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Police spokesman has way with words, media

Published Oct. 2, 2005

Bill Doniel has long been the voice for St. Petersburg police, talking to reporters in times of crisis and hosting a monthly TV program about crime in the community.

Now the 55-year-old Doniel has a broader audience.

The spokesman for St. Petersburg police has been featured in a national training video for law enforcement personnel called In the Line of Duty. Doniel also was a panelist last week at the annual conference of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

His message: It can happen to you.

Two nights of disturbances last year in St. Petersburg, which took the department by surprise, brought reporters from around the country to the city. Doniel said he was forced to deal with them all.

With a list of tips on dealing with reporters, Doniel said he has worked to reduce the tension between the media and law enforcement. He wants the two groups to better understand each other, and he hopes officers learn that reporters carry a valuable message about police departments to the community.

"You have to have some kind of relationship with the media," Doniel said. "You're not going to make the media go away."

Doniel has been the public information officer in St. Petersburg since 1974, making him one of the more senior police spokesmen in Florida. He came to the department at a time when St. Petersburg officers had an arcane press policy and only two months after officers confiscated cameras belonging to a news photographer.

Since he arrived, the department has one of the more liberal press policies in the state. The seven-page policy encourages officers and supervisors to talk to reporters but to remember they must protect the integrity of criminal investigations.

Herein lies many conflicts.

What reporters often see as "color" for their stories, Doniel said, investigators view as "evidence."

Doniel, who helped start the crime awareness division in 1981 in addition to the press office, is one of the more visible members of the Police Department. When a crime occurs or investigators make an important arrest, Doniel or his assistant, Officer Lilla Davis, are the ones who usually appear in the newspaper or on television to discuss it.

Doniel hosts the monthly cable TV show Police Report, which was the first in the nation to broadcast names and photographs of prostitutes and their customers. He also has hosted the broadcast of the annual Top Cop charity race.

Doniel has worked for five police chiefs at the department, the latest being Goliath Davis III. "I have been fortunate all of these years in having police chiefs who have been pro-active media people who understand the role of the press," Doniel said.

"I'm proud he's done as good as he has," said Mack Vines, who was the chief who hired Doniel and who is now director of the Southeastern Public Safety Institute at the All-state Center in St. Petersburg. "He's very well-known in the community. He speaks well, he's knowledgeable, and he's a good role model for the community."

The fact that Doniel is providing a national example on how to deal with reporters and enhance the image of policing comes as no surprise to Darrel Stephens, who was chief until he was appointed city administrator this summer.

"Bill is one of the best in the business, bar none," Stephens said. "I have been around the country an awful lot and have worked on media relations issues before I came to St. Petersburg. And in my judgment, there is no one in the field of policing that is better. He understands policing and tries to be responsive to the media."

For Doniel, there is no other job he would prefer to do.

"I take the job extremely seriously," he said. "I've done it for so long. I've seen so many people come and go. I have such a strong belief in credibility that the public knows there's trust there _ I'm not going to be stonewalling and lying."