middle of it.”

“One of the things I enjoyed as Sheriff was the independence,” Newell said. “You’re not appointed in Louisiana, you’re elected, so you have a lot of authority and you can say what you feel. Then you just go to the polls every four years and let the voters decide if you’re effective or not.”

“That does help a lot. It helps in a lot of situations where the Sheriff might be willing to speak up and bring up some facts, or after a situation, hold a press conference and explain what actually was learned. I’ve developed this pattern now - we have an officer-involved shooting, and then we have ‘witnesses’ who come forward. We saw this with Michael Brown, people showed up and said ‘I saw this, I saw that,’ but then when they get in front of the grand jury, they say ‘Oh, I didn’t really see that, someone else told me.’ Then we have just rank speculation and condemnation from people who are across the country when this occurred. Add to the fact that you have people watching video, but a body cam will never show you officer’s perspective. It sees differently in low light or no light, it has no peripheral vision, doesn’t move with the officer’s head and eyes, and doesn’t focus to the exclusion of everything else when a threat is perceived. So then we have the actual investigation going on, and you can have a thorough investigation or you can have quick answers, but you can’t have both. Six or eight weeks down the road when toxicology and ballistics reports come out, everything is presented to the grand jury and the officer is cleared. But instead of uttering those horrible words ‘I was wrong,’ everybody moves on to the next story.”

“So why do we oftentimes see credible leaders cowering to the media and not taking control of their messaging when they’re dealing with these high-profile cases?”

“Excellent question,” LoRusso said. “I wrote ‘Blue News’ for just that situation. A lot of them are older-school police chiefs, and twenty or thirty years ago you could say ‘it’s under investigation and we can’t talk about it,’ and move on, but now they’ve gotta get out there, and they’re just hesitant to do it. Some of them are just bad at it. They have contempt for the media, or they don’t play well on TV, or they have managers telling them, ‘you better not get out there.’ The bottom line is that if you don’t get out and tell your story, somebody else will, and the story being told about law enforcement officers, more often than not, is false.”

Concluding, Newell said, “Mayor Michael Bloomberg apologized for his stop-and-frisk policy now that he’s running for President. Julian Castro has compared officer-involved shootings to mass shootings, and Senator Kamala Harris has assailed law enforcement for officer-involved shootings with the minority population… why is this? Why are officers held to a standard that is not achievable?”

Hear the entire interview in the audio player below.

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