News 4 Investigates: Daily Briefing

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Blowing The Whistle

by stevechamraz

KMOV.com

Posted on April 14, 2008 at 12:45 PM

Updated Wednesday, Nov 4 at 3:06 PM

Our report on how the St. Louis Police Department responds to and handles reports of possible animal abuse drew upon on the perspective provided by a St. Louis police officer. In our interview with Chief Joe Mokwa he referred to that officer as a "whistleblower."

Whistleblower is the commonly accepted term for a person who reveals a practice involving their employer which they feel is illegal or otherwise improper. One of the most famous whistleblowers in recent history is Jeffrey Wigand. Wigand revealed insider secrets about the tobacco industry to the CBS newsmagazine 60 Minutes, and was later played by actor Russell Crowe in the movie "The Insider."

Producer Steve Perron and I did not know how Mokwa would react to one of his officers breaking the chain of command and venting concerns and frustrations to a couple of television reporters. "Blowing the whistle" is an uncommon practice, partly, because bosses usually don't appreciate it when an employee airs the bosses' dirty laundry in public.

So Chief Mokwa's response was a little surprising.

"I appreciate the fact the officer would come forward," he said. "I'd rather have a whistleblower rather than someone who's deaf and dumb."

Chief Mokwa went on to say he welcomes such criticism from his officers, even if it comes in the form of an anonymous letter.

Whistleblowers, or people claiming to be whistleblowers, often approach members of the news media offering to tell their stories. In many cases, they want to do so without revealing their identity. This was the case with our report on the police department's policy and practices on animal welfare cases.

The officer was complaining that the department's practice was to "disregard" such calls. "Disregard" is a department term for calling an officer off, or diverting an officer away from an incident. The officer went on to say the department considers animal welfare cases low priority and directs officers to refer such cases to the Humane Society or the St. Louis Health Department's Animal Control Division.

Chief Mokwa, who is a well-known animal lover, disputed this and provided numbers to back up his claims that police do not take animal welfare cases lightly. He suggested the officer who spoke with us might be working for a commander who doesn't understand department policy in this matter.

How Do We Deal With Whistleblowers?

Every reporter at News 4 faces the whistleblower situation from time-to-time. That's especially the case in the News 4 Investigates unit.

So how do we decide to put a whistleblower on the air?

It's a good question. Here's our attempt at some good answers:

1. Is the person's "insider" status legitimate?

First, we have to ask if the person claiming to be a whistleblower is actually who they say they are. Do they -- or did they recently -- work for the company or government agency in question? This is usually very easy to ascertain. Secondly, and just as important, we have to establish that the whistleblower actually had access to information relevant to their claims. For example... Jeffrey Wigand held an executive position and had access to important confidential documents. His allegations would not have much credibility if he had been a receptionist for the tobacco company.

2. Does the whistleblower have an axe to grind?

This is often one of the first questions we ask in such a situation. Is the person calling genuinely concerned about a practice which they feel is dangerous or illegal... or are they a disgruntled worker who feels they aren't being paid enough, or who was just passed over for a big promotion, or recently fired? Those scenarios would not always stop us from using that whistleblower's information in our reporting, but we would use stronger methods to verify and corroborate their story. Which brings us to...

3. Is there any way to corroborate the whistleblower's story?

You don't want to base a news report on one person's account if you can't corroborate it, or at the very least, find supporting evidence.

In our report on police and animal abuse calls, the officer's account of department practice was supported by other officers who spoke with News 4 Investigates off-camera and by Randy Grim, founder of the Stray Rescue animal shelter.

It was also supported by first-hand observations when News 4 crews accompanied Grim on visits to two reported cases of animal abuse.

Documents obtained from the St. Louis Police Department and Animal Control also lent credence to the officer's claims.

While Chief Joe Mokwa insisted the officer was wrong -- at least in the description of what passes for official department policy -- there was ample support for the officer's claims to the contrary.

4. Is it proper to conceal the whistleblower's identity?

While we prefer to not do interviews in silhouette or in shadow, there are times when doing so is proper. This was certainly one of those cases.

The person who spoke to us is not a former officer, but a working, on-duty St. Louis Police Officer. Making the decision to criticize department policy in a television interview is a difficult one. In a situation like this, we are willing to conceal a person's identity.

We had a similar situation last year when following our reports on how Missouri and Illinois prison officials handle incidents of sex between inmates and prison staff, we got a call from a working prison guard in Illinois who wanted to talk. We agreed to conceal the guard's identity in order to protect the guard's job.

Whistleblowers are important for the news media, police and government regulators, but they can also provide an invaluable public service. Because of that, laws are in place to provide legal protection for whistleblowers. You can read more about that at these websites:

The Government Accountability Project:
http://www.whistleblower.org/template/index.cfm

The National Whistleblower Center:
http://www.whistleblowers.org/

Or you can just give us a call at (314) 444-3344.

News 4 Investigates producer Steve Perron produced this report and contributed to this edition of the Daily Briefing.

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