KCPD Chief Shows Why Stonewalling and Complaining Don’t Work With Media

Here in Kansas City, there’s been a little dustup this week between members of the local media and our new(ish) police chief, Darryl Forte.

I wasn’t there, and I haven’t seen the raw footage, but based on the accounts I’ve heard, this incident seems out of character for a police department and chief who have been doing an otherwise remarkable job connecting with the community.

The other day, the chief was presenting a new violent crime reduction plan to members of the city council. He was joined by the district attorney. Part of the plan is to target enforcement efforts toward criminals who are the biggest problems. This makes perfect sense.

After the presentation, the chief and D.A. were stopped in the hall by reporters and asked a few questions. Reporters asked for specifics about the plan, including who was on the targeted enforcement list. For very obvious reasons, the chief doesn’t want to provide details that could give criminals the upper hand. This also makes perfect sense.

The problem comes from how he dealt with the question. Rather than politely decline to answer and explain why, he made a run for the elevator. When the reporter asked why he was leaving, he said “because I don’t want to talk to you right now.” You can see for yourself in this clip from KMBC 9.

Now keep in mind, this wasn’t a media ambush. They didn’t show up in the chief’s front yard on a Sunday morning and start asking him questions while he was fetching the morning paper in his bathrobe. This was a reasonable question asked at an appropriate time…immediately following a public presentation at city hall with another public safety official before members of the city council.

The chief then made matters worse by complaining about the reporter on Twitter. That drew more attention to the situation…especially from other members of the media.

This situation is a classic example of how mishandling routine media inquiries can turn into a mini media relations crisis.

I don’t blame the chief for not wanting to divulge the specifics of his plans. Often times we work with clients who have compelling reasons to keep information confidential.

In this case, criminals don’t let the police know when they intend to commit crimes, so why should police tell the criminals when they’re coming to arrest them?

When the chief gets asked to share a list of names, that’s what he should say. When the media asks again, he should say it again. When they keep asking, he should keep saying it professionally and cordially.

Around the fifth time he gets asked the same question, he should say something like “I understand why you are interested in this information, and if I were in your shoes, I’d be doing exactly what you’re doing. But I hope you also understand why I can’t share that information, and if you were in my shoes, I bet you’d do the same thing.”

It doesn’t matter how much the reporter might frustrate you, you have to be professional and try to move the interview along to other topics.

If he had done that, the story probably wouldn’t have even made the news. If it did make the news, I bet most folks would have understood the chief’s position. It’s also disappointing that this situation has caused everybody to lose sight of the good news, which is a chief who is providing strong leadership and has a smart plan to reduce violent crime that is modeled on successful efforts in other cities.

Stonewalling and walking away in this type of situation is rarely a good life choice. It makes you look guilty and draws more negative attention. If you have any doubt about that, try doing it next time a police officer stops you to ask you a couple questions.