GET BREAKING NEWS IN YOUR BROWSER. CLICK HERE TO TURN ON NOTIFICATIONS.

X

New Boulder police chief stands behind initial quote on George Floyd death after city messaging mixup

Corrected statement softer, communications experts suggest

Protesters who were demanding justice for George Floyd, a black man who died while in Minneapolis police custody, walk past a Boulder police car as they make their way up 28th Street in Boulder on Saturday. Boulder Police Chief Maris Herold was caught in a public relations pickle Sunday as the result of a city staff mistake that caused her to appear to wobble between distinct statements on Floyd’s death. (Josh Bergeron / For the Daily Camera)
PUBLISHED: | UPDATED:

Boulder Police Chief Maris Herold was caught in a public relations pickle Sunday as the result of a city staff mistake that caused her to appear to wobble between distinct statements on the George Floyd killing that incited protests and riots across America for the past several days.

Boulder Police Chief Maris Herold (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)

As marches proceeded in downtown Denver for a fourth straight day calling for justice for Floyd, a black man who died in handcuffs after a Minnesota policeman kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes during an arrest, the city on Sunday released a statement from Herold criticizing the officer’s actions and acknowledging the suffering people of color have endured at the hands of police.

Less than a half-hour later, staff released another. The revised quote from Herold was much different than the original, and less assertive, Colorado public relations experts suggested. Compared to the context of the first, the second left open the possibility the chief believed there might be justification for the Minnesota officer’s action that was captured on widely circulated video, and for which he is facing a murder allegation. Herold has since clarified her stance she holds no such belief.

“There is no justification for the killing of George Floyd,” the initial statement drafted by city staff on behalf of Herold said in part. “What we saw on that video is contrary to everything a police officer stands for. Every person on this earth deserves to be treated with respect and dignity. That is the foundation of our profession. And I recognize that for too long, in too many parts of our country, black Americans have learned to fear the very people who are supposed to protect and serve them.”

Those lines were removed from the new Herold quote later provided by the city. Officials admitted those were erroneously released to the public, and that the reason for the amendment was the chief felt it was important to deliver her own thoughts on the matter, rather than approving a quote suggested by communications staff.

The chief’s corrected quote in its entirety said: “I understand the anger and frustration being expressed across the country. There are no words for this tragedy. What occurred in Minneapolis is contrary to the values that police officers are sworn to uphold. I stand with police leaders and officers across the country in condemning the death of George Floyd. This is a time for action. We need police reform on a national level. On a local level, the Boulder Police Department is committed to fair and equitable policing in partnership with our community.”

Late Sunday, though, in response to a Camera inquiry on why Herold felt the need to make a correction, the chief clarified she shares a critical conviction conveyed by the wrongly released initial statement.

“Due to a technical issue, Shannon (Aulabaugh, a city spokesperson) and I accidentally sent out the wrong one. When we realized it, I asked Shannon to send the statement that Chief Herold wrote on her own, unedited, as a corrected version,” Boulder Engagement Manager Sarah Huntley said. “Having said that, I spoke with Chief Herold tonight and she said she stands behind the statement that ‘there is no justification’ for the death of George Floyd.”

The distinction between the statements, and the revelation of the discrepancy to the public, provides a glimpse into the chief’s motives with a quote, as well as a reason business and government leaders may want to shift their communications strategies in the face of widespread unease, public relations professionals in the state said.

“We’re seeing many attitudes change almost daily, and public statements from companies, governments and organizations will not be immune. While statements that appear softer might seem safer, leaders should consider — and communications staff should encourage — stronger statements that take a position,” said Doyle Albee, CEO of the Boulder-based MAPRagency public relations firm. “While doing so is not without risk, I believe we are now in a place where trying to play it safe isn’t effective and won’t be accepted.”

A city spokesperson on Friday said Herold was not planning to address the Floyd death with the Camera; that was also the result of miscommunication, because the chief felt the option to say something was open-ended and an idea she could continue to work on with her communications team. By Saturday, Herold was busy preparing officers to protect a march of local protesters that stayed peaceful. Therefore, she still had no public comment on the incident that had sparked days of national outrage.

“Now, instead of people knowing the police department is empathetic and responsive, you have people talking about the different words in each version. That is unfortunate,” said Dawn Doty, an instructor in advertising, public relations and media design at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Jasen Thorpe, who runs a Boulder County-based outdoor industry marketing firm and has advocated for local police oversight reform, said professional communicators normally would consider staying the course after the first, stronger statement was erroneously released. That was not an option presented to the chief, as Huntley directed Aulabaugh to release the second statement without consulting Herold on whether the correction should be issued. Huntley conceded she should have discussed the idea to send a redo with the chief in retrospect.

“I think my (second) version is much more action-oriented,” Herold said in a Monday interview. “I think it reflects my strategy moving forward. I like to speak in my voice, since I’m the one with the background in police reform.”

She declined in the interview to address whether she believes the phrase “there is no justification” surrounding an officer’s conduct included in the initial release, and its subsequent removal from the later quote, could hold some sway in how the public forms its opinions on her legal perspectives. However, she later reiterated that her condemnation of Floyd’s death in the second statement “conveyed a strong and indisputable stance.”

“The chief stands up for racial justice, and the city staff is behind her,” Huntley said.

Sticking with the initial statement could have been accompanied by a plan to instead offer internal assurance to any officers who felt the initial quote was concerning in regards to how the chief might view difficult police encounters with the public, Thorpe said.

blog comments powered by Disqus