The Omaha Police Department faced one of those tragic situations Tuesday night that suddenly thrusts a local public safety agency onto the national stage. Officers shot and killed a robbery suspect who was armed with only an Airsoft gun. In addition, in the hail of bullets fired by three officers, a sound engineer with the COPS TV show was killed by “friendly fire”.
The department provided basic information beginning shortly after the 9:00 p.m. shooting, but by Wednesday afternoon Chief Todd Schmaderer held a briefing for reporters that I can only describe as remarkable. I encourage you watch the video above it in its entirety.
Chief Schmaderer gave one of the most effective and timely presentations following a police involved shooting I’ve witnessed. While it was a different set of circumstances, it’s hard not to think that a similar response from police in Ferguson, Missouri would have gone a long way in heading off some of the concerns in that community.
Lack of transparency and the inability to quickly provide solid answers in a highly emotional environment were some of the key points made by the critics of law enforcement in Ferguson. Three of those critics, former police chief Joel Shults, former fire chief Bill Boyd, and crisis communications expert consultant Gerald Baron, wrote excellent articles focusing on the failure to use social media.
Whether it’s using social media during a crisis or a routine event, or handling a press conference, the direction and tone is often set at the top. To operate effectively in today’s world of instant communications, a police chief, fire chief or other leader must create an environment that emphasizes getting facts out quickly in a non-defensive manner. They need to recognize the importance of answering the obvious questions the community will ask. Such a leader understands the best weapon they have to combat rumors that can ignite community resentment is solid and timely information. Chief Schmaderer provided all of that and more.
It helps that Chief Schmaderer is an effective speaker and knows how to handle tough questions under the glare of the lights (even after a night with no sleep). It also helps that the chief and the department learned some lessons from an ugly episode the department faced in March of 2013. Chief Schmaderer alludes to that incident in Wednesday’s briefing. It resulted in the firing of four officers in an excessive force complaint that involved the punching of a restrained man and the confiscation of one of two cameras that recorded the incident.
In addition to providing facts, Chief Schmaderer’s statement in the beginning and his response to questions from reporters, provided a human element that painted a clear picture of the impact this tragedy is having on the chief and his officers.
Often there are many excuses after a high profile and potentially controversial incident about why officials can’t release detailed information. Chief Schmaderer, working with the Douglas County Attorney’s Office, very quickly overcame many of those obstacles and provided their community with a lot of insight into what happened Tuesday night and why the events occurred the way they did. They have set the bar very high.
My bet is this will go a long way in answering the key questions and ultimately have a positive impact on the reputation of the Omaha Police Department.