Public relations failure

Chico Police Department needs to rethink its info strategy

Over the weekend, this newspaper received a press release from the Chico Police Department describing a recent shooting and asking for help identifying suspects.

The document was a straight-ahead breakdown of what led up to the incident, along with descriptions of a couple of individuals the police are trying to locate—the kind of info journalists rely upon to keep the public informed. The problem is that the shooting happened on Friday, Sept. 1, and the department sent the document to the press more than a week later, on Saturday, Sept. 9.

Considering that the message was relayed eight days after the shooting outside of a fraternity house on Chestnut Street, it’s unlikely anyone would be able to identify the four to six suspects, including one who was described as “wearing a red sweater and having dreadlocks” and another who was said to be “wearing a green hooded sweatshirt.”

Indeed, we’re fairly certain those individuals have changed their clothes since then.

Snarkiness aside, this is but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the Chico Police Department’s ineffectual and oftentimes ham-fisted efforts to inform the public.

First off, that press release was this newspaper’s first and only indication that any type of serious crime occurred over the Labor Day weekend. And it’s not like the CN&R is the outlier. The Chico Enterprise-Record, The Orion and the local TV news stations all reported the shooting for the first time only after Saturday, the day the press release came out.

But the department hadn’t gone dark that week. This newspaper received other communications from the cops’ shop. On Tuesday (Sept. 5), for example, Julia Yarbough, who started her job as the department’s press information officer in February, sent the CN&R a media alert announcing a press conference Friday regarding “an enhanced community policing initiative.” She sent a reminder of the event on Thursday. We attended that meeting based on the vague release and learned about P.O.P.—or problem-oriented policing—and were introduced to Chico PD’s “P.O.P. star,” employee of the month Cedric Schwyzer, who’d helped put an at-risk youth on the path to success.

That’s terrific and something the agency should brag about. However, we find the announcement ill-timed considering Schwyzer is one of the officers involved in the shooting of a Ventura man back in July, and an investigation into the fatal encounter by the Butte County Officer Involved Shooting/Critical Incident Protocol Team is ongoing. Not to mention the late information regarding the frat party shooting.

Chico Police Chief Mike O’Brien obviously is intent on turning around his department’s image in the wake of numerous controversies: longstanding institutional dysfunction due to previous poor leadership; criticism over the shooting death of Desmond Phillips, who was in the midst of a mental health breakdown; and the department’s lack of substantive de-escalation training.

The positive public relations efforts include the production of some slick videos on the agency’s YouTube channel. However, hardly anyone has watched them. As of press time, one extolling the benefits of the so-called P.O.P. initiative had 58 views. We get that shaping the department’s image is part of the chief’s job, but doing so at the expense of providing the press—and, thus, the community—with vital information works against the agency’s professed commitment to transparency and public safety.

To wit, you’ll find those positive public relations press releases on the department’s website. What you won’t find is the one on that shooting at a college party. We also have concerns about the sometimes flippant tone in the department’s communications—a reference to a gang-related shooting as “Wild West shooting arrests,” for example.

O’Brien and company ought to rethink the current public information strategy. While CN&R can’t speak for the other media outlets in town, we’re interested in the facts, getting them straight and in a timely manner. As the saying goes: “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed—everything else is public relations.”