The ongoing situation in Ferguson, MO continues to illustrate the importance of having a crisis communication plan.
The August 9 shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager, by a white police officer, led to more than a week’s worth of protests by residents of all races.
There are accounts of a history of distrust between the community and the police department, and a proper crisis communication plan would not heal that overnight, nor bring the immediate justice sought by protesters, but it could have helped keep the situation under control.
While many protestors demanded the officer’s arrest, much of the protest was also about delayed release of information about the officer and the confrontation. This is in part because the public has received different timetables and assurances from varying police departments and state officials.
St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar, in his first news conference the morning after the shooting, provided minor details about what allegedly led to the shooting, and said once his investigation was complete, he would turn over reports to the county prosecutor to determine whether charges would be brought against the officer. Belmar laid out future steps in the investigation and committed to updating the community.
At this point, communications seemed promising, but things only got worse from there. You soon saw Belmar, Ferguson Mayor James Knowles, Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson and Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon providing updates and comments that did not seem to be made in concert or consideration of the other police or government entities involved.
President Obama, during a speech Thursday morning, urged that police be “open and transparent” about their investigation.
On Friday, Chief Thomas Jackson was anything but.
Jackson revealed the officer’s name, Darren Wilson, and revealed the possible involvement of Brown in a petty robbery of cigars from a nearby convenience store. Ferguson police also released surveillance video from the store and radio calls about the robbery.
Chief Jackson strongly suggested that Officer Wilson confronted Brown in response to a robbery radio call.
Just hours later, in another press conference, after being challenged by the public on social media and reporters alike, Chief Jackson admitted Officer Wilson had no idea about the convenience store robbery when he confronted Brown and his friend about walking in the middle of the street.
Pro tip: You probably can’t outsmart the public, and in this day and age you shouldn’t try. For Jackson to introduce the surveillance evidence, and purport a link between the robbery and the shooting, was irresponsible, unethical and stupid.
The misinformation immediately backfired with criticism from Gov. Jay Nixon, who called the surveillance video release “an incendiary effect,” and blamed local police for trying to “besmirch” the victim. Additionally Highway Patrol leader Ron Johnson, whom Nixon put in control of public safety in Ferguson, told media he was surprised by the release of the video and the officer’s name, further evidence of a lack of communication and cooperation between the major players.
The shooting death of Michael Brown is a tragedy that could have been avoided. But with a crisis plan with a clear chain of responsibility and better, timely releases of information to the community as well as enhanced cooperation between law enforcement agencies and government, some community frustration with police could also have been avoided.