5 Tips for Law Enforcement Crisis Communication Success

By following the best practices in crisis communication for Law Enforcement, your team can ensure successful outcomes in the direst situations.

December 29, 2020

Article highlights

In law enforcement, clear communication is always important. But it’s especially crucial in the case of a crisis. Effective law enforcement communication can make the difference between keeping a handle on a situation or watching it spin out of control.

There are many different types of potential crises facing law enforcement agencies. Some are external, such as natural disasters, active shooter situations, bomb threats, or other high-stakes emergency situations.

When emergencies strike, people tend to panic. This is when law enforcement agencies are especially important to communities. Officers can provide level-headed decision-making and stability to help people get through crisis situations. However, preventing panic within your ranks is only possible if officers understand precisely how they should respond in emergency situations.

It’s essential for law enforcement departments to be able to communicate and coordinate effectively with other emergency services. They must also have strong internal communication in order to get the situation under control and protect the public and the officers involved.

Law enforcement crisis communication plans should also cover scandals or incidents that

could damage the department’s reputation. These may include things such as cases of employee misconduct, controversial use of force, or mishandled investigations.

In these cases, a good crisis communication plan can help the agency maintain public trust, protect its reputation, and quickly correct misinformation.

In any case, good police crisis communication takes forethought, planning, and training. Proactive communication can help coordinate efforts to resolve a situation, keep people safe, and prevent the public from panicking.

Here are some best practices for law enforcement crisis communication:

1. Formalize key processes

The need for intelligent, decisive responses is one of the greatest challenges when it comes to crisis response. Officers facing a crisis must be prepared to quickly communicate the situation back to superiors in the office. They must also communicate with civilians in the immediate vicinity who are noticing the situation unfolding before them. The ability to quickly evaluate the situation and wisely communicate different details to various parties based on what they need to know is absolutely critical.

Communication should be baked into the policies and procedures for various situations and incorporated into officer training. When an incident occurs, officers should understand exactly who they need to contact, when they should reach out, and what information should be detailed in these communications.

For example, an officer in the field may report to a higher-ranking official, who then reports to the chief, who contacts relevant third-party personnel, like the mayor’s office, special units, and similar groups. The right information going to the right people in a timely fashion can go a long way in streamlining crisis response.

Of course, crisis communication policies and procedures are only effective if officers know and understand them. A good law enforcement policy and procedure management software can help department leaders ensure that all officers have read and signed off on policies. Following the proper procedures can keep an incident from spiraling into a crisis, or at least keep from making the situation worse.

2. Be proactive


Good law enforcement crisis communication should be proactive, not reactive. Department leaders shouldn’t wait until a crisis hits to formulate a communication plan.

Quick, accurate communication is key to law enforcement crisis response. Department leaders can’t anticipate every possible scenario, but they should create general guidelines for potential crisis situations. They should keep up-to-date contact information for agency chiefs, public information officers, and important media contacts.

A good law enforcement crisis communication plan should help departments do the following:

Identify a crisis communication team

The makeup of this team will differ depending on the situation. But it may consist of department or agency heads, public information officers, public relations experts, legal counsel, and other key stakeholders.

This team should meet regularly to brainstorm potential crises and possible responses. They should develop holding statements that can be used in the immediate aftermath of a crisis. While these will have to be adapted to fit the exact scenarios, having them in place beforehand can help ensure a quick response.

In the event of a crisis, the communication team can quickly gather to decide what information to release and craft key messages and talking points.

Specify and train a spokesperson

The crisis communication plan should establish who is authorized to speak to the public and the media. There may be several potential spokespersons depending on the situation, but they all should be trained in how to speak to the media.

This is especially important in incidents that could damage the agency. If every staff member is presenting their view of an incident, things can very quickly descend into chaos. There may be misinformation or misunderstandings, which can damage the agency’s credibility.

The designated spokesperson(s) can present prepared statements, answer questions, respond to rumors, and manage press conferences.

Communicate early and often

In today’s environment of constant connection and instant communication, misinformation, speculation, and rumors can spread quickly. It’s important for law enforcement agencies to get ahead of the story when possible, This helps agencies stay in control of the messaging and help prevent panic.

In his book Crisis Leadership Now, Laurence Barton advises leaders to share as much information as possible. “When in doubt, act quickly, tell your public what you know and don’t know, and over communicate at every step of your decision-making process.”

Agencies should have phones manned and talking points prepared as soon as possible after the incident to answer to media and public. Social media can also be a powerful tool to quickly inform the public of critical information.

When it comes time for a press conference, the spokespersons should be as clear as possible, never lie, and explain why they can’t comment on a particular question instead of simply using “no comment.”

3. Establish alternative communication protocols

Modern technology has made it easier to instantly communicate with both internal and external stakeholders. Advanced dispatching systems allow for fast responses. Crisis response apps and text or email alerts can instantly inform officers and citizens of emergency situations.

However, a law enforcement crisis communication plan should include alternatives if regular lines of communication fail. For example, how will the organization communicate with internal staff if the agency’s computer system is down? How will they disseminate critical information to citizens if phone lines are down or there is no electricity?

4. Regularly evaluate and update processes

An outdated law enforcement crisis communication plan won’t do much more good than no plan at all. The agency’s crisis communication team should regularly review the plan, policies, and procedures to ensure they are up-to-date and account for new technology and practices.

Reviewing crisis communication plans before an incident will allow the team to spot potential scenarios they may have previously missed. They may even be able to fix issues in policies that can help prevent certain crises from occurring.

Agency leaders should also review the crisis communication plan in the aftermath of a crisis. Once things have calmed down, agency leaders can evaluate the effectiveness of crisis communications in the agency. How well did staff follow the policies and procedures? How well did the processes work? Were there any ways the crisis could have been avoided or handled better?


5. Integrate crisis response and communication into training

In the midst of a crisis, things quickly get hectic. Lines of communication may get crossed. Unforeseen circumstances may complicate things. It can be easy for officers to forget the correct plans and processes.

This is where training comes in. When law enforcement officers have trained in realistic scenarios, they’ll know how to put the plans into practice, keep calm, and make responsible decisions.

Officer training should go over policies and procedures for potential crisis scenarios. Law enforcement agencies should also run drills and simulations to help train officers on how to respond and communicate effectively in a crisis.

Robust training materials play a critical role in preparing officers for a crisis. Training management software can enhance and streamline training. Law enforcement training software such as PowerDMS enables organizations to integrate media-rich content into online training. Instead of depending on standard training manuals and in-person classroom training, the right software will let agency leaders integrate solutions like video into digital training manuals, making the content much more engaging for users.

Department leaders can also create tests based on the training content. This compels officers to pay attention and take in critical information in order to complete the test and sign off on completion of the training module.

Law enforcement crisis communication—both internally and to the public—requires a rare combination of improvised decision-making and policy compliance.

Proactive planning and training helps law enforcement agencies handle this balancing act. Effective law enforcement crisis communication helps agencies ensure successful outcomes, build public trust, and keep everyone safe in the midst of a dire situation.

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