Channel 9 digs deeper into CMPD’s new public information policy

CHARLOTTE — Channel 9 is looking into the new way the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department is providing answers to the people who live and work in this community.

The department is now creating more of its own content for social media, and has cut back on answering some of the questions viewers ask Channel 9 when crimes happen in the community.

Anchor Allison Latos sat down for a one-on-one interview Monday with CMPD Chief Johnny Jennings to hear why he implemented this new strategy and what it means for people who live in this community who want answers about the crimes that happen here. With CMPD dealing with an officer shortage, the department says they want uniformed officers on the streets and not answering questions.

>> Click here to watch Latos’ interview with Chief Jennings.

Government Reporter Joe Bruno has received thousands of messages from followers on Twitter and other social media as things happen in our community. Bruno takes those concerns and questions to CMPD. But he’s also experienced how much harder it is to get answers, sometimes even when a crime is in a busy location in the middle of the day.

Here are a few of those incidents:

On May 30, Channel 9 heard about a woman kidnapped in South End. We reached out to CMPD at 7:45 p.m., but the department didn’t say anything until the next day at 2 p.m. when they confirmed the incident and then asked for the public’s help.

On Aug. 11, as tens of thousands of people flocked to uptown for Panthers Fan Fest, two people were shot in Center City on Montford Point Street near the Skyhouse apartments. We reached out to CMPD at 6:30 that night because roads were blocked off and covered in crime scene markers, and people wanted to know what was going on. The department didn’t say anything until 2 p.m. the next day, when they posted about the shooting on Twitter.

On scene, officers are generally prohibited from giving information. Now, CMPD is telling us not to email public information officers directly to get answers for you. They are directing us to the records division which works only during normal business hours.

Their response to a question about a recent stabbing: “Please allow at least 24 hours for a report to be processed and approved.”

(WATCH BELOW: ‘I say give it two months’: Public information office expert weighs in)

‘I say give it two months’: Public information office expert weighs in

Channel 9 turned to an expert in the public information industry to ask what a PIO department’s main responsibilities are.

Judy Pal has more than 30 years of experience working with and training police departments around the country and the world. She’s worked with the NYPD, Baltimore Police Department, Milwaukee Police Department and others.

She now travels the country, training police departments in crisis communications and media relations. She is also a former journalist.

“It’s a police department’s job to get out correct, timely, and useful information as quickly as possible,” said Pal. “Our job as public information officers is to convey information from the department that a community needs to have, is nice to have, and is going to help them understand not only about community safety, but also about how they can be part of making a community a safer place to be.”

She admits, it’s as crucial of a job as it is a difficult one. Pal said oftentimes public information offices are underfunded and often face pushback from inside the department and outside of it.

“Police departments do have some challenges with media and I totally understand that because I understand both sides of the camera,” Pal said. “But it’s still the partnership with the news media, traditional news, is extraordinarily important.”

She said giving out information to the community in a timely manner can be helpful to investigations, especially during large crisis. However, she also realizes when information needs to be held to protect the integrity of an investigation.

Pal warns about delays in providing information on neighborhood crimes or other large incidents. She notes the community needs to know details on what is happening.

“No comment never stopped a story. You’re still going to as a reporter, need to cover that,” she said. “So, a police department has to consider are we going to be heard? Are you know, are we going to provide the correct information that needs to go out there because any void will be filled and it will be filled with conjecture.”

She understands the use of a police department’s social media accounts in order to spread and promote good stories, but she doesn’t believe everyone likes to receive all information that way.

“Sometimes people in the community want to get it from social media directly from the police department and that’s great. Other people want to get it through what they see is an independent, independent third party,” she said.

She does not believe police departments can control the narrative, but instead they can manage their message.

“The media has a role to be, sometimes not so independent, but an independent voice,” she said. “You do add credibility to our voice. If someone doesn’t particularly like or trust their police department -- if it’s coming from a trusted reporter [then] maybe our message gets through them.”

In a recent research report conducted by RAND Corporation, an organization that help to improve public policy challenges in order to make communities safer and healthier, researchers found, “the PIO role cannot just be about telling and amplifying the agency’s side of a story.”

The study also found that “agencies are often not communicating quickly enough with the public during critical incidents” and that “agencies often need to transition from thinking of communication as ‘pleasing the media and meeting their deadlines’ to ‘what does the public need to hear and when?’”

>> To read the full report, including problems the industry faces and potential solutions, click here.

(WATCH: Channel 9 speaks with PIO expert about CMPD’s new strategy)

Charlotte mayor on police transparency: ‘We can’t afford to ignore it’

Charlotte City Council members were surprised to hear about this change in how information is and isn’t shared. The city says councilmembers were told about this on Sept. 1, the day it went into effect.

Several have questioned this approach by CMPD and their public affairs team. Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles told Channel 9′s Joe Bruno it may need to be reviewed in the future.

Mayor Lyles told Bruno she has discussed the change with CMPD Chief Johnny Jennings and City Manager Marcus Jones. She says she wants to see how it works and then adjust it if need be.

CMPD gets 40% of the city’s general fund budget. For years, the city has tried hard to improve police and community relations.

Residents expect -- and at times demand -- transparency from their government. When something happens in their neighborhood, they want to know as much as possible in a timely manner. To that end, Lyles says transparency from the police department is vital.

“Police transparency and transparency in government has been one of the major calls in the community,” Lyles said. “We can’t afford to ignore it.”

Lyles said news organizations should be part of that conversation about whether this is working.

Charlotte City Councilman: ‘I was quite taken aback’

Following Channel 9′s interview, Chief Jennings doubled down on the new strategy in front of city council Monday night. Charlotte City Councilmembers questioned the chief on how it will impact the public in receiving timely information..

Charlotte City Council did not find out about the change until after it went into effect. Councilman Malcolm Graham said he would have liked to known sooner.

“When I first read about it, I was quite taken aback to be honest with you,” Graham said.

He said he understands neighbors want to know what is going on in their communities.

“If someone breaks into a car or a shooting occurs, they want to know the particulars on it as soon as possible so they can feel as safe as they can in their homes and the communities themselves,” Graham said.

Jennings defended the strategy to the council, saying he doesn’t consider the change to be drastic and staff shortages make it necessary.

“We simply don’t have the staffing in a city our size to take in the enormous amount of requests we get daily,” Jennings said.

But some councilmembers would like to see a balance, pointing out not everyone has access to the CMPD app and Twitter feed and instead rely on the media.

“If someone doesn’t have the CMPD app, how do our residents outside of the media sources know that something is going on on 77 or 85?” asked councilwoman LaWana Slack-Mayfield.

City leaders say transparency from the police department is essential.

“Certainly public access to the police department is important, the public has a right to know questions concerning what is happening within our community,” Graham said. “I tend to lean on the side of more information than less.”

“This is something I want to talk about in the spirit of transparency and the spirit of educated and informed constituency, that’s what democracy really does rely on,” said Mayor Pro Tem Braxton Winston.

Councilman Tariq Bokhari is backing the shift in CMPD policy, saying it is the reality right now due to staff shortages, but he also said if there are questions and concerns about it, the city should iron those out.

(WATCH BELOW: Charlotte City Council reacts to CMPD’s new public information policy)