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Kosovo group learns U.S. approach to police-media relations

by UofL Today last modified Jun 01, 2010 04:33 PM

Three visitors from Kosovo who got an insider's view of Kentucky police-press relations were just the latest international law enforcement group to rely on UofL's Southern Police Institute.

Those visitors, all of whom handle press duties for their Balkan country's national security force, were at SPI May 24 for a briefing on how police spokesmen here work with media and other agencies.

Speakers were Mark Hebert, the former WHAS-TV reporter who now is UofL's media relations director, and Lt. Col. Carl Yates, a longtime law enforcement officer who now is in charge of training, community service and media relations for the Jefferson County sheriff's office.

The trio and their interpreter were participating in the U.S. Department of State's International Visitors Program. Their May 16-26 trip to the United States included Washington, D.C., Chicago and Louisville. Their Louisville stay also included visits to the Kentucky State Police post in Elizabethtown; Louisville Metro and New Albany, Ind., police; and American Red Cross office to learn about the response to last August's flooding.

Their campus stop was the most recent example of international cooperation for SPI, according to Deborah Keeling, justice administration chair at UofL. SPI, considered the country's oldest police executive development program, and the National Crime Prevention Institute are affiliated with her academic department.

In the early 1990s, her department began doing research in Romania, Hungary and Slovakia as those countries switched from a nondemocratic to democratic form of governance and policing, she said. UofL representatives have done training in the People's Republic of China. While the Kosovo delegation was in Louisville, SPI's director and associate director, Tad Hughes and Cindy Shain, were in Beirut, continuing work that began last year and included monthlong training here for 23 members of Lebanon's internal security forces in the fall.

The Kosovo officers, who had requested their full names not be published, said they were transitioning to democratic policing for their young country of about 2 million people.

"We want to find the best things from the (other) countries and apply that," Bani, the captain, said. "We will see different institutions - how they work with public affairs…Then maybe we can add something in our policies and change in a good way."

A lieutenant, Brahim, remarked that public relations for law enforcement is evolving in that part of the world. "PR is a new concept for these countries," he said.

In discussing press-police cooperation, Yates and Hebert fielded questions about unconfirmed sources, victim identification and "off the record" conversations. Yates explained how his agency secures an active crime scene, sets up a command post and provides a media access area that balances the safety of the public and officers with the needs of media to report news quickly and continuously.

"Media have no more right to be there than the public, but we recognize they have more reason (to be there)," Yates said. "We deal with reason vs. right."

Each emphasized the importance of frequent and timely updates, with Hebert explaining the issue of immediacy in a round-the-clock news cycle. "As fast as the media works…the police agency has got to have something fast," he said.   

Sabrije, the third press officer, asked about how and when media identify a crime victim and how they get the information. Yates explained that locally the coroner has the responsibility for identifying a victim.

Media generally wait for that official word, according to Hebert, knowing that allows time for the coroner or police to contact the victim's family first. However, if a reporter's sources are reliable, he may not delay. "If it's a high-profile person, we may not wait," he said.

Yates and Hebert both noted several similarities between the Kosovo police officers' structure and approach and that of their U.S. counterparts. 

"It sounds to me like you are on the right path," Hebert said.

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