In 2000, Kelly Huston requested a Friday off from his full time, 24-hour on-call position as the Public Information Officer for the Modesto Police Department. Out to lunch with a friend, Huston had turned off his police radio in an attempt to completely remove himself from the job for a day, or at least for a meal.
Just after seeing a police car flying past with sirens blaring, Huston received a phone call from TV station KCRA in Sacramento. There, Huston first learned there was an officer-involved shooting just a block away at McHenry Village.
He quickly arrived on scene at Gabriel Fine Jewelers, where two officers, Kevin Bertalotto and Chuck Cahoone, had been shot. Bertalotto and Cahoone had been eating nearby at a restaurant when they received a call about two suspicious men potentially casing the jewelry store.
Bertalotto, in plain clothes, walked into the store first, while Cahoone, a uniformed school resource officer, stood outside. Once Cahoone was spotted in uniform, the suspects attempted to flee before engaging in gunfire with the officers.
Bertalotto was shot six times and Cahoone was shot once in the abdomen. One suspect died and another was arrested in Patterson, about 30 minutes from Modesto.
[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“I took a step back from that [officer involved shooting scene] and I realized that there is something I can do.”[/pullquote]
“When I got there, it was within five minutes of it happening, and I remember walking in the front door and smelling the sulfur from the gunfire, because there was a ton of gunfire that went on in there,” Huston recalled. “And seeing Kevin and Chuck on the ground, both of them essentially bleeding to death, that was the moment for me where I felt completely helpless.”
Huston realized that, although he wasn’t able to assist medically, he had the unique experience and resources available to help track down the second suspect.
“I took a step back from that and I realized that there is something I can do,” he said. “They killed one of the suspects and the second suspect took off in a car. I suddenly had this epiphany that the best thing I could do for my buddies was to help catch the second guy. For me that wasn’t going to be grabbing my gun and chasing this guy down, but by using the tools that I can bring to the table,” said Huston. “I have relationships with the media, I know how to get on live television, know how to get on radio stations. I have all of these resources that I used to look at as things you do after the crisis.”
Huston, now an appointee of Governor Jerry Brown as the Deputy Director of Crisis Communications and Public Affairs for the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES), will be awarded the highest honor from the California Association of Public Information Officials (CAPIO) when he receives the Paul B. Clark Award at the 2016 CAPIO Annual Conference next week. The award is presented to a public information official whose accomplishments have made a major contribution to the profession.
“Kelly is committed to excellence and integrity in all aspects of his career, and is incredibly deserving of this award,” said CAPIO President C.L. Lopez. “He has a never-ending zest for learning and teaching communication skills and strategies, and has contributed tremendously to the profession and to CAPIO.”
Throughout his distinguished 22-year career in communications, Huston has been involved in some of California’s most high-profile crimes, including the murder trial of Scott Peterson, the disappearance and murder of Chandra Levy and the disappearance of three hikers in Yosemite.
“It is a huge honor to be awarded this especially from a statewide organization that has the history and respect that CAPIO does,” said Huston. “It’s humbling to receive an award like this and it’s also really satisfying to learn that the work I’ve done over the past 20 years has had a positive effect on my profession and my colleagues.”
Huston’s career in media and crisis communications, which began in 1994 with his first-ever media interview working for the Modesto Police Department, has also included the ongoing California drought, the 1997 flooding in Northern California, the statewide wildfires in 2008, and most recently the massive natural gas leak in Southern California.
“I still feel like I’m a rookie PIO,” he said. “I don’t feel like ‘oh I’m the master and I’ve got it all figured out’. I’ve learned a lot along the way.”
Huston has served as an appointee of both Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Brown. He’s held leadership positions in several areas of state government such as Assistant Secretary of the California Emergency Management Agency, Deputy Director of Cal OES, Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Commander at the California Highway Patrol and also gained experience in the private sector as Vice President of communications for a private company within the Central Valley.
Working to advance the public communications profession, Huston has shared his experiences to professional communicators through trainings in crisis and risk communications, media relations, public information, public safety, law enforcement, emergency management and multimedia communications.
“I had no idea what I was doing when I first got into it,” said Huston. “I was winging it for many years. I say this all the time, but I am shocked I still have a job,” he chuckled.
With the ever-evolving social media spectrum and varying media platforms, Huston admittedly believes, at least from a fundamental standpoint, that the future of public information still resides in the core values of presentation.
“The fundamental craft and ability to communicate doesn’t change,” he said. “It’s the tools that change, and so social media doesn’t change the fundamental way we communicate it just changes the way in which we deliver messages. It may be shorter, it may be online, it may be on an electronic device, but fundamentally you are still doing the same thing.”
Huston can be found on Twitter @ProComKelly.