Cops are Human, Film at 10

Mary Fallon

KMSP's Tom Lyden says he covers cops because crime makes for sexy TV news--and because he likes the close contact with the criminal mind. He's especially intrigued by serial killers, in part because he's been "lucky" enough to cover the best (at a station in Green Bay, Lyden reported on Jeffrey Dahmer; in Minneapolis he routinely scooped the competition with new angles on the Andrew Cunanan case). From time to time, Lyden even fantasizes about wearing a badge. "I think all the best reporters have thought of themselves as detectives at one time or another," he says. "To be successful, sometimes you have to adopt their mindset." Indeed: Lyden's blustery nonchalance sounds a lot like something one of his sources might mumble over doughnuts and coffee, a tough guy talking tough.

Still, Lyden's fraternal familiarity with those who carry guns and those who wield spiral notebooks is revealing. Alone among his counterparts he doesn't mince words when referring to Star Tribune reporter Joy Powell's recent feature about Minneapolis homicide detective Jim DeConcini. "Some of this beat is suck and fuck," he says. "You do some good stories to gain access to others, when you have to rip the department a new one. And that's what was going on with the DeConcini story."

Whether or not the Strib profile was a deliberate "blow job," as Lyden puts it, it did have City Hall (and newsrooms around the metro) humming for days. Not because of Powell's soft and cuddly take on DeConcini, but because the article, in a comic twist of irony, caused a mistrial in Hennepin County District Court. On the same day DeConcini's smiling mug appeared in the Strib, he was scheduled to testify as the first witness in a first-degree assault case. But after Judge Delila Pierce saw Powell's piece, she all but asked the public defenders to file a motion for mistrial. When they did, Pierce ruled that the one-sided nature of Powell's reporting would bias the jury (none of whose members remembered reading the story) in favor of DeConcini's testimony. The case was rescheduled for sometime in February. Since the case is pending, Pierce is refusing to comment on the decision.

Powell herself insists she pursued the DeConcini story because he represents the "classic homicide cop"--injured in the line of duty, known for a gallows sense of humor, and credited with community involvement. Asked if she was also hoping to ingratiate herself to the homicide unit, infamous among reporters for its tight-lipped cynicism, Powell points to her 10-year experience covering cops and courts at Omaha's World Herald. "I'm not just looking to cover the murderers, the fatal fires, and the arrests," she says. "I want to find those interesting stories about human nature. Funny stories. Stories about heroic deeds and good Samaritans." That she's new to the Twin Cities had nothing to do with choosing to frame DeConcini in a positive light, she says; besides, one story does not make or break a beat.

With the exception of Lyden, Powell's peers also say her piece suggested savvy storytelling more than building a source list. In fact, KARE 11's Bernie Grace wishes he'd have thought to do it first. Still Grace, whom cops rank as one of the more controversial characters in their press entourage, admits that a feel-good piece is good to have in the bank when a hesitant source needs convincing. Penny Parish, the MPD's Public Information Officer, agrees: "Down in homicide they loved [Powell's] article, loved the photo. So down the road, yes, some officers might be more apt to think of that reporter in a positive light when her name is mentioned."

Cops love to evaluate the media, love to comment on specific reporters. They know, as do the journalists, that the two professions depend on each other more intimately than either would care to admit. Detectives working downtown typically refer to Lyden as a flash-in-the-pan reporter, often more interested in making a splash than preserving the integrity of a case. Grace suffers from the same reputation. Both have managed to hustle a healthy internal source base. WCCO's Caroline Lowe, who's been covering the cops for 17 years, has the highest-placed administrative sources; she, along with the Strib's Chris Graves, has managed to go after bad cops and still stay plugged in. The jury is still out on Powell, the rookie.

Universally, these reporters say filing a story about a "bad" cop is often less damaging than one would imagine. "When I upset some cops, that draws others in," Grace says. "When you do stories about individual cops who are in trouble you change your list of sources. I've been kicked all around the department."

Things get touchy, however, when a reporter is working a case in progress. "To someone investigating a crime, a good reporter is someone who takes my press release and writes down the facts verbatim," Parish says. "An ambitious reporter will go way beyond that, and it's when those additional details come out that an investigator will get upset. The more a reporter works a case like a cop, the further down the list they go." Lowe and Graves, two reporters Parish says have managed to be "good detectives," say they've done so by maintaining a healthy dose of empathy. They both have participated in countless ridealongs and, like Powell, occasionally file a human-interest story.

The danger in all this, of course, is that reporters who rely on police sources can become susceptible to the cop's point of view--in journalism parlance, too easy to spin. Last summer's coverage of the Lawrence Miles, Jr. shooting in South Minneapolis is a good example. After shooting Miles in the back, officers found he was carrying a toy gun. Later, when the MPD's Internal Affairs unit concluded the shooting was justified, the department pursued charges against the 15-year-old.

Neither decision was criticized by the network affiliates or dailies, and community protests were barely covered. Though the reporters interviewed for this story claim their organizations will continue to pursue the case, so far they've failed to follow up on inconsistencies among witnesses and in the forensic record. It's hard not to suspect that if these reporters had the same level of empathy for Miles and his community as they do for the cops, the story would've been different.

Yet when officers are asked to cite an example of sensational, negative reporting in '97, most cite coverage of the Miles case. What bothers them, it turns out, is not how the story was covered--but that it was reported at all.

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