Channel 9 executive producer Nicole Vap, who oversees her station's investigative teams, says that when Denver-area reporters talk shop, one of the first things they complain about is access to public records -- and earlier this year, she switched from griping to taking action. Vap teamed with Channel 4's Brian Maass, Channel 7's Tony Kovaleski and Rocky Mountain News managing editor Deb Goeken to ask city agencies for a listing of all open-records requests made by the Colorado media under the state's Public Records Act and Criminal Justice Records Act between July 21, 2003, and the present, plus a separate roster enumerating those that were refused and the reasons for the denials.
The idea? To discover if the city was systematically obstructing the media's efforts to do its job. Vap wasn't overly worried about officials reacting negatively to this query. "There was enough of a concern that we weren't getting public information released that a little bit of risk was worth it," she maintains.
The participants submitted their petitions on the same day in early March, and the results were released the first week of April. Lindy Eichenbaum Lent, communications director for Denver mayor John Hickenlooper, oversaw the mission for fourteen city departments, ranging from the Career Service Authority to Public Works, and according to her figures, the media made 206 requests during the twenty months being critiqued. Of those, 188 were granted, and when six others that were withdrawn, referred or remain pending are taken into account, the open records "success rate" clocks in at 94 percent. Maass wasn't surprised by this figure. "The Hickenlooper administration is really making an effort, and they're doing a good job with open-records requests," he says. "I think there's been a positive change with all of these agencies -- excluding the police department."
Indeed, Maass, Kovaleski and, to a lesser extent, Vap save their choicest gripes for the Denver Police Department, whose separate report contrasts sharply with the overview of other city agencies. The DPD received 157 requests during the specified period, granting 91, referring eight, and rejecting 58, or 37 percent of the total.
In an April 9 article on this subject, Rocky reporter Brian Crecente focused on the DPD's performance in an imbalanced, error-pocked piece. Crecente wrote that the request was made by "the city's television stations and daily newspapers" -- a statement that implies unanimity. But channels 2 and 31 weren't copied on several March e-mail exchanges, and the Denver Post, which was, chose not to join in because, says projects editor Chuck Murphy, the broadsheet's managers "weren't sure if this was the right vehicle for making the point." Murphy didn't like letting competitors see what documents his staff wanted, either, but the report made them public anyway. City officials have discussed extending this concept by placing open-records requests on its website for all the world to see -- an approach that would put the "gentlemen's agreement" not to poach stories in this case to a difficult test. "I think it could end up backfiring," Vap says.
Furthermore, the Rocky article uses tallies in a disingenuous way. Crecente states that the DPD's record of bouncing "about one in every three" media requests "is a higher rate of denial than the one-in-five ratio for all other city departments." In fact, the 20 percent turn-down figure includes the DPD numbers. When the department is excluded, "all other city departments" snubbed just 6 percent of requests.
According to Chief of Police Gerry Whitman, directly comparing DPD digits with those from other city agencies can be misleading under the best circumstances, since his force must deal with factors that are largely foreign to other departments, including active investigations, juvenile lawbreakers and so on. "I don't see any pattern or major problem in these denials," he says, adding, "I imagine they're pretty disappointed in what they got."
Not Kovaleski. In his opinion, the data, which shows that eighteen of his station's 39 requests were rebuffed, "confirms to our investigative unit the frustrations we've experienced. This, to me, does not read as an organization that's working to be open and responsive to the public."
The first time Kovaleski tried to make this point was in September 2004, when he asked the DPD to collect all open-records requests for the previous ninety days -- a demand similar to the most recent entreaty. As the new report verifies, he was turned down because the request was deemed "contrary to public interest" and "burdensome." But now, Kovaleski says, "they get the same request and offer everything up. If there's ever a crystallizing moment of the Denver Police Department's inconsistent behavior with open records, this is it."
Irony aside, the DPD report offers a fascinating behind-the-scenes snapshot of the interaction between the press and the police -- and even divulges pending media requests. For instance, Channel 9's Chip Yost recently solicited "gang stats for the last ten years," while Channel 7's John Ferrugia asked for "crime statistics for the city and county of Denver, to include total offense reports, arrests, active warrants, jail arrests, seizures, all tickets [and] DUI arrests" from 2002 through the first two months of 2005. The broadness of these topics helps explain why Whitman sometimes feels that investigative reporters picture his department as a pond that's perfect for launching fishing expeditions.
"It's very time-consuming when we get treated like a search engine for research projects," Whitman allows. "I've been told by people making requests that they really don't know what they're looking for a lot of times. They'll say, 'We saw this story that's been done in other cities, or on one of our affiliates, and we thought we'd see if there was anything here. If we find something, we'll tell you, so we're really doing you a favor.'"
A letter Whitman wrote to accompany the media report doesn't overflow with appreciation for such acts of kindness. The heading misspelled Maass's and Vap's names, and it concluded with a note that the request took 107 hours to complete -- "the equivalent of four employees working three and one-half days" -- and would have required a payment of $3,745 had Eichenbaum Lent not waived charges at the outset. Still, Whitman insists that the inclusion of this info wasn't an expression of frustration over the exercise, but a simple reminder that ferreting out minutia can't be done with a couple of keystrokes. He recalls one media request that "took eight hours out of Gerry Whitman's day. That's at 62 bucks an hour, and while I was doing that, I wasn't concentrating on catching criminals."
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Such comments imply that Whitman views the media's priorities as being out of whack, but Kovaleski says that's not true: "In no way does Channel 7 want to detour or block the Denver Police Department from doing its job of catching bad guys. We understand that's the number-one priority. But this is about respecting the state's open-records law. Open government is good government, and that's all we want."
Whitman, for his part, believes limits can be good for everyone. He routinely rejects media requests for 911 recordings because he thinks some callers would balk if they thought their voice might be broadcast. Maass doesn't buy this argument: "The reality is, the media's been playing 911 tapes on radio and television for years. Has there been a big drop-off in 911 calls? I don't think so."
Despite such philosophical disagreements, Whitman is dedicated to keeping the lines of communication open between him and the media. "I'm very accessible," he says. "If Tony Kovaleski or [Channel 9's] Paula Woodward or Brian Maass don't think we have a good relationship, then maybe they should stop calling me at home all the time. I'm at maximum exposure here." He even took time to chat with Maass when the reporter complained about being charged $52.50 to find out how many sick days patrol officers took in 2002, 2003 and 2004; Maass was given a single figure for 2004 and nothing for previous years. Upon being told that Maass never paid the fee because he didn't receive a written response explaining it, Whitman jokes, "See how cooperative we are? We didn't even put it out for collection."
Given the continuing tensions between officials and the media, that qualifies as a peace gesture.