Lt. Rob McCullough, a Baltimore County public information officer, and Maj. Jeff Caslin, commanding officer of the Baltimore County Homeland Security Division, took students behind the scenes of police media relations and local anti-terrorism efforts on the second night of the county's 30th Citizens Police Academy.
Here's a breakdown of each topic:
On media relations
As a journalist, you might worry that sitting in on a PIO's lecture about the pros and cons of working with the media could be uncomfortable.
Fear alleviated. Lt. McCullough, who has been involved with police work since he was 18, gave an interesting, informed perspective on the media landscape, both as a consumer and as a PIO.
Eyes have shifted from the television to the computer screen, he said, where news readers expect bite-sized pieces of information—and media have, in turn, provided them. This is not always a good thing, he said.
"Everyone wants to get their stuff up first, everyone wants to have the 'exclusive,'" he said. "Even if it's a couple paragraphs … (But) how often is the information going to be accurate if you're the one who gets it up first?"
With the decline of newspaper staffs at publications such as The Baltimore Sun and countywide weeklies, coupled with the online culture of immediate information, Lt. McCullough said one of the more frustrating parts about his job is when a media outlet has published something he hasn't confirmed yet—especially if it's wrong.
But web-based reporting has also created a stronger culture of competition, he said. Competition is good because it encourages the production of good product—or in journalism's case, stories—and helps build a sense of community, he said.
As McCullough spoke, I realized there are many parallels between what the public information officers want and what a journalist wants.
"Information is not information if it's not accurate," he said.
On homeland security
"How likely is it that an event like Sept. 11 could happen in Baltimore County?" Maj. Caslin asked the class. The answer: more likely than you might think.
For starters, Baltimore's location is vulnerable to terrorism, mainly because its port provides a quick onramp to Washington, D.C, New York City and several other large cities not far from here. In fact, some of the hijackers from Sept. 11 traveled through Baltimore County at one point, along I-95, he said.
Even closer to home for some readers, Maj. Caslin said Majid Khan, one of the detained in Guantanamo Bay and a known cohort to Sept. 11 ring leader Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, was a 1999 Owings Mills High graduate.
Maj. Caslin's presentation allowed me to surmise that the Homeland Security Division could also be called the "What if? Planning Division." The office helps coordinate planning and security throughout several local, state and federal institutions, such as the Joint Terrorism Task Force, the Maryland Coordination and Analysis Center, the Department of Homeland Security's Automated Critical Asset Management System, and many more.
While the acronym alphabet can be a bit overwhelming, interagency cooperation is remarkably fluid, he said.
Collaboration has been essential in cases like that of Antonio Martinez, accused in a plot to bomb a Catonsville Armed Forces Career on Dec. 8 that was thwarted, he said.
But not all talk Tuesday night was serious. Maj. Caslin sprinkled cop-related jokes into his presentation to see who was paying attention: "An officer pulls a woman over and says, 'Your license says you wear glasses ma'am,'" he said. "The woman says, 'Yes, but I have contacts.' The officer says, 'I don't care who you know, I'm writing you a ticket!'"
Thanks for the laugh, Major, and the pizza, too.
Next time I'm in class the topics are gangs, residential security and youth and community resources.
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