Thursday, June 18, 2015

Message Recieved

"Wait, what?" I whisper, furrowing my eye brow and leaning into photographer Nick Steffens, "Did he say the chief resigned?" I ask shocked, seeking clarification. Mayor Ralph Becker had just announced the resignation of popular Police Chief Chris Burbank, over his handling of a sexual harassment scandal involving one of the chief's top leaders. 

Becker's press conference
The bombshell caught me, and pretty much everyone in Salt Lake City, off guard. Minutes after the mayor's comments, news came that the former chief would, himself, address the media regarding the shocking news.
Becker's announcement was held atop the steps of the city county building, looking down on the gaggle of reporters and camera operators who were at a safe distance at the bottom of the concrete stairs, more than a dozen feet away.  Becker, from behind a podium, read from prepared remarks, and did not take questions after turning awkwardly towards the heavy historic doors of city hall and floating back into the sandstone structure.

Burbank addresses the media.
Burbank on the other hand, dressed in his customary blue police uniform, casually sipped water as a dozen reporters and photographers too aim at his meticulously shaved head with tape recorders, cameras and cell phones.  the former chief spoke extemporaneously and took a dozens questions after his comments.

Mayor Becker has always seemed aloof, and at times even disengaged, I remember in 2010, in the wake of the Red Butte oil spill which released 800 barrels of oil, polluting the water near homes a blackening the pond at Liberty Park and coating dozens of ducks with black ooze.

The Mayor had just held a press conference at about 5 PM, and afterwards I asked the Mayor's press handler if he would appear live on our news show at 10PM that night.  "Uh," she said reluctantly, "I think he's pretty tired." I squinted my eyes, and pulled my chin in back towards my chest, "Tired?" I repeated her words back to her, in an effort to emphasis how odd they sounded, "This is the biggest disaster of his administration, surely he can find the energy to talk to the city about how the clean up is going."  "I'll check," she said with a shrug of her shoulders.  A few minutes later she returned, "Yeah, he's not going to be able to make  it."  I didn't say a word, I was stunned.
Department of Environmental Quality

Chris Burbank, seems the opposite of that.  In 2006 he was up late as the street swelled with a crowd angry residents,  after the body of kidnapping victim  Destiny Norton was found in a musty crawlspace in the apartment of her neighbor.  The large mob gathered, seething over the way the police department had handled the case.  A riot seemed imminent.  Burbank, headed out into the night and directly into the angry sea of chaotic, emotional people.  He disarmed them with understanding and charm and at the end of the evening, 2 of the people who were most instrumental in instigating the gang,  actually went on TV and APOLOGIZED to the chief for causing problems.

Burbank's image was that of an open and approachable public servant, but that openness did have its limits I always felt.  Chief Burbank was also a ferocious protector of his and his department's public image.  When I started reporting in Utah in 1999, Salt Lake City's Public Relations department under Chief Rick Dinse consisted of one or 2 people.  

Burbank addresses angry Norton crowd (SL Trib)
After he was appointed Chief 9 years ago, Burbank expanded his PR department greatly.  At last casual count, there are at least 5 in the unit, all with the goal of disseminating information, but also, it seemed, protecting the shield.

  After I'd done an unflattering story about the police department, my relationship, which had, up to that point, always been jocular and easy, changed.  A few days after my critical story aired, I called the police PR requesting to do an interview on an unrelated story, The crew sent out 2 officers, one to grant me an interview, the other to video tape my questions.  "What's this?" I asked as the officer dutifully pointed his small handheld video camera at me, "just documenting everything," he said, staring blankly and uncomfortably at the postage stamp sized screen, occasionally glancing up, then quickly diverting his eyes back to the tiny square.  I wasn't exactly sure why they were pointing the camera at me.  Maybe it was a subtle way of saying, "we have this whole interview on tape, watch how you edit it?" Or perhaps the department was telling me, "see, two can play at this game."  Either way a message, no matter how unclear it was, was being sent.

The two hastily organized press conferences called on that historic day couldn't have been more different in tone and structure, and are, in many ways symbolic, of the way the 2 men operate.  One pulls you in close, both physically and emotionally, the other keeps you at a distance, but both have the same goal: Control the message.

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