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Police Chief's View: Headline erred, reinforced negative narrative of law enforcement

Mike Tusken.

On Nov. 27, the city of Virginia experienced a nightmare scenario for an officer: a hostage situation. A man armed with a knife took a hostage, and police at the scene used deadly force to save the life of the hostage. In saving the life of the hostage, another life was lost, and all those who touched this traumatic incident will carry it with them for a lifetime.

More than a handful of times in my career, I have met with police officers immediately after a shooting incident. I have looked into their eyes and soul and have seen raw emotion, stress, fear, self-doubt, shock, anxiousness, worry, and confusion. The occasion they trained for and what they hoped they would never need to do had just happened. In those moments, officers' concerns turn to their families who worry about them, to whether their boss will support them, and to how the community will judge them.

This is why headlines matter.

And the News Tribune erred with its headline the morning after the incident in Virginia. "Virginia police kill 1," it read. Using an eye-grabbing headline that contextually did not capture the essence of what happened was a disservice to readers.

Why is this important when facts will come out on a later date? I have been doing policing for 27 years, and the past four years have been filled with more frustration, angst, and distrust of the policing profession than during any other time in my career. Admittedly, some outrage is righteous. But some is misdirected.

I appreciate that the media have a duty and desire to report on breaking news in a timely manner. But at the same time, language matters. This headline opened the door for readers to believe police actions are nefarious. Some readers may never obtain additional information about this incident and will cast judgment based on the limited narrative. This can fuel division and distrust among police and the community.

While the News Tribune typically is very fair to police, cops in America have become accustomed to a narrative that has them guilty until proven innocent with facts a burden to a good story. This tone and tenor of messaging has been so many times overwhelmingly negative that it has made officers' skin thicker. We have become tone deaf to the negative rhetoric.

Five years ago, the headline on Nov. 28 would have grabbed and shaken my attention as an injustice. Now, I read it and view it as hyperbole driving a withering, negative narrative, and I brush it off as the new normal. I am disappointed my conditioned response is one of expectation and not outrage.

I recently read an article from an instructor at the prestigious FBI Academy who trains law-enforcement executives from around the world. He asks his classes if they would recommend the profession to their children. The answers are troubling. In a class of 30, he said, only a handful or fewer hands rise; and in a class of 300, there are only a couple of dozen raised hands at most.

These leaders know better than anyone else the nobility and honor of the profession. They walk among day-to-day heroes who improve communities by offering a hand up to those who are down, protecting those who are afraid, and keeping peace in times of unrest. Yet a majority of them stop short of promoting the profession to family. There is no doubt a relentless negative narrative regarding police is the contributing factor.

This climate is hamstringing recruiting efforts to get the best and brightest to serve.

Police executives are working to change the negative narrative that surrounds policing. We are exploring new ways to do a better job of telling our compelling story about how we engage and serve our communities.

We acknowledge there are officers who betray public trust, tarnishing the badge we all wear. But these relative few should not drown out the overwhelmingly good humanitarian work being done by the many women and men who make it their lives' work to serve others before self.

Let us not pass up the opportunity to make sure we catch our cops doing things right; it should be easy, because overwhelmingly they do.

Mike Tusken is chief of the Duluth Police Department.

Mike Tusken

Contact Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken at 730-5020.