The Minneapolis Police Department is launching a new, campaign-style public relations effort aimed at better connecting with the community and boosting the perception of the police force.
Police hired a videographer to put out professional-quality stories of officers and police work, and at the same time unveiled a new social media campaign aimed at getting officers interacting with the community. The Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association is about to launch a radio campaign touting the personal work of police officers around the state.
The new approach comes as police forces around the country are facing renewed public skepticism in the wake of several high-profile and fatal confrontations with black men. Minneapolis police have drawn criticism lately as new data has shown the police were far more likely to arrest blacks for minor offenses like loitering and spitting. Laws against those offenses were repealed last month in what was considered a victory for racial equity advocates.
“What is one of the ways that we can build community relationships? It is through them getting to know our officers and our officers getting to know the public,” Minneapolis Assistant Police Chief Kris Arneson said in an interview.
Some critics are questioning the entire notion of a public-relations campaign, saying the department is trying to gloss over very real problems.
“The reality is … if you are doing things well, you don’t need a PR campaign to tell people,” said Michelle Gross, president of Communities United Against Police Brutality.
Police have long been frustrated by the lack of mainstream media interest in stories about individual officers or some of the good deeds going on in the department.
“It’s just a matter of helping people understand that maybe what is always covered isn’t representative of the work that the department is doing as a whole,” said Molly Miles, 26, the department’s new multimedia journalist, who previously worked at a Nebraska television station.
Minneapolis police will have 25 officers update the department’s Facebook and Twitter accounts with items such as crime tips and community news.
The new social media focus is the result of recommendations in a U.S. Department of Justice report on the Minneapolis Police Department after a request by Chief Janeé Harteau to assess the department’s policies and practices.
“We want people to feel like we are connected with our officers and we want them to see how connected our officers are with the community,” said Minneapolis police spokesman Scott Seroka, who helped spearhead the initiative.
The Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association is starting a promotion push of its own.
The association’s “Faces Behind the Badge” radio advertisement campaign will spotlight the work that officers do throughout the state, mostly outside of their normal work hours, said association executive director Dennis Flaherty.
“We have just been inundated by story after story that shows a cop in not the most kind of form,” Flaherty said. “What we intend to do is come out with another story, a more realistic story.”
In June, the association released a survey showing that 90 percent of Minnesotans sampled said they approved of the way local police handled their job. The survey sampled registered voters who were overwhelmingly white, drawing sharp objections from minority groups.
The latest Gallup poll found that 52 percent of Americans had a lot of confidence in police as an institution, tying a low in the poll’s 22-year history. The recent killings of black men by police have “likely contributed” to the number, which was down 4 percentage points from the year before.
The use of social media and other online formats to promote an agency or convey news is not new. Many Minnesota agencies use some form of social media. For example, in St. Paul, different police districts use their Facebook pages to share crime statistics, upcoming meetings and even answer questions from the public.
Earlier this year, the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association surveyed agencies and out of the those who responded, 70 percent said they used social media, said Andy Skoogman, the group’s executive director.
“We believe it’s a powerful tool to help law enforcement to tell their story, which historically they haven’t done a very good job at,” he said.
Across the country, some law enforcement agencies have become more aggressive about telling their own stories, said John DeCarlo, an associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
“What you are seeing is a realization by more progressive police chiefs that if we don’t tell the story, somebody else is going to tell it for us,” DeCarlo said.
Not everyone is convinced that social media will be effective in swaying public opinion.
“My speculation is that social media has done more to harm police than help them,” said Jon Shane, an assistant professor at John Jay College who focuses on police policy and practices.
Residents’ ability to immediately download photos and videos of police confrontations, sometimes without broader context, can fuel negative perceptions, Shane said. Police efforts to counter those images with their own content might not help with public perception.
“If they already have a gulf with the community, simply putting out images like this is not going to help,” Shane said.
Minneapolis NAACP President Nekima Levy-Pounds said the department’s resources and energy could be better used elsewhere.
“The best public relations campaign is one that does the deeper work in addressing systemic issues, racial inequality, and the concerns of our poorest communities,” said Levy-Pounds, a frequent critic of police conduct and practices.
“We’re not trying to make the police department look bad,” she said. “Ultimately by airing out the concerns that people have, that can be used as a catalyst to make change.”