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Hit Them With Your Best Shot

Dueling articles about police shootings spur plenty of newsroom fireworks.

Although this year's joint operating agreement made the business operations at the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post inseparable, most members of the dailies' editorial departments take pride in their continued independence -- so much so that their battles for stories are often every bit as intense as they were when the newspaper war was literal rather than virtual. Yet even Sergeant Tony Lombard, veteran spokesman for the Denver Police Department, has to laugh about a recent scramble between reporters over rival analysis pieces concerning police shootings. "I can understand the critical nature of things when you're in a competitive situation," Lombard says. "But it's still pretty amusing to us."

The primary combatants in this latest cage match are News scribes Brian Crecente and Sarah Huntley, who wrote the vast majority of a two-day showcase that ran in the Rocky November 24 and 26, and the Post's David Migoya and John Ingold, whose take on the topic appeared on November 11. The proximity of these offerings wasn't coincidental: Journalists on both sides of the ring knew that their adversaries were up to something, and Migoya acknowledges that the Post wanted to publish its version before the News got the same chance. But numerous other matters are in dispute. Crecente and Huntley say they had been working on their roundup for a couple months when they heard from inside sources that Post types had found out about their efforts and hoped to do some thunder-stealing. Moreover, they learned that Migoya had submitted a request under the Freedom of Information Act, popularly known as a FOIA, for any and all FOIAs that the News had filed with the police department during a period encompassing Crecente's and Huntley's research.

For his part, Migoya, who was given the rhyming nickname "FOIA Migoya" by Frank Scandale, the Post's onetime assistant managing editor for news, says he FOIA'd the News's FOIAs, as it were, to make sure his angle on the material was different. He sees this tack as a common one in the reporting field and feels it crosses neither journalistic nor ethical lines. "All FOIA requests are public records," he says, "so all I was doing was trying to acquire public records, and I did it very formally. It was all legal and legitimate -- and I didn't get anything anyway. The police department told me, 'We don't keep those things.'" Besides, Migoya adds, Ingold started looking into police shootings in July, meaning that any implication that the Post got the idea of doing likewise from the News is false.

Published evidence provides support for this last claim. As all parties agree, the principal inspiration for a new study of police shootings in Denver (the News did the last big one in 1992) was a July story by the Washington Post that focused on the startling number of police shootings in Prince George's County, Maryland. To put this total into context, the article's authors surveyed the country's 51 biggest police agencies, including Denver's. The results, which covered the years 1990-2000, found Denver to be in the top ten in several unfortunate categories, such as fatal shootings per 100,000 residents, and placed the city second-highest when it came to fatal shootings per 10,000 violent crimes.

Ingold, who is frequently assigned to law-enforcement-related stories, penned a local tie-in to the Washington Post's project on July 16. Afterward, he says, his editors suggested that he develop more information along these lines, and on July 29, he took a step in this direction, writing about the reactions of police officers who've killed individuals in the line of duty. But he was so swamped by his other responsibilities that he was merely "poking along" until early September, when his superiors decided to pair him with Migoya, an investigator who says he's "been doing this kind of thing for twenty years," to speed up the process. Ingold concedes that by then he'd heard the News was interested in police shootings, too, but, he says, "Our story wasn't motivated by that. [Post editor] Glenn Guzzo was big on making sure we stayed on top of the police-shootings issue, and that's why we did it."

The Ingold-Migoya team was to begin reporting in earnest on September 11, but events you may have heard about delayed by several weeks the moment when the reporters first crossed paths with their peers at the News. As it turns out, though, Migoya and Crecente had caught wind of each other previously, and not just because Migoya's wife, Vikki Migoya, is an assistant city editor at the News who sometimes edits Crecente's copy. In order to avoid a conflict of interest, she did not work with Crecente on the police-shooting story, and Migoya says he heard nothing about it from her.

This summer, Migoya and another Post reporter, Eric Hubler, were exploring fire-code violations at Denver schools; a fire in May at East High School prompted their digging. Predictably, Migoya submitted a FOIA to the Denver Fire Department for documents he thought he might need, and the sheer volume of paper he received triggered a buzz in the department that somehow reached Crecente. By his own admission, Crecente then went to Keith Mehrens, assistant fire chief for community services, and asked to see everything Migoya had gotten -- an act Migoya sees as completely different from his FOIAing of the News's FOIAs. "That's a poor reporter's practice," he says.

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