Blue Line


September 4, 2013  By Robert Lunney

525 words – MR

Deposits in the bank of public trust

by Robert Lunney

The most critical factor in democratic policing is securing and retaining the public trust. There is no more important time to call on that reputation than following a critical incident involving the use of deadly force.


The public is rightfully concerned about excessive use of force and governments have established investigative procedures to ensure accountability.

A new dynamic is now at play; the broad public adoption of audio and visual recording devices with the capacity to broadcast information and images instantaneously. While authorities have always had the responsibility to inform the public as quickly and accurately as possible on the circumstances of a serious use of force incident, the pressure for rapid accountability is today multiplied ten-fold. In the crush of demands for a quick resolution the careful and considered examination of all facts may be left in the dust, and the reputation of a police service and its members shredded beyond repair in a few short hours.

The best, and possibly only, short term salvation for police is a draw-down from the Bank of Public Trust. The confidence and esteem with which they are held will be a factor in the early assessment of critical incidents.

A trusting relationship cannot be taken for granted. It must be earned over an extended period, not by words but deeds. Information on acts that inspire trust is best conveyed by establishing good working relationships with the long-established print and electronic media and the deft use of social media.

Only a former newsperson or public affairs specialist has the experience, skill and instinct to recognize media needs for timing, content and imagery. An experienced media expert can develop and apply a long term public strategy that will sustain a reputation for integrity and transparency. For the larger municipal and provincial services, direct hiring is the preferred option. For smaller services who cannot afford a permanent position, a part-time or on-retainer consultant may fill the bill.

Good police work, exemplified by solving high profile or signal crimes, is one of the best ways of building public trust. Beyond that, despite the view that, “If it bleeds it leads,” a well placed and timed “good news” story can provoke public interest, reflecting well on the service. Stories related to traffic safety are always relevant. Potential human interest stories may describe a kind and thoughtful act by an officer or police influencing a happy ending to some predicament.

That said, the service must take care not to exploit victims or intrude on some selfless act by an officer who does not desire publicity.

Each story reflecting professional policing or good news is a deposit in the Bank of Trust. The balance of goodwill built up in that account may be drawn down to offset the next unfortunate event that inevitably comes along.

While this will not diminish a truly questionable incident, it will buy time until all facts are known, analyzed and acted upon by the oversight authorities and agency head. Properly administered and measured, the “Bank of Public Trust” is a buffer against snap judgements and instant condemnation.

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