When it comes to passion about the integral part that media plays in law enforcement, Chief Dave Norris of Menlo Park Police Department has enough for himself, his team and far beyond.
Policing Silicon Valley has its unlikely challenges and rewards so we spoke to Chief Norris who recently moved from a twenty seven year tenure at San Mateo Police Department. Chief Norris is only just getting started on bringing the spoils of that experience to the fortunate residents of the City of Menlo Park.
How would you describe the community that your police department serves?
The City of Menlo Park is at the same time both similar and different in comparison to San Mateo, the City I worked for during the first 27 years of my career. Like San Mateo, Menlo Park is a suburban city with a range of socioeconomic profiles – there are areas with exclusive neighborhoods containing multimillion-dollar homes, and there are areas with a much more at-risk profile, majority-minority and multicultural population with needs more consistent with lower-income areas. What is very different in Menlo Park are the size of the population – roughly a third compared to San Mateo, and the breadth of the disparity between these pockets of differing socioeconomic profiles.
This also creates a disparity between the way these areas prefer to be policed, and in the way residents feel about their relationship to police. Coupled with a new regulation in Menlo Park for District Elections, and having Council members who each have an obligation to individual districts, we have the opportunity in Menlo Park to hear from all across that broad range, and design our policing strategy accordingly.
There must be unique challenges in a place such as Menlo Park that other PD's may not experience. The population is undoubtedly different from a lot of the rest of the US with the silicon valley label. Have you found anything come up that you weren't expecting?
The District-Elected officials in this City keep all of us directing local government tuned to the individualized needs neighborhood-by-neighborhood in this community. This presents both challenges and advantages, as the voices we need to hear are louder, but the needs and ideals of each neighborhood vary broadly.
One great advantage in suburban Silicon Valley that is pretty consistent is that the average resident profile is fairly well-educated and well-connected to conventional and social media. This allows for agencies in our area to be very proactive in electronic messaging to our communities. It is also the trap, however – we can never forget that there are parts of the community without some of these advantages, so it is no substitute for in-person opportunities to connect.
During your career you've been a real proponent of community engagement and media handling. What is it that interests you about this side of policing?
Part of this was the happenstance of being involved in media relations during the evolution from a classic reactive PIO system, which was pretty typical for police, to a proactive and interactive media and community relations outlook, which happened around 2010-12. Once I took on the Community Services Sergeant position in 2010 and began to understand the relationship between the community and the police, and the relationship between the media and the police, and how interdependent they are on each other, there was no looking back. Morphing the unit into “Community and Media Relations” was an easy decision.
Was there one defining moment where you realized that having good communications is vital to the effective running of a police department?
We always talk about a good communications plan being a way to balance the police-community “ecosystem,” or make deposits into our “bank of trust” with our public, and it is so true. These connections are not only important for community relations, but for having the trust and attention of our conventional media partners.
I received a call on a Saturday afternoon a few years ago after officers shot two loose dogs in a busy city park. The poor dogs were loose and terrified from the massive number of people in the park, and became defensive and aggressive. Response from the local Animal Control was delayed, and police were forced to take action. We were able to put a very clear picture of the situation out to our entire public and the media within 90 minutes of the event, and our proactive transparency minimized negative media attention and community backlash considerably.
In another situation, we were doing a face-to-face crisis negotiation with an armed person in mental health crisis. We were having difficulty negotiating due to overhead noise from news choppers. We made one tweet requesting news back off their helicopters to help us negotiate better, and they instantly gave us the space we needed to safely conclude the situation. That is the rapid power of a good social media relationship with the press.
Even a talented executive who has the ability to be polished on camera can use a dedicated PIO.
What one piece of advice would you give to someone who wants to be a PIO?
Rely on good mentors, coaches and a network of resources. You do not have to reinvent the wheel to get this right, and the law enforcement PIO family is very tight, and always willing to help.
Are there any books, podcasts, websites or any other resources you would recommend for the comms pro?
I think for comms pros, educating yourself in the latest trends is critical. Find the medium that works best for you – videos, blogs, podcasts – and the experts that can really inform you.
For policing, as an example, I have been binge-listening to Dr. Jerry Ratcliffe’s Reducing Crime Podcast and just getting into Dr. Steve Morreale’s CopDoc Podcast series, and find articles by former NYPD PIO Yael Bar-Tur and former Prince George’s & Fairfax County Police PIO Julie Parker to always be on-point and informative.
Crisis Ready Institute’s Melissa Agnes is always willing to help, and great at laying out systems for rapid deployment of strategies. My neighbor down the street, both residentially and agency-wise, Chief Chris Hsiung of Mountain View is always on the tip of the PR spear as well.
What does a dedicated PIO bring to your role and the wider community?
Even a talented executive who has the ability to be polished on camera can use a dedicated PIO. Today’s multimedia reality, with the rapid magnification of controversial or critical events require rapid messaging response. Often executives and command folks will be focused on other matters during a significant crisis event, and dedicated PIOs are uniquely talented to put together messaging across the appropriate platforms and make themselves available to coordinate the media follow-up.
What would you say to anyone else in a leadership role about having a PIO who might not have one?
Not having a designated PIO can really put you behind in a situation, and if you don’t have one, you won’t realize how badly it’s needed until you are in the situation that calls for one. Even if you’re qualified to do it yourself, sometimes leadership dictates that your time is better served taking care of your folks on the inside. Without a PIO in those circumstances, the outside may suffer.
So, get one.
What would be one piece of advice you would give to someone who works in police communications (media handling).
2. Proofread again.
3. Make sure you are sending the message you want, through the medium you want. (I know a police chief whose first tweet was asking what floor a local elected official’s office was on in the building…pretty sure that wasn’t meant for the public!)
Tell us about a time when good media handling or community engagement has improved something within your department.
I would have to reflect on the struggles of police over the past few years in a couple of ways. When the initial wave of modern public concern occurred in the wake of the incidents involving Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Philando Castille, and Eric Garner (among others), a flood of letters came into police departments asking what we were doing across a number of policy issues, including use of force, de-escalation and crisis intervention, bias awareness, body worn cameras, and legitimate, professional conduct (among others). This was a broad opportunity to utilize our media relations platform to set a foundation of legitimacy from which all our communications output could be formed.
It started with a response statement that we drafted, and later evolved with an expansion of the message to include my agency’s reflection on the six pillars of modern policing derived from the President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing –
• Building Trust & Legitimacy
• Policy & Oversight
• Technology & Social Media
• Community Policing and Crime Reduction
• Officer Education & Training
• Officer Safety & Wellness
This is the response statement, which was followed with a rich explanation of how our agency did business and connected with our community:
This is a stressful time for our nation. Conflict and tragedy surround us all, and your Police Department, whose objective is to protect our community and preserve the quality of life for all those whom we are sworn to protect, realizes that there are a number of public questions that continue to wind their way through our police culture. No matter how incredible a relationship that exists between the police and our community (we have, and appreciate, our great relationship with you), there will always be questions. Given the speed of media and the rapid magnification of incidents involving police, we recognize that building and maintaining this relationship is currently not enough. We as a Department must be prepared to tell and show you, our public, that we are motivated every day to the constant improvement that keeps the Police Department’s reputation as one of the most professional and progressive policing organizations you will find.
We ultimately condensed and preserved the document into a flyer we would use as a hand-out for community meetings to come over the next few years.
When the public concern and curiosity resurged after the murder of George Floyd, my department at that time published the details from this earlier flyer as an interactive webpage, and took the response to a further multimedia level by curating and publishing facilitated “Real Talk” conversations with the public across a variety of public safety concern areas including racial equity, issues impacting the elderly, and working with the disabled community, among others… While I was somewhat the “Godfather” of that unit, the incredible work I am describing is entirely to the credit of San Mateo PD’s Media Team, and can be seen here:
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