Affiliate Sends Post-9/11 Wake-Up to Airport Security
reporting team earns KCNC-TV recognition as the 'Station
of the Year' for 2002 by Electronic Media
magazine. Here's the story of the story.
KCNC-TV investigative reporter Brian Maass received a
confidential tip in early December about police officers
loafing on the job at Denver International Airport, he
knew at once he was onto a solid local story. He did not
expect the public reaction to his report, however, when
the piece was aired in late January by the CBS-owned
In the wake of the
Sept. 11 airliner hijackings and attacks on New York and
Washington, Mr. Maass said, people rightly expected
significantly heightened security at Denver's new airport
on the eastern plains. "But we found out this was not the
Simple yet daring
surveillance by the KCNC investigative team exposed a
laxity in local airport security that not only rattled
the power structure of the Denver Police Department but
also has influenced airport safety policy
To check out his
informant's story, Mr. Maass, a veteran KCNC reporter,
drove out to "DIA" on Dec. 5 with investigative team
producer Carissa Scott, who had joined KCNC last August
after serving as an investigative producer at NBC
affiliate WLWT-TV in Cincinnati.
Looking for a break
room reserved for paramedics, the pair found it on a
walkway above the public waiting area in the main
terminal. The door to the room faced the open atrium
under DIA's peaked white canopy roof.
"Within 10 minutes
of watching the door to the room," Mr. Maass said, "it
was pretty clear this was something we should take a
closer look at." Airport police officers were entering
the room, but they weren't coming out, at least not for
hours, sometimes up to half an eight-hour shift's worth
at a time.
If his inside
source was right, there was only one way in and out of
the room, he said. "So we saw at once that it would be
pretty easy for us to watch that one door and put a clock
on how long people stayed inside until they came out. If
the surveillance job was not so clear-cut, such as if
there was a back door, we may not have gone forward with
Ms. Scott recalled
considering the options with Mr. Maass. "We discussed
questions he could answer by working his government
sources, such as how to make sure there really was only
one door, whether the room had a legitimate use for the
police and how to find out the shifts for individual
officers, just in case they actually were off duty when
they used the break room."
At the station
later that day, Mr. Maass and Ms. Scott pitched the story
to News Director Angie Kucharski, who joined the station
in 1999 a few days before the Columbine High School
shootings in Littleton, Colo. She liked the idea of a DIA
involved Assistant News Director Tim Wieland and fellow
investigative reporter Rick Sallinger, who served as
sounding boards for Mr. Maass and Ms. Scott. Ms.
Kucharski recalled, "We questioned the scope of the
investigation, what we thought was needed for proof, the
surveillance logistics and, most of all, how to make sure
the story was absolutely accurate."
Said Mr. Maass, "We
had to make sure the loafing was significant and occurred
over enough different days and shifts not to be an
isolated anomaly on a few bad days. We needed enough tape
on the public record to leave no room for doubt about it
being a consistent and ongoing pattern of behavior."
conducted an investigation of loafing by Denver parks and
recreation workers, which yielded a grand jury inquiry
and a shakeup of city government, Mr. Maass realized his
face was too well-known to conduct the surveillance
personally. The job was too much for Ms. Scott to handle
solo, so Chief Photographer Bob Burke assigned staff
photographer Bob Pearce to the team.
During the next two
months, through Jan. 23, Ms. Scott and Mr. Pearce took
turns handling the video surveillance of the break-room
entrance two or three times each week.
Their strategy was
simple. Ms. Scott or Mr. Pearce sat in the airport lobby
on Level 5, about 20 feet below the paramedics' lounge on
Level 6, with a clear view of the door, which was perhaps
100 feet away. At their side, resting atop an open travel
bag, was a consumer-model Panasonic mini-DV digital
videotape camera pointed at the door to the lounge.
Sometimes they put a jacket over the camera to hide all
but the lens, Scott said, but often the camera was in
occasionally leaning over to rummage in the bag as a
pretext for checking the framing and focus, the camera
was left untouched to record what Mr. Maass described as
"dozens and dozens" of hours of raw video
"I was amazed all
those police officers never spotted me sitting in the
same place over all those weeks," Ms. Scott said, "but
not one officer ever approached me." Yet she did not
escape the notice of a homeless man who apparently
considered where she usually sat as his own domain, and
who asked her several times whether she would be sitting
there much longer. The police may have noticed the
vagrant, she said, "but not me."
Maass worked his sources, attaching names to the faces of
the police officers in the footage and also discovering
their duty hours. "Once we finally identified the
officers and their assigned shifts," he said, "you can
imagine what it took for us to go through each hour of
tape just to fact-check the exact timing for every
individual officer entering and leaving the room. We knew
we needed to get it right."
One question raised
was whether to watch other break rooms in the airport.
Mr. Maass said they decided against taking even a
consumer camera through the security checkpoint several
times a week, because it might arouse suspicions and
alert the police that they were being watched. So the
team would watch only the paramedics' lounge in the
public area. If loafing was going on, they could not
prove it was happening all over the airport, but they'd
have that room on tape as proof.
About halfway into
the investigation, he said, they realized all their
surveillance had been done during the airport's busy
evenings. So they added surveillance earlier in the day,
verifying that the problem was not limited to one duty
As Mr. Maass
deepened his investigation, he learned the windowless
room contained a couch, some chairs, a coffee pot, a
refrigerator, a television and another smaller room with
a bed for paramedics to rest on while awaiting
The allure of the
break room was demonstrated by the officers' spending up
to half of their eight-hour shifts inside. On one
occasion a group of officers vanished through the door
for the duration of an NFL playoff game.
Mr. Maass cited
sources who said one of the motives for the alleged
loafing was that "some officers just wanted to avoid
contact with the public."
Mr. Maass, Ms.
Scott and Mr. Pearce met regularly with Tim Wieland
throughout the investigation. A KCNC staffer for eight
years before joining CNN, Mr. Wieland had returned to
KCNC the year earlier. "I missed how local coverage makes
a direct difference in the community you are living in,"
investigation progressed, Mr Wieland said, "We began
asking when we had enough video surveillance to break the
story, or if we still needed to go back again to show
beyond doubt how widespread it was, that what was going
on inside the lounge was not public business."
proof, a decision was made in mid-January to get inside
the room with a hidden camera. Ms. Scott used a micro spy
camera housed inside a pen, which was carried in her
The door to the
room had a sign saying "Paramedics," so she knocked on
the door one afternoon, said she had a headache and asked
for a cold compress. Inside the room for only a few
minutes, she confirmed everything Mr. Maass had been
told. Officers were inside eating and watching TV. There
was no back door.
Mr. Wieland said a
story had been edited before the peek into the break
room, but Mr. Maass then rewrote the script and worked
with Ms. Scott to re-edit the story with the new footage.
After a few days of
on-air promotion for the story, the five-minute
investigative piece aired in the 10 p.m. newscast on
Thursday, Jan. 31. Mr. Maass concentrated over the
weekend on public reaction stories, some of which are
Ms. Kucharski said
she was surprised by the volume of telephone calls, faxes
and e-mails the station received after the piece aired.
Local newspaper editorials along with radio call-in talk
shows decried the police officers' behavior.
In an official
response, Police Chief Gerry Whitman announced the Monday
following the broadcast that a massive internal
investigation had been launched. (A report has never been
released.) He said the paramedics' lounge had been made
off-limits to officers and 10 officers had been
transferred from the airport detail, including the
commanding officer, Capt. Tom Sanchez.
Two years earlier,
Capt. Sanchez had been forced out as chief after a
scandal involving an errant police raid in which a man
was shot to death. That scandal was initially exposed by
As buzz from the
story spread nationally, Mr. Maass appeared on CBS's
"Early Show" to talk about police loafing and airport
security. Also, CNN called Mr. Wieland to arrange an
interview with Mr. Maass. The AP ran an item published in
newspapers across America and internationally. The Denver
story soon was cited by Bush administration officials and
some members of Congress, who called for federalization
of airport security.
Local fallout from
the investigation also continues, such as a report by Mr.
Maass in late March about a commentary in the Denver
police union newsletter that said airport firefighters
were loafing on the job, too, a charge the firefighters
vehemently denied. The police remain under scrutiny,
however, due to an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit
over secret surveillance of those complaining about the
Denver Police Department.
defended KCNC against what local media critics called
having "murder and mayhem" coverage in its lead stories
each day. "Most of our newscast features enterprise
stories we initiated," he said. "We are not a police
blotter TV station. If we do report violent crimes or
traffic accidents, we always look for the relevance to
the community before we put a story on the air, such as a
sexual predator targeting children near schools, which
certainly is relevant to all the parents watching out
Ms. Kucharski said
she's painfully conscious of the many ethical choices
television journalists face every day. In the Columbine
High School coverage, for example, they had a camera on a
wounded student trying to escape out a second-story
window, and there was intense debate over the phone
before airing the live shot, which was picked up
"The reason most of
us go into journalism is not for local or national
recognition," said Ms. Kucharski, "but because we feel a
calling for public service. This particular police
loafing story speaks to the real value of enterprise
journalism by local stations in protecting and serving
the public's right to know."
This attitude is
paying off. The February Nielsen book ranked KCNC No. 2
behind traditional market leader KUSA-TV, an NBC
affiliate, but beating KUSA at 4 p.m. and 10 p.m. with a
strong showing in early-morning news.
Further, Mr. Burke
and his KCNC team in March were named "Station of the
Year" by the National Press Photographers Association for
a series about the separation of conjoined twins in
Denver, a story that was picked up by "48 Hours" on CBS.
One reason for the
excellence at KCNC may be the twice-daily newsroom
meetings the entire staff attends to decide which stories
go on the white board behind the assignment desk. Ms.
Kucharski and Mr. Wieland also meet regularly with the
entire investigative team to discuss projects.
credits the participatory management style to General
Manager Marv Rockford,* who has been with the station
since 1981, taking over as the top spot from Roger Ogden
in 1995. "I believe in hiring the best people you
possibly can and then letting them do their jobs," Mr.
Rockford said. "I'll provide strategic guidance, but the
key is giving the news team the responsibility and
authority to make decisions for themselves." .