Beware the “Gotcha” Question

Beware the “Gotcha” Question

By Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D

I was listening to an interview on a local NPR-affiliated radio broadcast about the Aurora, CO case of Elijah McClain, who died in police custody resulting in felony criminal charges for three police officers and two paramedics. The interviewer asked the attorney being interviewed why one of the officers on the scene was not charged since he “Threw McClain on the ground for no reason.”

This is a classic “gotcha” question in which a reasonable question is surrounded by a presuppositional statement, in this case that the officer acted criminally. The person being interviewed, as in this case, addresses the legitimate question in good faith without challenging the editorial presumption. By ignoring the premise of the interviewer that the officer acted “for no reason”, the person answering gives tacit validation to the premise, leaving the listener to believe that the officer did act irrationally.

Law enforcement officers speaking for their agency must tread carefully during interviews with the media. Perhaps more importantly, the public must be aware of these tactics, whether perpetrated intentionally by the media or not, which can perpetuate bias against the police and give rise to misinformation.

A reasonable response to such a question would be to point out the presumptive preface to a question and be clear about why it is inaccurate before addressing the underlying legitimate question. The person being interviewed must also be aware that only a fragment of the interview will be used in the article or news report. Even in a live conversation streamed in real-time may be edited for a subsequent story. That means that any statement must be measured by its potential to be taken out of context.

Police leaders have learned a lot about dealing with releasing information to the public. Often their hands are tied and their lips are sealed by laws governing confidentiality, preserving evidence, risking tainting a jury pool, or speaking before confirming the information shared. Juveniles and sexual assault victims are protected by law. Revealing police investigative methods and tactical procedures can also imperil police effectiveness.The public may demand answers that the police don’t have or can’t divulge.

Law enforcement officers other than the agency’s PIO (public information officer) can be trusted to make statements to the press if given clear policies and training, but most police departments prohibit or discourage doing so. They must know that there is no such thing as speaking off the record. They must know to whom a reporter should be referred. They must relay only known and verified facts and avoid emotional responses or political commentary. They must not make a statement that will later be contradicted, especially by a higher-ranking officer. Officers on a crime scene perimeter can be targets for aggressive reporters looking for insider information so that they can bring out their “breaking news!” logo and say “You heard it here first!” Of course, the media have a job to do and most are respectful to first responders and need to keep relationships cordial both ways.

A challenge with social media is that everybody can become a reporter. Anyone with an X account or YouTube channel (and more venues popping up all the time) and a cell phone can make live reports from a scene with whatever narrative they want to create for better or worse. Savvy law enforcement leaders will be sure to monitor those kinds of accounts because many dimwitted offenders have chronicled their criminal activity on social media.

The transition from print, television, and radio news to instant social media drove many changes for law enforcement. During the Michael Brown case in 2014 in Ferguson, MO, police chief Thomas Jackson scheduled a press release for conventional media, but the story of Brown’s death had already been told on social media with an anti-police narrative from which we have yet to recover. Moreover, when the Chief showed evidence that Brown had been involved in a strong-arm robbery prior to his contact with Officer Darren Wilson, the public outcry by detractors painted Jackson as manipulative, defensive, and unapologetic rather than presenting legal justification for police contact. Jackson’s efforts to mollify his critics and his community failed and he resigned six months later.

Although transparent communication with the public is an important component of public trust, law enforcement can also remember their own application of the Fifth Amendment and exercise the right to remain silent.