Richardson: Police PIOs should give facts, not spin - East Valley Tribune: Columnists

Richardson: Police PIOs should give facts, not spin

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Retired Mesa master police officer Bill Richardson lives in the East Valley and can be reached at bill.richardson@cox.net.

Posted: Friday, September 7, 2012 7:30 am | Updated: 9:42 am, Tue Sep 11, 2012.

On Jan. 28, 2012, Scottsdale Police Lt. Ron Bayne shot and killed Jason Prostollo. Prostollo was highly intoxicated, reportedly five times the legal limit to drive, and had a piece of broken pool cue in each hand as he walked towards Bayne and other officers, including a K-9. According to news reports, Bayne fired two shots into Prostollo, one of which hit the K-9 that was attacking Prostollo.

Officer-involved shooting investigations are lengthy and complex and can take months to complete. They involve a criminal portion to determine if any laws were broken and an internal inquiry to determine if the shooting was within departmental policy.

The day after the shooting, and before any investigations and reviews by Scottsdale Police and the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office were completed, Scottsdale Police Sgt. Mark Clark, the police information officer, told the media the department’s version of events. Some would refer to Clark’s explanation of what happened as “spin.”

In the Jan. 30, 2012 Arizona Republic story, “Man killed by Scottsdale police was former Marine,” Clark used colorful and leading language like “split-second decision” and “officers felt their lives were in danger,” even though he was the only officer who fired. He even went so far as to proclaim “a Taser or pepper spray was not used because of the windy conditions that morning.” It was as though he was justifying the use of deadly force instead of reporting the facts and waiting for the investigation to be completed.

While Bayne’s use of force may be justified, spinning a story in a particular direction can be dangerous and damaging to the public’s trust when an investigation later shows an officer wasn’t justified in their actions.

Spinning is what Clark and a host of other police lieutenants, sergeants, officers and highly paid civilian staff, some who are former television celebrities, sometimes do in their PIO duties.

Too often the story told is about making an agency or its boss look good and not the facts.

In the July 4, 2012 East Valley Tribune story, “Tempe crime down; Ariz. Mills not auto theft haven it once was,” statistics attributed to the Tempe Police Department website show how crime in Tempe was down 41 percent of the last decade.

Sounds good, doesn’t it?

Yet according to the FBI, Tempe’s serious crime rate is up 4.8 percent from 2010 to 2011 — in 2011 there were 59 serious crimes comitted per 1,000 residents — and Tempe continues to have the highest serious crime rate in the East Valley at a rate that’s over double the average crime rate for other East Valley cities.

Crime is down nationally and across Arizona.

Crime being down is no cause for alarm, but when crime is actually climbing and significantly higher than everyone else’s, there’s cause for serious concern. High crime rates are seldom talked about publicly by police officials.

I still can’t get an answer from police on why Tempe crime is so high.

PIOs also control the information that is released to the media and access to those who can answer questions. For a state with a public records law that’s designed to keep the public informed, it’s sometimes very difficult to get information when a police agency doesn’t want to talk or takes the position they have to be sued to get them to obey state law.

Scottsdale and Tempe aren’t the only agencies with PIOs who spin information.

While a PIO spin show designed for the media and to placate the public may be good for a department’s image, it’s not good for a public that needs to believe and trust the police.

The public’s right and need to know shouldn’t be what police officials want us to know. It should be the facts that allow us to make decisions about crime in our community, police conduct and how best to support law enforcement or demand change.

Crime grows best when the public is kept in the dark.

While PIOs can do an important job, the bottom line is they should stick with the facts and skip the spin.

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