Veteran officer welcomes challenge of helping media as police spokesman

February 06, 1994|By Ed Heard | Ed Heard,Sun Staff Writer

Steve Keller's new job takes a lot of tact, patience and hustle -- not to mention handfuls of Gummi bears and inspiration from his Hollywood favorite, John Wayne.

After a month as the spokesman for the Howard County Police Department, the former property detective says he's adapting to the daily give-and-take with the media that gave headaches to his predecessors.

"[The news media] are in the business of marketing news. My job is to facilitate it," Sergeant Keller says. "The biggest thing for me is trying to meet the demands of the media. I look forward to the challenge of the assignment."

Sergeant Keller replaces Sgt. Gary Gardner, who worked in the position for 4 1/2 years before opting to return to the streets as a patrol supervisor in west Columbia.

"He'll do a fine job," Sergeant Gardner says. "I now have a better appreciation for the news media. But sometimes, not getting the reporters to see our side frustrated me."

The hardest part of the job, Sergeant Gardner says, is handling high-profile or controversial cases and the stress from live interviews. Then there are the phone calls and questions that inevitably follow the public information officer home.

"It's one job that can get the best of you when you're going through a controversial case," he says. "You take [the anxiety] home with you. It's difficult to leave at the office."

Technological advances

Sergeant Keller, who had headed the department's property crimes section since September 1991, had done some public relations work similar to his new role when he handled community assistance and crime prevention jobs from 1983 to 1988.

Improvements, he says, have come from technological advances such as computers, which have eased the chore of typing press releases, and fax machines, which have eliminated the need for cadets to deliver information.

Sergeant Keller, a 16-year veteran of the department, has already made his mark in his new office in the lobby of police headquarters in Ellicott City. Co-workers say they could have predicted his immediate tidying of the media relations office, which is now adorned by plaques, a copy of the Declaration of Independence and family photos.

A police radio and a trademark glass jar of Gummi bears sits near the nameplate on his desk. Co-workers are used to his steadfast image.

In his last job, they called him Felix, after the immaculate character played by Tony Randall in the television series, "The Odd Couple." But there's nothing eccentric about the Hagerstown native.

"He's conscientious and meticulous," says Sgt. Pete D'Antuono, who worked directly with Sergeant Keller in the criminal investigations division. "He wants to make sure the job gets done.

"Personally, I wouldn't want the job. You're put on the spot," Sergeant D'Antuono says. "You're always open to ridicule about what you say or don't say."

Sergeant Keller's interest in police work began when he was 12, sparked by his contact with the father of a school friend, a Hagerstown police sergeant who eventually rose to police chief. At 19, Sergeant Keller became a cadet in the Hagerstown department and at 21 he graduated from the Western Maryland Police Academy. In 1978, he joined the Howard department.

Now reporters rattle on his office door every morning, peeping through the window to see what he is doing. As early as 7:30 a.m., the queries start coming in.

"What's happening today? Any fatalities? Did you all catch those suspects in last week's convenience store robbery? I'm on deadline. I need some statistics."

Frustrations in work

A career in law enforcement has been rewarding, but it also has its frustrations, Sergeant Keller said.

What ticks him off? Bad drivers, officers who violate the law and situations when police seem to be tarred for a mere allegation of wrongdoing.

"Sometimes it's like you're guilty until proven innocent," Sergeant Keller says.

Away from work, the Ellicott City resident plays golf, listens to country music, reads an occasional suspense novel or watches his 12-year-old son, Christopher, compete in wrestling, football and baseball.

His collection of John Wayne movies now totals 60 video tapes.

Sergeant Keller is now working to augment his degree in administration of justice with a degree in business management at University College in College Park.

Several years from now, he says retirement might find him running his own security business or perhaps operating a catering service with his wife, Tammy.

In the meantime, he says, the new job suits him.

"This is an extremely important facet of police-community relations," he says. "It's an opportunity not just to give out news, but to market the Police Department and let people know about the good things we do."

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