On July 4th, a 21-year-old man shot and killed seven people, and injured dozens of others. In subsequent press conferences following the event, you may have noticed one person in particular: Lake County Sheriff's Deputy Chief, Chris Covelli.
As the Public Information Officer for the Lake County Sheriff’s Department, Covelli played a crucial role in delivering information to the public about the status of the investigation and the search for the suspect.
LX News Storyteller Jalyn Henderson sat down with Deputy Chief Covelli to learn more about his role and to find out what the July 4th shooting was like, from his perspective.
The interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
Jalyn Henderson: Let’s get the big question out of the way, what is a Public Information Officer?
Deputy Chief Chris Covelli: A Public Information Officer or PIO is an extremely important function in law enforcement, or really any form of government. There has to be a catalyst to get the information out to community members and there needs to be a two-way avenue of communication and that's really the Public Information Officer's primary role. So mine is a law enforcement public information officer. I'm privileged to be the voice of my organization and whether it's talking to the media or talking to community organizations or making posts on social media, I have that ability and that luxury of being able to tell the good stories that we're doing. Now, sometimes we have critical incidents and major things that happen. This is where the Public Information Officer is a crucial, crucial position because the public needs that information and they need it quickly.
Henderson: One of those major events was the mass shooting in Highland Park. At the time, several government agencies, including the FBI, came to assist in securing the scene and finding the shooter. What did that mean for you in terms of keeping the community informed?
Chris Covelli: It was that all-hands-on-deck feeling: just outpouring support from other governments, other law enforcement organizations, other fire departments to just do what they could to help further the investigation. It's so important being on the same page, especially being the spokesman for a critical incident. It allows me to get the critical information out fast, accurately and timely. That can't happen if there isn't solid collaboration and a solid partnership. That's the thing, there were no egos in there, you know. In every organization, every profession, there's egos involved at some levels, and that was non-existent. Everybody was on the same playing field. Everybody knew what their mission was at that point in time. And everybody handled their responsibilities just unbelievably. And that was really important to not only quickly push out information, but quickly apprehend the offender as well.
Henderson: How do you decide what information was valuable to the public and what isn't?
Deputy Chief Covelli: When I look at information that needs to be shared, I look at if I was watching TV, if I was a resident of Highland Park. "What do I want to know right now? What do I need to know? What's extremely important to know now?" And what can we wait and message out later that they can sit on the back burner for a little bit? So those are the types of conversations we would have based on the information and intelligence that we had right here, right now. And then, once the identity of this individual was determined, and we were certain of who was responsible for this attack, there was no hesitation to put the information out because this person is on the loose. In a normal investigation where public safety isn't at risk, that might be information we hold back on and not release right away. There was no hesitation to push this out because we wanted the community's help in locating this person.
Henderson: Did your communication methods change after the suspect was in custody?
Deputy Chief Covelli: So, having worked as a Public Information Officer in some other incidents that rose to the national level, I knew there were going to be a lot of inquiries and a lot of interest on motive, specifics as to what exactly happened, where, when and how. I knew the questions would go from more broad to very specific. And that's where now a balancing act comes into play. Because at that point, there is no more threat to the community with this particular incident. Now, we do have somebody that's about to be charged with murder in custody. The investigation at that point now starts to take a higher level than maybe information that we're pushing out. Sometimes that can be a little bit frustrating for both the news media and the public.
Henderson: What do you think makes police departments hesitant to share information?
Deputy Chief Covelli: I think that most law enforcement organizations, unless they're a larger organization, probably just don't have that experience of interacting with the media a whole lot. So when the media comes knocking, they get nervous, they get scared, they don't want to say the wrong thing. They're worried that their image could be tarnished. So I think that that plays a factor. And I think that just the factor of not wanting to release too much information that will negatively impact a case, I think that holds some weight as well.
Henderson: What do you want people to walk away with when they watch coverage from this day?
Deputy Chief Covelli: It's tough because this was a tragedy that this county has never experienced, the city has certainly never experienced. You're talking about mass murder. You're talking about dozens of people that were wounded by gunfire. They will forever be impacted by what happened. I was at a different parade and my own kids told me they never want to go to a parade again. And that makes me feel like trash.
It's a difficult question because there was so much tragedy and if there's any takeaway from this, I would say — looking at how Highland Park Police and Fire and the lives they saved that day, doctors who were here at the parade, nurses at the parade, people with no medical training whatsoever jumping into action to save their fellow human. — those are takeaways that I think are just truly remarkable and heroic. Those were the heroes of this day. That's what I will always believe in and that's what I want the community to know. Those individuals are the true heroes in my book, and they always will be.