After several weeks on the job, Joel DeSpain, the new Madison Police Department public information officer, is most surprised by the volume of calls and reports generated every day. "I find it almost staggering to see how many events, and not necessarily crimes, are going on in the community," he says.
DeSpain's job is to filter through the material and present selections for distribution to the media and public.
After nearly a quarter-century at WISC (Channel 3), the veteran reporter became MPD's first civilian public information officer in May. He succeeded Dane County Supv. and 2006 sheriff's candidate Mike Hanson as the department's primary public relations contact.
DeSpain's job also involves preparing the basic "blotter" of call logs and police reports that are available for public inspection at the central MPD offices in downtown Madison. He reviews and redacts scores of pages of information on a weekly basis.
To the frustration of many, the information is not online, and DeSpain says he doesn't know of any plans to post the reports.
The other outlet through which he releases information is the MPD online press release system, over which a few brief reports about crimes and other police activities are released every day. Most cases involving violence are included, as are major property crimes and sundry other incidents that serve as the lifeblood of police reports.
As DeSpain explained with regards to the outbreak of sex offenses around Madison in the last week, he determines what to release in part upon the daily teleconference held among detectives from all five districts around the city.
"I'm trying to find things that a reporter would find interesting," DeSpain notes. In the end, though, his reports are driven by what arrests officers have made or what suspects they are looking for.
"It's all dictated by events the night before," DeSpain explains. "I think to some degree, maybe because the job I used to have, I feel like you need to generate something."
While the releases drafted by Hanson and other officers were fairly dry in tone, DeSpain's have been more detailed and descriptive. "They trained me to be brief in saying things," he says, "but then I find if you're too brief, I find reporters call and ask questions that could have been answered in the release."
DeSpain points out that these releases are intended for the public, and not just for the media. "I'm really trying to be an advocate for reporters and the community, and trying to find things people should know about," he says. "Part of what I see my job as being is getting things out to the community that are interesting, showing the variety of things that police to respond to every day."
Still new on the job, DeSpain remains busy with training. He recently learned about the Open Records Law and how the department establishes its command operations during major cases and events such as Halloween.
He also mentions that the department is considering a new website that would provide more information about crime in Madison.
DeSpain's biggest change, though, is his personal role reversal from a seeker to dispenser of information. "I have to clear things through the command staff of detectives if there's a sensitive case," he says, but contends that Chief Noble Wray is interested in maintaining a transparent department.
"I am in the first line of people reading things to see what kind of information needs to get out to the public, but it's a balancing act, of course," says DeSpain. "When you go from a being a journalist and trying to get all the information you can and then trying to withhold information to prevent detection techniques from getting out, it's a different role for me."