I was on CBC Radio One’s Information Radio this morning. They wanted me to give them a PR person’s view of what’s going on with the Winnipeg Police Service, especially with regard to the ongoing Taman inquiry. The inquiry is looking in to the events that led to former Constable Derek Harvey-Zenk’s fatal collision with Crystal Taman. Harvey-Zenk had been drinking, but his arrest was apparently mishandled and evidence botched. He ended up with house arrest and there was a public outcry that led to the current inquiry.
The public has heard officer after officer take the stand only to (incredibly) lose almost all memory of the events that transpired.
It’s a PR disaster for the police service. More than most organizations, the police need to enjoy the trust and confidence of the public to do their jobs. If their credibility is impugned, their moral authority declines… precipitously. Judging from letters to the editor and countless ‘water cooler’ chats, I think that is exactly what’s happening here.
So what can or should the police do? In my opinion, Police Chief Keith McCaskill and city leaders should take the time during this inquiry (sooner rather than later) to express to both the police service and to the public that they are concerned with what they’re hearing. They should also use the opportunity to remind everyone not to jump to conclusions; the inquiry needs to run its course. But the chief needs to indicate that he is seeing and hearing what everyone else is.
McCaskill’s real work will begin once the inquiry reports its findings. He’ll have to do three things. First, he needs to identify the issues that are causing this credibility crisis. What are the roots here? The thin blue line is an excuse, not an answer. If there’s a culture of entitlement in the police service, he needs to attack it head on. That leads us to the second step: he needs to take action. If that means disciplinary action, then he needs to act swiftly and fairly. Third, he needs to communicate to both the police service itself and to the public at large what he’s done and why he’s doing it. Expectations need to be reset along with the high standards the police are held to.
I have a lot of sympathy for the Chief and for the officers on the force who are being tarred with a big, undiscerning brush. It’s not fair, but it’s reality. McCaskill has already showed a lot of character and leadership by testifying at the inquiry as soon as his name was dragged in to the affair. He needs to show the same grit in weeks and months to come to restore the public’s confidence in the service.