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Denver Police on inaccurate red-light-camera report, relationships with the media

Update: Last week, 9News aired a report noting that revenue figures from red-light cameras provided by Denver Police for a story last year were wrong -- very wrong. Turns out the DPD had touted the original report in a Twitter survey as much more fair than a photo-radar story on Fox31. And despite the error, spokesman Lieutenant Matt Murray still feels that way.

Last October, Murray (who also spoke with us for our post on the Fuck the Police march) touted the evenhandedness of Anastasiya Bolton's story for 9News in comparison to a story done several months earlier by Fox31's Heidi Hemmat. "When you look at how many times she's done stories on photo radar, at what point does it become an ax to grind?" Murray said of Hemmat. "And the numbers in the 9News story.... How did Heidi leave those out?"

The most prominent of those numbers was $279,000, which Bolton said was the amount Denver collected from red-light cameras from January through August of 2011. Bolton characterized this sum as a drop in the bucket compared to the overall DPD budget -- so low that it undermined the argument that red-light cameras are more about generating cash than enhancing safety. In truth, though, that figure was for the month of August alone. The DPD subsequently confirmed that the actual figure was more than $1.2 million.

Murray regrets the error: "That's why we went out and apologized and said we were wrong," he notes. However, he goes on, "the numbers had nothing to do with what I was saying about Heidi Hemmat. My objection was to the way she was telling the story. We didn't feel like two sides of the story were being told."

Since the 9News correction ran, we've heard allegations that individuals at the Denver Police Department knew the numbers 9News used last year were wrong but didn't speak up. Murray says he was never told anything similar, and that he certainly had no idea about any problems with them. "To me, they were accurate," he says. "I was operating on the same numbers everybody else was, and I didn't realize they were in error until last week."

One media source suggests the real blame should be placed on 9News for simply accepting the DPD's numbers rather than double-checking them through another agency; Fox31's Heidi Hemmat used Department of Revenue figures for her story. This same insider sees the relationship between the department and the station as too cozy, pointing out that Nicole Vap, executive producer for 9Wants to Know and the I-Team, is on the board of Crime Stoppers.

Is this a conflict of interest? We've left messages for Vap and will update this post when we hear back from her. (Update: Vap's responses can be found in a new post, "9News-Denver Police relationship not overly cozy, producer says.") But Murray scoffs at such a notion.

"We have relationships with a lot of reporters, but no more with one group than another," he says. "It's great that Nicole's willing to be on that board. It's a nice thing, a nonprofit organization that she volunteers to help. But the normal news we give to everybody at once."

Granted, he concedes, "there are some stories we find and work with individual reporters on. But we work with the reporters, not the stations. And we try to spread that around." As an example, he points out that the most lengthy recent story on red-light cameras was by Deborah Takahara at Fox31, Hemmat's station. It aired a couple of weeks ago.

"We do work with some reporters better than others," Murray concedes. "But that's just the nature of the world."

Look below to read our earlier coverage.

Original item, February 24: Given all the attention garnered this week by the first Kyle Dyer interview since she was bitten by a dog on live TV, another 9News story has fallen through the cracks. The station aired a piece admitting that an October story about red-light cameras had included incorrect info provided by the Denver Police Department, which so loved the results that it staged a Twitter survey to laud it.

As we reported last fall in the post linked above, Lieutenant Matt Murray, who oversees the DPD Twitter account, asked via tweet for followers to compare the fairness of a Fox31 report from the previous April to a new one by 9News' Anastasiya Bolton.

In the Fox31 piece, which is no longer at its previous link and didn't show up in a website search, reporter Heidi Hemmat portrayed photo radar as a revenue-generating scheme whose citations aren't valid unless they're presented to drivers by hand rather than through the mail. In contrast, Bolton's report was much more sympathetic. For instance, she said the DPD had generated just over $279,000 from red-light cameras between January and August of 2011, which she characterized as a mere "drop in the bucket" compared to the department's overall budget. This statement infers that Denver Police's insistence that the red-light camera program is more about safety than money is true.

Murray left little doubt about which of these packages was his favorite. During his chat with Westword, he said of Hemmat, "When you look at how many times she's done stories on photo radar, at what point does it become an ax to grind? And the numbers in the 9News story... How did Heidi leave those out?"

By the way, the results of Murray's Twitter survey showed that respondents felt 9News' piece was more fair than Fox31's -- but the former ran neck and neck with "Who cares? I hate photo radar!!!" Here's the graphic showing the breakdown:

Problem is, the numbers Murray faulted Hemmat for excluding were wrong -- really wrong. As Bolton reported this week, another 9News staffer asked the Denver Police for red-light-camera data and got a much bigger figure. So Bolton went back to the cops to ask about the disparity. Turns out the cameras generated $279,000 in the month of August 2011 alone -- and the total for January through August was actually well over $1.2 million.

In the new report, DPD spokesman Sonny Jackson -- who appears to be speaking from the 9News studio, as if he's been called to the principal's office -- characterizes the error as a simple mistake and apologizes for it.

Still, the delight with which the police department embraced the report last October can't help leaving viewers to wonder why no one at DPD noticed that Bolton's drop-in-the-bucket thesis was based on a sum that was much, much lower than the actual one.

The October report by Bolton, which was admittedly based on incorrect data, remains online here, and at this writing, there's no editor's note or acknowledgement that there's any problem with it.

Update, 1:05 p.m. February 24: The Fox31 report mentioned above is now back online; it got lost in the cyber-shuffle as a result of a website reboot. Heidi Hemmat notes that rather than asking the Denver Police Department for red-light-camera revenue numbers, as it appears 9News did, she got her figures from the Colorado Department of Revenue -- and while it's something of an apples and oranges comparison, it does appear the DOR's numbers are higher than even the updated DPD figures. In 2010, the department told Hemmat the photo-radar program generated more than $3.6 million, as opposed to the $1.2 million red-light camera total for the first eight months of 2011.

Watch it below, immediately after Bolton's two offerings -- the latest one first, followed by the one from October.

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