Tape Worms

"I'm not comfortable at this point becoming part of the story," Brian Maass told Denver City Council's DIA committee meeting Tuesday morning.

Too late! The Channel 4 reporter has been a part of the story since well before Maass's station actually aired his first report on DIA security last Thursday -- and the plot twists keep multiplying.

Tuesday's meeting was supposed to help close the book on how the Denver Police Department will handle the busted DIA cops, starting with the ten loafers whose reassignment was announced Monday by Chief of Police Gerry Whitman and Manager of Safety Ari Zavaras. Committee chair Ed Thomas, himself a career policeman before he ran for council and an often-outspoken critic of both the DPD and DIA security since, commended them for the department's quick response.

But even this chapter took a turn or two. Councilwoman Joyce Foster wondered what such an extensive undercover operation said about DIA's security in general. And specifically, how had Channel 4 obtained videotape of officers goofing off and watching TV in the off-limits paramedic break room? There might have been some "ruse to get into the room," Zavaras allowed. Foster asked Maass, ostensibly at the meeting to cover the story spinning off from his story, for details on his investigation.

Maass didn't bite. "I'm just going to refer back to what News4 has aired," Maass said.

And what News4 has aired is plenty damning, no matter how the footage was obtained. Stripped of all the plot complications, the moral of the story is this: At a time when the emphasis on security is tighter than ever, Denver cops assigned to the airport -- expensive cops, too, since overtime has increased dramatically since September 11 -- protected DIA by taking long breaks in the paramedics' lounge, napping and watching television, no doubt in order to bone up on the protection advice proferred on Friends. (Hey, at least they didn't shoot anyone who tried to board a plane with more than two pieces of carry-on luggage.)

With such behavior documented beyond all deniability, does anyone really care how Channel 4 got the inside scoop -- anyone other than a competing TV station, perhaps?

The camera doesn't lie. Even the DPD brass assembled for Tuesday morning's meeting weren't about to suggest that. In fact, they'd like to get their hands on not just the tape that Channel 4 aired, but all of the outtakes, too -- the better to help them through the sometimes difficult discipline process, governed as it is by all those pesky rules and charter provisions.

Their request has precedent. Back in 1988, Channel 9 reporter Paula Woodward earned lots of kudos -- and ultimately claimed lots of heads -- with her "Caution: Frequent Stops" series, which documented how some Department of Public Works employees had perfected on-the-job loafing. The series also brought the station a request from the city for the unedited tape. And even though Channel 9 refused to comply, somehow the city managed to conduct its own investigation and ultimately discipline fifty employees.

In 1994, when another Woodward sweeps series, "Keep on Truckin'," followed loafing Division of Wastewater Management employees, city officials gave Channel 9 a more compelling argument for giving up the tape: subpoenas. After Woodward's first embarrassing exposé, the city had changed its charter to allow a "department manager to investigate the honesty, competency or integrity of employees at all time," the mayor's office noted in a May 1994 statement. "The Denver Charter was amended in 1988 as a result of Channel 9 employees' refusal to provide eye-witness testimony in personnel hearings to support allegations presented during television reports. Denver's Charter was amended to provide for contempt proceedings to be brought for failure to comply with City subpoenas."

Channel 9 fought back. Even if the city could subpoena reporters, it couldn't compel them to reveal work-product material -- the state's shield law protects against that. The courts recognize that digging dirt (and occasionally throwing it) is the media's job; cleaning up the aftermath is not.

Much has changed in this city over the past eight years, and some of those changes are promising. Denver initiated an investigation of the Department of Excise and Licenses inspectors' division -- and last month fired all five inspectors (no slouches at loafing themselves) without one snippet of prime-time film to help them along. (As a result, the city's housecleaning got a lot less coverage than it might have -- and should have.) And while the DPD has formally requested Channel 4's unedited footage, it didn't wait for a response from the station to take action. (A good thing, too, because Channel 4 has proved itself highly protective of its unedited tapes, including those involving Columbine.)

There's more to the story. Zavaras should be sending a big bouquet of roses to Maass right now, for giving him a chance to look decisive, mayoral even, in one of the tidiest police scandals ever (no blood and no X-rated videos -- not in 4's cameras, and not on the break-room TV). It was Maass's early work on the shooting of Ismael Mena that ultimately led to Zavaras, a former Denver police chief who'd been heading the Colorado Department of Corrections, getting the job as safety manager. Right beside Zavaras on Tuesday, looking just as decisive, was Chief of Police Whitman, who got his job after Chief Tom Sanchez was sacked as the Mena situation exploded -- while Sanchez was on an ill-planned business trip to Hawaii. (Maass was at DIA to capture his return on film.)

Rather than retire, Sanchez stayed on the force -- and was assigned to DIA, long a dumping ground for disgraced officers. (Although that, too, has changed, according to safety department spokeswoman C.L. Harmer. "Historically, that was true," she says. "Every bureaucracy has its turkey farm. But it's not the case now.") On Monday, Captain James Collier, who pre-dated Sanchez as police chief, was given his job at the airport; Sanchez was reassigned to the Training Bureau in the Technology and Support Division, a move that does not give you much faith in the future of the force. Before Mena, the cop scandal du jour at City Hall involved police recruit Ellis Johnson, a convicted drug user pushed for the academy by then-safety manager Butch Montoya. Johnson ultimately busted out because he was no good at the multi-tasking so necessary for good police work (does it involve pushing a TV remote?); Montoya was busted by Webb during the Mena fallout and now works in the city's driver's license division.

Perhaps it's time for Montoya to return to the station he left behind in order to enter public service, since Channel 9 seems to be blurring the journalistic lines these days. In one of this story's oddest chapters, Sanchez gave Woodward an interview the week before Maass's series broke -- and after the city knew Channel 4 was asking around the airport about loafing cops. The prophylactic measure didn't do much good for either the cops or 9News, though, since Woodward's piece looked like a housebound poodle compared to the pit-bull intensity of her past reports, which set the style in Denver for undercover surveillance. "We just reported the fact of the investigation," Woodward says.

Maass, on the other hand, had a true scoop and all that dynamite footage to counter Sanchez's on-camera statement that he'd known about the problems in November and was dealing with them. How? By dropping a copy of TV Guide off at the paramedic lounge? "Channel 9 broke the story that Channel 4 was going to break the story," Maass says. "They hurt their own credibility trying to mislead the public." Particularly boneheaded was a Channel 9 promo on Monday that credited its coverage with inspiring the DPD's reassignments.

Although the story isn't over, it's not too soon to give it a happy ending or two. If the DPD finds current rules for disciplining cops too restricting, it could push through a few charter changes of its own rather than resort to the time-honored tradition of killing the messenger (or at least subpoenaing his tapes). After all, because of new FAA mandates, DIA will spend $3.5 million more on police overtime this year than initially anticipated -- and it would be comforting to know that the money will buy us more security, not well-rested cops.

Aren't there bigger threats to DIA's security than Brian Maass?


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