LA Sheriff’s Office Fails in Its Comms Over Shooting Hoax
By Eric Rose and Thom Weidlich
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department recently had to deal with a crisis when it turned out that a deputy who claimed to have been shot had in fact concocted a hoax. While the agency received kudos for its probe into the matter, for its crisis communications — not so much. It was another example of how holding back information in a crisis is rarely a good idea.
While it might be understandable for the LASD not to reveal all it knew while still probing the alleged shooting, it waited three days to level with the public about what those at the senior levels clearly understood, in less than 24 hours, to be a hoax.
A cardinal rule of crisis communications is to get out the truth as you know it, as soon as reasonably possible, so half-truths and rumors don’t carry the day, producing public distrust. The department’s performance has been an excellent example of how not to do it. (Click here for a fuller version of this story.)
The news broke on Wed., Aug. 21, at around 3 p.m., that Deputy Angel Reinosa had been walking to his car in the parking lot of the Lancaster sheriff’s station when a sniper opened fire, hitting the 21-year-old officer twice in the shoulder. (Lancaster is a city in the northern reaches of Los Angeles County.)
After the initial announcement, the sheriff’s department kept the public informed about its probe with a half dozen tweets. But it said no more until it issued a press release on Thursday that still suggested the sniper was real, leading media outlets to report that the public continued to face danger.
But by the time that release was issued investigators had already halted their search for a gunman, and the only person they now suspected was the deputy himself. There was a complete lack of physical evidence for Reinosa’s claims, not a single 911 call reporting that anyone heard gunfire, and no real injuries to the officer.
After the misleading press release came two days of radio silence. Finally, at 9:39 p.m. Saturday, the department hastily announced an 11 p.m. press conference to provide an update on the investigation.
The last-possible-minute scheduling, rightly or wrongly, looked like an attempt to break — and quickly bury — the news about the deputy’s deception (though the press conference was widely covered). Homicide Capt. Kent Wegener explained that Reinosa had just that day confessed his duplicity. But it was glaringly noticeable that Sheriff Alex Villanueva (pictured) didn’t appear at the presser and that no one bothered to explain his absence.
In what looked like an attempt to fix that gaff, four days later, the department announced another press conference, for Wednesday morning, Sept. 28, a week after the faux shooting, promising a “major update.”
The update turned out to be that Villanueva had fired Reinosa. The sheriff also told reporters he “couldn’t” be at the Saturday night press conference, but gave no explanation.
You can’t have reporters come down for a ‘major announcement’ and then try to cut off the press conference a couple of questions in.
–Andrew Blankstein, NBC
The Wednesday press conference was uncharacteristically brief and the sheriff’s staff tried to make it even briefer. “You can’t have reporters come down for a ‘major announcement’ and then try to cut off the press conference a couple of questions in,” NBC reporter Andrew Blankstein tweeted afterward.
Villanueva has said repeatedly that “transparency is vital for public trust.” Unfortunately, the LASD’s handling the situation was an unnecessary fail on the transparency front.
Photo Credit: LASD via Facebook
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