Saturday, December 6, 2008

They Wear White Hats

One of the Good Guys

Hays County Sheriff Allen Bridges was one of the good guys. Sheriff Allen Bridges collapsed and died at his home in the early morning hours of December 6th. He died quietly, suddenly alone. He was 62. With him died a philosophy of openness and honesty. He’d just come from a Brown Santa event. He was a good guy.

I first knew Allen Bridges when he was an Austin Police Officer. He was a good guy then too. He while enforcing the law, he had had evenness and equality. He reached out to the community. Surely, that is why he gravitated to community policing before it was a catch-phrase. He was a South Austinite. Perhaps that contributed to my high opinion of him. But, he also treated the media well, speaking calmly and accurately as the circumstances permitted. He was a good guy. He did a career with the Austin Police Department, but public service didn’t end there. Soon, he hooked up with the Hays County Sheriff’s Office when Don Montague was Sheriff. He’s a good guy too. These kinds of people seem to gravitate.

Sheriff Don Montague would talk to the media once you earned his trust. Once he trusted you, you might be allowed to go along on a drug bust—something that doesn’t happen much nowadays. I always knew that I was OK when I showed up at a crime scene and Sheriff Montague was there.

As PIO Allen Bridges did infuriate a few journalists, because he didn’t respond well to routine “beat checks”, but when the situations warranted, PIO and later Sheriff Bridges was always available.

I used to teach a continuing education seminar for the Texas Sheriffs’ Association on law enforcement/media relations. I believe that most of those present tolerated me, because it was a required part of their continuing education. Most of them, I am confident, went back home and handled things they way things had always been handled. Media was viewed with contempt and kept at arm’s length. I always told them that if a big story happened in their county, we would show up, and we wouldn’t go away until we’d told the story. Harruph! Most of them said. No one sat at my table at lunch on purpose.

These sheriffs—and there are many, many of them—need to take a look at Sheriff Bridges, one of the good guys. At the very least, they ought to do what Hays County did with Bridges’ appointment as PIO. In all fairness, John Foster fills that role well in Williamson County. What is almost amazing about John Foster, like Allen Bridges did, is that he returns phone calls!

Most sheriffs, however, hold on to information,saying only they will dispense it to the media, if at all. Information is power, after all. Their minions follow their orders beyond what is required. A reporter calls and asks about the brush fire, homicide, whatever, and the person on the phone says that only the sheriff will talk to the media, and where is the sheriff? He or she is at the scene. Where is the scene? “I can’t tell you that,” they say.

Curtis Weeks was one of the first Central Texas sheriff’s PIOs as far as I know. He volunteered, just started answering phones, for former Travis County Sheriff Doyne Bailey. Weeks had been a cinematographer for CBS and a free lance photographer for Austin TV stations in the 1970s. It may be that Curtis told the media too much at times, but it didn’t hurt anything. Besides, he was a loveable guy. He was one of the good guys.

The Travis County Sheriff’s Office does have an official public information officer. The successor to Curtis Weeks is Roger Wade. Further, Sheriff Greg Hamilton also encourages his supervisors to speak freely to the media.

Public Affairs Officer Eric Poteet of the Round Rock Police Department also is a good example. Officer Poteet may not provide information “on demand”, but he does say why if he can’t. Saying why is important. It’s being accessible, but it isn’t slamming the door on information like so many county sheriffs offices tend to do. Eric Poteet is one of the good guys.

There are lots of good guys in law enforcement. I haven’t scratched the surface. Over the years and even now there are genuine good guys and girls at the Austin Police Department, the Department of Public Safety and beyond. A reporter may have to earn their trust, but that is expected.

It is, however, important to notice when we lose a good guy. Sheriff Allen Bridges was a good guy.

© Jim McNabb, 2008


Isaacs PR said...

What a poignant tribute to your friend! I never even looked at public affairs this way before.

Thanks for sharing!

- Zack

Anonymous said...

Allen Bridges is one of the hereos of law enforcment and was a fantastic PIO. He will be missed by all.
By the way, the Travis County Sheriff's Office does have a full time 24-7 PIO, Roger Wade. He is still the main contact there and has been there since Curtis retired. Just thought you would like to know.

Jim McNabb said...

Blogger's Note: Indeed, Roger Wade is an excellent information officer for the Travis County Sheriff's office. I am well aware of him. I just saw him on the air tonight in fact.

I did not name all of the current and former PIOs for law enforcement for Central Texas and the state as a whole. There are scores of them nowadays. I know most, if not all of them in this area.

The focus of this post was on Sheriff Allen Bridges. I mentioned Curtis Weeks because he was a pioneer for sheriffs' offices. I also mentioned a couple of other people, but my intent was not exclusionary.

News McNabb