City Life

Behind the Badge

Before he began as Madison Police Department's Public Information Officer, Joel DeSpain was a Channel 3 reporter for twenty-five years. When he joined MPD, he thought his days of creative storytelling were over.

"The majority of what I do isn't very creative, it's just getting information out there," DeSpain said. "But occasionally I'll see things and I'll go, you can't make that up." For those crimes, the ones that DeSpain described as "man-bite-dog," he switches his writing technique. DeSpain decided, where appropriate, feature-style writing makes the incident reports more interesting, turning what could be a dry public announcement into something that reads like a magazine story.

"Those stories that are a little different, they're the ones that get all these hits," DeSpain said. A typical police incident report gets up to one thousand clicks, but DeSpain's more creative postings sometimes triple that number. According to DeSpain, the police incident reports get more hits than any other City of Madison website.

As an ex-journalist and now press officer, DeSpain said part of why he does more than simply relay safety announcements is because the number of people in newsrooms is dwindling.

"There are fewer and fewer reporters, so you really have to tell your own stories," he said. Whatever the reason, DeSpain's knack for storytelling is drawing attention to otherwise ignored police reports.

"I run into people on the streets sometimes and they'll say, you know, I like reading your stuff," he said. And DeSpain is happy to use that attention to re-package messages about public safety issues. Once embedded in a real crime event, DeSpain said messages encouraging safe and legal behavior may sink in where they didn't before. He also likes to use crime stories to help people get to know the department.

"In order for the police officers to do their job they have to be trusted," DeSpain said. He helps build that trust by showing officer and detective professionalism and sometimes, like in the incident where an officer made an elderly woman soup before he left her house, their softer side.

For DeSpain, getting to know the people in the police department and the citizens with whom they interact is the most meaningful part of his job.

"You get to know people who are real people going through pain, and people that are real heroes," DeSpain said.

Below is a timeline of DeSpain's 2012 police incident reports. One particularly poignant report was chosen for each month of 2012. For most months, you'll find the full text of the crime story and in January, July, October, and November, you can hear DeSpain read the story aloud.

To read the most recent reports posted by Madison Police Department, visit this website.

Emily Eggleston is a Madison-based multimedia journalist.

Photo by Dan Bishop

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