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San Diego Police officers guard the SDPD headquarters in downtown as protesters gather to stand against a Kentucky grand jury’s decision not to charge police officers for the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz
San Diego Police officers guard the SDPD headquarters in downtown as protesters gather to stand against a Kentucky grand jury’s decision not to charge police officers for the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

If you asked someone to describe in a few words what the police do, you’d probably hear various versions of “protect the community” or “enforce laws” – maybe you’d hear a version of a department’s slogan like “protect and serve.”

But police have another job they take very seriously, as a number of news stories laid out this week: public relations.

The Mercury News noted that one PR firm has contracted with police departments up and down the state to deploy a formula for responding to incidents in which police kill civilians: “In most cases, a police chief or sheriff opens the video explaining why the shooting was justified. Often, the chief is reading from a script written by an outside consultant. The edited camera footage may not even show the actual use of force – an effect far different from a raw cellphone or body cam video of a confrontation that leaves watchers wondering, ‘Why did they have to shoot?’”

CBS 8’s Jack Molmud recently documented a local instance of the same playbook: “The Escondido Police Department edited the body-worn footage of its officer shooting Steven Olson. It decided which segments of the footage to show and what to redact.”

Meanwhile, “over the last five years, the Guardian found at least a dozen examples in [California] of initial police statements misrepresenting events, with major omissions about the officers’ actions, inaccurate narratives about the victims’ behaviors, or blatant falsehoods about decisive factors.”

That police seek to manipulate the media to portray themselves in the best possible light is neither new nor surprising. But what makes it more infuriating than it might seem at first glance is that they do this while simultaneously blaming the media for problems they are directly responsible for.

Former San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman, for example, blamed the media on multiple occasions for the department’s struggles to recruit new officers.

“People think if they make a mistake, they’ll be the next YouTube video. Some don’t think they have the support of the community. Negative press that happens quite a lot, in the media – it’s not just one reason,” Zimmerman told a City Council member who asked why the department’s academies were close to empty. She similarly blamed “the national dialogue” for negative perceptions of officers.

She’s far from alone. The biggest police unions in the state have responded to legislation aimed at raising hiring standards for police by arguing that any negative impressions of police officers or the profession of policing itself are because of the media – not officers’ actions.

Brian Marvel, a former San Diego Police Department officer who’s president of the Peace Officers Research Association of California, said while unveiling the group’s legislative proposals that “disrespect for law enforcement has become a cultural norm nationwide” and that perceptions of law enforcement as “hard-nosed” are a result of “culture” and “the entertainment industry.”

Police want to write the narratives about their behavior, and they want to write the rules guiding that behavior. So far, we’re letting them do it.

That dynamic was captured well in an editorial cartoon by the U-T’s Steve Breen that shows the two SDPD officers who brutally beat a homeless man in La Jolla recently. One asks, “Why are people so critical of law enforcement lately?” as he lands a blow.

What VOSD Learned This Week

A big scoop from Andy Keatts this week: A real estate broker working on behalf of the Housing Commission to purchase hotels for homeless housing might have committed a crime by investing in the company that the agency purchased one hotel from.

Not unrelated: Fentanyl deaths are skyrocketing in San Diego, and the homeless community has been especially hard hit. Also not unrelated: Advocates are pretty pissed about the sale of thousands of affordable apartment units to the Blackstone Group, which has a history of evicting tenants and raising prices.

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Officials are beginning to tackle wage theft, an issue that’s long plagued the most vulnerable workers.

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Schools have unprecedented cash rolling in to tackle pandemic-related problems. Students have unprecedented mental health needs because of the pandemic. So why aren’t schools using the former to address the latter?

Meanwhile, a San Diego Unified official admitted to numerous practices that violate the California Public Records Act. We talked about that deposition, plus a City Council member’s fiery letter on Lincoln High, on this week’s podcast.

What I’m Reading

Line of the Week

“Any definition of objectivity that requires a journalist to pretend neutrality asks that person to lie. Journalists are not automatons. They have opinions, and if they are not male or white or rich or straight, those opinions make them vulnerable to the right-wing outrages that just cost [Emily] Wilder her new job. The press has one purpose, and that is to report news in the public’s interest. It is not entertainment. It is not propaganda. It is not public relations.” – Beep, boop, this journalism robot is merely passing this story along, free of opinion or bias.

Sara Libby

Sara Libby was VOSD’s managing editor until 2021. She oversaw VOSD’s newsroom and content.

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