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Moradan mixes facts, humor as San Joaquin Sheriff's spokesman

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Posted: Monday, July 19, 2004 10:00 pm

How does a former-pastor-turned-DJ go from cracking jokes to cocking guns to negotiating for hostages and speaking to the media?

"I can communicate," Sgt. Chris Stevens said sheepishly.

The 16-year San Joaquin Sheriff's Department veteran is now one of two deputies that fill in for spokeswoman Deputy Nellie Stone when she is on vacation.

Stevens, 43, has drawn the curiosity of journalists with his day-to-day media releases topped off with tongue-in-cheek recaps almost poking fun at criminals who do silly things.

While he would never joke about serious crimes such as rape or murder, he finds humor in describing the county's petty crimes.

The Morada resident took center stage last month when he was seen on local and national TV stations providing information on a levee break in the Delta.

"That was one of the most challenging days of my career, and it almost had nothing to do with law enforcement," Stevens said, recalling how surreal it was to stand before a "340-degree" circle of news cameras and reporters telling them everything he knew.

Chris Stevens

Since then, he's lost count on how many times he's been on TV.

But long before he was informing the media, Stevens was behind the microphone himself.

From preacher to teacher to supervisor

A minister for seven years, he moved from his native Houston to Stockton to attend Christian Life College. He planned to be a chaplain in the U.S. Air Force, but ended up managing what is now KYCC Christian radio in Stockton.

After that stint, Stevens worked as a substitute teacher and ran his own window tinting business. He was soon urged by a friend who later became his wife to become a sheriff's dispatcher, in 1988.

"But then I found out the cops were having a lot more fun and being paid a lot more."

Besides, the dispatch job was taxing. Unlike officers who get to see a resolution to their calls, dispatchers are forced to handle one emergency and move on to the next without finding out what happens in the end.

Stevens handled the coordination of emergency services on the ground and in the air the day of the Cleveland School shootings in Stockton.

He soon went to the police academy and became a sworn officer, but after three months on patrol he "went to jail for nine years," he jokes of his job as a guard, a stint that ran until 1999.

His next assignment was beat officer. After three months with a new training officer older than he was, Stevens patrolled everything north of Eight Mile Road in the county jurisdiction.

But he was soon transferred to Lathrop as that city's community resource officer because, he said, he got along with people and could schmooze.

(Lathrop does not have its own police department, and instead contracts with the sheriff's department for protection).

While there for three years, Stevens was sent to all kinds of classes including hostage negotiation school. He also worked on drug prevention programs and other community crime prevention efforts until he was promoted.

Today, as a sergeant he is in charge of the sheriff's work program where offenders literally work off sentences. Since April 1, he has supervised 25 employees.

That's where he was working the morning of June 3 when he caught the word "boil" on a hand-held police radio. Knowing Stone was on vacation and thinking it sounded like a levee break, he phoned dispatchers to ask if he would be needed on scene. They told him, "not yet."

Then his pager went off.

'Nationwide news'

Stevens arrived in Holt at 10:40 a.m. When he left at midnight he knew more about levees and salt-water intrusion than he ever thought he would.

Quotable
Sgt. Chris Stevens, a public information officer for the San Joaquin Sheriff's Department, uses humorous descriptions of actual crimes in e-mailed summaries for the media. Here are quips from one of his recent releases.
Today's cases bring up some good bits of advice:
• If the cops chase you and you escape by abandoning the stolen car you are in, don't go back to the car.
• If you want to go crazy and tear up business signs screaming 'I'm a billionaire,' 2 a.m. is a good time.
• If you want to steal porn, don't leave your burglar tools in the bushes.
• If you get evicted and you have warrants, don't try to go home again.
• If you want your child to succeed in life, discourage him from carrying sawed-off loaded shotguns, crack pipes and brass knuckles in his car while driving with expired tags.
• Don't carry guns in your car that will be in plain view when the officer asks you to step out of the car.

So many people called from area codes Stevens didn't even recognize, he emptied the numbers and asked county spokeswoman Connie Cassinetto to return the calls.

Since then, he's had co-workers tell him he was seen on TV stations as far away as Florida and Virginia.

"It was nationwide news, and I had no idea when I heard there was a levee break that morning," he said.

"People told me I did well.

"I spent years with a microphone here," he motions in front of his face, "talking on the radio like we were having coffee face to face."

It's a little different as a sheriff's spokesman, a position he was apparently recommended for by Stone.

Stevens thinks its because he's an experienced public speaker. "Running a radio station for five years gives you a chance to learn how to talk," he pointed out.

When it comes to informing the media on the sheriff's daily events, he likes to keep it light and the teasers at the start of each report achieves this.

"I hate e-mails where it's just an attachment. If you know what's in there, you are more likely to open it," said Stevens, always the joker.

He shows a reporter his family portrait, but urges her to turn it over for a "closer family resemblance." On the other side, the family has posed wearing Groucho Marx disguises.

He quickly changes the subject and informs the reporter there's a picture on the county OES Web site that looks like he's picking his nose.

There is a serious side to Stevens who says the best part about being a department spokesman is he enjoys giving the full story. He also loves people.

While some officers put up a wall and act as if the day-to-day tragedies and stresses of the job don't affect them, Stevens deals with them using humor.

Sheriff Baxter Dunn said Stevens is both a great patrol officer and a wonderful talker.

"I really never thought of him in that role (as PIO) because he's done so many varied things. But when I saw him on camera last month at the levee, I knew it was a great decision," Dunn said.

Stone's other back-up PIO is Sgt. Carey Pehl.

Stevens, who still volunteers at the radio station and is a lay pastor at Christian Life Center in Stockton, is married with a 12-year-old daughter.

His only past-time? Writing, ironically. He's got "30,000 words to go" on a 100,000-word cop novel he started when he worked at the jail.

This fall, he's teaching at a police conference in Lake Tahoe and would like to train other officers on how to deal with the media on natural disasters such as the levee break.

He'll call it, "Two days at the beach with some of my closest friends."

Stevens, in his animated way, points to a picture of himself surrounded by a dozen or so reporters and jokes, "See, those are my friends."

Although he's received mixed feedback on his teasers for the media, he'll continue with them.

"My sister once told me I have a strange sense of the bizarre. I actually treasure that comment."

Contact reporter Jennifer Pearson Bonnett at jenniferb@lodinews.com.

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