Access denied

SN&R’s newest staff writer, Beckner has written several freelance articles for the paper, including the earlier article referenced in this essay

In our supposedly open society, the free flow of honest and accurate information from corporate boardrooms and political backrooms can’t be taken for granted. When a journalist is lucky enough to find a public official, a corporate executive, or even a police officer willing to offer full access to the uncensored activities of daily life, eyebrows go up all over town, which might explain why Sgt. Patrick Mulligan is under investigation by Sacramento Police Department’s Internal Affairs Division.

“Did you and Sgt. Mulligan discuss how your story might improve the relationship between the police department and the News & Review?” Sgt. Daniel Schiele wanted to know.

It seems that Mulligan was under investigation for taking me on an unauthorized ride along, and the department saw nothing wrong with calling a journalist and questioning her about her own motives and about the motives of one of her sources.

“How did you meet Sgt. Mulligan?” Schiele wanted to know. “How did the ride along come about? … Did you fill out the release forms? Did you fill them out early, in the middle, or near the end of the ride along?”

Some of Schiele’s questions were obviously meant simply to clarify the events of the evening, but some of them—asked in his polite, gentle voice—seemed to imply something more sinister.

“Did Sgt. Mulligan ask you not to use his name in your story?” Schiele asked.

I first met Mulligan while his cruiser idled quietly in a dark parking lot off Stockton Boulevard. It was one of the first warm nights of the year and I was going nearly mad trying to reconnect with a prostitute who’d given me a short interview a week earlier.

Mulligan didn’t know her by name, but he sure knew a lot about the once-notorious crime district centered on Stockton Boulevard. As patrol sergeant supervisor for the area, and as a man who’d grown up only a few blocks away, he had the ideal historical perspective, and he was open to discussing why stiffer laws and a “no tolerance” policy toward prostitution were so popular. They’d managed to remove approximately 90 percent of the area’s street prostitutes, Mulligan estimated. Now, they were such a subtle presence on the street that I had to ask for an officer’s help in locating one.

The next evening, Mulligan granted me a seven-hour crash course on crime fighting. He introduced me to women working the streets, ran down all the equipment in a patrol car, took me on a tour of the jail, walked me through the booking process and let me tag along on calls: a possible intruder that was actually a sweat suit hanging in an elderly woman’s garage; a false alarm at a local newspaper office; a diffused family fight; a gang of kids lined up on the curb for questioning.

If I made any shocking observations, they were related to the delicate and somewhat touching relationships between the women on the streets and the police officers sworn both to protect them as citizens and to punish them as criminals. So why was Mulligan in trouble?

I decided to call Schiele back and ask him some questions of my own. “Who called this investigation?” I wanted to know. “Is there some reason why a ride along with a journalist might pose a threat?”

Whether Mulligan was accused of not seeking permission, or whether he was accused of something more serious, Schiele couldn’t tell me. Internal investigations are heavily guarded affairs, and like a lot of police activity, off limits to reporters—even if reporters are being questioned as part of the investigation.

I got the impression that Mulligan might have behaved inappropriately by inviting me to ride along with him without first contacting the public information officer, Sgt. Daniel Hahn. I got the impression that perhaps Mulligan granted my newspaper privileged access to the department. I got the impression that Mulligan might not have been a trusted representative of the police department.

Mostly, I was struck by the irony of the situation. Mulligan offered the most positive view of the police department that I’d ever been exposed to. He was unafraid of scrutiny, was staunchly loyal to his department and was able to clarify the details of controversial laws. His open and truthful responses to my questions made him a reliable and an invaluable source, but his openness might be exactly what put him in jeopardy with his own department.

I understand that Hahn’s job is to organize and assist with media/public relations. He didn’t know anything about the investigation and he didn’t seem too disturbed that Mulligan took me out without notifying him. The investigation itself may be a small affair that ends in Mulligan’s exoneration, but what does it say about the department that a sergeant who communicated directly with the press without formal permission came under investigation for it and faced disciplinary action? Will this same officer take the chance again? Will any other officer in his department?

It’s not just the police department that thinks direct access is dangerous. Every attempt at information gathering these days is funneled away from the source. Your bank routes all your phone calls to a central office in Wyoming or somewhere. Sure, that saves money, but it also keeps you at arm’s distance from anyone with information about your local branch.

Your favorite café chain does this too. Ask if they can lower or raise the temperature and they’ll tell you it’s out of their control. Someone higher up who lives out of state will have to make that decision. Politicians are the best at this game. They are now so adept at distancing themselves from the prying eyes of their constituents that mailers, newscasts, and interviews are almost entirely devoid of any meaningful information. The news often has to limit its coverage to carefully prepared press conferences, dramatized stops on the campaign trail, whatever else is deemed safe enough to be seen by public eyes.

Every powerful element of society is protected by a front line of public relations professionals. Distanced from the source, we’re taught to expect carefully prepared messages in the place of the grittier, messier, far more meaningful truth.

The real goal of public relations is to control the flow of information, to control the message, to manufacture the appropriate image, to feed you the idea that your congressman, your utility company, your bank, and even your favorite retail outlet is responding directly to your needs. Maybe they are. But I’d be skeptical until I heard it from someone like Sgt. Mulligan.