Division A - Public Relations Programs
Category 5 - Crisis Communication
Polk County Sheriff's Office Deputy Involved Shooting
Polk County Sheriff's Office, Public Information Office

Golden Image Award

Research/Situation Analysis: On September 28, 2006, a Polk County Sheriff’s deputy and his dog had been shot and killed by an unknown suspect who was at large; another deputy sheriff had been shot and wounded in the leg by the same suspect; two city police officers who had responded as back-up exchanged gunfire with the suspect before he retreated into the woods; three nearby schools in the area were locked down - the nearest, a high school, with over 1,600 students, was on lockdown for a total of 7 hours; at that time, it was unknown whether or not the suspect had escaped the PCSO perimeter or was hiding in the thick underbrush and wooded area where the shootings occurred. A school shooting had occurred in Colorado just one day prior to this incident, so part of the media frenzy and public panic was due to that unfortunate coincidence. The two Public Information Officers (PIO’s) quickly realized that this situation had to be handled delicately, yet swiftly, or it would quickly spin out of control.

Objectives: 1) Create a media staging area that provided cover from the elements, restroom facilities, and if possible, food and drink; 2) Give the media as much information as possible, as quickly as possible; 3) Broadcast as much information about the situation as possible to the public, via media outlets, to reduce the quickly-spreading panic and fear; 4) Utilize the media to enlist the public’s help in locating the unknown, dangerous suspect; 5) Maintain the privacy and concern for the well-being of the family members of the injured and slain deputies.

Implementation: Members of the Public Information Office, together with the Audio-Visual Production Manager, maintained a media staging area during the first day of the incident at a local Hardee’s restaurant, after consulting with the manager. News trucks had ample room for parking, and a section of the parking lot was cordoned off for news conferences. Media representatives had access to restroom facilities, food, and drink.
One PIO was at the staging area with the media, while the second PIO staged at the command center and provided updates from the incident commander and the Sheriff. Both PIO’s utilized wireless internet-capable laptop computers and both sent out updated Media Alerts around the clock. Day two of the incident, the media staging area was moved to the high school adjacent to the mobile command center, and the Public Information Officers (PIO’s) ensured the building and restroom facilities at the school were available for the media’s use as well. The PIO’s used Verizon wireless-Palm mobile telephones, with email and text capabilities, to maintain constant contact with each other. A total of seven news conferences were held during the incident: the first news conference was held within 2 hours of the shooting. Two subsequent, scheduled news conferences were held later that evening, for the purpose of disseminating updated information and seeking the public’s help in locating the suspect. The Sheriff was the designated spokesperson, and both PIO’s and the Chief of Staff were immediately available for support if needed. Four more news conferences were held the following day – one was held first thing in the morning, for the purpose of discussing any breaking news that may have occurred overnight. The second news conference was impromptu, but due to the availability of the media staging area (right across the street from the mobile command center) all of the media were on-hand to hear the Sheriff say that the suspect had been found, shot, and killed, and that the situation was resolved. Two subsequent, scheduled news conferences followed, that included PCSO personnel, and family and friends of the injured and slain deputies were on-hand to answer follow-up questions. The Audio-Visual Production Manager coordinated pool camera access to the crime scene before and after the suspect was located. That video footage proved invaluable to the media, the public, and agency members in the aftermath of the crisis. Immediately following the shooting and continuing for an additional week, the PIO’s continued to release critical information to the media and were always available 24/7 for follow-up questions related to the incident, the autopsy results, the funeral arrangements, and support for the deputies’ families.

Evaluation: The efficient and timely implementation of a crisis communication plan by the Office of Communications staff proved to be a highly effective way of proactively disseminating up-to-date information to the media and public. Both PIO’s and the Sheriff received constant praise from local and national news production staff members during and after the situation for the manner in which they handled the media and their needs. Because of the already-established relationships with local media representatives, and the experience of handling of national news incidents prior to this one, the PIO’s were able to gain control of the “feeding frenzy” that ensued after the deputies were shot, and effectively give the media everything they needed in a most timely manner. They were able to do so through utilization of their proven communications network capabilities, such as sending Media Alerts from the field and updating the 24-hour digital Media Information Line on a routine basis, and by relying on the trust and positive reputations that had already been earned.

Budget: The Public Information Officers and Audio-Visual Production Manager are salaried employees, who incur no overtime. Implementation of the crisis communication plan fell within their normal job descriptions.