115 – Media Relations

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Policy

The media policy of the Harris County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) is to be proactive and reactive in informing the community directly, and via the news media, of events that involve this agency and public safety. This includes answering inquiries and disseminating information to the public, employees, news media, community organizations, and other governmental agencies in a way that is professional, responsive, and timely using modern and traditional information technologies.

The HCSO’s policy shall be one of fairness and transparency, taking into consideration applicable legal bounds.

HCSO employees shall refrain from making public statements about departmental policy or initiatives unless the statements have been approved by their bureau commander and the Media Relations office. [CALEA Standard 26.1.1]

Definitions

Media Relations Manager: The chief point of contact for HCSO personnel and the public. The manager shall oversee messaging development and strategy aimed at best serving the public. The manager shall also coordinate the dissemination of information by law enforcement and civilian employees who interact with the news media and approve all HCSO-related collateral material including, but not limited to: brochures, fliers, external and internal website content, and use of the HCSO logo and name.

Media Relations Office: Serves to provide information to the public directly, and via the news media, about the HCSO and its operations. The office also facilitates the provision of information to employees of the agency. The ultimate goal of these activities is to enhance the public’s trust, safety, and awareness and supply the county’s constituents and employees with accurate information about the HCSO and its operations that allows them to carry out their obligations as citizens and public servants in the best manner.

News Incident: Any scene involving the HCSO where there is news media presence or media interest and / or presence could be generated. News incidents, as represented herein, do not mean or include discussions of the internal policies of the HCSO, personal or political testimonials, or personal or private opinions concerning policy or procedures of the HCSO.

News Media: Properly-identified representatives of local, national, and international news organizations, including: television, radio, print, and electronic media.

Public Information / Public Records: Information or records that is available for dissemination to the public. All personnel shall treat news media information requests in accordance with state law and through consultation with legal counsel. Except as specifically restricted herein or by state or federal law, traffic crash reports, miscellaneous incidents, arrests, or other department criminal incident information of routine nature are considered in the public domain, and such information shall be made available, upon request, to news media representatives.

Public Information Officer (PIO): HCSO representative who prepares news releases, does interviews, helps coordinate media coverage of agency events, and acts as the liaison between the HCSO and the media at crime scenes and other events or activities that generate media interest.

Procedure

The actions and attitudes of every employee establish the tone of the HCSO’s relations with the news media and the public. When the release of certain information would be injurious to a victim (e.g., sexual assault), a witness, or the successful investigation of a case, that information must be withheld unless required by law.

  1. The public information function of the HCSO shall be coordinated by and through the HCSO’s Media Relations Office. The Sheriff and command staff have the authority to delegate certain elements of the public information function to members within the HCSO. [CALEA Standard 54.1.1 b]
  2. In an emergency, or under extreme conditions where the situation necessitates the immediate release of information and the Media Relations manager and / or PIO are unavailable to disseminate such information, the ranking supervisor on the scene has the authority to release information pursuant to the guidelines set forth herein. [CALEA Standard 46.1.10]

Information contained in any such release shall be referred to the Media Relations Office as soon as possible. Notifications to the Media Relations Office shall be made by telephone to 713-755-3647 and / or via e-mail at [email protected]. If the office is closed, the notification shall be left on voicemail.

  1. Normal dissemination of newsworthy information shall come from the Media Relations Office. The PIO shall be available to respond to news media inquiries during normal business hours and will be on call for emergencies and critical incidents at other times.
  2. If the PIO is needed to assist in the dissemination of information to the media at a crime scene or HCSO event, the scene supervisor and / or bureau commander shall make such request directly to the PIO.
  3. In follow-up or other non-emergency situations, HCSO employees receiving media inquiries (in person, by phone, or via e-mail) shall refer all such requests to the Media Relations Office and / or PIO.
  4. When a deputy is involved in a shooting, discharge of a firearm, injury, or any other significant incident, the release of information to news media shall be handled by the PIO. The bureau commander and Watch Command shall be responsible for contacting the Media Relations manager and / or PIO upon receipt of a call of these natures.

If the PIO is unavailable, the decision to release information to the media rests with the highest ranking supervisor on the scene or the scene supervisor. In such an event, the supervisor releasing the information to the media shall comply with section III, subsection (A)(1) of this policy.

  1. Whenever Media Relations requests information from employees, the request must be made via or through the affected bureau commander.
  2. When news media request information contained in agency files, such information is typically disseminated by the PIO. Requests by non-media shall be directed to and handled by the HCSO’s Legal Department. [CALEA Standard 54.1.1 a, c, f]

Instruction for requesting a record can be found on the HCSO’s website at: http://www.harriscountyso.org/Records/Default.aspx.

  1. Dissemination of information shall be guided by the following:
  2. Completed crash reports shall generally be made available to the public.
  3. The first page of offense reports or the “Public Release Report” as printed from an automated reporting system shall be made available to the public.
  4. Information specifically deemed to be “public record” shall be made available in accordance with the Texas Public Information Act (Texas Local Government Code, Chapter 552).
  5. Nothing in this subsection shall supersede state or federal laws governing the dissemination of public information.

Release of such information shall be subject to the following restrictions:

  • Originals of HCSO reports and documents shall not be removed from any HCSO facility by news media personnel.
  • Other files and reports shall not be made available to the public unless authorized by the Sheriff, or as a result of an opinion of the County Attorney or Attorney General which permits such release, or unless required by the Texas Public Information Act (Texas Local Government Code, Chapter 552).
  • Requests for records and information received by any employee not assigned to the Executive Bureau, Public Information Office, shall be forwarded immediately to the PIO for processing in compliance with the Texas Public Information Act.

The HCSO recognizes its primary missions are investigating criminal acts and taking action at the scene of emergencies. It is therefore necessary for the HCSO to place certain constraints on non-police personnel.

For on-scene media briefings, news media personnel shall normally be given access to a crime or incident scene perimeter. [CALEA Standard 54.1.3]

  1. At the scene of major fires, natural disasters, or other major events, a command post shall be established and information shall be disseminated from such point. [CALEA Standard 46.1.10]
  2. When possible, the command post shall be in a position whereby news media personnel may still be able to view the incident; however, it shall not be located too near the hazards or at a location that inhibits other responders or agencies from accessing the scene as required.
  3. News media personnel shall be warned of any actual or potential hazards that may exist in the area.
  4. Neither the HCSO nor Harris County shall be held responsible or liable for any injuries sustained by news media personnel pursuant to their coverage of the news event.
  5. News media personnel shall be provided access to the perimeter of a crime scene, but not into the crime scene.
  6. If the crime scene perimeter is on private property and the owner, his or her agent, or the victim requests that news media personnel not be allowed, the HCSO shall adhere to such request.
  7. If the presence of news media personnel would adversely affect the preservation of the crime scene, the collection of evidence, or the interviewing of the victims or witnesses, news media personnel shall be removed.
  8. If HCSO personnel enter private property under the authority of a search and / or arrest warrant or similar document, the authority to enter onto private property DOES NOT extend to members of the media or any other private civilian. HCSO personnel SHALL NOT lawfully grant the media or any other private civilian access to private property under these circumstances.
  9. HCSO personnel shall not assist the media or any other private civilian in gaining permission to enter onto private property or any other area not readily accessible to the public. [CALEA Standard 26.1.1]

Management of Photography, Television, and Tape Recordings

  1. In public places, photographs and video recordings shall not be restricted except:
    • When excessive danger to life or property is increased by the recording,
    • When it interferes with an official function or would result in the disruption or contamination of a crime scene, or
    • When it interferes with the lawful rights of others.
    • Within non-public areas of HCSO facilities:

The news media shall be restricted and shall not enter into non-public areas for any reason without the permission of the affected bureau commander with notice to the Media Relations Office.

Persons in custody shall not be posed or paraded for the news media.

On-camera interviews with inmates in the custody of the HCSO may be granted only by the Media Relations Office. All on-camera interviews with inmates shall be subject to the following restrictions:

In a court of law

Photographs and video recordings shall be governed and controlled by the judge of the court.

Orders of the judge shall be enforced by the court bailiff or other deputy present.

On-camera inmate interviews, if authorized, shall be done between the hours of 9:00 A.M. and 5:00 P.M. Monday through Friday.

Requests for inmate interviews must be made in writing and shall be made directly to the Media Relations Office. The request must be accompanied by a signed letter, on letterhead stationery, from the defendant’s attorney of record in the criminal proceedings, reflecting the attorney’s approval of the interview request. The letter must also state that the judge having jurisdiction over the criminal proceeding and the Harris County District Attorney’s Office have been notified of the intended interview by the defendant’s attorney.

All media representatives that wish to interview an inmate or other person within the boundaries of the Harris County Jail or any other secure HCSO facility shall be informed, prior to entry into the secure facility, that any media representative who conducts an interview within the boundaries of the institution waives his or her personal right to be free from search of his or her person or property so long as he or she remains within the boundaries of the institution grounds. If such media representative does not agree to these rules, he or she shall not be allowed in HCSO secure areas.

A release signed by the inmate from whom the interview is requested must be obtained prior to the dissemination of any photos, recordings, or any personal information derived from the interview. Forms are on file with the HCSO.

If the above criteria are met and the inmate wishes to be interviewed, the facility staff shall accommodate the media by arranging a safe, secure area for the interview to be conducted away from the general inmate population.

Every member of the news crew must have media credentials, identifying them and their employer, before they shall be allowed to enter the interview room.

A deputy or detention officer must be in the interview room with the inmate at all times. The deputy or detention officer shall intervene or halt the interview if the inmate or any member of the news media crew fails to follow the stated guidelines.

Entry to any part of HCSO property for news media personnel shall be allowed only at the direction of the Media Relations Office with prior notice to, and approval from, the affected bureau commander.

Public Release of Information

In preparing for public release of information, HCSO personnel shall, to the greatest extent possible, have all relevant facts surrounding an incident available for dissemination. The Media Relations Office shall be responsible for arranging and facilitating news briefings and news conferences.

The following guidelines shall govern the dissemination of news releases: [CALEA Standard 54.1.1 e]

The frequency of news releases shall be dependent upon specific newsworthy occurrences and / or public safety issues within the HCSO’s service area. News releases shall be disseminated from the Media Relations Office; however, press releases may also be disseminated from other designated areas, e.g.: the Vehicular Crimes Division, divisions within the Criminal Investigations Bureau, and the Patrol Bureau as directed by a division commander.

Upon dissemination of a press release by personnel not assigned to the Media Relations Office, the person disseminating the press release shall be responsible for notifying the Media Relations Office and the affected bureau commander of the release immediately.

Following the commission of a crime, the following information may be made available to the news media:

  • The nature of the crime (burglary, assault, robbery, etc.),
  • The location of the crime (unless requested otherwise by the victim),
  • The time of occurrence,
  • General information about the victim (race, age, sex, etc.), if known,
  • Injuries sustained, and
  • Suspect information (if known):
  • Suspect description.

The suspect’s name shall not be released unless formally charged or with the consent of the investigator.

Any crime information which, if made public, would interfere with the investigation or apprehension of suspects shall be withheld until cleared by the investigator in charge of the investigation or his or her bureau commander. [CALEA Standard 54.1.1 a-g]

Information on adult suspects

After a suspect is arrested, the following information may be made available for the news media without diminishing the person’s right to a fair trial:

  • The name of the accused, age, address, occupation, marital status, and / or similar background information;
  • The substance or text of the charge, whether by complaint, indictment, or information, and where appropriate, the identity of the victim;
  • The identity of the investigating and arresting agency or agencies; and
  • The circumstances immediately surrounding the arrest, including: time and place, resistance, pursuit and possession, and / or the use of weapons.

All personnel shall be aware of the dangers of prejudice in making pre-trial disclosure of the following information:

  • Statements as to the character or reputation of an accused person or prospective witness;
  • Admissions, confessions, statements, or alibis of the defendant;
  • The performance or results of tests or the refusal of the accused to take a test;
  • Statements concerning the credibility or anticipated testimony of prospective witnesses;
  • The possibility of a plea of guilty to the charge, to a lesser charge, or other disposition; or
  • Opinions concerning the evidence or argument in the case whether or not it is anticipated that such evidence or argument shall be used at trial.
  • Photographing of a suspect or defendant in public places shall neither be encouraged nor discouraged, but the accused shall not be posed, paraded, or otherwise placed on “display.”
  • Information received by means of NCIC, TCIC, or regional computer shall not be released to anyone but another criminal justice agency.

Information on juvenile suspects

Records of juvenile offenders must be maintained separately from adult arrest records and are not open for public inspection or disclosure.

The HCSO shall not release a name, photograph, or fingerprint of an offender under the age of seventeen (17) years.

Contents of juvenile records shall be released only upon court order.

In any situation where multiple jurisdictions or departments are involved, the PIO shall be responsible for consulting and planning the release to the news media with other representatives: [CALEA Standard 54.1.1 f]

The release of information regarding confidential agency investigations and operations shall be coordinated through the Media Relations Office with the approval of the involved investigators and bureau commander.

Inquiries about personnel complaints and investigations shall be referred to the Office of Inspector General.

All inquiries regarding civil suits that involve the HCSO or its personnel shall be referred to the Legal Department.

While acting in an official capacity, an employee shall not comment on any civil suit to which he or she is a party unless the suit has been privately brought by him or her or the suit in no way involves the HCSO or Harris County.

In the development of news media relations, and such procedures governing employees of the HCSO, the following guidelines shall be followed: [CALEA Standard 54.1.2]

  • Employees and news media representatives may submit written suggestions for additions to, or modification of, the HCSO’s media relations procedure. Such written suggestions shall be submitted to the Media Relations Office for review and consideration.
  • Each year, the Media Relations Office shall solicit recommendations from various members of the local media. Responses received shall be evaluated and considered for implementation by the Media Relations Office and shall be forwarded to the CALEA accreditation and planning manager.

Media Ride-Along Program

The Media Ride-Along Program allows media representatives to observe our deputies as they perform their duties.

All media ride-along participation must be approved in advance by the involved bureau commander and the Media Relations Office. Upon receiving approval to participate in the program, the media representative, along with his or her photographer or videographer, if necessary, may ride with a deputy in a marked or unmarked unit. The media representative may record the actions of the deputy; however, the following restrictions shall apply:

Media representatives shall not view or record any NCIC / TCIC information or any other information displayed on the vehicle computer system (mobile data terminal or “MDT”). Media representatives seeking such information must request the information from the Media Relations Office.

All restrictions regarding media access to crime scenes shall remain in effect.

All media ride-along participants, prior to being granted permission to be a participant in the ride-along program, must complete a HCSO ride-along form which can be found on the HCSO website.

Revision

This policy has been revised on the below listed dates:

April 21, 2009

May 6, 2014

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