, June 25, 2022

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The Vacaville PR firm influencing police narratives across California


  •   12 min reads
The Vacaville PR firm influencing police narratives across California
Photo collage by The Appeal. Sources: Matt Chesin and Tommaso Teloni | Unsplash; Kindel Media and The Climate Reality | Pexels

This story was published in partnership with The Appeal, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal legal system.

In May 2020, the town of Pacific Grove, California, had a problem with a police officer. Residents noticed a white pickup parked outside the police station with decals including LGBT — for Liberty, Guns, Beer, and Trump — and the Three Percenters, a loose-knit anti-government group connected to terrorist plots nationwide. The officer was placed on paid leave, and the city launched an investigation.

The seaside town of about 15,500 residents, once home to author John Steinbeck, wasn’t used to such controversy. It has one of the lowest crime rates in Monterey County and hasn’t had a homicide in 11 years. Its police department has only 22 officers.

The truck belonged to Officer Michael Gonzalez, who had been named Officer of the Year two years prior. The city issued a statement in September 2020 saying Gonzalez thought the Three Percenter symbol showed support for protection of the Second Amendment and removed the stickers after the complaints. Federal prosecutors have argued that the Three Percenters believe in armed rebellion against the federal government.

As the officer returned to work, pressure from residents continued. In October, the city hired a public relations firm, Cole Pro Media. The company’s website advertises that it helps police and sheriff’s departments add clarity to their social media presence and enhance their crisis communications abilities.

Cole Pro Media is owned by former TV journalist Laura Cole. The company is one of the largest of a small but growing number of firms focused exclusively on providing public relations for local governments and police departments. “We understand the challenges facing public agencies and take great pride in our ability to communicate transparent, easily understood, messages about our clients — WITHOUT SPIN,” Cole Pro’s website says.

But a review of contracts, invoices and email records from 21 of Cole’s clients that were obtained from local government agencies via public records requests by The Appeal and the Vallejo Sun shows how her company’s advice appears designed to help police agencies evade transparency and accountability and to deflect scrutiny by traditional news media. The emails show that Cole Pro’s advice is often to avoid difficult questions or directly confronting problems.

Ahead of a December 2020 Pacific Grove City Council meeting, a Cole Pro consultant drafted talking points about the Gonzalez incident for the mayor and council to use. The firm advised elected officials to tell community members that “continuing to bring this up has become counterproductive and does not allow us to move past this as a community” and “an emotional response is not the appropriate response and does not benefit anyone.”

Days later, a Parler account that appeared to be from Gonzalez was publicized by multiple media outlets, where there were memes posted that included “Fuck Black Lives Matter.” Police Chief Cathy Madalone appeared to use at least one of Cole Pro’s talking points at a Dec. 2, 2020, city council meeting when she said, “the actions of one are not indicative of our police department’s culture.”

In January, Madalone held a press conference to announce that Gonzalez was no longer with the department. Around the same time, a resident’s public records request revealed Cole Pro’s talking points, which fueled further backlash against city officials, who were accused of hiring a firm to help them tell residents to “shut up.” On April 21, Pacific Grove ended the contract with Cole Pro five months early, saving the city $14,500.

But despite Pacific Grove’s decision to cut ties with Cole Pro Media due to public criticism, law enforcement agencies continue to hire the firm to help shape police narratives.

The company has grown to contract with more than 30 agencies in California, Cole wrote in an email last year. The contracts typically cost taxpayers $3,000 to $5,000 per month each. Cole’s spinoff company, Critical Incident Videos, produces videos that add police narrative to body worn camera footage at a cost of up to $5,000 per video.

Cole's two companies help agencies bury bad news, advise them to remain silent about damaging revelations, and draft scripts and responses excusing police use of force. As law enforcement has increasingly turned to PR firms to bolster their public image, Cole’s companies employ the kind of aggressive marketing usually reserved for large corporations, not the transparent communications without spin that the firm advertises.

Cole did not respond to an interview request, a phone message, nor to detailed questions sent via email.

Former Seattle police Chief Norm Stamper said police have hired PR consultants for decades to help shape statements and respond to crises. But he sees something new and troubling in what companies like Cole Pro are offering.

“This is more blatantly PR, more conspicuously selling your organization,” he said. “It’s not as much, how do we most effectively, honestly, ethically, accurately tell the story of the relationship with the community.”

Shaping the narrative

Cole, who was a TV news reporter for a decade, started her police consulting business in 2014. She helps agencies build a robust social media presence, particularly on Facebook and Instagram, encouraging law enforcement officers to post daily by profiling staffers, highlighting government actions and how they benefit residents.

She has also hosted classes titled, “Managing the mainstream media: the street smart class to outsmart reporters.” The all-day course cost $89 and promised to teach police officers “what to do when controversy strikes” and “how to make reporters work for you.”

But Cole’s biggest impact is as a crisis consultant. When police are involved in a controversial incident, her firms anticipate questions from reporters, draft initial press releases, and shape scripts for the televised responses and interviews of police and sheriff’s representatives.

In some cases, Cole Pro has advised agencies to not respond to damaging revelations unless they are widely shared on social media, despite its website stating that it places an “emphasis on transparency.”

“Working with Cole Pro Media provides you with a transparency engagement advisor who can help you navigate the most sensitive of subjects so that the facts are heard,” the website states.

Cole Pro Media’s earliest clients were in its home base of Vacaville in Solano County, including the Vacaville Police Department and the Solano County Sheriff’s Office.

At the sheriff’s office, Cole Pro Media worked closely with public information officer Daniel “Cully” Pratt, the brother of actor Chris Pratt. With Cole Pro Media’s assistance, Pratt used his brother’s celebrity to promote the sheriff’s office. For example, in 2019, after a photo of their mother that Chris Pratt posted was shared widely, Cully Pratt sent the news coverage to Cole. “Let’s break the Internet!” Pratt wrote. “Using cops and their families!”

Cole wrote back, “OK write us up something and we will work on it!” The resulting post received 1,000 likes and 129 shares. The emails do not show what role Cole had in the finished product, but in other exchanges she would edit and advise on the wording of social media posts.

When this reporter revealed in a February article that Cully Pratt and other sheriff’s deputies displayed Three Percenter symbols on their social media pages, the sheriff’s office wouldn’t answer questions prior to publication. The next morning, a Cole Pro Media transparency engagement advisor sent an email to the sheriff that said they were “on call.” After the story received widespread attention, the sheriff issued a statement nearly a week later, saying he had “personal conversations” with the deputies and that each had sought to show support for the Second Amendment.

When Pittsburg, California, hired Cole Pro in 2018, police Chief Brian Addington was enthusiastic. Ahead of the department’s first meeting with Cole, he wrote in an email, “I hope to get an overview of what the consultants will offer, discuss expanding our team, and focus on getting ‘our message’ out to our community, instead of relying on main-stream [sic] media.”

Last year, Pittsburg settled a lawsuit for $7.3 million for the death of Humberto Martinez in 2016, who died when officers used a carotid restraint — similar to a chokehold — and held him face-down while handcuffing him. Cole Pro Media advised the department not to make a public comment about the settlement in response to reporters’ inquiries.

“We’ll watch for a flare-up on your social media, but if it remains mostly quiet I wouldn’t address the settlement,” consultant Ken Pritchett wrote in an email. “It would elevate something that might be gone by tomorrow.”

Addington responded, “I think this is a good strategy. Thank you!”

Michael Haddad, an attorney for Martinez’s family, said he was “concerned about the police chief and the department taking that advice.” He pointed out that the lawsuit revealed structural problems with the way Pittsburg police handle these kinds of restraints. For example, it had no policy to prevent compression asphyxia and the department’s top trainer had never heard of the term. But rather than respond to these issues directly, Haddad said Addington sought to “cover up his personal substandard leadership.”

“This is a huge settlement and a matter of great public importance, a death that was similar to George Floyd’s death here locally,” Haddad told The Appeal and the Vallejo Sun. “What are they doing to prevent something like this from happening again?”

Pittsburg did ban officers from using carotid restraints last year, not because of Martinez’s death, but because of national outrage over Floyd’s.

The approach in Pittsburg is far different from what Cole has advocated for in public statements. “When departments don’t give out information, it brings about secrecy,” she told the Los Angeles Times last year. “If a department did something wrong, or somebody messed up, they must own it.”

Pittsburg police did not respond to requests for comment.

An opportunity in a new transparency law

Hayward, California police shot and killed Agustin Gonsalez in 2018 while he was holding a razor blade and experiencing a mental health crisis. Days after the incident, Cole Pro’s Pritchett wrote a press release and scripted answers for a lieutenant’s TV interview.

Even though the investigation was ongoing, Pritchett advised the lieutenant “If the issue of crisis intervention is floated” to say that there was “no opportunity as an armed Mr. Gonsalez immediately approached officers.” (The televised portion of the interview did not include these statements and it is unclear if the lieutenant used them.)

Pritchett then helped compile a video of the shooting to post on the department’s social media accounts.

A few weeks after the video was published, Cole registered a new company: Critical Incident Videos, LLC. A new state law, Assembly Bill 748, would take effect in July 2019 and require police departments to release video of uses of force that result in death or serious injury.

With Critical Incident Videos, Cole substantially increased her client base as departments scrambled to comply with the law. The East Bay Times reported that Critical Incident Videos soon had more than 100 clients in California.

The videos typically open with a police chief stressing the importance of transparency. They then provide a narrative summary of the incident, often coupled with maps or other graphics, and play 911 and dispatch audio from the incident. The videos often pair body camera footage with video from surveillance cameras or other sources.

The structure has been criticized by civil rights advocates for including a narrative that goes beyond what the video depicts, such as in the June 2020 Vallejo police shooting of Sean Monterrosa, where Chief Shawny Williams described Monterrosa’s alleged actions just before police fatally shot him. Those moments aren’t captured on camera.

Vallejo police Chief Shawny Williams
Vallejo police Chief Shawny Williams described the Monterrosa shooting in a Critical Incident Video.

Some departments say that the heavily produced videos are sufficient to comply with AB 748. In a lawsuit by this reporter to compel the release of public records in Gonsalez’s death, including the unedited body camera footage, the city of Hayward and the police department argued that the city did not need to produce more than the Critical Incident Videos release.

After nine months of litigation, the city released the full videos directly to this reporter, including video from Officer Michael Clark that had never been publicly released because he did not turn on his body camera until after the shooting but captured its aftermath.

David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, said departments must provide the unedited video in response to a public records request.

“The whole purpose of the Public Records Act is to give the public the unvarnished, unredacted documents, not what the departments describe,” he said. “They have to give the public the videos, not their Hollywood take on the videos.”

Working with the Riverside DA

In 2019, Cole Pro Media contracted with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, where emails show the firm has worked closely with Sheriff Chad Bianco to help him shape his public communications and to produce critical incident videos to frame shootings in a more favorable light. Bianco gained notoriety recently when hacked records revealed that he once was a member of the extremist Oathkeepers organization, which federal prosecutors have said encouraged members to attack the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

When a Riverside County deputy fired on an unarmed man during a chase in September 2020, Cole Pro’s Pritchett suggested emphasizing that the deputy did not hit the suspect. Critiquing a script in the critical incident video, Pritchett wrote in an email, “One thing that I felt was missing was an emphasis on the fact that this dude was not shot.” He added, “Making that clear will diffuse [sic] the power of the incident.”

In another Riverside County case last December, a man named Ernie Serrano died after deputies shot him with a stun gun and hit him with batons in a grocery store. Email records show that three days after the incident, Cole shared communications about the media response between the sheriff’s office and the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office, which was also her client. Although the DA is expected to conduct an independent investigation into officers’ conduct, the early coordination about the public narrative raises questions about how independent the DA really is.

A Twitter post showed cellphone video of deputies hitting Serrano. The DA’s office communication manager Amy McKenzie sent the post to Cole and DA Michael Hestrin. After back-and-forth emails from Hestrin and McKenzie, Cole replied that the sheriff’s office was putting together a critical incident video “that should be released later today.”

Cole then forwarded the exchange to Bianco and wrote, “As you know, the DA’s office is also my client and wanted to make sure I was aware. I’m passing this along to you guys to make sure you are aware.”

Days later, Bianco gave a press conference where he released videos and said that Serrano appeared to have died from a drug overdose. Bianco said the DA’s office would lead the criminal investigation and make an independent review of the deputies’ actions. In California, DAs are typically relied on to conduct such reviews, though police reform advocates have argued they are too close with law enforcement to treat such cases objectively.

In an emailed response to questions about the communications between the sheriff’s office and the DA, McKenzie wrote that they “were about a potential protest for the purposes of security of our personnel working in our downtown office should a protest occur. There was no discussion of a public relations strategy.” She did not respond to follow up questions about why Cole was included in the email exchange. The sheriff’s office did not respond to questions.

Serrano’s autopsy has not been released and the DA’s investigation has not been completed.

Max Szabo, a former assistant district attorney and spokesperson for the San Francisco district attorney’s office, said a firm representing both the DA and sheriff could have a conflict of interest if the DA was involved in prosecuting someone in the sheriff’s office. In Szabo’s view, the communications between the sheriff and DA could be grounds for the DA to recuse himself from evaluating the incident.

“If the DA is coordinating on messaging with the Sheriff just days after an in-custody death, it suggests he’s made his decision on the legality of the use of force long before the investigation is complete,” Szabo said in an email. “This is the kind of thing that erodes public trust because it suggests there’s a two-tiered system of justice, one for law enforcement and one for everyone else.”

Humberto Guizar, a civil rights attorney representing Serrano’s family, said he was “furious” after The Appeal and the Vallejo Sun provided him with the email exchange. He said there should be an investigation into the coordination between the sheriff and the DA.

“The DA’s office is supposed to be investigating them, not working on the narrative,” Guizar said. “Based on what I’m seeing [in the emails], the people who are responsible for evaluating the facts are trying to come up with a narrative that’s consistent with the sheriff’s office. They’re in cahoots.”

Growing influence

Cole Pro is just one firm that has been providing PR guidance to police departments seeking to improve their communications and soothe backlash during crises. Media reports suggest that such PR contracts are becoming more common and large departments have expanded the roles of spokespeople.

Cole Pro Media’s role in police communications has also grown. The company has expanded outside California. In Asheville, North Carolina, police Chief David Zack also worked with Cole Pro at his previous job in Cheektowaga, New York, and hired them again after he transferred to Asheville in early 2020. The company offered advice and worked on briefing videos after some Asheville police officers were recorded destroying a medic station, including slashing bottles of water, during George Floyd-inspired protests that June.

Cole Pro Media has pitched her services and approach to a national audience. According to its website, Laura Cole has spoken about her “crisis communications philosophy” at events held by the California Police Chiefs Association, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and the Major Cities Chiefs Association.

Cole is even helping to train the next generation of California police chiefs. She is listed as an instructor for a four-day course offered by the California Police Chiefs Association, “Becoming a Police Chief: Developing a Mindset for Success and Service,” which is certified by the state Commission on Peace Officers Standards and Training.

“With commitment and dedication to strengthening the relationship between district attorneys, law enforcement and the community,” Cole’s website states, “Cole continues to lead the charge in steering agencies in the direction of best communication practices.”

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