Brad Byrd In-Depth: Sgt. Jason Cullum talks role as EPD PIO

Sgt. Jason Cullum is the public information officer for the Evansville Police Department, making him the face and voice of the largest law enforcement force in the Tri-State.

Sgt. Cullum has talked about everything from taking kids on trips to Disney World, to the first public police response to a horrible crime, to making a police statement about internal investigations within his own department.

Brad Byrd talks with Sgt. Cullum about the responsibilities of his role as public information officer for the Evansville Police Department and staying transparent with the community.

Transcript of interview:

Brad Byrd: "Welcome to In-Depth. Imagine yourself at the center of a major police investigation -- and you are the face and voice of the largest law enforcement agency in the Tri-State. Tonight we are joined by a man who lives that role every day. He has talked about everything, from taking kids in need on trips to Disney World, to the first public police response to a horrible crime, to making a police statement about internal investigations within his own department. Joining me tonight is Sergeant Jason Cullum, Public Information Officer of the Evansville Police Department. Thank you so much, Sergeant Cullum for being here. Usually we are listening to you, we are hearing you in soundbites. But tonight this is more of a conversation and I’ll start this by saying news releases for reporters are very important ... we don’t take those for granted but by the size of the EPD, the role that you play transcends all that, there’s so much more to that." 
Sgt. Jason Cullum: "Yeah, when I first started six years ago, press releases were basically on a memo form and we sent it out to the local news desks and that was about it. But now in the world of instant media and public access and the public’s desire to know what the media knows at the exact same time, it’s really transformed how PIO’s operate."
Brad Byrd: "And right out of high school, you went into the United States Air Force, what kind of a role did that play? I mean, what was the… what was the catalyst that said, ‘I want to be a cop’?"

Sgt. Jason Cullum: "I grew up here in Evansville. My parents had police scanners when I was a kid. I still remember the little red lights that would go across. So that kind of piqued by interest, so I went into the Air Force and I was a law enforcement specialist there. I was a dog handler for a few years and I knew I wanted to come home and be a police officer here. My first goal, actually at the time, was to get on the Vanderburgh County Sheriff’s Office. I had met with some sheriff’s deputies with my time in Boy Scouts and that’s what I was really thinking about doing. But as life kind of played out, I ended up with the Evansville Police Department and have had a very blessed career." 

Brad Byrd "And you’re in a department that has so many members in it. The move to become ... when you were named the PIO, Public Information Officer, how did you approach that? Were you nervous about it or was that just a new challenge you wanted?"

Sgt. Jason Cullum: "The assignment that I had right before I was the Public Information Officer was running the Crime Prevention Unit and we were responsible for the Neighborhood Associations. And during those three years, we had some crime sprees in town that I was able to actually do some media stuff and talk to some of the local reporters in the community about things that were going on in the neighborhoods. So I had a little bit of experience with it and I thought it was a challenge that I would enjoy. I would have never imagined that I would do it for six years. Normally, this is about a two year assignment. But I’ve really loved every minute of these last six years."   

Brad Byrd: "Well, this past year, especially, seemed to be ... it was a gamut of all kinds of emotions - starting out on a very high note  taking those kids to Disney World - your honored in that particular trip yourself ... just the comradery that that enveloped the Disney World trip ... then you had the heartbreak of Aleah Beckerle shortly after this. You’re seeing here you with the kids and your wife, Shelly, there in Disney World. And then here is another individual, Aleah Beckerle, when her remains were found, I know the lead investigator, Brent Melton, handled some of the press conferences, but you were giving the updates on that constantly. How did that affect you? I mean, just going from the emotion of that Disney World trip to what you had to face on a day-to-day basis with Aleah Beckerle."

Sgt. Jason Cullum: "Yeah. That’s something that there’s really not any training for as far as being a PIO is that gamut of emotions that you’re gonna deal with. There are a lot of things that have caused me to lose sleep because I’m trying to get the information that’s going out to the community is the information that they are entitled to, that they need to hear, that can put people at ease, that can keep people informed and make sure that they’re educated on what’s going on. So there are days that I start on a very high note and by 3 in the afternoon, I’m doing a press conference on something that’s tragic for our community. But it’s so important, for an agency our size to be able to communicate with the community."

Brad Byrd: "And sometimes, you have to talk about comrades in your own department. Notably late last year, the arrest of that one individual who had a needle in his pocket and four officers ended up being suspended. You had to sit at that table and take questions. Kind of take me through that. What was going through your mind through all that?" 

Sgt. Jason Cullum: "You know, with an agency this size, there are going to be things that come up that are going to be addressed. In that particular case, Chief Bolin reviewed it. Internal affairs reviewed it, and recommendations were made and presented to the merit commission. What's important on my end is to make sure the public knows where were at in those investigations, even more so when the final outcome happens to try to explain to people how the decisions were reached and to move forward as a department. Those officers, three of the four are still with us. They're still serving the community, and it's important to move forward not just internally but as a community as well, and being transparent through the entire process I think helps with both of those." 

Brad Byrd: "And you're dealing with social media of course. And social media can do some wonderful things, but it's got a darker side to it as well as you well know. We're going to play here just a soundbite know of Jason Cullum, and this was reaction shortly following that police pursuit that ended in the deaths of a 6-month-old child and a 2-year-old child. This is what you had to say about social media. 

Sgt. Jason Cullum: "We understand there are people that are upset with the decision that were made that night, and we are still reviewing those decisions. I'm talking about the use of social media to basically tell lies. I don't know any of those individuals personally, I don't want to call them a liar, but if you put things on there that are not true it is a lie."

Brad Byrd: "And Sgt. Cullum, Jason, I've listened to many of your news conferences, and that one was going out live on Facebook at the time. That's about as upset as I've seen you in a setting like that. Let's talk about social media if you will on how you deal with that. And it's not just Facebook. It can be Topix. It can be Twitter or whatever. But how do you handle that?" 

Sgt. Jason Cullum: "You just have to be aware of it, and you have to be willing to address things when it needs to be addressed. I'm very fortunate to have Billy Bolin as my chief and Lloyd Winnecke as my mayor because they allow me to do the things that I do. The situation after the pursuit unfortunately it continued. We have some private messages where people they claim to not only seeing this video of our car ramming the car of the family that was killed, but they also claim they have the video and it's going to be released to the media. And we know that those are blatant lies, but we have to address that because there are putting those same lies in the community. And it's not just impacting our relationship with the people we are serving, but it's creating additional heartache for the family because they are setting them up for an expectation that's never going to come to fruition." 

Brad Byrd: "You sleep at all from all of this?" 

Sgt. Jason Cullum: "I lose a lot of sleep, and I think that's something I wasn't prepared for. And I think that's something my family wasn't prepared for. But there's a lot of things I take home with me everyday." 

Brad Byrd: "Well, Christmas is just a few days away, so let's get back to the high point on this. There's going to be another trip down south to Disney World. Those kids in just dealing with everything you face, everything that law enforcement officers face whether it be county, city, state, what have you ... do they talk to you much about that? I know they're there to have a good time, but is there a story that you can share where some kid came up to you and asked you a tough question?" 

Sgt. Jason Cullum: "We actually invited those conversations. On the way home from the last trip, Chief Bolin stood up and said 'Be honest, how many of you didn't like the police before this trip?' And a lot of hands went up. Asked the same question on the way home, you don't see those hands go up anymore because they've been able to spend time with us. And we want them to ask about police work, but we want them to know more than anything is police officers are people. And in that environment, they get to see that." 

Brad Byrd: "Alright, Sgt. Jason Cullum, a merry Christmas to you. Happy holiday season and a continue success on that Disney World venture. I know it impacts a lot of kids." 

Sgt. Jason Cullum: "A month from Saturday." 

Brad Byrd: "Alright, counting down the days there." 

For the latest breaking news and stories from across the Tri-State, follow Eyewitness News onFacebook and Twitter.

(This story was originally published December 18, 2017)

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