KPHO Cops the PLEA Line on a Report Swiped From Another Police Union, Flubbing the Story in the Process


I have praised Channel 5 KPHO's reporters and producers in the past. I consider them colleagues.

In fact, in 2010, New Times went so far as to award KPHO newshound Morgan Loew and producer Gilbert Zermeno "Best TV Journalists" for their hard-hitting pieces on Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

Still, I'm befuddled by the station's persistent pro-PLEA spin (PLEA being the powerful Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, a police union that represents the rank-and-file in the Phoenix Police Department).

PLEA is at constant war with PPD management, particularly Public Safety Manager (read: Police Chief) Jack Harris. This is obvious, from PLEA's Web site and from PLEA president Mark Spencer's obsession with taking down Harris. That PLEA has allies at KPHO is evidenced by KPHO's occasional aping of PLEA's line on the PPD.

Without casting too many aspersions on the work of Channel 5 journalist Donna Rossi, a former cop and currently a Fourth Estater, I found her recent segment on a satisfaction survey taken by the Phoenix Police Sergeants and Lieutenants Association, the union representing Phoenix cops of those ranks, to be bizarre.

At least, I did after I read the report itself, which's linked at the Web sites for KPHO and PLEA.

PLEA put its usual anti-management slant on the document, calling it a "no confidence" vote for PPD honchos. And, truthfully, there's much in the doc, particularly in the written responses, that suggests that the relationship between sergeants and lieutenants and the command staff ain't what it should be.

"What in your opinion is the single biggest challenge facing the Phoenix Police Department?" asks the survey at one point.

Answers run the gamut, from "we need a new Fourth Floor" (the Fourth Floor being where the PPD command staff rule) to "morale" to "a lack of leadership" to "corruption within the department."

One commenter opines, "No one has faith in the chief."

Rossi repeated some of the negative comments, along with news that nearly 70 percent of the more than 150 respondents were satisfied or very satisfied as employees of the department. Almost 87 percent of respondents agreed that the department was committed to providing quality service.

However, Rossi ignored negative reactions regarding PLEA and its president. For instance, one survey-taker listed "Mark Spencer" as the PPD's "single biggest challenge."

This same respondent, when asked what he or she would like to see done to address this "challenge," said in regard to Spencer: "Fire him."

Weirdly, Rossi reported that the "fire him" comment was about Harris, not Spencer.

Perhaps some confusion can be forgiven. Mark Hafkey, president of the Sergeants and Lieutenants Association, told me that the information posted at KPHO and PLEA came from a "data dump" based on replies from his association's members and was not a finished report. He also related that the information was taken from his association's offices without permission and later posted to PLEA's Web site.

Plus, he confirmed what appears obvious, based on the raw data: The "fire him" comment refers to Spencer.

Rossi said her sources told her that the PPSLA was trying to keep the report "under wraps." Hafkey denied this, saying the final report will be issued after a labor-management conference between PPD management and the PPSLA.

In an e-mail to PPSLA members sent January 27, one quoted in part by Rossi, Hafkey admits that the survey suggested "significant dissatisfaction." Because of the preliminary results, Hafkey told his members of the planned labor-management conference to hash out concerns. He promised more info would be distributed following the conference.

Hardly evidence of a cover-up.

Currently, according to Hafkey, the powwow's scheduled on two dates, February 25 and March 10.

In her piece, Rossi says she contacted the PPSLA but received no response. Hafkey told me he had gotten a phone call and an e-mail seeking comment the day of Rossi's story but was tied up in a federally mandated disaster-response training course. By the time he was ready to react, the piece had run.

Hafkey said the PPSLA will seek a retraction from KPHO.

Also, he said the union is looking into what other action might be taken regarding the document believed stolen from PPSLA offices.

I called and e-mailed Rossi regarding the matter but didn't hear back from her for hours. So I published a version of this article on my Feathered Bastard blog, where I noted that Rossi had not called or e-mailed back.

The next day, she reached out to me via Facebook, claiming not to have received my e-mail or my phone mail, though I have proof of both communications.

She didn't reply to my inquiries concerning her segment on the PPSLA story.

If Rossi and KPHO do a retraction, particularly on the "fire him" quote, that would be good journalism. They may also want to point out that the document they reference specifically asks "dissatisfied" respondents the reasons for their opinions.

In other words, the PPSLA was actively seeking critical assessments of the department.

Will KPHO do a story on the many derisive comments PLEA and Spencer received in the survey — which the station made a huge deal about?

To the "single biggest challenge" question, one respondent states "PLEA's negative attacks." Another cites "the constant attacks of PLEA on the PPD supervisors." Yet another notes "the negative spin some [of] the unions are putting on these issues to enumerate the deficiencies of/with Jack Harris."

Replying to a different survey question, one respondent says he or she would like to see both PLEA President Spencer and Harris retire. Others echo the call for a simultaneous changing of the guard at the PPD and PLEA.

"Management needs to stop caving in to PLEA demands," writes another.

Do "not let PLEA run this department," adds one more.

Of course, the respondents are not members of PLEA, but considering that PLEA experienced an 8 percent drop in membership last year, PLEA muck-a-mucks should be the last ones squealing about expressions of "no confidence."

I do have to compliment PLEA for getting its spin in the local media on a regular basis. PLEA's Web site is full of twisted interpretations such as KPHO's, which PLEA was quick to slap on its site.

Recently, PLEA posted a video of Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery telling reporters, "We have no evidence to pursue criminal charges against officials of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association for witness tampering or witness intimidation. So at this point in time, I consider the investigation closed in that regard."

This was in connection to the shooting of an unarmed South Phoenix resident by Phoenix cop Richard Chrisman. The investigation of PLEA began under the watch of Montgomery's predecessor, interim County Attorney Rick Romley.

On October 5, Chrisman killed 29-year-old Daniel Rodriguez after he and another cop, Officer Sergio Virgillo responded to a 911 domestic-violence call from Rodriguez's mom. Moments before Rodriguez was killed, Chrisman shot and killed the man's dog.

Virgillo told investigators the dog was not threatening them. Ditto Rodriguez. Chrisman was later charged with second-degree murder, aggravated assault, and cruelty to animals.

Chrisman reportedly is a PLEA member. Virgillo is not. PLEA sided with Chrisman and has done everything in its power to undermine Virgillo's credibility, as well as to blame the victim.

Before Romley left office, he told me that PLEA was under investigation by both the County Attorney's Office and the PPD.

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

Interestingly, Montgomery received PLEA's endorsement during his campaign for county attorney, accepting a $410 contribution from the union. He averred on more than one occasion that PLEA had not sought to influence him in the Chrisman affair, nor would he be influenced by PLEA's endorsement and contribution.

I have no evidence to suggest that his connections to PLEA tainted his office's investigation of the union. Montgomery's videotaped statement (quoted above) about PLEA was circumspect.

But consider how PLEA titled its Web post concerning the taped Montgomery statement: "MCAO Exonerates PLEA" — when, as you can see, Montgomery never said the union was exonerated.

My congrats to PLEA pooh-bahs for successfully dodging the allegations — this time. But don't delude yourselves — patrol cops, lieutenants, sergeants, and savvy members of the public are onto your shenanigans. No matter what KPHO reports.

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