Working with Elected Officials During a Crisis

ARTICLE | Sep 9, 2013

In 2012, two communities in the Denver Metro area were shocked in response to tragic acts of violence. First, on July 20, a mass shooting occurred inside of a movie theater in Aurora during a midnight screening of the film The Dark Knight Rises. The gunman dressed in tactical clothing, set off tear gas grenades and shot into the audience with multiple firearms, killing 12 people and injuring 58 others. The second tragedy occurred in October, when 10-year old Jessica Ridgeway was kidnapped from her neighborhood in Westminster and murdered with parts of her dismembered body found in an open space area in the neighboring city of Arvada.

These tragedies generated many emotions, including fear, helplessness, anger and sadness among all community members. This included city council members who are often in the position of hearing these sentiments expressed from their constituents while they attend to their personal tasks, such as picking children up from school, going to the grocery store, attending church and working. During these times of crisis many community members feel the need to express their concerns at times when our elected officials are experiencing their own doubts as to whether or not they live in a truly safe community.

While not directly associated with these tragedies, many community leaders in the Denver Metro area were certainly affected by the events in Aurora and Westminster. Many communities provided law enforcement resources to support the investigation of the incidents which generated many conversations throughout the Metro area. The widespread local news coverage seemed never-ending as the personal stories of the victims were told and re-told many times. The environment created a pall of sadness that seemed to affect nearly everyone.

In Arvada, where Jessica’s body was found, the community was devastated by the reports. In addition, there were prior incidents of attempted child abductions that had occurred within a month of the tragedy that had the community on edge and City Council members grappling for answers. The fundamental question that many Council members had, in response to what they heard from their constituents, was “can we protect our children?”  

In these circumstances, the answer that can and must be provided is “YES!”  This answer must be provided with confidence, additional information, constructive steps and, if necessary, one on one communication that may even resemble a “pep talk” in order to help the elected officials maintain their ability to act as leaders. While not directly impacted by the tragedies, Arvada Council members and the entire community received the following response to the fundamental question of “can we protect our children?”

Provide the Facts

While there was no disputing that Jessica’s dismembered body was found in Arvada, there was also no evidence that suggested that the crime had occurred in Arvada or was associated with a member of the Arvada community. These facts were expressed to Council members and then to the community in order to reduce the potential for hysteria and overreaction. 

In addition, the previous reports of child abductions included circumstances which suggested that the incidents were not related. For example, suspect descriptions were much different and the timing did not match any behavior pattern that was suspected in the Jessica Ridgeway case. In one case, a child abduction that occurred at about the same time in the neighboring state of Wyoming was believed to be related to the Jessica Ridgeway case. The Police Department released information that reviewed the Wyoming case in detail to assure the City Council and the public that the cases were unrelated. Similar steps were taken with other reported attempted child abductions that occurred within the weeks before and after Jessica’s abduction.

Provide Continuous Information

To the extent possible, City Council members need to be updated on a continuous basis. This can be difficult since some information, while perhaps helpful for the Council to know, could compromise the investigation. City and County managers will need to rely on their public safety chiefs to determine what can be released and what needs to remain with investigators. Nonetheless, providing a stream of continuous information could help elected officials to address rumors and generate a sense of confidence that would be expressed to members of the community. This will likely include phone calls several times a day and even after hours to make sure the elected officials receive timely and accurate information.

Include Actions and Safety Tips in Public Statements

Statements to Council members should include actions they can take and encourage their constituents to take in order to address their concerns. For example, the Jessica Ridgeway tragedy generated information such as child and personal safety tips. These tips focused on the need to be aware of surroundings, report suspicious persons, actions to defend yourself if attacked and being extra aware of your child’s schedule. Information that can be transmitted through email, social media and similar means would be ideal since many elected officials would appreciate the ability to provide the information to their constituents in a personal manner.

Highlight Public Safety Actions

Following the Jessica Ridgeway abduction, the Arvada Police Department implemented additional patrols around elementary schools and stationed school resource officers at very visible locations. The Arvada Fire Protection District sent engine companies out of their fire stations and parked their trucks and firefighters in front of schools. These steps provided the City Council with higher sense of confidence and offered them good news that they could pass on to their constituents.  Many called it a show of force to protect the community’s children.

Appeal to the Council’s Sense of Leadership

Finally, it is sometimes the role of the city and county manager to express the importance of the elected officials to put aside their own personal fears and anxieties and display the leadership behaviors that helped them to be elected. The message needs to clearly state that all of us as community leaders must be ready to speak to people about what is really going on and reduce the hysteria that is occurring in some circles.  Instead of buying into or fueling panic, the elected officials need to assert their leadership capacity by stating with supreme confidence that the police are following up on all leads and are working around the clock to identify the person(s) responsible for the crimes. Exhibiting a calm and collected composure will help people in the community to deal with a difficult situation. If the elected officials become wrapped up in the community concerns associated with the crisis, it is the role of the city and county manager to remind elected officials of their obligations as community leaders. This may be awkward; however, it is absolutely necessary.

Visit Arvada’s website to learn more about the community: arvada.org

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