If the past year has shown us anything, it’s that crime and terror on a major scale can happen anywhere, not just in big cities like New York or Washington D.C.
There were probably a lot of Americans who had never heard of Kalamazoo, Michigan, before an Uber driver went on a killing spree in my community on Feb. 20, 2016, but I am guessing a lot of Americans also had never heard of San Bernardino, Calif., before terrorists attacked it last December.
Just two weeks before the Uber driver killed six people, I was talking to a reporter and discussing the notion that an active shooter event could easily happen here. As police chiefs, we have to be ready for major incidents, no matter the size of the community that we are responsible for protecting. With major incidents comes major attention from the national media, and these days, sometimes even the international media.
From a chief’s perspective, managing the incident becomes the top priority. Within that context, there are two critical elements that are tied together: controlling information internally between multiple agencies and jurisdictions and externally to the public, elected officials and other stakeholders.
The infusion of social media and the proliferation of iPhones have created an expectation from Americans to have instant information with the touch of a finger! How do you meet that expectation without compromising the integrity of the investigation as well as releasing information that has been vetted and is accurate?
We have a Facebook page that we use for promoting interesting stories about the department. We also have a Twitter page. Neither has been used previously for releasing breaking news. Given our size and the fact that I was our only real PIO, we just really weren’t set up that way.
I imagine this is the case for a lot of departments across this nation of ours. I can tell you this: when an incident of this magnitude hits your town, it feels like you are in the midst of a hurricane. You are trying to deal with so many different reporters that it can become overwhelming to manage.
In our case, we were assisted for two reasons. First, the initial shooting happened in a different jurisdiction in our county, and it appeared to be random. The next shootings took place several hours later in our city, over a 16-minute span, and then we made the arrest within two hours.
Certainly, there were lots of questions afterward, but at least this wasn’t a protracted mobile active shooter situation that required continual communication to the public out of necessity for their safety.
Due to the strong relationships that have been built between our department and other agencies, in this case the Kalamazoo Sheriff’s Department, Michigan State Police, and the Kalamazoo County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, this horrific event was void of usual turf wars, jurisdictional issues and simple ego clashes.
That just doesn’t happen here!
The good relationships and respect each of us holds for one another really played out well for us in terms of how we would release information to the press.
I still remember that first night, the sheriff, the prosecutor and myself meeting around 1 a.m. and coming up with a media strategy. It really helped us manage the release of information and bring some stability to the situation.
Within a few days of the event, we also locked down all media communication and made the prosecutor’s office the central voice for the case. We had encountered a couple of examples of too many voices causing confusion because our department had more information in one instance while the sheriff or prosecutor’s office had more in another. Rather than continuing down that path, we found that having one central voice brought those problems to an end.
Finally, less than a week after the attack, all of the involved agencies met in person to discuss each of their Freedom of Information policies. It was important to meet face to face, instead of discussing it via email, and come up with a consistent plan of releasing information to the press that stayed true to each agency’s policy.
We will likely be making changes to our public affairs capabilities in the future, but for now, we are awaiting the results of a Police Foundation after-action review of the case. I expect the comprehensive review will give us better ideas on where we can go.
In closing, I will say the same thing I tell the men and women of our department, along with the people of our community. Every agency in this country has to prepare itself for something of this magnitude. It can happen in your community just as it has happened in mine. Make sure to have clear planning about the multiple issues that can come about in cases like this because it is through good, smart, proactive preparation that you have to draw from when all hell breaks loose.
Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety Chief Jeff Hadley currently leads a department comprised of 212 sworn police/fire officers. The Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety is the largest public safety department in the United States. Chief Hadley has a Masters Degree in Management from Indiana Wesleyan University and is a graduate of the 220th session of the FBI National Academy and 48th session of the DEA Drug Unit Commanders Academy. He is also an executive fellow with the Police Foundation.