CBS affiliate sends post-9/11 wake-up to airport security

Apr 8, 2002  •  Post A Comment

When KCNC-TV investigative reporter Brian Maass received a confidential tip in early December about police officers loafing on the job at Denver International Airport, he knew at once he was onto a solid local story. He did not expect the public reaction to his report, however, when the piece was aired in late January by the CBS-owned affiliate.
In the wake of the Sept. 11 airliner hijackings and attacks on New York and Washington, Mr. Maass said, people rightly expected significantly heightened security at Denver’s new airport on the eastern plains. “But we found out this was not the case here.”
Simple yet daring surveillance by the KCNC investigative team exposed a laxity in local airport security that not only rattled the power structure of the Denver Police Department but also has influenced airport safety policy nationwide.
To check out his informant’s story, Mr. Maass, a veteran KCNC reporter, drove out to “DIA” on Dec. 5 with investigative team producer Carissa Scott, who had joined KCNC last August after serving as an investigative producer at NBC affiliate WLWT-TV in Cincinnati.
Looking for a break room reserved for paramedics, the pair found it on a walkway above the public waiting area in the main terminal. The door to the room faced the open atrium under DIA’s peaked white canopy roof.
“Within 10 minutes of watching the door to the room,” Mr. Maass said, “it was pretty clear this was something we should take a closer look at.”
Airport police officers were entering the room, but they weren’t coming out, at least not for hours, sometimes up to half an eight-hour shift’s worth at a time. If his inside source was right, there was only one way in and out of the room, he said. “So we saw at once that it would be pretty easy for us to watch that one door and put a clock on how long people stayed inside until they came out. If the surveillance job was not so clear-cut, such as if there was a back door, we may not have gone forward with the investigation.”
Ms. Scott recalled considering the options with Mr. Maass. “We discussed questions he could answer by working his government sources, such as how to make sure there really was only one door, whether the room had a legitimate use for the police and how to find out the shifts for individual officers, just in case they actually were off duty when they used the break room.”
At the station later that day, Mr. Maass and Ms. Scott pitched the story to News Director Angie Kucharski, who joined the station in 1999 a few days before the Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, Colo. She liked the idea of a DIA investigation. Discussions soon involved Assistant News Director Tim Wieland and fellow investigative reporter Rick Sallinger, who served as sounding boards for Mr. Maass and Ms. Scott.
Ms. Kucharski recalled, “We questioned the scope of the investigation, what we thought was needed for proof, the surveillance logistics and, most of all, how to make sure the story was absolutely accurate.”
Said Mr. Maass, “We had to make sure the loafing was significant and occurred over enough different days and shifts not to be an isolated anomaly on a few bad days. We needed enough tape on the public record to leave no room for doubt about it being a consistent and ongoing pattern of behavior.”
A familiar face
Having previously conducted an investigation of loafing by Denver parks and recreation workers, which yielded a grand jury inquiry and a shakeup of city government, Mr. Maass realized his face was too well-known to conduct the surveillance personally. The job was too much for Ms. Scott to handle solo, so Chief Photographer Bob Burke assigned staff photographer Bob Pearce to the team.
During the next two months, through Jan. 23, Ms. Scott and Mr. Pearce took turns handling the video surveillance of the break-room entrance two or three times each week.
Their strategy was simple. Ms. Scott or Mr. Pearce sat in the airport lobby on Level 5, about 20 feet below the paramedics’ lounge on Level 6, with a clear view of the door, which was perhaps 100 feet away.
At their side, resting atop an open travel bag, was a consumer-model Panasonic mini-DV digital videotape camera pointed at the door to the lounge. Sometimes they put a jacket over the camera to hide all but the lens, Scott said, but often the camera was in plain sight.
Other than occasionally leaning over to rummage in the bag as a pretext for checking the framing and focus, the camera was left untouched to record what Mr. Maass described as “dozens and dozens” of hours of raw video footage.
“I was amazed all those police officers never spotted me sitting in the same place over all those weeks,” Ms. Scott said, “but not one officer ever approached me.” Yet she did not escape the notice of a homeless man who apparently considered where she usually sat as his own domain, and who asked her several times whether she would be sitting there much longer. The police may have noticed the vagrant, she said, “but not me.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Maass worked his sources, attaching names to the faces of the police officers in the footage and also discovering their duty hours. “Once we finally identified the officers and their assigned shifts,” he said, “you can imagine what it took for us to go through each hour of tape just to fact-check the exact timing for every individual officer entering and leaving the room. We knew we needed to get it right.”
Avoiding suspicion
One question raised was whether to watch other break rooms in the airport. Mr. Maass said they decided against taking even a consumer camera through the security checkpoint several times a week, because it might arouse suspicions and alert the police that they were being watched. So the team would watch only the paramedics’ lounge in the public area. If loafing was going on, they could not prove it was happening all over the airport, but they’d have that room on tape as proof.
About halfway into the investigation, he said, they realized all their surveillance had been done during the airport’s busy evenings. So they added surveillance earlier in the day, verifying that the problem was not limited to one duty shift.
As Mr. Maass deepened his investigation, he learned the windowless room contained a couch, some chairs, a coffee pot, a refrigerator, a television and another smaller room with a bed for paramedics to rest on while awaiting calls.
The allure of the break room was demonstrated by the officers’ spending up to half of their eight-hour shifts inside. On one occasion a group of officers vanished through the door for the duration of an NFL playoff game.
Mr. Maass cited sources who said one of the motives for the alleged loafing was that “some officers just wanted to avoid contact with the public.”
Mr. Maass, Ms. Scott and Mr. Pearce met regularly with Tim Wieland throughout the investigation. A staffer for eight years before doing national service at CNN, Mr. Wieland had returned to KCNC the year before. “I missed how local coverage makes a direct difference in the community you are living in,” he said.
As the investigation progressed, he said, “We began asking when we had enough video surveillance to break the story, or if we still needed to go back again to show beyond doubt how widespread it was, that what was going on inside the lounge was not public business.”
For undeniable proof, a decision was made in mid-January to get inside the room with a hidden camera. Ms. Scott used a micro spy camera housed inside a pen, which was carried in her front pocket. The door to the room had a sign saying “Paramedics,” so she knocked on the door one afternoon, said she had a headache and asked for a cold compress.
Inside the room for only a few minutes, she confirmed everything Mr. Maass had been told. Officers were inside eating and watching TV. There was no back door.
Mr. Wieland said a story had been edited before the peek into the break room, but Mr. Maass then rewrote the script and worked with Ms. Scott to re-edit the story with the new footage. After a few days of on-air p
romotion for the story, the five-minute investigative piece aired in the 10 p.m. newscast on Thursday, Jan. 31. Mr. Maass concentrated over the weekend on public reaction stories, some of which are posted online at KCNCNEWS4.com.
Ms. Kucharski said she was surprised by the volume of telephone calls, faxes and e-mails the station received after the piece aired. A local newspaper editorial along with radio call-in talk shows decried the police officers’ behavior.
In an official response, Police Chief Gerry Whitman announced the Monday following the broadcast that a massive internal investigation had been launched. (The report has not yet been released.) He said the paramedics’ lounge had been made off-limits to officers and 10 officers had been transferred from the airport detail, including the commanding officer, Capt. Tom Sanchez. Two years earlier, Capt. Sanchez had been forced out as chief after a scandal involving an errant police raid in which a man was shot to death. That scandal was also exposed by KCNC.
As buzz from the story spread nationally, Mr. Maass appeared on CBS’s “Early Show” to talk about police loafing and airport security. Also, CNN called Mr. Wieland to arrange an interview with Mr. Maass. The AP ran an item published in newspapers across America and internationally.
The Denver story soon was cited by Bush administration officials and some members of Congress, who called for federalization of airport security. Local fallout from the investigation also continues, such as a report by Mr. Maass in late March about a commentary in the Denver police union newsletter that said airport firefighters also were loafing on the job, a charge the firefighters vehemently denied. The police remain under scrutiny, however, due to an American Civil Liberties Union suit over surveillance of those complaining about the Police Department.
Mr. Wieland defended KCNC against what local media critics called having “murder and mayhem” coverage in its lead stories each day.
“Most of our newscast features enterprise stories we initiated,” he said. “We are not a police blotter TV station. And if we do report violent crimes or traffic accidents, we always look for the relevance to the community before we put a story on the air, such as a sexual predator targeting children near schools, which certainly is relevant to all the parents watching out there.”
Ms. Kucharski said she’s painfully conscious of the many ethical choices television journalists face every day. In the Columbine High School coverage, for example, they had a camera on a wounded student trying to escape out a second-story window, and there was intense debate over the phone before airing the live shot, which was picked up nationally.
“The reason most of us go into journalism is not for local or national recognition,” said Ms. Kucharski, “but because we feel a real calling for public service. This particular police loafing story speaks to the real value of enterprise journalism by local stations in protecting and serving the public’s right to know.”
This attitude is paying off. The February Nielsen book ranked KCNC No. 2 behind traditional market leader KUSA-TV but beating KUSA at 4 p.m. and 10 p.m., and with a strong showing in early-morning news.
Also, Mr. Burke and his KCNC team in March were named Station of the Year by the National Press Photographers Association for a series about the separation of conjoined twins in Denver, a story that was picked up by CBS’s “48 Hours.”
One reason for the excellence at KCNC may be the twice-daily newsroom meetings the entire staff attends to decide which stories go on the white board behind the assignment desk. Ms. Kucharski and Mr. Wieland also meet regularly with the entire investigative team to discuss projects.
Ms. Kucharski credits the participatory management style to General Manager Marv Rockford, who has been with the station since 1981, taking over as the top spot from Roger Ogden in 1995.
“I believe in hiring the best people you possibly can and then letting them do their jobs,”Mr. Rockford said. “I’ll provide strategic guidance, but the key is giving the news team the responsibility and authority to make decisions for themselves.”