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A Failure to Communicate

Is the media to blame for Tom Sanchez's dismissal?

Denver police chief Tom Sanchez was nowhere to be seen in footage of the February 8 news conference where Mayor Wellington Webb officially handed him his hat and showed him the door -- but he'd gotten plenty of television face time just a couple of days earlier.

Not that he necessarily enjoyed it.

Yep, Sanchez had been the star of the show during Channel 4's newscasts on February 6, which was, conveniently, the beginning of 2000's first ratings, or sweeps, month. In a package by reporter Brian Maass, Sanchez was seen moving through Denver International Airport a day earlier alongside several high-ranking Denver police officials (division chiefs Gerry Whitman and Mary Beth Klee and deputy chief David Abrams) and a gaggle of family members eager to board a plane that would jet them to sunny Hawaii for five fabulous, fun-filled days.

There was a business reason for this jaunt, of course: specifically, a meeting of the Major Cities Police Chiefs Association that was to begin Monday. But the conference only lasted three days, leaving two more for pleasure -- and nothing could be more pleasurable than spending the better part of a February week in America's vacation paradise. The timing may have seemed a little suspect: After all, Sanchez and company were departing one short day after DPD officer Joseph Bini was charged with providing false information to obtain a particularly unfortunate search warrant -- one that resulted in a no-knock raid at the wrong house last September in which an innocent man, Ismael Mena, was killed. But the trip had been on the schedule for ages. It would be foolish to cancel the whole shebang for the sake of appearances. Wouldn't it?

Wrong. The morning after Maass's story, a banner headline reading "Chief Off to Hawaii" jumped from the cover of the Rocky Mountain News, and things got worse after that, with the other local TV stations and talk-radio yakkers like the Denver cops' favorite whipping boy, Peter Boyles, pouring lighter fluid on the blaze. In an attempt to control the heat, the Webb administration called Sanchez home on February 7, and by the following evening, the chief was toast. The mayor insisted, amid overwhelming evidence suggesting otherwise, that the Hawaii excursion was not a factor in his decision, and he studiously avoided using a certain F-word in his remarks at the February 8 news conference. But the News was under no such constraints. "Sanchez Fired," its front page screamed.

Almost immediately after the chief's sentence was announced, city officials began to insinuate that the press had put a hit out on Sanchez. Regarding Maass's report, Denver manager of safety Butch Montoya, whom critics such as city councilman Ted Hackworth would like to see disapppeared as well, was quoted in the News as saying, "I didn't anticipate that there would be hidden cameras at DIA that would create a sinister atmosphere" -- a remark that might have carried more weight had Montoya not been the former news director at Channel 9, where he oversaw more hidden-camera extravaganzas than Allen Funt (remember Paula Woodward's mid-'90s exposé of alleged slackers at the city's department of public works?). Andrew Hudson, the mayor's spokesman, shares some of Montoya's opinions and expresses himself so passionately that he almost seems to be blaming the press for making Webb fire Sanchez. "I think there are certain reporters who are putting Chief Sanchez's head as a trophy above their mantle," he says.

Local journalists see such characterizations as missing the point. Many of those contacted by Westword (some speaking anonymously, others using their names) believe the bad publicity that dogged Sanchez throughout his eighteen months as chief was exacerbated by his inability to communicate effectively with the media and, by extension, the citizenry at large. Furthermore, they think that the department as a whole, which has never been regarded as an open book, screwed on the lid even tighter during Sanchez's watch, restricting information and access in ways that often resulted in mistrust, bad feelings and, perhaps, more negative stories than there might have been otherwise. Finally, they argue that the current department seems clueless when it comes to public relations. Considering all that, they imply, the person most responsible for what happened to Tom Sanchez was...Tom Sanchez.

Even Sanchez's supporters concede that he was not particularly smooth when confronted with cameras and microphones. According to Detective Virginia Lopez, one of the department's three public information officers, or PIOs, "The chief was more oriented toward going out there, getting the job done and doing it right. He thought that was more important than trying to smile and shake hands when people have shown that they'll be your friends when things are going right but they'll turn on you when they go wrong."

This standoffishness was even more obvious when contrasted with the manner of Sanchez's predecessor, Dave Michaud, who was widely viewed as likable and accessible. "Chief Sanchez wasn't a really open, media-type person like Chief Michaud was," notes John Wyckoff, who'd been a PIO for a dozen years prior to his transfer to another departmental post in March 1999. (He's currently the spokesman for the Denver Police Protective Association, which sometimes finds itself in an adversarial relationship with police administration.) "And no chief will be successful if they don't cooperate and make themselves available to the media."

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