News

Is KPHO in Mark Spencer's Pocket?

PLEA TV

Far be it from me to tell local CBS affiliate KPHO (Channel 5) how to run its newsroom, but the station's special relationship with the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, the powerful union that represents rank-and-file Phoenix police officers, undermines KPHO's tag line of "telling it like it is."

Some cops even refer to KPHO as "PLEA TV," for its slant toward the union, and they peg reporter and former Phoenix Police Department officer Donna Rossi as the most friendly to the PLEA line. But Rossi isn't the only KPHO reporter who has done a story that suits PLEA's agenda to a T.

Recently, I reported on Rossi's story regarding a survey done by another union, the Phoenix Police Sergeants and Lieutenants Association ("Mark Spinner," February 24). Rossi flubbed that report so badly that she attributed one comment from an officer of "fire him" to be about Public Safety Manager (and once "Police Chief") Jack Harris.

(City Manager David Cavazos recently demoted Harris, in large part because of reporting by New Times' Monica Alonzo on the PPD's inflated border-related kidnapping stats. Every TV outlet in town now claims credit for Harris' suspension as chief pending a review by the city. But Alonzo was the first newshound to scrutinize the hundreds of reports in question, pointing out that only one in four had anything to do with such kidnappings.)

In reality, the "fire him" line was directed at PLEA president Mark Spencer, whom the same anonymous commenter pegged as the PPD's "single biggest challenge."

Indeed, there were numerous negative comments about Spencer as a divisive character, but Rossi neglected those, focusing solely on criticism directed at Harris and the Fourth Floor of 620 West Washington, where PPD command staff holds court.

Suffice it to say that the PPSLA was unhappy with having its "data dump" from the survey all over KPHO and PLEA's Web sites.

The union had not made the survey public, and PPSLA president Mark Hafkey believed the survey was swiped from his union's offices.

So PPSLA's lawyer fired off a letter to the station demanding a retraction, and a retraction eventually occurred, but you'll find no evidence of it on Channel 5's Web site.

Rossi's original heavily slanted story was still there in written form as this column went to press, though the video of the report since has been removed.

The PPSLA learned of the backpedal in a letter from KPHO legal beagle Perry Bradshaw. He informed the union that the station had corrected the original February 15 Rossi piece "in our 5:30 p.m. newscast on Friday, February 25."

To be fair, KPHO isn't the only news outlet that minimizes its retractions, and at least the station ran one, though not in prime time.

Maybe this wouldn't be that big a deal if it were a one-off, and if Spencer and PLEA were not such a menace in this city. But it's not a one-off, and Spencer and PLEA are a wrecking crew.

Another KPHO retraction occurred in May 2010. That one concerned PPD Lieutenant Joe Knott.

Knott had been picked to attend the prestigious FBI National Academy. PLEA pitched a fit, writing to the FBI and making accusations that involved claims of a hostile work environment and retaliation. PLEA's complaints proved baseless. PPSLA's general counsel demanded a retraction and got one.

Sure, news stories can be fluid and may shift over time. On the other hand, when a nefarious entity such as Mark Spencer's PLEA is whispering in your ear, the hatchet job that results is less likely to be a righteous kill.

Moreover, PLEA nearly is as successful in manipulating the mainstream media as Sheriff Joe Arpaio's PR flacks.

Take the case of PPD cop Richard Chrisman, indicted for second-degree murder, aggravated assault, and cruelty to animals.

Chrisman is accused of shooting down South Phoenix resident Danny Rodriguez and his dog on October 5 after responding to a domestic-violence call. Rodriguez was unarmed but was high on meth and struggled with Chrisman. Sergio Virgillo, the other cop on hand, told investigators that neither Rodriguez nor the dog posed a serious threat.

Spencer and PLEA immediately sided with Chrisman, a PLEA member, against Virgillo, who is not. PLEA bailed Chrisman out and continues to argue passionately on Chrisman's behalf.

Indeed, PLEA has sought to slime both the victim and Virgillo in its defense of Chrisman. Before he left office last year, interim Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley told me that PLEA was under investigation for possible witness tampering and obstruction of justice as a result.

"I think there's a concerted effort by PLEA and some of its members to obstruct the success of this case going forward," Romley told me at the time.

In February, County Attorney Bill Montgomery, who bested Romley in the 2010 Republican primary after getting PLEA's endorsement, announced that the investigation of PLEA's actions in the Chrisman case had concluded.

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons