How Cities Should Manage High-Profile Police Incidents

By Wyatt Cmar • May 8, 2017

At the 17th convening of the Project on Municipal Innovation (PMI), chiefs of staff and policy advisors from the nation’s largest cities came together to discuss the pressing issues they face in their work. Ronald Davis, former Department of Justice 'COPS' Office Director, delivered an address on how cities should manage high profile incidents involving the police. The following transcript comes from an interview conducted on the same day as his address.

Wyatt Cmar

This is Wyatt Cmar with the Project on Municipal Innovation at Harvard Kennedy School's Ash Center for Democratic Governance. I'm here with Ron Davis, former Director of the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services at the Department of Justice.

To start off I'd like to ask, how should cities prepare for high-profile incidents involving the police?

Ronald Davis

Thank you for the question. I think, first, you start by recognizing that high-profile incidents will occur. Start identifying what they may look like and develop your response. Part of that response is also prevention. If you're talking about, for example, policing, you need to make sure that your police are currently engaged in the best practices and working to have a very strong relationship with the community, because these pre-relationships before the high-profile incidents occur provide a lot of support during the incident itself.

Really make sure that you have planned out how to respond to an incident, ranging from when the high-profile incident occurs, to engaging the media, to communicating with the people, to working alongside the police department, to supporting the officers and the community — you have to really think things through and make sure you have the response planned out well in advance.

Wyatt Cmar

When a shooting does happen, what are a mayor's first moves?

Ronald Davis

It's tough for a mayor because, one, he or she has got to be careful of the responsibility of providing leadership to all city departments. However, the mayor has to do so without interfering with, let's say, a criminal investigation. Two, he or she needs to keep the community involved. I would say the first part is really keeping the community updated on what can be put out there, and figuring that out is the mayor's first responsibility — to learn as much about the incident as possible.

"Before making comments, the mayor needs to learn as much as he or she can about the incident and decide what should be put out publicly at that time."

Before making comments, the mayor needs to learn as much as he or she can about the incident and decide what should be put out publicly at that time. Then talk with the community concerning what he or she knows at that time, what they're able to say versus what they can't say and why they can't say it, and communicate those specific, technical details to, let's say, the police chief or the department head as they start working through the incident. I think a city in crisis from a high-profile incident wants to turn on a TV and see their elected mayor saying, "Everything's okay. We have it under control. We are working to solve it right now. I promise an independent and fair investigation.” Then, as you start learning more, you have to be very strategic in how you communicate that information.

Wyatt Cmar

My third and final question is, in the aftermath of these events, how do you handle the communication? How do you work with the press? If you have videos, when do you release them?

Ronald Davis

It goes back to my first recommendation, which was the preplanning. Let's say a high-profile incident is an officer-involved shooting, which clearly can be very controversial, and people have an understandable need to find out high levels of accountability.

"If there's a video tape, then that should be worked out while respecting all laws and previous agreements, but transparency always wins."

If there's a video tape, then that should be worked out while respecting all laws and previous agreements, but transparency always wins. To the point that you can provide transparency and open up to the community, you should provide it, but if there's a legitimate criminal investigative reason you can't, then you have to be able to tell the community why you can't and when you think you should be able to do so. I think that's the best you can do, but I would always say have that planned out ahead of time, and then, along the way, coordinate with all of the stakeholders: the police chief, the district attorney, and community leaders.

In some cases, you may even want the family to see the video if it can't go public to make it clear you're not trying to withhold information from a community as much as you're trying to protect it for a larger good, which is the investigation of the incident. In today's world, with all the video cameras and social media, I really suggest to mayors that they err on the side of openness and transparency.

Top photo credit Sopasnor

About the Author

Wyatt Cmar

Wyatt Cmar is a Research Assistant and Writer for the Project on Municipal Innovation Advisory Group. Before joining the Ash Center, Wyatt worked as Business Development and Research Manager at Diller Scofidio + Renfro, a New York City-based art and architecture studio. Prior to that, he was Program Administrator at the Neighborhood Preservation Center, a nonprofit incubator and resource center located in New York City. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Economics and Metropolitan Studies from New York University.