Search and Seizure: A Deeper Look Into Police Public Information Departments

By: Chris Danforth

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect views of the Journal, the William H. Bowen School of Law, or UA Little Rock.


On August 5, 2021, the San Diego Sheriff’s Department posted a video on Twitter with the caption “Recently, a @SDSheriff Deputy was exposed to Fentanyl and nearly died of an overdose. If it wasn’t for the quick-thinking of his Field Training Officer in administering Naloxone, that deputy would not be alive today. Watch our public safety video:” The video linked in the tweet has since been deleted, but the full video exists in the contemporaneous reporting.

In this video, the Department intertwines body cam footage and officer interviews to tell the harrowing tale of Deputy David Faiivae as he–while searching a person–comes into contact with fentanyl and immediately overdoses, sending him collapsing to the ground and into convulsive seizures. The video crescendos as it shows an emotional Deputy Faiivae watching the footage of his collapse and seizure on the parking lot asphalt as his fellow deputy makes the promise that “I’m not going to let you die.” The responding deputy injected Faiivae with Nalaxone, and Faiivae lived to record a public safety video about the event just a few weeks later. Here’s the thing – despite the tears and breathless promises made, a Fentanyl overdose through skin contact is a physical impossibility, and the officer was never even tested to see if fentanyl was in his system. The entire story (and corresponding slickly produced video) was simply not the truth.

The subject of Fentanyl has continued to be a prominent form of copaganda, with the DEA currently promoting stories of “rainbow Fentanyl” being targeted and sold to children all over the United States. National news organizations have breathlessly taken this story and run with it, seemingly without questioning the basic premise of the story. These stories have corresponded with calls from Congress for more funding for policing – to the tune of 290 million dollars. But again, here’s the thing – colored Fentanyl tablets have been around for months and bright, multi-colored drugs in general have existed for decades. At least when Arkansas’s Attorney General Leslie Rutledge is fear-mongering about Halloween candy laced with THC (a thing that similarly doesn’t really exist), she isn’t also calling to increase police funding by an amount that is roughly the same size investment amount needed for Arkansas’s bridges to be repaired so that they are safe to use.

So what, exactly, is happening when we see these coordinated stories spread through the media? Are these stories really just cynical functions to increase law enforcement budgets? In a word: yes.

In 2002, the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) completed and delivered a research project entitled “Media Relations and Police Budgeting: A successful equation” to the International Association of Chiefs of Police. This project surveyed 490 police departments across the United States to “determine how police budgets are developed and to identify department and community factors (such as budget process and format, population growth, sensational events, crime trends, and degree of local governmental support) that may have affected a department’s budgetary success.” There were two key findings.

First, devoting money to public and media relations bends reporting to meet the departmental view, and away from an objective one based on the totality of the facts. Specifically, the report found that “[i]n police departments with successful media relations, police executives and staff sought common ground with media professionals, and members of both professions worked to understand each other’s needs. As a result, media reports were generally perceived as more objective by the police and tended to better incorporate the law enforcement perspective.” (emphases added).

This is particularly troubling, as law enforcement documentation and publicly-disclosed statements have a long history of being untrustworthy. In recent years, the murder of George Floyd was famously documented in a police bulletin as “Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction.” Charges have just now been brought against the Louisville police officers that broke into Breonna Taylor’s home, shot her to death, and then lied to cover it up. Many Americans have an entire list of household names on the edge of their lips, names of people who had their lives or their liberty unjustly taken by police departments who then used their power and influence to bend the public story toward their perspective and away from the objective truth of the matter. Further, the journalistic practice of relying on police reports and departmental sources produces factually inaccurate and biased reporting. Devoting departmental budget and resources to media manipulation under the guise of “public information” encourages dishonest public practices and further perpetuates the harm.

Second, devoting money to public and media relations produces a positive return on investment, as there is a causal relationship between spending money on public relations and budgetary expansion.

PERF found that departments who utilized their public information departments “correctly” were consistently able to increase their department budgets by over 20%. The report laid out three ways that local law enforcement agencies can use public information departments to increase their budget.

First, law enforcement agencies can use their relationships with media members to “take the lead and make the media aware of fundings needs.” The report used the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department (CMPD) as an example. Feeling that they needed more funding for officer weaponry, CMPD called a press conference. At this conference, the department displayed a number of guns seized from arrested individuals next to their officer’s duty guns. The press reported on this event, dutifully framing the comparison as one that would lead the public to believe that CMPD was engaging in fire-fights in the streets and was being out-gunned. The department was–thanks in part to the reporting done on this event–able to secure funding for the “upgrading of its weapons.” PERF used this example to show that “[l]ess dramatic events can provide numerous reasons for increased funding.”

Second, law enforcement agencies can use their relationships with media members to leverage larger scale “tragedies or crises” to “aid in efforts to secure new support” for the department. The report called out the World Trade Organization “riots” in Seattle as an opportunity that many police departments leveraged in order to secure increased funding. The report also pointed to the Oklahoma City bombing, the Columbine shootings, and the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon as specific examples of opportunities to capitalize on and take advantage of, saying that “[w]hen a department needs increased funding, prudent responses to such events can prove instrumental.”

Third, law enforcement agencies can use their relationships with media members to showcase their newly funded technology, equipment, or weaponry to improve community confidence in the department and to justify the budget requests. Notably, the report makes no mention as to whether or not increased technology, equipment, or weaponry leads to increased community safety, only that these demonstrations should be used to improve relationships with the media and to disseminate departmental messaging to the community.

With a 2021 budget of $1.1 million, the San Diego Sheriff’s Department Media Services Unit has been a very effective tool for their department and the San Diego Sheriff’s Department has used this strategy to great avail, having successfully increased their budget from $611 million in 2011 to $936 million in 2021 despite the fact that during this same period of time nearly every category of crime in San Diego saw reduced rates of occurrence. But these manufactured crises, leveraged catastrophes, and fabricated crime waves ruin lives and damage communities. So the next time a well-produced video of law enforcement officers taking part in the latest viral craze (or a deputy’s “near-death” experience) lands in your timeline, it’s worth keeping in mind what that video is really costing the community.



About the author:  Chris Danforth is a third-year law student at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Chris is currently the Symposium and Events Editor at the Arkansas Journal of Public Policy and Social Change as well as the Treasurer for OutLaw.

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