A Failure to Communicate

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

More bad blood between Denver police and the press arose over new restrictions that were put in place on January 1 at police headquarters, 1331 Cherokee Street. Prior to that time, reporters who presented a press credential at the front desk would be given a badge that allowed them access to most other places in the building, including the records department. But late last year, members of the media were called to a meeting with police representatives at which a change in policy was announced. From that point on, reporters were told, they'd have to request specific records that would then be brought to the first floor for perusal; moreover, any journalist wishing to meet with someone elsewhere in the building would have to be escorted there.

The News's John Ensslin, a veteran police reporter now handling general-assignment chores, was especially upset by this shift. Chief Michaud had instituted a similar regulation several years ago, Ensslin recalls, but when he and the Post's Marilyn Robinson (who declined to be interviewed for this column) complained about it, Michaud issued them special credentials -- and within days, the rule was scrapped entirely, in large part because it required too much nursemaiding on the part of the PIOs. In the years that followed, Ensslin was reminded on a regular basis why wider access to the building was important.

"Some of my best stories were things that came out of chance encounters," he says. "I'd run into someone in the elevator, and they'd say, 'You ought to do a story on the good work someone did on a hostage situation,' or something like that." There were benefits to the department as well, he allows: "It's to their advantage to build relationships with reporters covering the beat. Just to see them every day and talk about what you wrote the day before is a way to keep people honest. When you write about somebody you know you're going to look in the eye the next day, I think that's a good thing, as opposed to covering things from a desk with a telephone, which, unfortunately, is what this policy forces us into."

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.

Ensslin's line of reasoning was widely embraced by his fellow reporters at the meeting, and when he proposed that the department issue press credentials that could be revoked at any time as a way to guarantee good behavior, department reps seemed interested and promised to consider the idea. But weeks later, reporters received a memo informing them that the more restrictive policy would be instituted anyway.

The decision was made for security reasons, Lopez says. "There was a case where a reporter walked into a homicide unit with a cameraman -- and there are boards there that list witnesses to homicides with addresses and phone numbers. That's the kind of thing these new rules are designed to prevent."

Whether that incident happened quite the way Lopez describes is another question. The reporter was Channel 9's Ginger Delgado, who pins the responsibility for her unexpected visit to homicide on a desk officer who, when she showed up for a scheduled meeting with a sergeant, personally escorted her into an off-limits area. "I've taken a lot of grief from a lot of reporters who've said, 'What did you do?'" Delgado acknowledges. "And I tell them, 'I didn't do anything. I didn't barge in without permission. I would never do that.' The whole thing was over a policy issue that one officer didn't know about, but they've used it as an excuse to make it harder for everyone."

Reporters' resentment at having to be walked around like disobedient children is mirrored by Hudson's irritation over Maass's February 6 Sanchez-at-DIA report, as well as Maass's behavior afterward. "The first question out of his mouth at the press conference the other day was, 'Is he being let go as a result of my story about him in Hawaii?'" Hudson says. "And let's face it, this story had all the elements that TV stations are looking for in a sweeps story. It had the scandal over the no-knock raid, and it had their description of this supposed junket to Hawaii, which they set out to make look as sinister and devious as they could. You can't tell me the only shots they could get were these grainy, fuzzy pictures of them getting on the plane at DIA. That was intentional, and there's no one who can convince me otherwise."

At first Maass doesn't even try to disabuse Hudson of these notions. "Andrew's got a good point," he declares as facetiously as possible. "Originally, that conference was going to be in July, when it wasn't in sweeps, but I phoned in a bomb threat, and I block-booked every room in Hawaii except for in February. So he's completely right about that. Guilty as charged."

But subsequently, and more seriously, he attempts to refute these contentions point by point. Although he says he did ask about the Hawaii trip at the news conference, he never used the words "my story" -- not that he needed to. As for the videotape from DIA, it was shot using a standard VHS camcorder that was in plain view of Sanchez ("They want to make it sound like I had a camera in my necktie," he says). Maass concedes that various people in the video were subsequently highlighted, but he denies that the motives for doing so were nefarious. "I hate to pop anyone's bubble, but most of the public doesn't know who the division chiefs are. And by highlighting them, the other thing we accomplished was to draw attention away from their families, who were traveling with them. I think that was a very sensitive thing to do."

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