PIO Steve Smith’s Police Story
By: John Elsasser
Mar. 1, 2020
Name: Steven A. Smith Jr.
Current status: Public Information Officer, Albany Police Department
Location: Albany, N.Y.
Career highlights: Chair, Board of Directors, Northeastern Association of the Blind at Albany; Secretary, PRSA’s Capital Region Chapter; Coordinator, Capital Region Crime Stoppers, Inc.
Favorite downtime activity: Watching the New York Yankees
Favorite place to travel: The Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, N.Y.
Three dinner guests — past or present: Alexander Hamilton, Nelson Mandela and Derek Jeter
Favorite films: “Rudy,” “Backdraft” (“Don’t tell my firefighter friends!”) and “Rocky IV”
Did you always have an interest in law enforcement?
I come from a family of emergency services personnel and have always had a passion for helping others. But I had no interest in becoming a police officer. While working as a patient care associate in Albany Medical Center’s emergency room, I enrolled in nursing school and began pursuing my RN.
At the advice of my father, who served in law enforcement for over 40 years, I took the police officer’s exam just in case I changed my mind and decided nursing wasn’t for me. At the age of 22, I was offered a job in the police department in my hometown of Rensselaer, N.Y., and withdrew from nursing school to follow in my father’s footsteps. After four years in Rensselaer, I was offered an opportunity across the Hudson River with the City of Albany Police Department and transferred.
How did the transition to PIO come about in early 2012?
When the PIO position became available I knew right away I was going to apply. I didn’t have high expectations since I only had a few years on the job at that time, but the job really appealed to me. I wanted the opportunity to at least interview with the chief and his command staff — just for the experience, if nothing else. It turned out to be one of the best decisions of my career.
The day of the interview, the two other candidates withdrew and I essentially got the job by default. I have always been a firm believer of “you have to be in it to win it.” The department has since created “The Steve Smith Rule,” which is essentially: If you want something, no matter how much of a long shot it seems, put in for it.
How do you balance the sensitivities related to an ongoing investigation vs. providing the media and public with updates?
It is something that I have learned over time and by making many mistakes. I have always tried to be as transparent as possible and understand that community members have a right to know what’s going on when a crime or incident occurs.
As with any communications profession, the most important thing you can do is do exactly that — communicate. When lines of communication with the command staff and detectives are open, we can work together to ensure that the community is informed and details that might compromise an investigation aren’t released.
How has the Albany Police Department educated the public on how to respond during threats like active shooter situations?
The Albany Police Department has several officers who are trained to instruct Civilian Response to Active Shooter Events (CRASE) training. In 2019 alone, members of the police department hosted over 40 CRASE trainings at schools, businesses, hospitals and other locations to educate the public on what to do in the event of an active shooter.
The key takeaways from CRASE training are: Avoid (the shooter), Deny (entry into a room) and Defend (as a last resort).
What have you learned about crisis management since serving as a PIO?
When a crisis happens, your initial response is almost always reactive, but there are opportunities to be strategic and proactive in your approach as well. Understanding how to communicate with the public quickly is essential to controlling the message, dispelling inaccurate information and making sure people have clear directions on what to do. Police work is exciting, and I have learned to not only manage the pressure, but also thrive in the face of crisis.
What inspired you to become involved in Board leadership with PRSA’s Capital Region Chapter?
Being a PRSA member has provided me with many opportunities to grow, learn and network with some of the nation’s most talented PR professionals. Being a member has been worth the investment and has allowed me to continue to develop as a professional.
Knowing what PRSA has to offer, I was determined to get more involved with the Capital Region Chapter and have enjoyed serving as a Board member, including in my current role as secretary.
photo credit: albany police department