LOCAL NEWS

PIO’S WALK POINT FOR WPS – Bridge Gap Between Police, Press & Public

WPS PIO CST ERIC HOFLEY PREPARES FOR MEDIA SCRUM (PHOTO JGJ)
WPS PIO CST ERIC HOFLEY PREPARES FOR MEDIA SCRUM (PHOTO JGJ)

I’ll be the first to admit I never fully appreciated the work that crime reporters and journalists did before my retirement from Law Enforcement.  In fact, I always considered the media an annoying distraction from my duties when I worked as Sergeant in charge of a number of high-profile crime units.

It was a love-hate relationship.

In simple terms, the Police need the press and the press needs the Police.

The Police need the press to engage the public in crime fighting initiatives like;

  • Crime Stoppers
  • Suspects for identification (video or photographs)
  • Publishing or broadcasting stories to generate interest in unsolved murder cases (cold cases)

Police also rely on the press to broadcast public safety warnings or alerts.  The Press needs the Police to add content that attracts readers and advertisers.  It ends up being a mutually beneficial albeit often strained relationship.

Since retiring from the Police Service I’ve come to appreciate both sides of the equation.  When I attended the Public Safety Building for my first post retirement press conference I couldn’t help but feel like I was a double agent of some sort.  Standing on the other side of the thin blue line was an interesting experience for me.  For the first time in decades I was forced to rely on members of the WPS Public Information Office (PIO) to find out what was happening in the world of Law Enforcement.

Something else became clear.

The information being shared had been selectively edited and provided little in the way of enlightenment.

The frustration experienced by crime reporters and journalists at these press releases is often palpable.  It seems many crime reporters believe the WPS operates with a stingy KGB-esq style of communication.  The overwhelming sentiment is the Organization was an intolerant entity that lacked in openness and transparency.  It was no secret the WPS was far behind the social media curve with no Facebook or Twitter accounts when Police Organizations across the Country have long-established social media platforms.

Disgruntled crime reporters point to delays in the release of information and tight control of investigative findings as evidence of an Organization that seems to struggle with their ability to provide meaningful communication.

So what’s the deal with the WPS?

As a former guardian of high-level Police intelligence, investigative hold back information and covert investigative techniques, I’m acutely aware of the necessity to balance the public’s need to know with the obligation Police have to protect the integrity of criminal investigations.  On the other hand, I’ve come to recognize that problems often arise when Police exploit that obligation to create an information vacuum where no such risk exists.

The secrecy and stingy release of information regarding Project Devote is a classic example.  In July of 2012 the RCMP & WPS relented under pressure from the media and First Nations and held a press conference releasing information regarding a number of the joint task force’s investigative findings.  This was the type of information that would never sacrifice the integrity of an investigation yet it was doggedly withheld from the media and public.

Police Chief Devon Clunis has taken great strides in his efforts to guide the WPS through the evolution of social media and has relaxed policies regarding the release and sharing of information.

On October 29, 2013, the WPS launched their official Twitter account and now average eight (8) tweets a day to over 7,840 enthusiastic followers.  The Service also publishes Police related news on their “Inside the WPS” webpage and has dramatically increased their use of the WPS You Tube channel.

“Would we liked to have been out of the gate sooner with our offering? Absolutely,” WPS Communications Coordinator James Ham candidly admitted.   “I will say, however, we do have one of more comprehensive social media policies in law enforcement today, which protects the interests of the Service and ensures we are providing value to Winnipeggers through our tweets, webpages and video posts,” he added.

During my years working high-profile crime I worked closely with many PIO’s and have often been impressed by their commitment to provide accurate, timely, appropriate information to the media and the public.  This is no easy job, the PIO’s are more than just talking heads that regurgitate the Police Executive party line.  Open media scrums are frequent events that challenge the PIO’s ability to handle pressure and think on their feet.  Mistakes made during the pressers can jeopardize criminal investigations, traumatize victims of crime and create civil liability for the Police Service.

It’s an unforgiving business, once something is said it can never be unsaid.

The PIO office is staffed by three (3) sworn Police Officers, one (1) civilian media relations assistant and one (1) Communications Coordinator.  When I put this story together I thought it might be interesting to introduce Police Insider readers to the men and women who intentionally put themselves in front of the cameras in a profession where most prefer to avoid the spotlight.  I recently asked the PIO’s to share information about themselves, the job, the challenges, perceptions and any memorable cases they may have worked on.

Some of the responses were personal, intimate and touching.

It’s a great reminder that the people who work for the Police Service are people too.

DETECTIVE SERGEANT NATALIE AITKEN

WPS PIO P/SGT NATALIE AITKEN (PHOTO JGJ)
WPS PIO PATROL SERGEANT NATALIE AITKEN (PHOTO JGJ)

Q “How many years service do you have with the WPS?
A “I’ve worked for the Service for seventeen (17) years as of April 2014.

Q “How long have you worked as a PIO?
A “I worked in the unit from April 2010 – April 2012 as a Constable and returned in May of 2013 after I was promoted to the rank of Detective Sergeant.”

Q “Why did you want to work in the PIO?”
A “Working in the PIO Unit is a demanding job.  The position allows me to share important information about what’s happening in our community and it provides me with an opportunity to highlight the excellent work our members do for the City of Winnipeg.”

Q “What is the most challenging aspect of working as a PIO?”
A “It would have to be maintaining the balance of addressing the needs of the media and ensuring the integrity of our investigations.”

Q “What is the most memorable case you’ve worked on?”
A “That’s a hard question.  There have been many cases that stick out in my mind so it’s hard to pick one.  Instead of picking a memorable case I would rather reflect on the great partners, shifts and units I’ve been fortunate enough to have worked in.  What’s memorable for me is the number of dedicated people in our Police Service that go above and beyond the call of duty to make this a great City.”

Q “The perception exists in the media the WPS is far behind other jurisdictions when it comes to the prompt release of relevant information to the press.  Is this perception true and if so, why?
A “That perception does exist, however, the public and the media need to recognize there are valid reasons why certain information may not be made readily available to them.”

CONSTABLE JASON MICHALYSHEN

CONSTABLE JASON MICHALYSHEN
CONSTABLE JASON MICHALYSHEN

Q “How many years service do you have with the WPS?
A “I’ve worked for the Service for fourteen (14) years.

Q “How long have you worked as a PIO?
A “Five (5) years now.”

Q “Why did you want to work in the PIO?”
A “I’ve always been interested in the news, specifically the media and the role the Police play. When the opportunity came to learn more and ultimately become the WPS PIO I jumped at the chance. Since that time I’ve obtained training in Canada and the US regarding Media Relations, Crisis Communication and other aspects of the job. The learning curve is steep and never ends.”

Q “What is the most challenging aspect of working as a PIO?”
A “It would have to be ensuring information is shard in an appropriate, accurate and timely fashion. There are many steps behind the scenes in the PIO that have to occur before releasing information. We do our very best to ensure the public and media are informed.”

Q “What is the most memorable case you’ve worked on?”
A “I’ve addressed members of the media locally and nationally speaking on every topic imaginable that concerns Law Enforcement or the WPS. From daily news briefings to one on one interviews and media scrums out in the field. One situation that resonates with me was the Outlaw Motorcycle Gang conflict in the City in the summer of 2011. Sharing information with the public regarding violence that was occurring coupled with reassuring them that our members were working tirelessly to resolve it was challenging. It required a lot of preparation and confidence. Through it all I experienced substantial professional growth.”

Q “What is the biggest misconception the media has with the WPS?
A “I’m not sure the press understands the WPS values and appreciates the good working relationship we have with them. We may disagree from time to time, however, they should know we are always focused on protecting information, maintaining the integrity of our investigations and protecting the interests of victim’s of crime.  I think some members of the media lack an appreciation for the role Officers play and the daily challenges they face. Some of the most effective reporters I’ve interacted with over the years have taken the time to educate themselves regarding the big picture as opposed to just focusing on the story.”

CONSTABLE ERIC HOFLEY

WPS PIO CST ERIC HOFLEY (PHOTO JGJ)
WPS PIO CST ERIC HOFLEY (PHOTO JGJ)

Q “How many years service do you have with the WPS?
A “I’ve worked for the Service for thirteen (13) years as of December 4, 2013.

Q “How long have you worked as a PIO?
A “One (1) year as of November 2013.”

Q “Why did you want to work in the PIO?”
A “I had worked in the Domestic Violence Unit for over three (3) years and started to feel like I needed a change.  When I became aware of an opening in the Unit I approached Jason and discussed my thoughts with him.  With his encouragement I applied and was fortunate enough to get the job.  Since then it’s been an eye opener in the challenges the Unit faces both from within the Organization and from the media.”

Q “What is the most challenging aspect of working as a PIO?”
A “For me the most challenging part of the job is reconciling the needs of the Police Service with the needs of the media.  At my first briefing I had a discussion with the reporters and let them know the needs of the investigators had to be my first priority but ensured them I would do all I could to get the information they requested.  I let them know I take great care to avoid the release of inaccurate or inappropriate information that might have an adverse effect on an investigation or any victim (s).  We investigate for victim’s of crime and have to do everything we can to protect their interests.”

Q “What is the most memorable case you’ve worked on?”
A “While not the most difficult, violent or tragic case, the one I remember most involved a boy who would have been around eleven (11) years of age.  It occurred in June of 2005, I was working a Patrol car when we were dispatched to a report of a boy walking alone on the Louise Bridge.  The caller was a passerby who declined to speak to the Police.  When we located the boy on Higgins Avenue he told us he had been with his mother at a nearby Hotel where she was drinking.  He got tired of waiting for her and decided to walk home.  He said he lived “just up the street” so we offered him a ride.  As it turned out, “just up the street” ended up being a distance of over two (2) miles.”

“During the drive the boy talked about a field trip he’d taken to Sandilands.  I have a son who was the same age who had been on a similar outing.  The boy shared his excitement with me as he told me about his plans for the upcoming summer holidays.  I remember pulling up to the house and knocking on the door repeatedly before it was answered by the child’s grandfather.  When we took the boy inside I recall seeing a pot on the stove filled with liquid and a thick coating of scum all over the top of it.  The toilet was backed up and covered in feces.  It wasn’t the worst home I’d seen but when I picture it in my mind I can still feel the sadness I experienced as acutely now as I did then.  When I left that day I gave the boy a card and told him to call me if he ever needed anything.  I never heard from him again.  When I went home that night I gave my children a big hug and shared the story with my wife.  I often think of the boy and wonder what became of him.”

Q “What is the biggest misconception the media has with the WPS?
A “I have the perception the media thinks we attempt to deliberately mislead or withhold information from them for no reason.  As I indicated earlier, my first responsibility is to the Police Service and victims of crime.  Our primary job is to protect the integrity of criminal investigations.  If the investigators need us to limit the information we release, or release nothing at all, then that’s what we have to do.  While we may not always agree on certain issues, I would like to believe the media knows we recognize and value their contribution to the process and that we appreciate the assistance they give the PIO Unit.”

 TERRY KOLBUCK – MEDIA RELATIONS ASSISTANT

D/Sgt Natalie Aitken, Media Relations Assistant Terry Kolbuck, Cst Jason Michalyshen (WPS Youtube Video Screenshot)
D/Sgt Natalie Aitken, Media Relations Assistant Terry Kolbuck, Cst Jason Michalyshen (WPS Youtube Video Screenshot)

Q “How many years service do you have with the WPS?
A “I’ve worked for the Service for eight (8) years.

Q “How long have you worked as a PIO?
A “I’ve been assigned to the PIO for five (5) years now.”

Q “Why did you want to work in the PIO?”
A “I initially came to the PIO on a temporary assignment to assist with unit operations.  The PIO clerk was retiring and they needed someone to fill the position until it could be posted.  Before I came to the team I wasn’t even aware the Police Service had a PIO unit.  When the job was posted I realized how much I might enjoy the challenges the job entailed.  The job came with a huge learning curve and kept me excited from the very first day.  I can’t begin to tell you how much I’ve learned about the Police Service and the dynamics of the media.  I’ve also met many wonderful people both inside and outside of the Organization.  I never take for granted how fortunate I am to work with such great people.”

Q “What is the most memorable case you’ve worked on?”
A “There have been many cases that have affected me deeply.  Many of these cases have made me appreciate my life and count my blessings.  The most memorable case I experienced occurred when I was working as a 911 operator in the Communications Center.  I received a call from a suicidal woman and kept her engaged on the telephone until Patrol Officers were dispatched and able to help her.  While speaking with her I learned we were similar in age and had similar hobbies and interests.  She really wasn’t all that much different from me.  She was kept safe that night thanks to the Officers who attended the call and ensured she received the help she so desperately needed.  Unfortunately, a month or so later I noticed a “sudden death” call to a familiar address in the Police queue.  It was the same woman I had spoken with a month earlier, the one who wasn’t much different from me.  Sadly, I found myself counting my blessings once again that night.”

RELATED LINKS:

Winnipeg Police K9 Facebook Page

News Room – Inside the WPS

WPS on Twitter

WPS Youtube Channel

2 Comments

  1. James G Jewell

    I would be willing to bet every cop in Winnipeg has a gut wrenching story about children they’ve seen in abhorrent conditions.

    It’s one of the hardest parts of the job.

  2. ERIC HOFLEY’S comments on his most memorable case. Man that hurts just reading it.

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