I have been the Public Information Officer for the Gainesville Police Department for just shy of one year. I can count on one hand how many times I’ve had to call a news director or executive editor after-hours on one hand in that year. Saturday night at 8:50 pm (not Sunday morning) was the first time I have ever had to make that call. It lasted two minutes and forty eight seconds.
“Steamed” would be a fair assessment of my feelings at the time. Let me back up a bit to give you some context.
There are roughly 300 sworn officers plus support staff at GPD. I was notified of “Operation Pegasus” on Wednesday, June 26th. I was one of a very small handful that knew about the operation. Friends that I work around every day didn’t know about the operation. We try to be so incredibly careful about these types of investigations and the information is completely on a need-to-know basis. We take a lot of precautions to protect the operation. While I knew it was going on, I had no clue where or even who all was involved.
Why did I need to know? Because I learned something in my time as PIO that a lot of cops don’t know…the second someone is booked into the jail it becomes a public record. Their name, face and charges are out there…if you know where to look.
My media contacts know where to look, because the list of people booked into the jail are sent via email to them each day. I also get those emails, and on Saturday morning I saw the inevitable – the first arrests in the operation. Now I have a true dilemma…do I just let it ride and hope that I’ll get a phone call from reporters asking about the arrests? That’s quite a risk for me – especially on the weekends. While I may complain from time to time about “my” media contacts…they do generally respect my privacy and family time over the weekend which means I can’t just not say anything about these arrests. I had to take a pre-emptive strike.
I send a “GPD Media Snapshot” every single day via email to my local media contacts. It contains cases of note over the past 24 hours and also contains any information I need to relay for the day. A few months ago, I began sending “Weekend Snapshots” to help out those media outlets that need weekend material – plus it gave me a chance to communicate 7 days a week with the local media. Saturday’s snapshot carried a little different message. See for yourself:
Slightly more than a footnote in my humble opinion…it was my pre-emptive strike. Was it short and to the point? Sure. Was it a news embargo? Absolutely not. That requires a two-way dialogue. I had certainly not requested an embargo with anyone up front. Maybe that was my error in this whole thing…but in the year that I’ve been working with these same people daily I trusted that the request would be upheld. I had no clue that there was evidently some “bad blood” that existed from a former operation that GPD was not the lead on and I certainly had nothing to do with. I was not involved with Operation Tail Feather, GPD was not the lead agency, so I can’t say what disagreements existed between other law enforcement agencies and local media.
As a matter of record, this was the first undercover operation of this type since I have been PIO that GPD has completely led and that I was the lead PIO for.
A number of things concern me in the wake of this weekend. First – I completely understand that the names, pictures and charges(s) are on the Internet…but you have to dig for it. I had sent the above request and mentioned an “operation” in the hopes that my media contacts would understand what we were doing and let the investigation run its course. Secondly, the last thing I thought was going to happen was my statement about GPD running an operation…which was obviously meant for reporters only…was used as a part of the article. I can’t surmise that it was put in the article but for any other reason than to draw attention to an undercover operation. If the decision was made to simply report the arrests, then do just that. Don’t announce to the world that the arrests were part of an ongoing undercover investigation.
That is extremely troubling to me especially when the operation is designed to detect and capture the worst of the worst. For example, one of the guys arrested this weekend was originally chatting with what he thought was a 14 year old girl. He then noticed another one of our detectives that was posing as an 11 year old girl. He completely quit the 14 year old chat and focused on the 11 year old for an extremely sexually-charged chat. That’s the kind of person we were out to capture. He’s the guy that is out trying to lure our children on the Internet for sex. Luckily he was so focused on meeting an 11 year old girl for sex that he didn’t think about the consequences. I can’t help but wonder how many other absolutely horrible perverts just like him are still out there.
Now I can’t say on record that the article was the sole reason for us losing some potential perverts…but our chats got strangely quiet around 8:30pm on Saturday night.
I’m not here to blast anyone, and I’m certainly not here to prove a point. You’ll notice that I have not specifically named anyone…because I’m just not that kind of guy. Some other members of the media are currently policing themselves and bringing to the public what happened over the weekend. You should also know that I did not request any media coverage for the incident…I got a call Monday afternoon telling me that some local media outlets were running the story.
The statement is correct…we unfortunately can’t catch all the bad guys, even when things run smoothly. Just give us the chance to eliminate as many variables that could go wrong as possible.
One half of the story was already out there, so I wanted to make sure that all of the facts were covered. I encourage you to come to your own conclusions.