JONESBORO, Ark. (AP) - Over the past 30 years, the Jonesboro media has seen good times, bad times and large scale changes, but one name has been consistent throughout all of it - Paul Holmes.
Media and law enforcement members gathered Aug. 15, along with Holmes’ family and friends, to say goodbye to a man who covered and worked for law enforcement for over 30 years.
“It has been a great opportunity for me, but it’s time for me to move on,” Holmes said. “Time to see if Uncle Sam really deposits those social security checks. Also, my first grandchild was born. I have watched (coroner) Toby (Emerson) grow and I don’t want him rolling me out of here one day.”
Holmes described his career as a journalist, and more recently a Jonesboro Police Department public information officer, as a balancing act.
“I am in this role because I had a notion of what the media needed, but also knew not to give away too much that it could threaten a case,” Holmes said. “I knew that balancing act role.”
Holmes’ time walking the tightrope has shown him all aspects of law enforcement.
Holmes grew up in West Memphis and graduated from the local high school, but when it came to picking a college, he decided Arkansas State University was the way to go.
“I started out as a radio and TV major at Arkansas State,” Holmes said. “I then decided to kind of just stay here. I like this community. Actually, I love this community.”
In 1973, Holmes began his journalism career working as night producer for Region 8 News.
“It was more than part-time,” Holmes said. “It was there where I got interested in covering courts and law enforcement. Things happened at a quick pace and it was exciting.”
Holmes would work for the local television station for four years when a rival gave him an interesting proposition.
“Larry Fugate had been the cops and courts reporter at the time and most of the time he was beating me to the story,” Holmes said laughing. “He had just become the editor… and he asked if I would become the new cops and courts reporter. I think it paid a little more at the time and I decided to make the switch.”
For the next 27 years Holmes called The Jonesboro Sun home.
“It’s a whole different world now,” Holmes said. “Back in the day, JPD or the county would call to ask me to shoot some crime scene photos for them. In fact, the FBI would bring their film down sometimes to have it developed at our office. Our part of the deal was we could use one of the photos if there was anything good in there. That probably wouldn’t happen today.”
During his 27 years with The Sun, Holmes said nothing had a bigger impact on the community than the Westside Middle School shooting.
“School shootings were fairly new,” Holmes said. “This happened before Columbine and the media descended on the area. I remember we learned the names of the two suspects and deciding whether to name them or not was a subject of a pretty good debate in the newsroom. We decided to publish the names because we were obligated to report that information.”
Decisions like this were part of tightrope Holmes and his co-workers had to navigate over the coming months and years.
“The cameras would come and go, but we still have to live here,” Holmes said. “We live and work here and it was important for us to do the most aggressive job we could do covering the story, but also be respectful. We have to own the story ‘cause this was in our backyard, but we were still left living and working with the people effected by the incident. It was a pretty good balancing act.”
Holmes said newsroom coverage of the event would earn them a runner up spot for a Pulitzer Prize that year.
Holmes left the newspaper industry in 2004, and took several different jobs around town.
“When I left The Sun I wrote a weekly business column,” Holmes said. “Then I became a grant writer for St. Bernard’s Medical Center for about five years. Once I left there, I primarily did some business reporting for some local publications.”
In 2014, Jonesboro Mayor Harold Perrin named Rick Elliott as the city’s new police chief and one of his first calls was to the former journalist.
“A couple of years ago the country was in turmoil and the trust in law enforcement was an all-time low,” Elliott said at Holmes retirement party. “I remembered when I was in CID, Paul would come over and drink coffee and we would talk. I knew he was someone that we could trust ‘cause he never burned us. I decided what could be better than having a professional newsman come in and deal with the media.”
Holmes quickly said yes to Elliott’s offer.
“Our family has been around law enforcement for many years,” Holmes said. “I jumped at the chance to make my contribution.”
Holmes was named the new public information officer for the Jonesboro Police Department and was tasked with creating a positive perception of law enforcement, but first he had to win over his colleagues.
Community Outreach and Recruiting Officer Cassie Brandon said she was skeptical when Holmes arrived.
“When Paul first came to work here, I was unsure about having a civilian in a position such as public information specialist,” Brandon said. “I had never known us to do that in the past. But, as I got to know Paul, I saw how good of a fit he was for the job. As a career journalist who has a son who is a JPD officer and a wife who was a juvenile probation officer, he was in a unique position to understand what the media needed but he also knew the inner workings of law enforcement and how to handle sensitive information.”
Brandon would go from being a Holmes skeptic to a good friend.
“On a personal level, I have really enjoyed getting to know Paul,” Brandon said. “We are both very opinionated and have had some spirited discussion, but he has a lot of wisdom and I have tried to learn as much as I could from him. Paul is a very thoughtful, kind person with a great sense of humor.”
Holmes was also an encyclopedia of Jonesboro knowledge.
“I think he knows everyone in Jonesboro, because we have never gone anywhere in public where someone did not come up and say ‘hi’ to him and shake his hand,” Brandon said. “He has also been my personal Google. If there was something I did not know, all I had to do was wonder about it out loud and he, almost without fail, would know the right answer without having to look it up.”
Brandon and Holmes would form a duo, which would change the way JPD interacted with the community.
Holmes said one of his first duties was creating a social media presence for the department. It wasn’t until Brandon approached him about a child being taken in a custody dispute that he realized the power of the internet.
“She came up to me and asked me to post some photos on social media,” Holmes said “I was a little skeptical it would do anything, but I posted them anyway. Turns out the post attracted an amazing amount of attention, and before daylight the next day, some family members brought the child back. I don’t think that would have happened without Facebook.”
Since then, Holmes has used social media to alert the public to critical events like the active shooter scare at Arkansas State University to the more recent bridge closure.
“I find it fascinating how some things resonate on certain platforms while some don’t,” Holmes said.
Holmes has also used his media knowledge to tell the hidden acts of kindness officers perform, which include giving gas to people in need to collecting diapers for lower income families.
“It gives me an opportunity to tell those stories, and that is uplifting for me,” Holmes said.
Holmes and Brandon also would help create JPD’s Citizen Police Academy.
“Paul has been my partner for the last two years, nearly, and I have been able to count on him to help me with my various projects when I needed it,” Brandon said. “He has put up with me volunteering him to do things, and has never complained or tried to get out of anything I have needed help with. I think he truly enjoys being a part of the Jonesboro Police Department and he has been the epitome of a good teammate to make sure we meet our objectives.”
Holmes’ work ethic is apparent to all that work with him.
“He has gone above and beyond to try to meet the needs of members of the media,” Brandon said. “He is a true believer in Freedom of Information and transparency in government, and has worked to keep every member of the public as informed as he possibly can.”
Brandon said Holmes won’t be easily replaced.
He is one of a kind,” Brandon said. “He truly cares about this department and our officers and has done an incredible job getting our message out while keeping the public informed of what is happening in their city. On a personal note, he has become a friend and mentor and I will truly miss his daily presence.”
Holmes said he is going to miss the people at JPD as well.
“I got a chance to renew some friendships and tell some stories and I will miss that,” Holmes said. “It will be fun seeing the department develop from my chair, but I will miss the work and I will miss the people.”
Holmes said he wants to be remembered as being fair and honest.
“That is what they teach you in journalism school, to treat people fairly and to be honest,” Holmes said. “I believe there are some parallels between this job and journalism because all of you got to sell is credibility.”
Holmes plans to see Europe, explore the country and enjoy some family time, but it’s hard to keep a writer away from his keyboard.
“I don’t know, maybe after a few years I will do some freelancing,” Holmes said with a smile.
Information from: The Jonesboro Sun, https://www.jonesborosun.com
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