Mouthpiece on the Move

Is HPD flack's parting gift of the Trojan variety?

The recent announcement that Houston Police Department communications chief Rick Hartley will be resigning to become executive director of the HPD support group, the 100 Club, set off a flurry of speculation in media circles. Hartley has prospered under the tenure of Police Chief Sam Nuchia, but his job reviews from reporters are considerably mixed. One police beater described him this way: "Without doubt or hesitation, he's an obstacle between reporters and news, like a speed bump."

So why would a "bump" in a relatively cushy job, heading a staff of four information officers plus support troops, leave for a sleepy, non-profit booster organization that's been directed since its inception by now-75-year-old Mary Cooper? Two theories quickly emerged: Either the 47-year-old Hartley jumped ship, effective this October, for a fat increase in salary over his current $62,000-plus paycheck, or he was pushed as the result of internal politicking at 61 Riesner Street.

While Hartley tells us his future salary is nobody's business but his own, the 100 Club's Cooper shoots down theory number one with a good laugh. "He'd love that," she chuckles, when told some people had pegged his new salary at $90,000. "So would I, but it's not true. He makes $62 [thousand] where he is, so our group is going to meet that."

Cooper says Hartley's new duties will steadily expand. "I was it when we started [in 1975]," she says. "But now we have 8,600 members and growing, and with Rick aboard, with his abilities in public relations and that sort of thing, he'll help to increase the membership tremendously." As for theory number two, Hartley says no one asked him to leave HPD. "I wasn't even looking for a job," he emphasizes. "I was approached by the 100 Club, they made me an offer that was very interesting, and I accepted their offer."

One of Hartley's last gifts to the Houston media is being eyed suspiciously by some news folk as a potential tool to control the flow of information. Hartley says his office is in the process of activating an automated call system to alert Houston media outlets when police-related news occurs. The news shops will pay a monthly fee to receive the messages, which in many cases will come in on a dedicated phone line to be recorded by an answering machine. Instead of faxing or calling outlets individually, the department will use an automated calling service company to simultaneously alert the newsrooms with taped announcements produced by Hartley's staff. The bulletins can be transcribed and read to an audience or played on radio stations as audio sound bites -- without any further clarification by newspeople.

While well-staffed news operations will likely use the system simply as a provider of tips to be checked out by reporters, smaller outfits may be tempted to run the announcements unedited. That troubles veteran Houston newspeople such as Joe Izbrand, the news director at KTRH radio.

"I don't know what's going to happen," says Izbrand. "I don't know if this is going to be used simply to control the information they give to the media and actually limit us in what we do. I think in general it's a bad precedent for the media to become dependent upon this. What happens is that we wait to be spoon-fed by the police department, and we certainly know that we can't depend on them to give us an accurate accounting of things in all cases."

So is Hartley worried about cultivating a host of little media mouths to spoon-feed? "From the newsperson's standpoint," he purrs, "I can see where this is obviously an easier way to get actualities. From our standpoint, we're going to be putting information out that is accurate information, to the best we have it. I don't know how much checking would need to be done on what is being put out.

 
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