Law Enforcement and Mad Men
by Douglas Ankney
About two decades ago, the TV network AMC had a hit show entitled Mad Men. Starring Jon Hamm and others, it portrayed the foibles of the financially elite but morally bankrupt men and women in the business of writing ad copy. Hence, the title “Mad” Men.
It appears many law enforcement agencies around the nation may be promoting what’s essentially ad copy masquerading as press releases. The company Flock Safety is a leading distributor of Automated License Plate Readers (“ALPRs”) and provides its law enforcement agency customers with a Public Information Officer Toolkit, including a draft “press release” that reads:
“The ___ Police Department has solved [CRIME] with their Flock Safety camera system. Flock Safety ALPR cameras help law enforcement investigate crime by providing objective evidence. [CRIME DETAILS AND STORY] ___ Police installed Flock cameras on [DATE] to solve and reduce crime in [CITY].”
The Tulsa Police Department recently held a press conference to say that its new Flock Safety ALPRs were the equivalent of “turning the lights on” for the first time. In Ontario, California, the press release described the ALPRs as a “vital resource.” And in Madison, South Dakota, the local news insisted that the city’s expenditure of $30,000 for the ALPRs “paid off” twice in two days. Yet, none of those reports mentioned how ALPRs have led to episodes like innocent people being pulled from their cars at gunpoint, officers tracking the whereabouts of their ex-lover’s new love interest, and so forth.
Flock Safety is not the only Mad Men on the block. ShotSpotter, an acoustic gunshot detection company, reported to the SEC in 2021that its marketing team “leveraged our extremely satisfied and loyal customer base to create a significant set of new ‘success stories’ that show proof of value to prospects.... In the area of public relations, we work closely with many of our customers to help them communicate the success of ShotSpotter to their local media and communities.” But what is not mentioned is that this acoustic gunshot detection technology’s effectiveness has been called into question by multiple studies.
The police, playing on the public’s fear of crime, are quick to reassure residents they are on top of things with their new technological panaceas. These “press releases” that are actually advertising spots for these new police-tech gizmos often overstate the role these surveillance devices played in the investigations.
Disturbingly, an investigation into Amazon’s surveillance doorbell, Ring, revealed that officers within the Los Angeles Police Department (“LAPD”) were given discount codes. The number of devices that were purchased with that code determined the number of free devices given to that officer. Did the officers involved recommend purchasing security cameras because they were needed, or was it because the officers wanted more free perks from the company? The LAPD is investigating the officers’ relationship with Ring.
In most magazines, an ad disguised as a faux news story is usually identified as an “Advertisement.” Apparently, the same is not true for police press releases.
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