Adam J. McKee, Ph.D.
Section 6.1: Police Communications
Over and above direct feedback and targeted communication, a police agency should develop a communications strategy aimed at managing fear of crime. The aim of this communications strategy should be to inform and persuade the public about crime and safety in such a way that the public’s fear of crime stays in reasonable alignment with real risks and vulnerabilities. Needless to say, this is a tricky balance to maintain. The police department should not misinform people or give them a false sense of security. By the same token, if people experience fear of crime that is far out of proportion to real risks, then their quality of life is substantially degraded, and the community’s well-being is harmed as well.
One technique that has been used for many years by the law enforcement field to communicate information about crime and crime risk is the FBI’s Crime Clock. For the most recent year, 2007, the Crime Clock informs us that a property crime occurred every 3.2 seconds, a violent crime occurred every 22.4 seconds, and a murder occurred every 31 minutes. That information is valid, but it undoubtedly inflates fear of crime. It suggests that Americans are constantly at high risk of serious crime victimization, which is not true for most of us, thankfully. The FBI Crime Clock is based on national data, whereas individual citizens are mainly threatened by local crime. Also, crime risks vary by income level, age, race, sex, and other personal characteristics.
It would be more meaningful for a local agency to convey such information to its own residents. Philadelphia, for example, could have told its residents in 2007 that a murder occurred every 22 hours and that the chance of being murdered was 1 in 3,662. In Los Angeles, a murder also occurred every 22 hours, but the individual risks were lower—1 in 9,799. In Seattle, a murder occurred every 365 hours and the individual risk was 1 in 24,380. These are still sobering numbers, but they seem much less frightening than the national numbers, which really have no relevance to the risks facing the individual citizen. Moreover, in these three cities and many other jurisdictions, the risks of crime victimization vary substantially between neighborhoods. As a result, the real risk of being the victim of a murder or other violent crime is dramatically lower than the citywide average for many of the people reading the crime numbers in the newspaper or on the police department’s web site.
The discipline of risk communication specializes in developing and conveying effective messages about such risks as smoking, drunken driving, and natural disasters. Some lessons learned about risk communication in these fields might have utility for police agencies trying to influence the public’s perceptions of crime and fear of crime (Warr, 2000; Covello, von Winterfeldt, and Slovik, 1987):
- Use simple, nontechnical concepts and language.
- Present risks within a context that is relevant to the audience.
- Explain risks on a personal level whenever practical.
- Present alternative measures of risk and explain their strengths and limitations.
- Identify and explain uncertainties associated with risks and risk measures.
- Provide opportunities for people to learn how best to interpret risk measures.
- Exercise responsibility in how risk information is presented.
- Recognize that risks typically exist within a political and social context.
Once a police agency commits to using strategic communication to manage fear of crime, and once good risk communication messages are developed, the great challenge is reaching the general public. On one hand, the mass news media are driven to publicize crime, not reassurance, because crime attracts readers and viewers, who in turn attract advertising revenue. On the other hand, the public is bombarded by such an avalanche of media and messages that it is very difficult to get and keep peoples’ attention.
One possibility is to work with the news media to help shape the messages that are disseminated about crime and safety. In practice, however, this is not always feasible because news media jealously guard their independence, plus they compete with each other for readers and viewers—consequently, “if it bleeds it leads” and crime reporting tends to be sensational. Even so, police should work to educate reporters and editors, develop professional rather than adversarial relations with the media, and consistently produce and deliver carefully crafted messages to the media in hopes that they will publicize them adequately.
While the mass news media are an important pipeline to the public, police have many other ways of reaching the community with reassurance messages and risk communication. For example, weekly neighborhood newspapers are often much more willing than daily newspapers or TV stations to carry press releases, success stories, and columns that police produce. The same is frequently true of radio stations, especially those with news and talk formats. Weekly newspapers and local radio stations tend to reach a small audience, but in the aggregate they serve a large audience. Since they are usually more cooperative with the police than daily newspapers and TV news, they can provide a very useful alternative pipeline to the public.
Police agencies also have many opportunities to meet with community groups and political leaders, convene jurisdiction-wide meetings, and call press conferences. All of these venues provide occasions for communicating clear messages about crime, safety, risk, and reassurance. One common opportunity occurs when the police department is releasing its quarterly, midyear, or annual crime statistics. But even a press conference in the aftermath of a serious crime can be used to inform and educate the public about the meaning of the crime for them— who is at risk of such a crime, and just as important, who is not. As noted in the previous section, it is often possible (and valid) to convince local residents that a particular serious crime, although it happened nearby, was of such a nature that it never posed any threat to anyone other than the individuals directly involved.
Modern technology can be a very useful tool for a police agency seeking to reach the public with risk and reassurance messages. Police department web sites are increasingly used to provide information directly to the public. Automated telephone systems, such as reverse 9-1-1, can be used to defuse rumors, correct misinformation, and deliver risk communication quickly after an incident or crisis occurs. These systems also make it possible to target communications to those geographic areas most affected by an incident or crisis, thus avoiding swamping (and possibly alarming) other residents with irrelevant information. Similarly, many police agencies now encourage the public to sign up for e-mail or text message notifications about crimes that occur near their places of residence and work. Instead of merely sending crime alerts or lists of crimes through these e-mail systems, police should consider sending information that is more nuanced and less alarming. For example, imagine the impact of an e-mail from the police saying “Three homes in your neighborhood were burglarized last night” versus the message “Three of your neighbors had items stolen from their garages last night, and in all three cases, the garage doors had been left open.”
A particularly comprehensive effort at reassurance through communication has been undertaken by the Safer Hastings Partnership in England (www.saferhastings.co.uk), as described in the accompanying insert “Strategic Communication.” One of the most creative techniques used in that jurisdiction is the placement of plasma TV screens in high-traffic public places. These TV screens get a lot of attention as they scroll a combination of news, sports, weather, and professionally produced reassurance spots. Using this method and others, the Partnership has been able to reach a wide audience and achieve high levels of viewer recognition and recall, leading to substantial reductions in fear of crime (Safer Hastings Partnership, 2007).
Another interesting feature of the Safer Hastings Partnership is a focus on reducing crime and fear of crime associated with youth (Williams, 2008). After several years of operation, the partnership recognized that its reassurance and community safety activities had not included many younger residents. The partnership settled on a schools-based competition, in which groups of students develop crime- and disorder-related storyboards. Winning entries are then produced as video spots that run on the partnership’s plasma screen community TV network. About 1,800 youths have participated in the competitions during the first 2–3 years and the partnership has increased the frequency of the events to match their popularity. From 2004 to 2007, the percentage of area residents who indicated that youth crime was a concern to them decreased from 91 percent to 29 percent.
Police agencies should aim to communicate risk and reassurance information through all the channels that are available to them. This includes their agency web site, their brochures and other printed materials, their public information and public education initiatives, the speeches they give to the Rotary Club, the meetings they have with all manner of community members, and the routine contacts that individual officers have with individual complainants, victims, and ordinary citizens. If police commit themselves to educating the entire community about crime, safety, and risk, using all the avenues available to them and showing discipline by staying on message, they can expect that the public’s fear of crime will not get too far out of alignment with actual risk. That should be their objective, and implementing strategic communication should be one of the tools they rely on the most.
Source: COPS Office. Reducing Fear of Crime: Strategies for Police.
Modification History File Created: 08/10/2019 Last Modified: 08/10/2019
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