Surveillance Tech Companies Are Writing Press Releases For Cops. Worse, News Agencies Are Publishing Them. — There’s nothing new about cop shops letting their tech providers write their press releases for them. Law enforcement officers love power but often think nothing of surrendering their autonomy to the providers of the snooping tools.
For years, Harris Corporation — the maker of Stingray devices — told cops what they could or couldn’t say about their use of the tech, tying them up (often with the help of the FBI) with non-disclosure agreements. Ring — the biggest name in front-door surveillance — has given cops cameras to hand out in exchange for expanding its customer base and allowing Ring to man the PR front.
And there’s nothing new about so-called journalists acting as stenographers for cops. When something happens that suggests police misconduct, some journalists do nothing more than publish PD press releases and/or seek comment only from law enforcement PR reps or (vomits in mouth) police union representatives.
Perhaps its these years of underservice that has led to press outlets publishing full-page ads for tech providers, apparently without feeling they might be crossing ethical lines. That’s what’s being called out by the EFF in its post titled “The Rise of the Police-Advertiser.” Who exactly is being served when “journalists” add a couple of sentences to name brand heavy posts that unabashedly celebrate the products and the cops that claim these tech marvels pretty much pay for themselves?
In August, the Tulsa police department held a press conference about how its new Automated License Plate Readers (ALPRs), a controversial piece of surveillance technology, was the policing equivalent of “turning the lights on” for the first time. In Ontario, California, the city put out a press release about how its ALPRs were a “vital resource.” In Madison, South Dakota, local news covered how the city’s expenditure of $30,000 for ALPRs “paid off” twice in two days.
Let’s go to the local piece (he said, living in South Dakota). Here’s an eagle-eye view of this so-called reporting, with the name brand of the tech central to piece highlighted:
Does that look like journalism to you? Flock flock flock flock flock flock flock. Six times, including the headline. This is an advertisement for Flock, published for free by KSFY and distributed by other local news sources who had to do nothing but credit KSFY for its original “reporting.” That’s six mentions of Flock and a couple of statements from a PD official who saw the plate readers hit twice and somehow decided this was newsworthy enough he should call the local station.
Or maybe Madison Police Chief Justin Meyer didn’t even have to place a call. Maybe all he needed to do was insert a few words into Flock’s PR boilerplate and email it to the nearest news agencies. That’s what Flock does: it writes most of the words and instructs cops to fill in the blanks.
Flock Safety has distributed a Public Information Officer Toolkit, providing “resources and templates for public information officers.” A Flock draft press release states:
The ___ Police Department has solved [CRIME] with the help of 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].
This Mad Libs of a press release is an advertisement, and one Flock hopes your police departments will distribute so that they can sell more ALPRs.
I can only hope some news outlet lets one of these hit the front page of their website with half-completed boilerplate. Sooner or later, someone from the cop PR department is going to send out an email blast that trumpets the success of [INSERT TECH PROVIDER] in solving [CRIME DETAILS AND STORY].
Flock isn’t alone. In addition to the previously mentioned Harris and Ring, ShotSpotter has its own PR wing that pretty much composes press releases for cops and pushes them to become unpaid brand ambassadors for a brand so controversial it recently rebranded as “SoundThinking.”
A 2021 yearly report to the SEC filed by ShotSpotter, an acoustic gunshot detection company, reports that their 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.”
This is ugly stuff. Not only does it damage the trustworthiness of journalistic outlets, it makes cops appear to be nothing more than pushers of tech company propaganda. None of this appears organic. And that’s because none of it is.
In both cases, the public is being screwed by entities they’d rather trust. The sad thing is neither of these entities appear to care they’re harming their relationship with the people they serve. Understaffed news desks are more than happy to simply republish garbage like this because it frees them up to handle stuff they actually care about. And cops are only too happy to do this because it means their tech supplier will be pleased with their obeisance and possibly shower them with freebies or preferential pricing.