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When correctional leadership is under scrutiny: 5 strategies for offsetting negativity

Leaders must accept that there is always a disparity between public perception and the actual facts surrounding a high-profile incident


Scheduling regular press conferences is key to managing negativity.


Article updated on October 24, 2018.

Every day, correctional leaders hold their collective breath in anticipation of another incident where the actions of a correctional officer will be criticized and scrutinized.

We must accept the fact that there is – and always will be – an inequality between public perception and the actual facts surrounding a high-profile incident (such as the in-custody death of Sandra Bland, for example). But what should correctional leaders be doing to prepare for this negativity?

Here are five leadership strategies to consider before, during or after a high profile incident with negative implications:

1. Prepare for the Inevitable

Don’t wait for the crisis to come to your jurisdiction. Take the time to scan the media sources constantly to evaluate each incident and ask yourself, “What would we do if that happened here?” Consider planning a tabletop exercise with your staff and elected officials to brainstorm scenarios and discuss response options.

What systems are currently in place within your organization for notifications to key stakeholders and leaders? What about the members of the organization itself? Do you have an infrastructure in place to notify all staff at every level during a critical incident?

There is nothing worse than for the employees to be forced to rely upon newspaper, television or social media for updates. Consider implementing an information tree that can be activated immediately with reliable information.

2. Develop Strong Community and Media Ties

In the face of a crisis, community leaders and key media stakeholders are the best portal for outreach. The clergy, non-governmental agencies, service clubs, youth sports leaders, community volunteers and neighborhood watch groups are invaluable during a time of crisis.

These lines of communication must be established well in advance of a crisis. If you don’t already have these people on your speed-dial, you are way behind the curve. They should be among the first people contacted when the crisis unfolds. The more people within the community that understand the situation, the greater the likelihood of mitigation.

3. Release Information in a Timely Way

The old adage “information is power” is definitely applicable during a publicity crisis. Scheduling regular press conferences or releases is the key to managing negativity.

The public and the media will rely upon rumor control and the grapevine – which is exponentially more prevalent with the advent of social media sites like Twitter, YouTube and Facebook – to get information if they are not getting it timely from the agency.

The person who disseminates this information must be reliable and credible. With all due respect to public information officers, they should not always be the person thrust into the limelight when the publicity is overwhelmingly negative. The highest ranking agency head should be the one fielding the questions.

More likely than not, a local elected official or other political figure will probably insert their opinions into the fray. It is very difficult to navigate through these waters, but remaining engaged with the community and press can serve to offset the negativity.

4. Monitor Morale

It’s easy to get consumed with managing the crisis itself, but don’t forget about the troops. The best leaders are those who recognize the importance of maintaining high morale at all times, especially during a crisis. When a department is under scrutiny, the organization feels the pain much like a family member aches for a sick relative.

Avoid the mistake of getting so wrapped up in managing the crisis that you forget about the most important assets of the organization: the people themselves. Try to show up at roll calls and special events despite the need to be visible in the community. It is essential to keep the home fires burning.

5. Seek Guidance from Others

It is important to garner input and support from other colleagues who have previously managed negative situations. Reach out to other leaders through professional networks. It may be worthwhile to hire a consultant who specializes in managing a crisis. Don’t hesitate to call someone who has been in your shoes.

A word of caution in this regard: hiring an expensive public relations firm to handle the crisis after the fact is too little too late. Some departments have tried to offset a publicity crisis by attempting to showcase all of the good deeds. This is a non-starter for the zealots who fuel the anti-policing movement. Stay focused upon the facts surrounding the crisis itself, and work closely with key stakeholders to build trust.


Corrections leaders must be vigilant in ensuring that the highest level of professionalism exists within their policing organizations. Much like the concept of “wellness” in healthcare, law enforcement professionals must do everything humanly possible to anticipate a catastrophe. Consider the management of negative publicity as an open wound that must be triaged immediately to prevent further complications.

Expand the paradigm of emergency preparedness planning to include publicity and public relations following a controversial incident. Our staff count on leaders to be ready, willing and able to preserve the sanctity of the profession. Be strong, be supportive and be prepared. Above all else, do not rush to judgment. It is paramount to preserve the rights of the personnel at the center of any controversy.

Many good leaders have lost their credibility in an instant by caving in to the temptation to throw someone under the bus in an attempt to get the heat off their own back. Our leaders must be as impenetrable as the heat shields on a spacecraft.

Paul Cappitelli is an honorably-retired career law enforcement professional with over 35 years of experience. He is now a Special Law Enforcement Consultant for various entities and individuals. In November 2007, Paul was appointed as Executive Director for the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST). Paul served the POST Commission in this capacity for 5 years up until his retirement in December, 2012. Prior to his POST appointment, Paul served the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department (SBSD) for 29 years and retired at the rank of Captain. During his tenure with SBSD, his command assignments included: Adelanto Detention Center, West Valley Detention Center, Sheriff’s Regional Training Center, and Commander/Chief of Police of the Chino Hills Police and Sheriff’s Station. Paul’s interest in law enforcement began as an Explorer Scout with SBSD in 1973 at the age of 15. In 1977 at the age of 19, he was appointed Reserve Deputy Sheriff for the Orange County (California) Sheriff’s Department. He worked in various capacities during his law enforcement career including patrol, traffic, custody, homicide investigation, public affairs, gang enforcement and academy director to name a few.

In 2007, Paul was appointed by Governor Schwarzenegger to serve on the 12-Member Public Employee Post-Employment Benefits Commission (PEBC) as the sole representative for California Public Safety Management, including both police and fire service. (

Since 1990, Paul has been an active member of the California Peace Officers’ Association (CPOA) serving in various leadership capacities including Association President in 2006-2007. He continued to serve CPOA as a member of the Board of Directors until his retirement in 2012. In May 2009, Paul was recognized by CPOA with the prestigious Micki Rainey Memorial Award for his ongoing contribution to the Association.

Paul has also been an active member of various professional network groups and associations (detailed list to follow). He possesses a POST Management Certificate and he successfully completed various POST courses during his career including the Sherman Block Supervisory Leadership Institute (SBSLI), the Executive Development Course, and the Academy Coordinator/Director’s Course. Paul is a graduate of POST Command College Class 40 where he was bestowed with the prestigious Hank Koehn peer-nominated leadership award.

Paul holds an A.A. Degree in the Administration of Justice, a B.S. Degree in Business and Management, and a Master’s Degree in Public Administration (MPA).

Contact Paul Cappitelli

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