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.

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.

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."

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."

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.

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."

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."

Apparently, Sanchez wasn't overwhelmed by gratitude for this gesture. After his return to Denver, he refused to be interviewed by Maass or anyone else at Channel 4. When Channel 4 news director Angie Kucharski complained about this to Hudson, he told her that Maass could have interviewed Sanchez at the airport. But that wouldn't have been the right thing to do, Kucharski says: "At that point in our fact-gathering, our objective was simply to gather information and not necessarily do anything that would alter or change the course of action in the story."

The focus of the tale now is on the selection of Sanchez's replacement, which is expected next week. Political maneuvering within the police department is already at a fever pitch. "We're getting anonymous memos, anonymous phone calls about this candidate or that candidate and something or other they're allegedly involved in," Hudson says. "It's just really, really sad."

Predictably, Hudson won't say who the mayor favors. But he hopes the winner has an abundance of the communication skills that Sanchez lacked. "You have to be able to effectively, proactively promote your organization," he says. "You've got to be able to tell the good stories and have relationships with members of the press that help you do it. And if you can provide accurate information and be as up front as you can with reporters, you can avoid a lot of the rumors and speculations and negative stories. That's just common sense."

Former PIO Wyckoff says that Mayor Webb's use of these techniques is a big reason he has survived so long and so well in this town: "The mayor realizes that there has to be give and take with the media, and he knows you can't close down those doors of communication." Good timing doesn't hurt, either. On February 14, when the news broke that two Columbine students had been shot to death at a Subway restaurant just blocks from the school, Webb already had a press event planned for that afternoon decrying "the death toll" of gun violence since the Columbine massacre.

The local media seems to prefer such savvy over cold shoulders. To a person, the journalists contacted by Westword said that they didn't want to have an adversarial relationship with the Denver Police Department -- but neither do they want to make do with the bare scraps of information they've been handed of late.

"There are a lot of things the mayor is going to want in a police chief," says the News's Ensslin, "and I hope one of them is that whoever it is will be able to communicate well. It's not the most important thing, but it is important."

Adds Wyckoff, "The only way people can hear about all the good things we do is through the media. And when you shut off communications, it's kind of like driving a nail in your own coffin."

Have comments, tips or complaints about the media? E-mail "The Message" at Michael_Roberts@westword.com.

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