The San Francisco Police Department has been doing a lot of good deeds. Summer internships, backpack giveaways, barbecue cook-offs. Those kinds of things.
But these feel-good stories aren’t getting the kind of traction the department wants, and the media only seems to focus on the negative.
“How do we get this information out into the community of what our police department is doing,” Police Commissioner Sonia Melara asked last week during a commission meeting. “I think what gets out into our community is all of the negative information. I am trying to figure out if we need to hire a publicist.”
For some reason, the department’s six-person media relations team — which includes a former TV reporter — just aren’t “connecting with some communities,” interim Police Chief Toney Chaplin said. “It is an issue with the press.”
To wit: The coverage of a recent hour-long standoff with a man in the Ingleside area — which ended peaceably, sort of — was not to the liking of Commissioner Thomas Mazzucco.
“We have to get traction with the press,” Mazzucco said. Instead of pointing out that the police did not open fire or kill the suspect, headlines centered on police firing bean bags at the man. “We need to have some fairness in the press with what the officers are doing.”
Commissioner Petra DeJesus agrees wholeheartedly, and has come up with a solution: “We need to get in front of it and hire a publicist … [to] put it in words we want to put in.”
Only one person at the Police Commission meeting, President Suzy Loftus, had a different take.
“There’s what we can control and there’s what we can’t control,” she said. “I think the editors get to control what the headlines say.”
A review of coverage of the SFPD within days of last week’s meeting indicates a mixed approach.
The positive: A police horse’s retirement — we count at least four stories on this item alone — the interim chief’s meeting with faith leaders, a “National Night Out” story, and numerous stories about crime-fighting efforts (too many to count). And, yes, there’s even a story about a sergeant who gave school supplies to children.
The negative: The San Francisco Police Officer’s Association’s publication of a photo of two dogs deriding the Black Lives Matter movement; police using unnecessary force against an elderly woman; and a piece about police data showing racial disparities.
Still, several years of the media covering police misconduct has had an impact, according to Ron Weitzer, a sociology professor at George Washington University who studies crime and society.
“Media coverage has a huge effect on public opinion,” Weitzer says. “Clearly, media coverage — both mainstream media and social media — have really made a huge difference in public perception of how frequently police are involved in misconduct compared to 10 or 15 years ago.”
Weitzer’s sentiments, however, are not shared by all.
“Personal interactions have the strongest impact on perceptions. People form opinions of the police based on their own interactions with them or the experiences they hear from trusted friends and family,” reads the website for the National Institute of Justice, the evaluation agency of the U.S. Department of Justice. “Media accounts of police misconduct also influence perceptions of the police, but less so than personal interactions.”
For Weitzer, who admits the media has created some unfair depictions of police, it’s undeniable it has also had positive impacts.
“In a place like San Francisco, clearly, I think the media is fulfilling a very good public service,” he says. “Without that, it’s hard to imagine reforms taking place.”
But the department doesn’t understand why the media seems so fixated on certain stories. Chaplin said as much last week, noting that a press conference in June announcing the department’s summer jobs program didn’t receive any coverage.
“At the very end of that press conference, I was asked one question by a reporter about recent issues at the police department,” Chaplin said, adding that no stories appeared on the program.
But Chaplin’s story, says Weitzer, misses the point.
“I’m not surprised a police leader would make that kind of comment, but we are talking about apples and oranges here,” Weitzer says. “Killings, racist emails, corruption, [and] other types of serious police misconduct are in an entirely different category and clearly deserve full coverage in the media.”
The media plays a role in creating public perception, but if the department wants to change how it’s seen, it may require more than a public relationships strategy pushing stories about barbecues and summer jobs.
“Some people who are quite critical of police would see these as just window dressing,” says Weitzer. “What’s more needed is systematic and ongoing effort to build relationships with community members — and that doesn’t involve barbecues.”