Timely and accurate information from law enforcement is required by their bosses, the public.
The King County Sheriff’s Office recently got a much-deserved slap on the wrist for sharing inaccurate information with the public and the press and not correcting it in a timely manner.
After the June 14, 2017, fatal shooting of 20-year-old Tommy Le by a deputy, the law enforcement agency told the press and the public that he was carrying a knife or another sharp object. The department took more than a week to correct that mistake and say Le was actually carrying a pen when he was shot.
An outside review says the law enforcement agency must improve its communication efforts, and the new sheriff says the department already is working on it. But action, not words, will be the test of that promise.
The University of Florida’s Brechner Center for Freedom of Information examined the department at the request of King County Office of Law Enforcement Oversight, a civilian watchdog group, and came up with some smart, common-sense recommendations.
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Law enforcement should inform the public on social media and the news media directly and not wait to see if there is interest in an incident.
The department should release regular updates on high-profile cases, including officer-involved shootings or other uses of force that result in serious injury or death. When officials realize inaccurate and misleading information has been released, they should rapidly correct it in a public and transparent way.
Requested information should be released promptly, particularly when needed to warn or reassure the public.
Law enforcement should share information with media outlets serving diverse audiences, including non-English-speaking populations.
Most of these recommendations improve on the department’s existing communications rules. Some are so obvious, it’s surprising they even need to be stated.
Transparent communication initiated by law enforcement is essential because police officers and sheriff’s deputies work for the public. Slow or inaccurate information releases can make a situation worse or more painful for the families of people hurt in a shooting or other incident.
As Deborah Jacobs, director of the County Office of Law Enforcement Oversight, said after the report was presented to the Metropolitan King County Council’s Law and Justice Committeeearlier this month, the sheriff’s office must have polices that build trust and legitimacy with the community, by making sure its communications are accurate, timely and respectful.