King County Sheriff’s Office PIO offers advice, introduces internship
September 7, 2012
UW News Lab
Sgt. Cindi West—“middle name ‘Wild,’” she joked—stopped by a journalism class earlier this summer to speak about covering police, crime and other beats in the field. West is the public information officer for the King County Sheriff’s Office, a position she has held for eight months. She replaced longtime PIO John Urquhart, who retired.
West has worked as a police officer for nearly 28 years. When she took on the PIO job, she had little training in public information. But she has come to enjoy it, in part because of the connections it allows her to make in the community, including with citizens and the news media.
“I was a little worried when I first got this job because I knew I’d be interacting with the media, and as an officer, I’d always been told ‘don’t talk to the media, they’ll try to burn you’,” she said. “But I’ve seen the opposite happen with this job.”
Urquhart, who is running for King County Sheriff, helped put West’s mind at ease when she entered her new position. He told her that he’d had miscommunications with the media just twice in his career of more than 35 years, and that they were most likely accidental mistakes.
“He told me, ‘If you work with them, they’ll work with you.’ It’s our job to never lie to the media. If we can’t tell them things that we know because it could jeopardize the safety of our investigation, we tell them that,” West said. “We say ‘I know what’s going on, but I can’t tell you right now. You’ll be the first to know once our investigation is complete.’”
The main take-away from West’s visit was to encourage journalists to foster relationships with the police.
“Whoever you’re dealing with the most,” she said, “find out who’s getting you that information. Build that relationship.” Even if it’s going out for a cup of coffee, West emphasized that making the effort to build trust and fairness between journalists and their sources is important.
During her time as PIO, West has experienced a number of big news events. The discovery of Peter Keller’s bunker was one of them. Keller was a North Bend survivalist who killed his wife and daughter before holing up in his underground bunker in a forested area. That kind of situation required a balance of discretion and cooperation on the part of both the journalists and the police, she said.
“Public safety is No. 1, but No. 2 is the investigation,” West said. “Even though the information might be really cool and exciting, if we don’t have a need for the public to know right now, we’re not going to tell you.” After that, information, particularly sensitive information, is delivered to the families of any victims, and then to the media. “We don’t want the family to hear about it on the news,” she said.
West is the only PIO working at the King County Sheriff’s Office, compared with four people in the same position for Seattle. According to her, the police patrol needs more bodies than her dissemination of information regarding police work does. Some may view this one-woman caper as heroic in its own way, but bringing someone else in on the job would undoubtedly help West’s cause.
West is developing an internship in which students would have the opportunity to work with her. She seeks students who are strong writers with proficiency in social media, including Facebook and Twitter. Those interested must also “be ethical” and “able to keep a secret,” she said.
The intern would gain experience dealing with the media in the dissemination of information, writing press releases for the station and helping out when West must deal with news media at the scene of an investigation. Students would also get to make connections with members of the news media themselves.
The officer said she deals with the press constantly.
“If it’s a busy day, they’re calling me. If it’s a slow day, they’re still calling me,” said West. It was a wonder, she said, that her phone wasn’t going off the hook while she was giving the presentation.
Karen Rathe, who was first contacted by West about the new internship position, had invited the sergeant in to speak with her Community News Lab class.
“It’s great when someone like her comes along and wants to be in a mentoring position with students,” she said.
To learn more about the internship position, email West at email@example.com with “Internship” in the subject line.
KRISTINE KIM and MJ HOECHERL were Summer Quarter students in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory.