FROM TOUGH COP TO TALKING HEAD

Donna Rossi survived Phoenix's meanest streets and the heavy hand of Police Chief Ruben Ortega in a sordid mid-Eighties scandal. After what she's been through, television reporting must be a snap.

Rossi, now 29, is assignment editor, news anchor and reporter for KNAZ in Flagstaff. She's carved a reputation in the mountain town as a popular--and able--media personality.

Few of Rossi's northern Arizona faithful are aware she used to twirl a nightstick instead of a microphone. She rarely dwells on her time as a Phoenix cop, but she still has strong opinions about her old job. "I have some very good memories and some not-so-good ones," she says.

She has good reason. Her name first surfaced in September 1985 when Ortega fired her for not informing her bosses about another cop's cocaine use. (She denied that the other cop had ever discussed using the stuff.)

Ortega also alleged Rossi had flunked a lie detector test questioning what she'd known about drug use by three other female Phoenix officers.

Until then, Rossi's police supervisors had agreed she was making the grade in the South Mountain precinct, Phoenix's bloodiest. One evaluation praised her "excellent working street knowledge and initiative." Another noted that "when other units needed backups or there was a blind call called out, Donna was always there."

All the plaudits were forgotten, however, when Ortega's Internal Affairs henchmen went after Rossi. Rumors about her private life swirled around the department. Her peers whispered about her alleged sexual preference--one common theme was that Rossi was a gay druggie and had protected her gay cop friends. Those rumors were never substantiated.

Rossi fought her firing and won reinstatement as a cop by a unanimous vote of the city's civil service board, but an angry Chief Ortega lambasted her reinstatement during an infamous May 1986 speech to the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce. Ortega referred to seventeen fired--but later reinstated--Phoenix cops as "thieves, dopers and lazy officers," earning himself an unwanted moment in the national spotlight.

Rossi took the "dopers" part of Ortega's diatribe to heart, though the chief hadn't named her personally: None of the other reinstated cops had been implicated with drugs. She filed a $7 million lawsuit in Maricopa County Superior Court against Ortega and his department. (The case settled before trial a few years ago, according to court records, with Rossi receiving about $45,000.)

These days, Rossi is philosophical about her visit to Ruben Ortega's woodshed. "I can't think about it too much because there's a lot of good people in that department," she says, "but things won't change for the better with the same people running the show."

Few of her viewers know of Rossi's public war with Ortega. "I'm reporting about other people, not about myself," she says. "I like it better that way."

Rossi gave her last Miranda warning in late 1986, and then enrolled at Arizona State University to study broadcast journalism. After a time, she also hired on as an intern at Phoenix's Channel 10. About a year ago, she auditioned for a reporter's job at KNAZ. "I didn't have a tape, and I just went up to Flag and did an air-check," Rossi says. She jumped at the chance when the station offered her the city/county beat. It's been the fast track ever since.

"There's such a tie between news reporting and the police business," she says. "You still have to find out what has happened, still get the facts. You just report them in a different way. And up here, when I deal with our police, they know they're not going to be able to give me the run-around."

Rossi says she works on average a fifty-hour week and also attends Northern Arizona University, expecting to graduate in December with a degree in broadcast journalism. Recently, she has won scholarships totaling $1,300 from Channel 10 and the Arizona Press Club that "have helped me pay for my tuition and a couple of books."

No one expects Rossi to stick around Flagstaff for long after she collects her sheepskin. She points to KNAZ alumna Heidi Foglesong (now at Phoenix's Channel 3) as someone whose career rocketed from low-paying Flagstaff to megabucks as a Phoenix newsreader.

KNAZ news director Elizabeth Driscoll says Rossi is a bona fide newshound with a big future. "Donna is a die-hard who loves to gather and report the news," Driscoll gushes. "I'm really concerned because I'm going to lose her real soon to another job. She's wonderful, and she's going to go far in this business."

For now, though, Rossi prefers the grunt work of reporting. "I'm most comfortable and happy when I'm reporting--on the streets--not anchoring," she adds. "I'm going to look for a job as a reporter, and I think I'll be able to land one somewhere in the West. I feel like I've found my niche. The police part of my life seems like a long time ago now."--

These days, Donna Rossi is philosophical about her visit to Ruben Ortega's woodshed.

 
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