OUR VIEW: HPD needs a policy on shooting information

Local brew pub opens this week in Houma
March 7, 2017
A letter to President Donald Trump
March 7, 2017

For substandard pay and minimal thanks, a special group of brave men and women daily protect our property and ourselves, keeping the peace and maintaining order when need be. They don’t ask much except for some understanding.

Behind each shield that an officer wears is the power of the state, and there are unfortunate times when that power authorizes the taking of human life.

On Mardi Gras Day at around 8:30 p.m. 43-year-old Jose Olivares, who was armed with a shotgun, was killed by police gunfire. There are no indications at this point of criminal wrong-doing on the part of Houma police officers The case is still under investigation by the Louisiana State Police.

But there is a problem.

With the exception of terse answers to texted questions from The Times shortly after the shooting HPD Chief Dana Coleman – himself an experienced public information officer – has made no statements about the incident. No narrative was released by HPD, no announcement that police had taken a life was made, and all questions were referred to the State Police. Olivares was not identified by name until late the next morning in direct response to queries by The Times. A State Police message containing the name was released at 1:45 p.m. Wednesday.

Seeds of misinformation were already sprouting on Facebook Tuesday night. The vacuum left by the paucity of information could easily have been filled by rumors, which could have resulted in unfortunate consequences. Such a failure to communicate erodes public trust, something HPD has worked hard on building.

Strategic planning and creation of a news media strategy for emergencies – and the shooting of a civilian by police qualifies as such – is not a mere option for any police department. It is a requirement.

Recitation of the most basic information – who, what, when, where and why – can go a long way toward squelching rumors, putting the public at ease, preventing unintended consequences and laying a foundation for what statements may need to be made in days to come, depending on the situation.

Over the past several years we have seen disturbing instances of violence in cities or towns when an officer takes a life – in cases proved justified as well as those where suspicion arises. The first step toward minimizing untoward events in the wake of such a tragedy is as much transparency as can be responsibly provided.

A police chief or other law enforcement executive should not be expected to answer questions on the fly under such circumstances. That’s a given. But responsible voices within law enforcement, including the International Association of Chiefs of Police, recommend as much transparency as possible, and with good reason.

The gravity of such a situation requires that officials assemble for a press conference at which questions can be answered if possible, or when they can’t a reasonable explanation given why that is so.

Our advocacy here is not self-serving. The Times is blessed with a staff that is experienced in dealing with such matters and can get to the story even without this type of cooperation, as has been demonstrated in this instance. But we would rather not use anonymous sources, especially for basic information that should be provided as a matter of routine, even in situations which are not.

We strongly urge Parish President Gordon Dove, Chief Dana Coleman and heads of other agencies to realize that revealing rather than concealing information that does not jeopardize an ongoing investigation should be a standard policy in officer-involved shootings.

Such a practice benefits not only public and press but the police officers who daily risk their lives on our behalf.

Proper press and public relations gives a chief law enforcement officer an opportunity when an incident occurs – if warranted – to express confidence in officers and the job they do. Without passing judgement, there were facts apparent early in the recent case which if properly handled could have given Chief Coleman or Parish President Dove the opportunity to do just that.

We are long past the time in our community when a paternalistic and secretive approach to handling crucial information is acceptable. The Terrebonne Parish Consolidated Government has proved itself up to the task of responsibly handling many difficult and sensitive challenges in recent times. We wish to maintain faith that this particular challenge is one that can be met as well.