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Calculated Risk
Why did officials decide they were better off not talking to the Journal Sentinel for its series on the police?

The Journal Sentinel’s investigative series on police officers who have broken the law was extraordinary in several ways.

The newspaper’s Watchdog team plowed thousands of dollars, two years of research, and a court fight over access to police records into the project. But those elements weren’t the most unusual.

Instead, it was the refusal of key public officials whose agencies were targets of the story to sit down for a direct interview in advance of its publication.

The story by Watchdog team member Gina Barton counted 93 officers who have violated city ordinances or state traffic or criminal laws and remain on the police force. The paper has posted on its website a database of the 93, including pictures and brief summaries of the offenses as well as of their punishment, if any, by the police department.

High up in the story were paragraphs reporting that Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn and Mayor Tom Barrett all declined to give interviews to the newspaper about the project’s findings. Each instead released short statements to the paper.

(One official who did respond was Sheriff David A. Clarke, who predictably talked tough for the paper about taking a hard line on virtually all law violations by officers.)

I’ll have more to say in a future column on the series itself. But from the start, I was struck by the uniform reactions of Chisholm, Flynn and Barrett.

“So-and-so declined to comment” isn’t all that strange, of course—especially in case of fleeting breaking news about a scandal du jour. But for someone who is at the center of a story of the scope of the one that began last Sunday, it can be a gamble.

This week I asked both Chisholm and Flynn why they declined to speak to the paper. The bottom line: Both men say they wanted, up front, greater detail on the nature of the cases they’d be asked about than the paper was willing to give them. And both were made wary by past stories in which they’d cooperated more fully with the newspaper.

Of the two, Chisholm is more circumspect. “I’m not trying to pick a fight with journalists,” the DA tells me. But he also notes that while he didn’t consent to an interview, his office “did provide an extensive amount of information and answered a lot of questions from the reporter in the course of this” investigation. “I would take issue with the notion that we weren’t cooperative with them.”

He declined a direct interview with the paper for a combination of reasons, he says: because while he understood it would be a fairly sweeping report, he wanted to know more about its scope than he was told; because some of the cases were as old as 20 or 25 years, raising “a question of fairness” in his mind about reopening discussion of them; and because he was unwilling to “go into it blindly and say things that could be inappropriate from both a legal and an ethical standpoint.”

Red flag

Flynn’s criticism of the paper was, by contrast, unvarnished.

He says the red flag went up for him when he heard that reporter Barton had earlier this year told Anne Schwartz, the department’s media and communications director, words to the effect that “either this is going to be a bad Milwaukee Police Department Story or a bad Milwaukee County DA story, or both.” Flynn says he took that as a signal that the story had been pre-judged, and nothing he said was likely to alter the narrative.

In part, Flynn reacted, he says, based on how an earlier JS Watchdog story turned out—a piece on Milwaukee Police response times to calls. The department’s overall response time has declined since Flynn took office in 2008, a consequence of shifting priorities that, in effect, calls for triaging calls much more aggressively, patrolling more actively and pushing citizen complaints that are perceived not to involve immediate danger lower on the list. Flynn links that strategy to the reduction in crime reports the city has experienced over his tenure.

When the paper asked for his comments for that story, he says, “we gave them data, we talked them through it, I totally saw this as an opportunity to communicate with the public a rational, researched policy that was evidenced-based and achieving results in crime control. And what I got was another hatchet job.”

Flynn contends the JS’s response time story singled out “outliers” - calls that “we ourselves would have preferred to handle better.” Then he says, the paper “used that to implicitly discredit the crime-fighting strategy.”

So when it came to the newest story, “I did not want to participate in what was fairly going to be a hatchet job,” Flynn says. “I decided if they’re going to wield their hatchet, they can do it without help from me. They can go to the sheriff for that.”

(Flynn made many of the same points Thursday on Mark Belling’s show on WISN-AM, where he offered a further rebuttal to the series. In that interview, Belling, while challenging the chief on several points, generally let him have his say and later expressed measured support for Flynn both on the specific issue and on his record generally.)

The JS responds

I also asked Greg Borwoski, senior editor for projects and investigations, for his reaction. He responded in an email that “we went to extraordinary lengths to reach everyone mentioned in the stories and to describe their views.”

Every officer whose case was included was sent a certified letter seeking comment. “Only a few responded, including an officer who described how he changed his life after a drunken driving incident,” Borowski says. “His story was included in the series.” For officers who didn’t respond, “we quoted extensively from public documents that described their side of the story, as well as from court filings and transcripts.”

Borowski recounted the paper’s repeated efforts to get Chisholm and Flynn to talk, and noted that “reporter Gina Barton met with Chief Flynn early in the process to lay out what we were investigating and to get this perspective on the issue.” He says the paper shared its initial findings with Schwartz and again sought an interview. “Chief Flynn did not talk to us. Instead, he recorded a video message to the force that was played at roll call, in which he warned officers about the newspaper’s investigation.”

In that message – from which the paper obtained an audio recording – Flynn called drunk driving “as much a threat to officer safety as any other issue” and that an officer driving drunk “puts their life in danger and the life of the public in danger.” Responds Borowski: “That alone underlines the important nature of what we have reported.”

Flynn, in his interview with Pressroom Buzz, also noted the drunk-driving problem among officers, but he framed the issue in highly nuanced terms.

“Alcoholism, divorce and suicide are all overrepresented in the police profession, and they’re basically overrepresented because this is an emotionally hazardous job,” Flynn says. “It takes a toll on people.” That doesn’t mean going soft on drunk-driving cops, he insists – Flynn says that he’s handed out far tougher suspensions for the offense than predecessors have – but at the same time, “that doesn’t mean they can never be a useful police officer again.”

Weighing the risks

Saying “we have been exceedingly fair in this process,” Borowski staunchly defends both the earlier response-time stories and the reporting behind the newest series.

“We spent two years pursuing this story, and continue to fight for access to public records. The reporting is built on the department’s own records, court records and more. Chief Flynn has not challenged a fact in our reporting. He complains it was one-sided, but did not avail himself of the opportunity to be heard more extensively.”

But neither Flynn nor Chisholm has second-guessed their decision to stiff-arm the Journal Sentinel’s interview request. The paper will publish commentaries by both responding to the series.

Public relations pros I contacted this week offered varying assessments of the two officials’ decision. As one put it, refusing to grant an interview might be justified if you don’t trust the reporter or else believe nothing you say will change the nature of what’s published - essentially the calculus that Flynn described.

But Dom Noth, editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press and a former feature editor for the old Milwaukee Journal, admits that he sees both sides of the issue. “As a journalist I am distressed at how platitudes about privacy, confidentiality and threats of lawsuits are being leaned on by public officials, corporations, health providers, etc., to block legitimate information inquiries and make heavy weather out of normal to and fro,” Noth wrote in an email. “On the other hand, let’s not pretend there aren’t journalists out there with a pre-ordained agenda from management, by background, etc., who don't provide full explanation and nuance in their articles - and not just because of space.”

Consciously or not, however, the choice both Flynn and Chisholm made suggests a calculation that the power and the goodwill of the paper itself has become diminished in recent years.

In a 2004 New Yorker article on President George W. Bush’s White House and the press, reporter Ken Auletta wrote:  

“For perhaps the first time, the White House has come to see reporters as special pleaders - pleaders for more access and better headlines - as if the press were simply another interest group, and moreover, an interest group that’s not nearly as powerful as it once was.”

Auletta quoted Andrew Card, Bush's chief of staff, who said of the press:

“They don’t represent the public any more than other people do. In our democracy, the people who represent the public stood for election. I don’t believe you have a check-and-balance function.”

In our interview, Flynn defended his department’s decision to take its time to comb through and redact records the paper sought, as well as the police department's insistence that the Journal Sentinel bear the entire $7,500 cost of producing them (including sending certified letters notifying every officer whose records were turned over to the paper).

“They’re talking about a public service here,” he says of the paper. “This is a business. And a business charges money for its product. And a business that charges money for its product wants a public agency to devote basically a full-time person to their business needs. ... They’re a for-profit enterprise - they can wait their turn.”

*

I expect to write more about this project next week, after the final part appears in Sunday's JS.

Comment below, or write Pressroom at pressroom@milwaukeemagazine.com. 

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2 Comments
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Stacy Posted: 11/1/2011 12:26:03 PM
 0   0    

You are way too nice. Why sharpen the blade for your own execution? (that is if you don't want to die)
Erik Posted: 10/28/2011 5:26:55 PM
 0   4    

Readers interested in hearing Flynn's interview with Mark Belling can go to Belling's podcast page, http://www.belling.com/cc-common/podcast.html. Listen to Hour 2, parts 1 and 2. Greg Borowski of the JS was on Belling today; the podcast will probably be up later. If I find or receive permalinks to the two broadcasts, I'll post them.
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