Public Relations Firm Working to Help D.C. Police Garner Good Press

By Theola Labbé-DeBose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 23, 2009

"The Metropolitan Police Department has announced that a handgun has been taken off the streets of the District of Columbia."

-- D.C. police, April 3

This is the kind of news that warrants an announcement under Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier's new communications strategy. At a time when crime in the District has fallen, she wants to lift the profile of individual officers and has turned to a public relations firm for help, hoping that good press will engender more trust with the community.

Lanier's decision to seek outside assistance in communicating with the public is the latest example in the District and across the country of a shift in policing, from shielding the public from crime news to finding the best way to package it to them.

Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, said once-tight-lipped police agencies, not wanting to scare the public with too much crime information, now understand the power of that information to connect them with residents.

"There was a time in policing when you were really careful and reluctant to give too much information to the public. That's really turned on its head," Wexler said. "So today the question is: How do you put that information in a form that's most useful?"

When Boca Raton, Fla., Police Chief Daniel C. Alexander wanted to publicize VIPER, a crime awareness program, he turned to a PR firm that created ads, a Web site and catchphrases such as "Together Let's VIPER-IZE crime."

"We're looking to create a brand for our department," Alexander said. "As police we're not selling a product, but in some ways we are: public safety."

In the District, the department is working with the Glover Park Group, made up of several Clinton administration officials and Republican strategists. It has offices in Georgetown, New York City and Los Angeles and has earned millions of dollars in lobbying fees. Pfizer and Coca-Cola are past clients. The firm is volunteering its services, an arrangement made by the D.C. Police Foundation, a group that solicits in-kind donations for D.C. crime programs.

Lanier said the department's news strategy is too reactive, mostly sharing information in response to inquiries from the media and the public. "I don't want the only face of [D.C. police] to be the chief announcing arrests. I want them to see the other officers. I want them to see everybody so they know what we're doing and they see that we care."

Although praising Lanier's skills, D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), who chairs the council oversight committee on police, said the partnership comes across to him as a spin effort. "And the best way to spin crime is to reduce it."

Reporters say the department's media office -- made up of a civilian director and several civilians and officers whose combined salaries total about $400,000 -- gives delayed responses to basic requests for public information. Sometimes, they say, it obstructs reporting out of a concern over how the story might appear.

Washington City Paper reporter Jason Cherkis said that when he went to a precinct to request a copy of a police report in a recent triple homicide, he was told that the case was "too fresh." He refused to leave without the public document and got a copy.

For the story -- a follow-up on the killings of Erika Peters, 37, and her two sons, allegedly by Peters's live-in boyfriend, Joseph R. Mays, 44 -- Cherkis said he asked whether police had ever been called to the house before March 21, the day of the slayings.

Cherkis said he was told by communications director Traci L. Hughes to file a Freedom of Information Act request, a legal petition for documents that would give the agency at least 15 days to respond. Cherkis said he saw that as a stall tactic.

In an interview, Lanier said -- without commenting specifically on Cherkis's complaints -- that she was not able to immediately pull information about previous police visits to a house because it was data that was in the Office of Unified Communications, a separate agency from police.

But she conceded that in some instances, "if we need more time to respond on something, then we're going to tell you to file a FOIA."

Rank-and-file officers "are usually very cooperative and helpful," Cherkis said. "It's the gatekeepers that are the problem."

Still, WTOP reporter Mark Segraves said the department is more forthcoming on breaking news than under previous police administrations, though it tends to withhold documents.

"Overall, under the leadership of Traci Hughes, the [public information office] has come a long way and is one of the most helpful in the city," he said. When obtaining information is difficult, Segraves attributes that to heavy-handed involvement from the mayor's office.

"The unfortunate reality for any [public information officer] in the Fenty administration is that just about every question seems to have to go through the [Executive Office of the Mayor] before a PIO can comment," he said.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company