Local law enforcement union officials in suburban Illinois are conducting training sessions to teach officers how to avoid having their departments become the "next Ferguson" — the Missouri town that descended into chaos and became a flashpoint for international protests after a local police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teen in August.
But the focus is not on curbing police brutality or improving community relations, but rather, how to handle bad press. The Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) recently launched an event titled "Media Relations Training: Don't Be the Next Ferguson, Missouri!" the Chicago Tribune reported.
Around 70 suburban officers and officials showed up to the half-day event.
The instruction was carried out in Orland Park, Illinois, less than 300 miles away from the neighborhood where Ferguson officer Darren Wilson fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown on August 9. The session was a "what not to do" — in terms of public relations — if a similar event occurred in Illinois.
Intense media scrutiny following Brown's death has struck a chord with law enforcement officials eager to avoid a public relations meltdown like the one at Ferguson's police department as protesters gathered across the St. Louis suburb, and later cities across the country, to call for an end to police brutality. News of the shooting and protests later spread across the world as hashtags such as #BlackLivesMatter and #JusticeForMikeBrown rapidly spread across the internet.
"I think people saw Ferguson as an 'Oh, my gosh' and said, 'I don't want an "Oh, my gosh" in Orland Park,'" Rick Rosenthal, president of RAR Communications, who ran the training session, told the Tribune. "I think they see that if an officer has to use deadly force, that's a matter for investigation, but in public relations, they can do a better job than Ferguson did."
Rosenthal said that the Ferguson police department's lack of communication after Brown's death and resulting "information vacuum" was filled by "speculation, rumor, and outright falsehoods" in the "Twitterverse."
Twitter was a major platform for anti-police brutality campaigners in the wake of Brown's killing and other police shootings of unarmed black men in the US, including Eric Garner in New York and Tamir Rice in Cleveland. Social media was one of the topics addressed in the training seminar, which included recommendations for police to release information within the first two hours of an incident.
Other subjects included "Feeding the Animals," a lesson in giving the media something to work with instead of shutting them out. This phrase was criticized as having racial overtones when it was posted on a flyer for the course in St. Louis, but Rosenthal said there was no intentional reference to race or Ferguson.
"I wouldn't call it earth-shattering, but we're making an effort to equip chiefs with tools they need to do a great job in the post-Ferguson era, and media relations is one of them," IACP Executive Director Ed Wojcicki said.