The Message

The capture of Ricky Eugene Bailey just before midnight on Friday, November 5, was good news for the Denver Police Department. After all, Bailey, 46, is suspected of committing over twenty robberies since early October, and because he sports a memorable nickname -- the "Raspy Robber," in acknowledgement of his abrasive voice -- the local press has been closely tracking the case. But in the view of Detective Virginia Lopez, a DPD spokeswoman, some of the coverage following the bust left a lot to be desired.

"It was not only disappointing but completely frustrating," Lopez says. "I feel that the competitive nature of the media overruled the rights of the victims, and it should not be that way."

The Bailey matter presented cops with a conundrum. While they wanted journalists to report that he was off the streets, they still had to conduct lineups with witnesses of crimes that took place in multiple jurisdictions -- and they feared that the wide circulation of photos or video spotlighting Bailey might bring the objectivity of those who identified him into question. So shortly before noon on Saturday, November 6, during the DPD's first public statement about the bust, Lopez specifically asked media organizations not to use images of Bailey until further notice. In a subsequent e-mail that restated this entreaty, Lopez emphasized that widely circulating such shots "would certainly jeopardize the integrity of the investigation."

Mere hours later, Lopez learned that a photo of Bailey was prominently displayed in the Denver Post's bulldog edition -- a version of the Sunday paper made available in assorted locations a day early. According to Post managing editor Gary Clark, corresponding via e-mail, the photo was published prior to Lopez's request, but she's not certain about the timing. In any event, Lopez phoned the Post to complain at around 2:45 p.m. and was connected with a supervisor whose name she doesn't recall. She describes his response as "less than cooperative. He was of the opinion that they were a competitive organization, and he saw no reason why they should withhold it."

True to form, the Post put a big pic of Bailey in its Sunday issue, too. This made sense to Clark, because one had already turned up in the bulldog. Besides, he writes, "The capture was made after a lengthy and very public standoff with police. The police also released his name Saturday -- and we felt both story and photo had high news interest to readers of our Sunday paper." Clark also points out that "the police, during the course of their investigation, had asked the media to publish surveillance photos of a suspect taken during some of the robberies."

Clark's right about that, Lopez concedes, but she believes shots taken by professional photographers can't be equated with the snippets from surveillance videos previously made available to the media. The majority of the pre-arrest images "were from just below the eyes on down, because he always covered his face," she allows. "And the one photo where you could see more was blurred to the point where you couldn't really see the guy that well."

In contrast, the likeness of Bailey in the November 7 Post was crisp and sharp. Lopez says that as soon as she got an eyeful of it, "I called all the other media outlets and reiterated, 'Please, please, please don't run it. Let's not compound the situation. Let's remember there's still an ongoing investigation. I'll let you know when you can use it.' They were all, 'Sure, sure, sure' -- but the next thing I knew, we got a phone call telling us it was on Channel 31."

Bill Dallman, Channel 31's news director, confirms that his station screened unaltered footage of Bailey from a November 7 court appearance in its 5 p.m. newscast. But unlike the folks at the Post, Channel 31 personnel reconsidered their decision after hearing from a peeved Lopez. "We reread her press release, and upon further review, we decided that if it was important, we would do what they wanted," Dallman says. Subsequent newscasts on Channel 31 masked Bailey behind a so-called mosaic effect of floating boxes that obscure specific facial characteristics.

Other local broadcasters went down the same road. For example, Channel 9 departed from the approach taken by the Post, its print partner, by giving Bailey the mosaic treatment during its 10 p.m. report; anchor Ward Lucas stated on the air that this was done at the behest of the police department. For Channel 9 news director Patti Dennis, the move "wasn't complicated. They indicated they needed to use him in photo lineups for a number of unsolved crimes. We felt the public's need to know right away was less than law enforcement needing to find out if there were other unsolved crimes he might be related to."

With the TV stations falling into line, Lopez hoped Bailey's visage would remain out of sight a few days longer -- but she had one more unpleasant surprise to come. The Rocky Mountain News, which doesn't have a Sunday edition because of its joint operating agreement with the Post, accompanied its Monday, November 8, account of the suspect's bond hearing with a photo from court.

In an e-mail, Rocky managing editor Deb Goeken explains that the shots of Bailey found in the Post's bulldog and Sunday paper were two reasons a debate about the photo "never made it up the ladder in any formal decision-making process." The wording of Lopez's November 6 communiqué came into play as well. According to Goeken, "The assistant city editor who works Sundays says he recalls a police-department press release that had been sent Saturday with a note attached asking that the photo not be used because the lineups weren't complete. But he said it was his impression that the note was addressed to the TV stations."

Indeed, the release stresses "the importance of refraining from showing this suspect's picture at any time during your newscasts." Nonetheless, Lopez finds this rationale unconvincing. "Come on," she says. "They can twist it, but they know what it means. When you really think about it, what's the difference between it being on TV and being in the paper?"

For Sergeant Calvin Hemphill, who's supervising the Bailey investigation, any distinction was insignificant. "He came up to me on Monday and said, 'What happened here? Do you realize the impact this is going to have on this case?'" Lopez recounts. "I said, 'I do, sir. But apparently it didn't matter to a variety of media outlets. '"

For their part, journalists believe there are times when it's proper to not grant the authorities' wishes. The Post's Clark writes that "it's the duty of police and prosecutors to make sure their investigation is thorough and that potential witnesses are positive of their identification of a suspect and are not simply reacting to a published photo. It's our duty to show readers what is happening on the streets of their city in a high-interest case." The Rocky's Goeken sings a similar tune, asserting that "our starting point would always be a bias toward presenting all public information on important public-safety cases to our readers." Channel 31's Dallman adds, "We'll make our own decisions," and Channel 9's Dennis maintains that "the public's need to know has to weigh in big."

Striking the proper balance got even trickier for Dennis as time marched forward. Investigative reporter Paula Woodward landed an on-camera interview with Bailey on November 15, before the DPD had announced a policy shift. Luckily, the cops lifted their sanction against face time the next day, in time for the station to score a notable scoop.

Since the media's zeal for dispensing data as soon as possible inherently conflicts with the police's desire to control the flow of information, their interests will continue to collide, despite Lopez's best efforts. "A lot of officers are already apprehensive about members of the media," she says. "When something like this happens, it makes it that much tougher." As a result, she goes on, "We're asking ourselves how we can prevent this from occurring again, and if there's anything we can do other than rely on personal integrity."

Her answer? "I don't know. I don't know."

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts