Lakeland City Hall – You Have a Perception Problem

Perception determines reality. Some see an disheveled, wheezing old man on a bike struggling to ride up Tennessee and think “homeless.” They may steer clear of him. Or honk and tell him to get a job. While others will recognize the man as the leader of BikeLakeland and wave. (Of course, some still honk and tell me to get a job.)

Lakeland City Hall has a huge perception problem regarding our police department. It started a little over a year ago.

Lakeland’s City Manager, Doug Thomas, is in charge of hiring and firing the Lakeland Police Chief. He chose Lisa Womack in December 2011.

Some 13 months later the Ledger has published reports of the acrimonious relationship that the media outlet has with the Lakeland Police Department.

For the second time in less than two months, the Lakeland Police Department has told The Ledger that public records in a case it worked do not exist.

The first time, The Ledger had the records in hand when it made the request, having obtained them from another source. This time, The Ledger also got the records from another source.

I can’t speculate on the department’s reasons for stonewalling the newspaper, but I can tell you it is not healthy to play mind-games with the media. A police department that is open and forthcoming to the media will be treated with respect and given license to complete investigations. They can operate without worry the media will sensationalize or prematurely report stories.

If you’d like examples of the right way to deal with the media speak with anyone who has worked with Sheriff Grady Judd’s public information officers. Now ask your neighbor’s what is their perception of the Polk County Sheriff’s Office. Openness and respect are returned with respect and openness. It permeates the reporting and adds to the public trust of the department.

I’m not going to say there has never been, nor never will be a problems at the PCSO, but I believe a respectful relationship between the media and the department will ensure the matter is handled openly.

Now talk to your neighbors about the Lakeland Police Department. I daresay you won’t get the same response. Not because of the work of the majority of the women and men dedicated to ensuring the public safety. Simply because there exists an antagonistic relationship between the department and the media.

Don’t let anyone tell you that is how a good police department should handle the media. A police department and major media must have mutual respect. I haven’t spoken to Chief Womack to hear her views. However, for eight years I’ve paid close attention to the Ledger and there is absolutely no reason the LPD should mistrust that newspaper. Neither the reporters on the police beat nor the assignment editors are out to get anything other than the truth.

It simply doesn’t matter if Police Chief Womack believes the media should be held at arms-length. It doesn’t matter if she thinks she is “right” according to the law. What matters is how well the public perceives their police department. That perception that the Lakeland Police Department is closed, insular, distrustful of outsiders, and too willing to bend rules has become the public’s reality.

Where is the outrage? That hurts our community much more than a lack of bathrooms on Lake Hollingsworth. The public should feel comfortable asking our elected officials to seek an external investigation into these problems. Public distrust must be openly addressed.

That, and only that, will improve the poor perception of our local police department.