A video showing protesting students passively at the University of California Davis casually being pepper-sprayed by a campus police officer is all over the news this weekend. Now the department is under investigation to determine whether excessive force was used by officers working to control Occupy Wall Street demonstrators.
This was also the week that the City of New York cleared Zuccotti Park of its two month-long occupation, sometimes using pepper spray and batons to break up resisting crowds. Occasional injuries to protesters have become common in these scenes, scenes that are being repeatedly played out in front of omnipresent cameras.
Armed with public relations staffs, police departments must constantly work to strike a balance between enforcing the law and maintaining a positive public image. After all, the social contract we’ve created with police can be volatile. We’ve essentially given a small group of people permission to wear uniforms and carry guns and other forms of enforcement tools in exchange for our personal and public safety. When the public feels this trust has been violated, it gets upset. Police departments face the difficult task of repairing damage caused by such incidents, because loss of public support can be devastating on many levels. The PR skills needed to maintain this balance is not easy. In a busy urban or suburban police department, potential PR crises are peppered throughout nearly every work day. It’s a PR job that’s not for the faint-hearted. Your thoughts?