When I interviewed then-Chief Belmar of the St. Louis County Police about law enforcement’s response to the Ferguson rioting, I remember him telling me that he’d been told police had “lost the narrative”, and it was a hard lesson to learn. Who told him that? It was then-Chief Charles Ramsey, a long time veteran, and then chief of the Philadelphia Police. In fact, here is exactly how Chief Belmar recounted that phone conversation:
“I did talk to chief Ramsey and I reached out to him in Philadelphia and it was probably Thursday or Friday evening of the first week. And I said, Hey, listen, we got a problem. And chief Ramsey said something really interesting to me. This is a 44 year veteran of law enforcement guy has been the assistant chief in Chicago, the Boston and DC. Now three very challenging environments. I think anybody would say, but Ramsey said to me, you’ve lost the narrative.
Then you won’t get it back. You’ve lost the narrative. You’ve lost the narrative and you won’t get it back. I think what Ramsey meant at the time was that you’re now in a position of playing catch up. You know, this is, this is, you guys are trying to manage this on a moment to moment timeframe. And yet, you know, whether it is, um, civil unrest, whether it was protest, whether it’s criminal activity, whether it’s the media, however it is that has moved on beyond your capability to, to keep up with it and be responsive to it. What, what did he suggest you do? He didn’t. And I think that’s, I think as a, and I think that’s why it was such a great not really piece of advice, but just observation that he made. Um, he did that through again, the lens of a 44 year police commander.
I think he looked at it and said, ‘Hey man, you got a problem and I’m not gonna, I’m not going to sugar coat this one for you.’ I think that, I don’t think he was there to offer a lot of suggestions or advice. I think he was there. Um, I think he felt his at the time he was listening to me and see what he could offer. You know, I talked about, ‘Hey, who can come into the community and settle this down?’ I said, I don’t know if you know, I think you’re going to have, you’re going to have a problem with your clergy. You know, they’re not, they don’t have the same influence they’ve had years ago. We know that parents don’t have the same influence they’ve had years ago. We know that you’re not going to get a sports figure or a rap artist, or anybody to come in and help you on this.
There was no reason for them to do that. So, you know, you’re on your own and I’ll tell you why. You may make an observation that Ramsey didn’t give me a lot of help on that. He gave me a tremendous amount of help. He put me in a mind frame to understand that you cannot afford to lose that narrative. You always have to be able to tell your story. You have to be agile enough to understand what is around the next corner. And you have to have the ability to base it on the facts in front of you to make sound decisions at the time for the right reason. So I have worked every single moment from that conversation to this day to make sure that this department or any department in the country never loses that narrative. And not because it’s borne out of ambition, but it’s borne out of our mandate to serve and protect the public.”
Back then, I admit it, I wasn’t sure what ‘the narrative’ even meant, but I do now. It’s really pretty simple. During high-intensity incidents before things get totally out of whack, law enforcement needs to get out in front with credible information as quickly as humanly possible. Put the truth out there, rout the liars, propagandists and BS’ers.. And even those well-intentioned souls who don’t have the slightest idea and just parrot what they hear third or fourth hand…and do it through every source available…TV, radio, social media, emails, neighborhood blogs, carrier pigeons, the pony express…skywriting. You get the idea. Facts, honesty, forthrightness, credibility, look the tiger right in the eye and bring it to heel with your composure, compassion, understanding, and steadfastness. And yes, even toughness. Recently, Detroit police chief James Craig made an appearance on Fox News and was asked why he felt his city hadn’t had any issues with rioters, looters or violent anarchists. I thought his answer in four words was about as powerful as it gets. ‘We don’t retreat here.’
“We don’t retreat here in Detroit, were just not going to do it. You saw the images occur on the streets, where there was lawlessness, looting, burning, no sight of police officers. We weren’t giving up ground to the radicals. We just didn’t do it. I saw what it was like after Rodney King in Los Angeles. Detroiters have been fed up with these radical protests. I’m not talking about the peaceful protest. Of course, these misguided radicals that have tried to incite violence in our city. They said, we’re not going to put up with it. And so we got a couple of things. We got a great police department, great leadership, but we have a community that stands with us and by us and said, enough is enough. You don’t talk. I’m going to share something with you. And the last two and a half weeks, we’ve had three officer-involved shootings and all three shootings, these violent suspects in one case fired shots at our officer. And the second two pointed a gun, tried to kill our officers and then a self proclaimed misinformed misguided leader of this radical fringe had the audacity to try to change the narrative. And I showed a video. You may be aware. I put the video out that clearly depicted officers who would face with an imminent threat to their life.”
Beautiful! Now why doesn’t every metropolitan area in the nation adopt chief Craig’s mantra: We don’t retreat here AND do it loudly and clearly way in advance of any issues or violence. What’s your answer to that? Why not nip problems in the bud before they happen? Serve notice we don’t retreat here. If trouble and troublemakers know way beforehand, coppers are not going to give an inch. What do you think most of them would do, cowards that they are for the most part? What do cowards, invariably do? They spout, piss and moan, gripe and whine, and then retreat to the nearest vacant hole from whence they came. One final suggestion to all administrators. For decades, you have exhorted your street troops to always play ‘What if’ scenarios to better prepare them when you know what hits the fan. Don’t you think that you should be doing the same thing in regard to…controlling the narrative? Practice getting in front of trouble…and, like actors who spend countless hours memorizing scripts, do the same. And, if all that practice results in even one great performance, isn’t it worth it? For every hour on stage, Elvis rehearsed at least 10.
By the way, our full length program, Ferguson/ The Lessons Learned is Special Issue 34 and it’s available via the online store as either a video download, DVD or both at lineofduty.com. Thank you. Give me your feedback at any time. It’s firstname.lastname@example.org and what are your thoughts on we don’t retreat here? That’s Stuff You Never Ever Learned at the Academy. I’m Ron Barber.