Brevard CSI: PIOs Balance Media With Criminal Investigations
By John M. Egan // October 3, 2012
Cool Under Pressure
BREVARD COUNTY, FLORIDA – In almost every police department there is a unique unit whose expertise is addressing the eagerly awaiting media after a major crime or incident has occurred.
These units are the liaison between law enforcement and the media. Staffed with law enforcement professionals that many equate to as seasoned journalists, they have the daunting task of providing impartial and accurate information to a gamut of questions from a maddening crowd of reporters.
Their complex duties consist of the compiling, authenticating and the dispelling of rumors and conjectures from the rapid flow of information prior to a formal briefing of the command staff and its release to the media.
For Brevard County Sheriff’s Office, this duty is the forte of a team of law enforcement professionals, who apart from their primary assignments, provide a supplementary support as public information officers.
The on-call deputies for each week are responsible for dedicated media line from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. After 6 p.m. the communications center transfers the media line to one of the oncoming command Majors who is responsible for media requests during the overnight hours. At 6 a.m. the communications center transfers the line back to the PIO scheduled for that day.
The Brevard County Sheriff’s Office consists of five jurisdictional precincts, Cape Canaveral, Titusville, Merritt Island, Melbourne, and Viera. Cape Canaveral is its own precinct with the others designated as north, south, east and west, respectively.
Each on-call PIO for that week serves in a county-wide capacity, and is responsible for all media requests regardless of the precinct of origin within the Brevard County Sheriff Office jurisdiction.
In Brevard County one of the Public Information Officers serving the sheriff’s office is Brevard County Deputy Sheriff and 20-year veteran, Major Vic DeSantis. After serving seven years as a law enforcement officer in the U.S. Air Force, DeSantis aspired to career in the civilian sector of law enforcement. After obtaining his certification from the Central Florida Criminal Justice Institute, he applied for and was accepted by the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office. In 1993, DeSantis was sworn in as a Brevard County Deputy Sheriff.
In 1995, DeSantis was promoted to Detective and assigned to the general crime’s unit and later on to the major crimes unit. In 1998. he was promoted to sergeant. And with what is customary with this promotion, he returned to patrol as supervisor in the south precinct of Melbourne.
With a short hiatus from the Sheriff’s Office in 2000, DeSantis accepted a position with FEMA, in Dallas. After just six months and with his passion for law enforcement, he was drawn back to Brevard County. In November 2000, he returned to Brevard County Sheriff’s Office.
By 2004, DeSantis was promoted to Lieutenant and served as the accreditation manager in Titusville. In the latter part of 2004, he was the assigned operations and administrative Lieutenant in the east precinct. In June of 2009 he took command of the narcotics unit. In just two years he earned another promotion to Major, and now heads the communications, judicial process and support services for the Brevard County Sheriff ‘s Office. And along with many of his duties, oversees the 911 communications center in Titusville.
Chain of Information
A 911 operator for more than 28 years and communications shift supervisor is Lana West.
“When a priority incident occurs the 911 operators will dispatch the deputies to the scene and the road supervisor will make contact with those who need the information,” said West. “It may be the precinct commander, the Public Information Officer, the watch commander, or the Sheriff himself. If they need assistance in making those notifications, they would request it through the on duty communications supervisor.
“The greatest challenge to 911 operators is with cell phone technology,” said West. “When people call for assistance from a cell phone and do not provide a location, or in some incidents do not know where they are so we can render aid. It is difficult to get a location. The greatest thing a citizen can do for 911 dispatchers is to understand the questions being asked. There is reason for those questions and we know that reason. We may not necessarily have the time to explain that reason. It is important that they do answer those questions. And the end results it is rewarding to know you have actually helped someone overcome a situation or a problem they were having.”
“The greatest thing a citizen can do for 911 dispatchers is to understand the questions being asked.” Lana West, Brevard County Sheriff”s Office 911 Shift Supervisor
As a prior law enforcement officer this reporter is familiar with those questions.
They all relate to safety for the responding officer and the caller. They may be. Is there a weapon on the scene? What kind of weapon? Are you being threatened? How may suspects? Is alcohol involved? ,Are you being held against your will? Are you injured?
All these questions and others will inform the responding officers of a possible threat to themselves or a developing hostage situation.
“When an incident occurs, we almost immediately receive inquiries from the media,” said DeSantis. “Unless it is a major incident, the PIO may not necessarily respond to the scene. We have put that responsibility of releasing what details can be released back in the hands of the investigator or investigator supervisor on the scene. In those cases we at the public information office act as facilitators of information and direct the media to that deputy on the scene and get the information first hand.
“We want to afford the media with as much information as we can, but first and foremost we are law enforcement,” said DeSantis.”We want to get the bad guy and secondary to that is making sure we get the information out. We have structured procedure of what information is released and who releases certain parts of information,” DeSantis said.
He said an example would be a primary incident such as a bank robbery in the north precinct.
This may not necessarily affect residents of the south precinct but those in the south and other areas are interested in the story.
“We will immediately make an assessment of the situation,” said DeSantis. “Is there a danger to public safety that we need to make other people aware of? If it is not that kind of incident then our office will direct the media back to the investigative unit that is handling the case. There is a lot going on in the background. In the example of our bank robbery, there are still photographs of the suspect. We may not have a name but there are pictures and someone will recognize the individual. Those pictures will be forwarded to our office and in a very short time we will have a lucid press release prepared for the PIO to release to the media.
“All follow-up inquires by the media will be directed back to the case agent because they are in the best position to comment on their case,” said DeSantis. “When there are media questions concerning department policy, programs, the protocol we follow, or questions about our agency, these questions are most properly left in the hands of the Sheriff or his designated person to answer.”
In cases that are being worked and investigated on the street, it is the primary responsibility of the Public Information Office is to serve as a resource to that investigative unit, according to DeSantis.
“It is not uncommon during the day shift to receive numerous calls on the media line. Some inquires may be about a recent arrest whose name the media obtained from the jail custody list and are curious about the charges.” Brevard County Sheriff’s Office PIO Major Vic DeSantis
“We can assist them with their press release so they can present it to the public, or assist them in offering the press release ourselves,” he said. “It is not uncommon during the day shift to receive numerous calls on the media line. Some inquires may be about a recent arrest whose name the media obtained from the jail custody list and are curious about the charges. Although the Brevard County Jail is the repository for all arrests in the county and is run by our sheriffs’ office, we can only comment on the arrests made by our department.
“If the incident occurred and the arrest was made by the Satellite Police Department or Melbourne Police Department, or Cocoa Beach Police Department, we will not comment on their arrest unless it was a joint investigation with the sheriff’s office, or we were the lead agency.” said DeSantis. “All those departments have their own Public Information Office and were are not in a position to discuss their case.”
In the vast majority of cases, because of the nature of the investigation there is information that can be released and information that cannot be released at the time because the case is still open.
In all open cases and until that case is closed, the vast majority information pertaining to that case is protected by the Florida statute 119, of the Public Information Law.
“We understand in this 24-hour news cycle world we live in the thirst for information and the thirst for instant information, is sometimes overwhelming,” said DeSantis. “We have to bear in mind we are not a news organization, we are law enforcement and balance meeting the needs of our media and our public with investigating crimes, helping victims and putting bad guys in jail.”
Lieutenant Alex Herrera is a 16-year veteran of the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office and assigned to the Cape Canaveral Precinct. He holds a Master’s degree from the University of Central Florida with courses in public speaking and communications. Through his career he has served as a road deputy, a general crimes and felony crimes investigator in the south precinct, an investigator in the child abuse, and sex crimes unit (now called the special victim’s unit) and an investigator in the homicide unit. He returned to patrol after his promotion to sergeant and within a couple years in 2010, he was promoted to Lieutenant. He now oversees the special Operations Division, K-9 unit, general crime’s unit and the civilian staff at the Cape Canaveral Precinct.
“You are balancing your normal duties with trying to get that information out to media outlets as fast and efficiently as possible and sometimes that can be a challenge.” Brevard County Sheriff’s PIO Lt. Alex Herrera
“Like the other deputies, the challenges of a Public Information Officers are at times balancing all those hats,” said Herrera. “You have an event occur and you may not receive one call, but four or five calls from the media. You are balancing your normal duties with trying to get that information out to media outlets as fast and efficiently as possible and sometimes that can be a challenge.
“We want to get the word out to the public,” said Herrera. “It could be a situation that is blocking a main highway, or sinkhole in Titusville that poses a danger, or the description of a suspect in a recent crime we are looking for, or a prowler in the area. We need to inform the residents to stay inside, lock their doors, or about a missing endangered child that we need the public’s help.
“In cases of an amber alert or a wanted vehicle, we collaborate with various agencies,” said Herrera. “Among those agencies are the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, our investigative unit who is handling the case and ourselves. Combined we get the information out and on those highway signs.”
One of the advantages Herrera has with the press is being bilingual in English and Spanish.
“I have had news media outlets come to me do interviews in Spanish and the advantage is reaching out to more viewers and citizens within and outside the county,” he said. “While as an investigator in the special investigation and homicide units, I dealt with many high-profile cases and conducted numerous interviews. I became more accustomed to and comfortable standing before the cameras and answering those questions. As I would like to say — live and in living color.”
Assigned to the Criminal Investigations Division, Brevard County Deputy Sheriff Lt. Tod Goodyear of Melbourne is a familiar face to the media. A 26-year veteran of the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office, Goodyear has served in patrol and general investigations, investigating burglary, property crimes and aggravated assault cases.
In 1992, he went on to the major crimes unit, which includes the special victim’s unit that investigates child abuse cases and later on to homicide. Upon his promotion to sergeant it was back to patrol.
After a year-and-a half as a road patrol supervisor, he returned to investigations. Now as a lieutenant in the Criminal Investigations Division, Lt. Goodyear directly supervises the special victim’s unit, the sex offender registration tracking unit and has responsibility along with a sergeant over the homicide unit.
“I am very comfortable with the press,” said Goodyear. “I was a college football coach for five years at the University of Central Florida back in 1980s. The college would put on a weekly show and I was always before the media. When I was selected as one of the Public Information Officers, it came naturally. When addressing the media, you provide them with enough information for them to report to the public, but not to the extent that it would impact your case or investigation.
“Our rapport with the media has changed over the past 10 years,” said Goodyear. “Then our PIOs were civilians and often not that familiar with the case, and at times, unfortunately there was speculation. Now all of our PIOs are law enforcement and know the case and in some instances like myself, are a part of the investigation and especially when I was involved in some high-profile homicide cases. The media would have access to first-hand information. The media today is patience. If they have information they are anxious to report, I ask that they hold it until I clarify it and make sure it will not impact an on-going case and they will. This is due to the respect of our combined working relationship.”
Goodyear said that being a Public Information Officer is a lot of work in reality.
“You are doing it with another job function. On one hand, you are supervising units and the other receiving calls from the media. But overall it is rewarding to be able to release information and show the public we do a good job,” he said. “Not all releases are about the bad stuff. It is also the nice stuff. There are new programs that will help some segments of the community, a program for kids. Currently we are working on a therapy dog program for abused children and a teen driver program. It is nice to put something out that shows that we’re just not cops, but have a personal side too.”