The Inescapable Challenges of Police Communication

The management of police communication, more than a relationship protocol, needs to be assumed as a highly important strategic commitment and an action of social responsibility. This implies developing an integral and professional treatment that contributes to the social legitimacy of the institutions.

Although information management is not the only factor that influences the positive or negative perception that citizens have of police forces, it does contribute a significant percentage to the resolution of criminal cases, the prevention of crimes, and the trust and relationship with citizens. In Latin America, police communication is not the most assertive, which has an impact on people’s perception of security and institutions.

Precisely, the lack of clarity, accuracy, and objectivity, as well as the informative secrecy of some spokespersons or those in charge of public relations in the face of certain media events, tend to generate communication breakdowns with serious reputational consequences for the institutions. A study by the Gallup consulting firm reveals that Latin America is the region in the world with the highest level of distrust in its local police: only 49% of citizens trust the police force, as opposed to the global average of 71%. 

Since trust and credibility are key elements for police activity, it is a priority to strengthen the closeness of the public force with citizens and to make a strong commitment to the prestige and reputation of police agencies, using communication as a cornerstone. This is not a minor task: it requires a much more transparent, timely, comprehensive, and organized administration with communication flows. 

The Institute of Statistical and Geographic Information of Jalisco (IIEG) defines the perception of security as the “feeling that the population has of being a victim of a criminal act or event that may threaten their safety, physical or moral integrity, violate their rights and lead to danger, harm or risk”; however, as the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) warns, this perception does not always match the actual security figures. For example, the results of the National Urban Citizen Security Survey conducted by the Chilean government found that in 2016, 85% of citizens perceived an increase in crime in the country, while victimization for crimes of social connotation stood at 27.3%.

Why should police communication be concerned about gaps like this, which are not far from those in other Latin American latitudes? Because people improve their perception of their surroundings, social coexistence can be improved, as well as increasing the degree of citizen satisfaction with their police forces.

Although there are multiple factors that can affect the perception of insecurity, and that should be studied within each institution, it could be said that the information that citizens receive through the media is one of the critical factors.

In 2019, Human Rights Watch denounced multiple cases of police and military repression and abuse during the various social demonstrations presented in Chile, Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia, and Haiti, noting that the security forces used force in a negligent and excessive manner, even against passersby or peaceful demonstrators. 

In turn, these cases of police violence were widely reported in the graphic, audiovisual, and digital media, sometimes with a sensationalist tone that incited social unrest and contributed to the aggravation of disorder. 

This high media exposure highlighted the need to promote reforms aimed at protecting human rights within the police and military organizations, as well as to address the limited response capacity they have to deal with this type of crisis in the face of public opinion.

During this period, the media representation of crime has increased. According to Kessler and Focass (2014), police news began to be covered as news of insecurity, with generalizations of events, fragmentation of facts, focus on victims, appeal to emotionality, and distinction of the so-called crime waves. In short, it increases the gap between perception and reality.

It requires a communication that, rather than following the informative dynamics proposed by the media, seeks spaces to approach citizens, through the recovery of the preventive discourse around security, and the timely provision of information to the press, with anticipation, monitoring, and balance. 

It is imperative to professionalize police communications in order to respond assertively and empathetically to news content, no matter how sensational it may be. Even more crucial is the preparation of relevant, argumentative information that provides greater accuracy, rigor, and context.

Local and regional partnerships with journalists and social influencers are needed to define sound, accurate, and timely internal communications strategies, as well as external communications, leveraging partner agencies, consultants, and community networks. 

From the leadership of police communications, the focus should not be reduced to statements or press releases. Whoever assumes the spokesperson of the institution must have clarity, information, processes, procedures, and monitoring mechanisms that provide the ability to prevent the institution’s image from being affected. 

It is a matter of going beyond issuing and disseminating information: it is also necessary to deal with citizen queries, to have efficient channels that bring citizens closer to the institution, to educate and reassure the public, and also to comply with the responsibilities regarding any errors that may arise, to monitor the news and to report on the evolution of situations. 

Ultimately, the key is to consolidate a comprehensive strategy, including policies that ensure transparency and accessibility, consistency, active participation of police officers in the community, and training to provide police officers with communication skills.

Together, these practices could contribute to building and sustaining a positive perception of citizen security by strengthening police communication. A titanic task, but one that merits a deep process of self-reflection and strategic direction. There is a way to start.

*Translated by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva from the original in Spanish.

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