Brad Byrd: Welcome to In-Depth. Law Enforcement officers face a tough job every day. They find themselves making split-second decisions and sometimes put their own lives at risk. Add this to the job description: you are the voice and face of the largest police force in the tri-state. My guest tonight is a man who found himself in just about every circumstance a cop may experience. He is Sergeant Jason Cullum, and he announced last month he is leaving the EPD and will take a position at the University of Evansville. His last day downtown is tomorrow. Good evening Sergeant Cullum, I’ll still call you that. You have worn the badge for more than 21 years, and the question obviously first, why are you doing this?
Jason Cullum: The opportunity came up to go to the University of Evansville, and take over the leadership of the Campus Safety and Security office. Harold Matthews has been there for 34 years, he too is a retired police officer, he had been there since 1986, and looking at that information I realized this is a position that doesn’t open up very often so I made the decision to look into it and got through the application process, and I was fortunate enough to be selected.
Byrd: And there will be pressure with that job of course, but the position that you’ve had, especially in the last eight years, there had to be tremendous pressure on you. It seemed like it was almost daily because if something broke, whether it be an accident, a shooting, an officer possibly in trouble, you were there in front of the microphones facing tough questions. Tell me about that.
Cullum: It wasn’t a job I ever considered being a part of, but when Chief Bolin was appointed I sat down with him and Mayor Winnecke and they asked if I would be interested in becoming the spokesperson of the department. Most of our PIO’s were there for two years so I figured I would take that chance and if after two years it wasn’t something I was still interested in I would move on, but here we are eight years later. I’ve dealt with a lot of different stuff, I realized very quickly how important the role was of PIO, and as technology has evolved over the last few years, so has the way that PIO’s all across the country have conducted business so I’ve actually enjoyed being a part of that as part of this career.
Byrd: And you have the street creds too because you were on the bike patrol early on and I think we have some photographs from the Courier and Press of you back in the day when you were communicating with neighbors, you still do, and here’s Philip Smith, we’ll take a look at that in a little bit. But here you are early in your career, SWAT?
Byrd: SWAT also. Tell me about what you learned in these days right here.
Cullum: You know I was like a lot of new officers, full of energy, you come on and you want to go out and make a difference and you want to help people. But your scope, your view, is a lot narrower than what it is when you get older. I felt like making arrests was how I was going to make that difference. I went back and worked the neighborhood I grew up in, and I was very active. I started the bike patrol, I was on SWAT, I worked in motor patrol for several years and made a lot of arrests, but as I got older and further into my career I realized that there were other avenues that I could use to make that difference that I had thought I was going to be doing from day one.
Byrd: And as a PIO, there were some heartbreaking stories that you often shared new information on that the public heard for the first time. We remember all those news conferences, not only on television live but also on social media, we remember Aleah Beckerle, if we could get some video there, those particular instances where you had to become really the face and voice. And really, this case here had to wear very, very hard not only on officers investigating this but anyone who had a badge on.
Cullum: Yea that was a very difficult case for us, to this day I have a stack of paperwork from that case, it’s over 1,200 pieces of paper on my desk. That is a case that in the public eye, a lot of opinions were reached very early, and what that stack of paperwork represents is those countless hours that went into that investigation. Within those documents are the emotions that the officers went through as they investigated that.
Byrd: And it’s our job as journalists to ask those tough questions, and to really dig into a story and everything but I assume there is a point in your presentation, I don’t want to cross that line, but in our case we don’t want to burn a source. Tell me about that when you were facing those questions on the air live, thinking on your feet.
Cullum: I actually enjoyed that part.
Byrd: You did?
Cullum: I actually did, that’s probably what I’m going to miss the most is just that environment where I’m in front of the TV cameras and now a bunch of cell phones sitting on the table that are live streaming on social media but getting the information out to the community in a way that they can understand it, dealing with questions that I hope that I’ve prepared for, but I don’t know every question that’s going to be asked, and then giving that information in a calm way, even when there’s chaos going on in the community or within the department, and being able to give people an understanding of what’s going on. They may not always agree with what I had said, but being able to give them the information and allowing them to make their own decision, is something that I was proud to be a part of. That’s what I’m going to miss the most.
Byrd: There have been good times, of course, you made a statement on your Facebook page, about the kids, cops connecting with kids, that had a bigger impact than anything? Tell me about that, why is that?
Cullum: Absolutely. I’m actually wearing a Mickey Mouse watch right now that’s how big of an impact that made. I had been on about 13 years when that opportunity started, the cops connecting with kids program. I started small where we tried to go out to the community to try to raise money to take kids from some of the economically depressed and underserved neighborhoods, on an all-expense-paid trip to Disney World. These are kids that were working hard in school and making good choices, but was just not something that was going to happen for them without the community support.
Byrd: And your good friend Officer Philip Smith, we can show that video now if you want, it jumped out at me, that shot of you and him in front of the castle there at Disney World, but the impact that that had being with those kids, you learned something from it, what were you trying to present with those kids to take with them?
Cullum: We wanted them to know that the community believed in them because it was community funded but we also wanted them to see law enforcement met in a different light even if they didn’t have a good view of us. We were active in their neighborhoods, lights and sirens going and they would see us going down the street, that was the only impression they had of us so being able to get in an environment like that and spend all that time with them, a fun side of us, that picture popped up of Phil and I while we were looking like Charlies Angels at the disco, I’m whichever one was bold that’s which one I was. So we wanted them to see that, and I think working with Phil for the last few years, first and foremost we realized that we were twins, so that was kind of interesting to find a long lost twin but the community getting to see us work in that environment was important because they see me in a serious atmosphere a lot and I think people were shocked at first to see that I had a sense of humor because they don’t get to see that in press conferences.
Byrd: I’m going to ask very quickly, what advice? Chief Bolin has told me and has told others it is tough recruiting people to protect and serve, what advice would you give an individual who is contemplating getting into the police force, if you could give me a quick version of that?
Cullum: This is a people job, and that’s never going to change. So if you are preparing, getting your college degree, going to the gym, and getting physically fit that’s all great, but you have to bring a skill set to the table right at the beginning of your career that will allow you to engage with people in a positive environment, in a negative, chaotic environment, but to always be able to treat those people with dignity and respect, so if you’re out volunteering in the community and getting that experience that is going to set you apart from other applicants be it here in Evansville or any agency.
Byrd: Well it has been great interacting with you over the years, and best to you in this new position.
Cullum: I appreciate it.
Byrd: You’ll still be a face of the community, and we appreciate your time tonight. Good luck to you.
(This story was originally published on December 12, 2019)