January 26, 2015

CABQ & APD out of step with community press corps | by Margaret Wright

Margaret Wright is an Albuquerque-based journalist who is a former managing editor of the Alibi and co-founder of the New Mexico Compass. Margaret has also worked as a teacher, social worker and waitress and is currently a reporter with the New Mexico Political Report.

On Friday evening, Gilbert Montaño, the City of Albuquerque’s deputy chief administrative officer, was on the phone to make amends.

“Moving forward, I’d be happy to sit down and chat,” he told me. “We’re not isolators when it comes to media. That’s not the way I work, that’s not the way the mayor works, so if that perception is out there, it’s not true.”

Montaño’s words were appreciated.

Three days earlier, on Tuesday, Jan. 20, city police officers barred me from a press conference during which Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry, U.S. Attorney Damon Martinez and officials from the Department of Justice would, according to a two-sentence media advisory, “be available to answer questions regarding the selected monitor that will oversee the implementation of reforms for the Albuquerque Police Department.”

That media advisory went out at 1 p.m. from the mayor’s Communications Coordinator Rhiannon Schroeder, and it was forwarded to me twice; first by another reporter, then by my editor, who told me I should cover the event.

The other sentence in the advisory read: “Mayor Berry, Mr. Martinez and representatives from the DOJ will be available to take media inquiries … following the 3 p.m. announcement by the city and the Department of Justice.”

I got the email as I was leaving the local PBS affiliate’s studio. I scribbled questions in my notebook (“How much weight did ABQ Forward recommendation carry in selection of monitor? Specific next steps for including public & stakeholder input in monitoring process?”), grabbed my camera and audio recorder, and headed to City Hall.

The waiting room outside the mayor’s conference room was crammed with news crews when I arrived. I spotted another reporter I know, and I started to say hello when a man stepped in front of me.

“Excuse me, are you with the press?” he asked. I noticed an APD badge on his sleeve and answered yes. He asked if I had “credentials.” I explained I’m a freelancer for a news outlet that launched just weeks ago, and I didn’t yet have an ID badge or business card. The officer’s answer was terse, his tone and body language rigid: “Let’s step outside.”

He followed me out to the hallway, where two more uniformed police joined us; they formed a close ring around me, my back toward the wall.

“I can’t let you in without credentials,” said the first officer. “We’ve gotten orders from high up that this is invite-only. I have to ask you to leave.”

I explained that I’m an independent journalist, that my editor sent me to do reporting after receiving a media advisory from the mayor’s office. I offered to have my editor call to confirm what I was saying, offered to show my driver’s license and use my smartphone to prove my byline. The officers shook their heads and didn’t have an answer when I pointed out that neither the city nor APD issue press credentials.

I pleaded with a city official strolling by; he suggested I email Schroeder, who was inside overseeing the press conference. I stepped outside the building to take a few deep breaths, steady my heartbeat. I fired off an email asking Schroeder to help. Minutes ticked by; no reply.

I went back inside. A prominent local TV news anchor (without a visible ID badge) exited the conference and headed for a restroom. The first cop was gone, and other two officers seemed more relaxed, even apologetic.

“They’ll be giving out a lot of the same information at the City Council meeting tomorrow night,” one told me. Sure, I replied, but in the meantime, I was missing out on an assignment. The third officer encouraged me not to take it personally. The city’s trying to avoid another scene like the one back in June, he said. That was when a group of citizens, including relatives of people shot and killed by APD, organized a sit-in protest at the mayor’s office.

A culture of obfuscation?

The barrier I encountered is increasingly commonplace as traditional news institutions fade away and new digital forms come online. A nationwide survey led by Jeff Hermes, director of the Digital Law Project at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, looked at the numbers of journalists denied press credentials by government agencies. According to a Nieman Foundation look at the results, freelance journalists “were more than twice as likely to be denied a credential than a journalist who is a full-time employee of a news organization.”

Such denials are eyebrow-raising, said Hermes.

“Freelancers are to a certain degree less controllable than employees at media organizations,” he told Nieman. A freelancer developing a story on their own, he continued, may be less susceptible to pressures exerted upon journalists in legacy newsrooms.

However, I wasn’t the only member of the media who encountered pushback from officers outside the mayor’s office. Dennis Domrzalski, a longtime reporter at Albuquerque Business First who’s now associate editor of the ABQ Free Press newspaper was also confronted by officers demanding to see credentials.

“Long ago, back in my days at the Albuquerque Tribune, I stopped carrying media badges,” Domrzalski said in a phone interview. “I just didn’t believe that only me and my colleagues should be in the lofty position of having access to these public officials. That’s not the way it should be—this is supposed to be America. They’re supposed to serve us.”

He added that he’d also felt intimidated by the mayor’s security detail.

“They became too aggressive too quickly, and there was no give and take. That’s not the way I’m used to being treated, but it’s also not how I’m used to police officers acting. There was no conversation, no interest in having one, and no interest in trying to help, which is part of their job.”

A city staffer finally intervened and allowed him into the conference, but Domrzalski, a self-described “middle-of-the-road guy” who dislikes confrontation, said he felt disturbed by the episode.

“I’ve been out of this for a long time, covering business stuff—I haven’t been dealing with this. And what went through my mind was, ‘Wow, maybe these people are right about the culture of aggression.’”

When reached on Friday, Jan. 23, Schroeder, the mayor’s communications coordinator, flatly denied that police had singled anyone out of the press event. Officers were acting to prevent another disruption by protesters in the mayor’s office, she said, which had made city staff feel threatened.

In a formal statement, the local branch of the Society of Professional Journalists stated that “the mayor’s arbitrary barring of journalists from important news events that impact the community … runs a grave risk of giving the public the perception that it is used to keep out members of the press that the city doesn’t like. Powerful government officials should not be allowed to pick and choose which reporters cover them.”

(Andy Lyman, who also writes for New Mexico Political Report, is the president of the Rio Grande chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. He did not participate in crafting the statement).

The day following the mayor’s joint presser with the DOJ, KUNM News reporter Rita Daniels also came up against the city’s murky press credentials procedures. She’d made arrangements with APD Public Information Officer Tanner Tixier to pick up a press kit including lapel camera footage from the Jan. 13 officer-involved shooting of John O’Keefe. When she arrived at APD headquarters, the security guard refused to hand over the materials, even after Daniels showed her business card and photo ID. This wasn’t the first time reporters have had difficulty accessing APD public records.

“She was testing me, asking me all these questions,” said Daniels, “and then she said she didn’t like the fact that I didn’t have a badge.” After a phone call to Tixier, the security guard relented—though not before instructing Daniels that next time she’d need “better credentials.”

Attorney Greg Williams, board president at the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, said the city is legally allowed to limit access to certain events like press conferences.

However, said Williams, “because of the importance of this issue to the citizens—and because it is such a prominent matter—we certainly hope that the city will allow as much press coverage as possible of this issue, and not prohibit those who are legitimately seeking to cover the process.”