St. Louis County police apologized Monday for the wording of a flier announcing a seminar to help officers interact with the media.
The flier on county letterhead says topics of the Oct. 24 program at the St. Louis County and Municipal Police Academy will include "Feeding the Animals" and "Meet the 900-pound Gorilla." Some community activists and others have posted about the flier on social media, saying the "gorilla" and "animals" references have racial overtones.
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St. Louis County police spokesman Brian Schellman and seminar leader Rick Rosenthal say the terms are not meant to be racial. The seminar follows the fatal Aug. 9 police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson. Brown was black; the officer who killed him is white.
"Any suggestion that these terms are new, or are in any way a specific reference to the recent tragic events in Ferguson, Missouri, or are in any way a racial slur is simply not correct," Rosenthal, a police media consultant, said in an emailed statement to The Associated Press.
Rosenthal, a former anchor for WGN-TV in Chicago, said the "gorilla" and "animals" references are tongue-in-cheek phrases aimed at the media. His 1999 book, "Feeding the Animals," deals with how police departments give information to reporters.
Rosenthal, president of Winnetka, Illinois-based RAR Communications, has run the consulting firm for nearly 20 years and has led hundreds of similar training sessions for police in several states. He has led classes about dealing with the media in St. Louis County nearly every year since 2002.
Schellman said Police Chief Jon Belmar and his command staff were unaware of the flier and its wording until they began getting calls from the media after the flier was posted on Internet sites.
"Being that the flier was sent by our Police Academy, we apologize for anyone hurt by the wording of the flier," Schellman said. "We believe Mr. Rosenthal's use of the terms '900-pound gorilla' and 'feeding the animals' were mentioning police departments from across the nation dealing with the media and meant no racial harm."
Managing the media in the aftermath of the shooting of Brown, who was unarmed, was certainly a challenge for St. Louis County and other police agencies. The protests and unrest that followed the shooting drew print, broadcast and web-based reporters from all over the world, and some were arrested during the protests. The aggressiveness of police toward protesters and the media was often criticized.