A Failure to Communicate

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

Observations about Sanchez's accessibility vary; some reporters say he was good about returning calls and sitting for interviews, while others complain that he was terse and difficult to reach. But nearly all of these observers believe that Sanchez simply didn't like dealing with the press and tried to keep his contact with its representatives to a minimum. In Wyckoff's mind, that was a problem. "Some people have been saying that there have been coverups in this department. Now, I don't believe the Denver Police Department has ever participated in such a thing. But I think when you're not willing to participate in the debate or address concerns, you leave that perception available to anyone who wants to talk about it. And if it's left unaddressed, perception becomes reality."

The PIOs come in for their share of complaints as well. Some of the gripes are rooted in procedure. For instance, the department's on-call PIO changes on a weekly basis, and officers don't carry over assignments from week to week -- meaning that someone well-versed in a big event that broke on his or her watch may be handing off to a colleague not yet up to speed. Plus, Denver police PIOs aren't directly available 24 hours a day, unlike many of their peers in other public agencies throughout the metro area (after 9:30 p.m., inquiries must come through police dispatch), and they rarely provide reporters with the sort of good-news items that might go a long way toward improving the department's reputation.

"The one thing I've never seen the Denver police do is sell themselves. It's just react to questions and go from there," says the News's Lynn Bartels, a longtime police reporter now on the legislative beat. "They never call up and say, 'Here's a great story: Some kid saved up all year for a bike, but it got stolen, and the cop who took the report felt so bad about it that he and the rest of the cops in the division bought the kid a bike.' There are a lot of good people out there busting their butts and going above and beyond, and they'll tell us, 'It makes us angry that you never write about the good things.' Well, you can't write about them if you don't hear about them."

Slow burn: Butch Montoya (left), Wellington Webb and Tom Sanchez didn't have a lot of answers during a February press conference.
David Rehor
Slow burn: Butch Montoya (left), Wellington Webb and Tom Sanchez didn't have a lot of answers during a February press conference.

Several reporters add that getting in touch with Sanchez's PIOs was more difficult than it had been to contact previous PIOs like Wyckoff and Dennis Cribari, who recently left the force under an especially dark cloud (he resigned last July after 25 years in uniform upon being charged with multiple counts of felony sex assault on a child). These critics also believe that the information dispensed by the latest batch of PIOs was more limited -- and while PIO Lopez disagrees with the former charge, she admits that "we're very restricted about the information we're given and the information we're allowed to give out." Since, as Lopez says, "all information should be coming out of our office," reporters are left with a choice: They can either cobble together an article based on sketchy, officially sanctioned details also in the hands of their competitors, or unearth more data elsewhere. "So," says Lopez, "they try to back-door with various individuals in the department to get more information. But some of that information isn't solid factually, and by leaking it to the media, they're actually doing an injustice to the department."

Webb spokesman Hudson seconds that emotion: "People who leak stories feel a great deal of power when they see something that they've been able to share with a reporter end up on TV or in the paper. But inevitably, it ends up hurting the public's perception of the police department, because a lot of times reporters will develop their premise without any objectivity if they think they've got a juicy story."

Sometimes, though, they wind up with a juicy story that's legitimate in every way -- and Denver Post editor Glenn Guzzo suspects that many scoops of this type are uncovered precisely because government agencies aren't as cooperative as they should be. "It's an irony, isn't it?" he says. "The smartest PR people have always seen their roles as facilitating access, and reporters see those who don't as being in the way. That increases the aggressiveness of the reporters, who figure they need to do more work to get information -- and the more work they do, the more things they stumble across, and the more likely it is that the media is going to wind up with more information than they would have wound up with initially. This escapes a good many folks in public relations."

Guzzo's scenario doesn't explain every police controversy that cropped up under Sanchez's reign; investigative journalism à la Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein wasn't necessary to spotlight police behavior during the post-Super Bowl riot in late January 1999 and the CU-CSU game in September, or the televised beating of suspects who led cops on a car chase in August. But the ugly details behind the fatal shooting of Ismael Mena were kept under wraps for months (it took a November story by -- guess who -- Channel 4's Maass to bring the case before the public), and once it got out, the department's delay in dealing with the situation only compounded the damage. The same can be said about the handling of reports about Ellis Johnson, who'd been accepted as a Denver Police Academy recruit despite a history of drug use that made the characters in Superfly seem like Nancy Reagan by comparison. Sanchez, it turned out, had actually opposed welcoming Johnson into the fold; safety manager Montoya was his principal champion. But because the Johnson matter came in the wake of the Mena revelations, Sanchez was dragged into the muck along with the department as a whole.

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