The police searching for a role in public debate
The police have the ability to communicate in operative contexts, but in public debate, the police have not quite found a place yet. Challenging situations include ones in which police operations are the subject of critical public debate.
Two recent reports by the Police University College review the challenges and opportunities related to public communication of the police, from the viewpoint of the police. The topic is also handled in light of examples, focussing on the themes of the police as suspect of a crime or misconduct, and police operations in demonstrations.
The studies show that the communication and operational culture of the police are experiencing a period of transition. Communication is seen, more clearly than before, as an integral part of police duties, such as a way to discuss phenomena that risk safety and security, and to prevent the spreading of incorrect or harmful information. However, there are major differences between police units as to the current stage of the change.
“Police communications are successful in many ways. However, within the police forces, the provision of information about operations is still seen as the primary task of police communications, and views on the participation of the police in public debate vary,” says Researcher Iina Sahramäki.
“Many police representatives who participated in our study pointed out that open public debate may involve not only positive consequences, but also many negative and unpredictable ones. A great number of these target individuals. This may prevent participation as may the fact that public debate is inevitably also normative and political.”
The police sidelined in debate concerning police operations
In the current media environment, the traditional methods of official communications used by the police are no longer valid. On fast-paced public debate forums, reactive and delayed communications easily result in a void in communication and may leave room for unintentional and intentional spreading of false information.
Even though the situations are challenging for the police, they offer the opportunity to develop interactive communications and anticipate themes that stimulate discussion.
“It goes without saying that the police cannot take a stand on individual suspicions of crime and misconduct by the police when the investigation or examination of the incidents is ongoing. However, the police should participate, at the general level, in discussion considering the use of force by the police and the ethical aspects of policing. It is necessary to inform about the legality of the operations, but that alone is not enough to influence the opinions of the general public and their impression of the police,” says Researcher Pirjo Jukarainen.
The reports relate to the research project Public Communication of the Finnish Police, carried out in 2021 on the current status, challenges and development needs of public communication of the police.