DENVER - The Denver Police Department is defending more than $1.3 million in spending over the past three years for its media relations unit, despite questions from officers on the street.
The department claims its finely-tuned social media and video production efforts have been wildly popular with the Denver public, with some videos gaining millions of views and some Tweets going viral and gaining national attention.
"What we desire to do is communicate with the public," said deputy chief Matt Murray. "There was a time where we didn't communicate as well as we do now and Chief (Robert) White recognized that. And he expected something a little different. And part of that was an interaction with the community that was social. Not just one way. We weren't just pushing information out, but we [are] actually interacting with the community."
The move came after several well-publicized incidents where police were accused by some members of the public of using excessive force.
In 2014, the department began investing heavily in its public image, purchasing high-end video cameras and editing equipment, and increasing the size of its media relations staff to include a social media coordinator and two video producers.
Currently, DPD's media relations unit includes six people with total salaries topping $462,000 annually, including three civilian employees paid more than $85,000 per year. A sworn officer pay scale obtained by Denver7 Investigates shows officers in uniform can patrol Denver's streets for more than a decade before reaching the salaries of the unit's two civilian video producers.
"Your chief PR guy makes $102,000 a year," Denver7 investigative reporter John Ferrugia asked Murray. "That's as much as a sergeant with 29 years of experience... Do you think you think that that kind of experience on the street and this, you think those are comparable?"
"No, we would never say that," Murray responded. "There's 293 civilian employees in the Denver Police Department and all of them play a very critical function. ... Every one of them has a salary that's set by the city, that's set by guidelines and standards. And what they do is provide a critical function for public safety in this city. And in our view, absolutely public relations, and public communication, and the relationship with the public as told by experts that we have brought in here to do that at a level that's unprecedented in law enforcement, is absolutely worth the money."
In a follow-up statement, DPD's director of communications Sonny Jackson wrote:
"The PIO team is responsible for handling phone calls and interview requests from the media 24/7, organizing press conferences, writing press releases, producing podcasts, internal communication, safety campaigns, projects with other city agencies, promoting department events, plus many other tasks. The salaries of the unit reflect the Department’s investment in serving the community in all of these areas."
The Denver Police Department is not alone nationally in devoting significant resources to public relations and communications. Denver7 filed open records requests with five other cities across the country closest in population to Denver, asking for the size of their media relations teams and their salaries. Only two departments have provided those numbers: Seattle police have seven public affairs employees and five of them have six-figure salaries. Milwaukee police also have seven employees in their communications unit whose salaries total just shy of $500,000.
Detective Nick Rogers, the head of Denver's police union, said every department needs to provide information to the public, but some of the union's 1,400 members take a dim view of how much their department is investing in public relations.
"We're spending that kind of money on videos that don't drop the crime rate," said Rogers, a 30-year veteran of the department. "[Videos] don't solve burglaries and robberies. That's our mission and I think we lost sight of that."
A small percentage of the department's high-end video equipment was purchased with funds from the nonprofit Denver Police Foundation. But most of the money came from confiscation funds which are gathered from crime suspects when arresting officers seize cash, cars and other property. Confiscation funds are specifically designated for police training and equipment. Records show the city spent more than $120,000 of those funds for its media relations unit, including:
Rogers said he was angered to learn the department used more than $2,400 in money from the property confiscation fund to pay for memberships for Murray and media relations staffers to the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, to submit a dozen entries to the local Emmy award competition. The department won two awards at the 2015 ceremony.
"Winning an Emmy is a self-promotion, self-gratification type of situation that has nothing to do with ... getting better at your profession," Rogers said.
City records obtained by Denver7 Investigates show the Emmy award money was requested as police training and the letter approving the funding request even said, "This is to confirm you have been selected to attend the attached training. ... It is your responsibility to register yourself for this training." The letter goes on to instruct Murray to ask the sponsor of the seminar to send an invoice for the training to the department and to complete a travel authorization form with receipts for the training. The Emmy competition does not involve any seminars or instructional time.
"I think it's a misuse of the funds," Rogers said. "It goes against what the confiscation fund was set up for the first place. It's for training and equipment."
In an interview with Denver7 Investigates, Murray initially denied the money came from confiscation fund. Once presented with the records, he said he was mistaken and justified the use of confiscation funds.
"That's because there's only two types of approval: one is equipment, and one is training," Murray said.
"Right, and this is neither," Ferrugia responded.
"This helps us do a better job," Murray explained. "There's a very broad array of things that can be funded by the confiscation board ... This certainly fits within those parameters."
Records indicate the confiscation fund paid for Murray's Emmy membership and to put his name on multiple award entries (there is a fee for each name on an entry.) Murray admitted that he had nothing to do with the production of the videos, that he only supervised the unit. Yet he is listed on the Emmy nominations as executive producer of the work. Murray told Denver7 he knew nothing about his purchased membership and inclusion as an entrant.
"I wasn't the person the filled out the Emmy nominations, but I'm happy that they included me," Murray said. "That was very kind of them."
"Even though you're just the supervisor of the unit and had nothing to do with producing these?" asked Denver 7 Investigator John Ferrugia.
"You know, John," Murray responded. "I'm sorry. You're asking me about things I don't know much about."
Meanwhile, city records also show confiscation fund paid hundreds of dollars for several personal craft entries for DPD's video producer, whose salary tops $88,000 per year.
Murray claims the investment was a worthwhile one for the city and it has prompted the media team to increase its production values.
"What we believe was that was a way to measure how good is it, what we're doing?" Murray said.
"The question is, for the cop on the street, you think he really cares about about entering Emmys?" Ferrugia asked.
"You know most of them do, they do," Murray responded. "That's what I hear from officers, is that they're excited that we're able to tell their story in a way that was never done before."
Records show DPD also used public funds to enter the Edward R. Murrow Awards for journalism in 2015 (winning multiple awards) and again in 2016 (award judging has not yet been completed.)
City records also show DPD's media relations unit received $1,500 in confiscation funds, designated for police equipment, to pay for Facebook advertising and promotion. Despite its investment in boosting the audience for its Facebook posts, DPD admits it is reluctant to ask its Facebook audience to help solve crimes.
A weekly social media engagement report, prepared by the department's full-time social media coordinator, mentioned an incident in which a child was found without her parents in the park after fireworks the night before 4th of July. The department posted the child's photo on Facebook and officers were able to identify the girl and reunite her with his family. The report notes that kind of a post is rare on the DPD Facebook page: "We don't make many asks of our audiences, because we don't want to abuse their friendship, but this time we did, and it reached almost two million people in one night."
The police union president questioned why the department would not tap into its large audience on a regular basis to help with police work.
"We need to ask them all the time. We need to say: help us catch this person, help us locate this missing person," Rogers said. "I don't think they would think we're abusing that partnership or friendship as they put it. But it seems to me ... they just lost sight of our mission. Our mission is to reach out with the public and ask them for help as often as we need it, because they're the eyes and ears out in the neighborhoods."
Murray explained it is part of DPD's finely-tuned social media strategy, which includes not only Facebook but also Instagram and Twitter.
"There are different people that come to the different platforms for different things," Murray said. "But every single crime alert goes out on Twitter. Every single one. And there's an ask in every one of those crime alerts, and we do hundreds of them. So there is a place for them. I'm going to ask on Twitter. But Facebook is different, and if you talk to social media experts, they will tell you that. So rarely do we use Facebook as a means to ask people to do something. And why we do that is because when we ask, it's when it's really big, it's something we really need a certain kind of help with, so I'm very comfortable with that."
The department does have a weekly Facebook feature entitled "Mug Shot Monday," which features a photo of a wanted fugitive.
The department's weekly social media engagement reports feature frequent references to "fluffy bunnies," the DPD's weekly effort to spotlight something good officers do in the community. One such fluffy bunny, a post about an officer who paid for a hotel room for someone in need, was shared more than 500,000 times. Murray points to that post's success as an indication Denver's citizens enjoy the interaction with police on social media.
"We view this as developing a relationship. You know, when somebody calls the police, they may call one time in their entire life. If they've seen some stories about officers who've done really nice things, that may make them much more inclined to have the officers come in their home, and to share their personal and terrible experience with the officer. So there's no question that it makes our job easier, and it has certainly built a public trust," Murray said.
"So do you really believe that people in high crime neighborhoods are sitting there looking at your videos on their cell phones and saying, 'Gosh these guys are great, so I'm going to drop a dime on the drug dealer down the block?'" Ferrugia asked.
"Oh yeah, no question, I know they do," Murray responded. "We have crimes that have been solved because the tips that we promoted through our videos. There's no question in my mind. It's certainly not the number one reason we do a communications strategy but absolutely there are people who are far more inclined to give us a benefit of the doubt to give us information and to listen to what it is we have to say, because we've developed a relationship."
When Denver7 Investigates requested specific examples of crimes that have been solved because of DPD's video production efforts, the department responded with a written statement saying, "We do not track how many people are arrested thanks to social media posts."
DPD said it has also produced internal training videos that fulfill mandated training requirements for officers. Murray estimated the videos saved taxpayers $500,000 in lost work hours if officers had to spend that training time in the classroom, rather than watching the videos during downtime.
Denver7 Investigates also submitted an open records request for all unedited video produced by the publicly-funded DPD media relations team. Specifically, Denver7 requested raw video from a heavily-edited Facebook video of the police crime lab (because the station was previously denied access to shoot video of the lab) and an unedited interview with Chief Robert White discussing the department's communications efforts on a recently-posted video unveiling the department's new app. Because each of the videos were produced by city employees, on city time, using publicly-owned equipment, Denver7 believes all of the video should be public record (with the exception of internal training videos.)
Denver Police denied the records request, writing in part, "Your request for raw and unedited footage is denied because we believe that the Department's interests in preserving the work product of projects yet to be completed outweighs any identifiable public purpose to be served by public release of the video requested."