On Friday, July 24, the Minneapolis City Council voted 9-3 to eliminate the Public Information Officer role from the city’s police department and shift their responsibilities to the city’s communications staff.
The death of George Floyd after he was apprehended by Minneapolis police captured international attention and has spurred important conversations about racism, equality and justice. Those discussions should continue so America can live up to its promise that all of us are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Equal protection and treatment under the law for all people is essential for a just society. Police departments are the first point of contact for enforcing the law and promoting public safety.
Eliminating the Minneapolis Police Department’s PIOs does not further the conversation about appropriate police tactics, equal treatment or justice. What it will do is slow the release of information about crimes and police activities, especially those that take place after business hours and on weekends.
The communications staff of a mayor’s office or city council is already busy carrying out the work of representing those elected officials. The National Association of Government Communicators respects their work and represents their interests. We also recognize that they are simply not staffed sufficiently to effectively take on all the work that police PIOs do every day on top of their already busy schedules.
Government communicators who work for elected officials, including mayors and city councils, are trained professionals, and as a society, we should hold them to the same expectations for conduct as their colleagues in civil service departments and agencies. The National Association of Government Communicators spells out those expectations in our code of ethics, which is built on the values of honesty and transparency.
It is also important to recognize that communicators who work for elected officials are typically at-will employees who have a vested interest in the success of the people they work for. Police public information officers typically are civil service employees whose jobs are protected from changes in the political fortunes of elected officials. That civil service protection also should reduce the impact – or even the appearance of any impact – by politics on the distribution of honest and accurate information.
In the George Floyd case, the police department’s PIO, John Elder, has acknowledged issuing an initial news release that mischaracterized Floyd as appearing to “suffer medical distress” rather than telling officers that he could not breathe while one of the officers pressed his knee against the back of Floyd’s neck.
Elder told media outlets that he based the news release on a description he received during briefings, rather than going to the scene or reviewing body camera footage.
Public information officers should be able to rely on information provided to them by others in their organizations. If that information is found to be inaccurate, they have a responsibility to correct the record immediately. Mischaracterizing events harms public trust in our government institutions and that is clearly the case here.
As an organization, NAGC stands with the Minneapolis police PIOs and the city’s communications team. Both fulfill important, yet different, roles. Both should continue to serve their community ethically, honestly and professionally. In this way, the public can be well-informed and make the best decisions about how to move forward toward a better future that recognizes there is one race – the human race – in which Black lives matter just as much as all others.