Former police officer and ex-TV reporter Gail Plewacki is the new voice of Minneapolis City Hall
In thick black letters on a whiteboard in her City Hall office, Minneapolis Communications Director Gail Plewacki has written her quote of the week: "For those who govern, the first thing required is indifference to newspapers."
She said these words of French writer Louis Thiers serve "as a reminder that if you want to govern effectively, you can't worry about what people say about you."
Nowadays, when reporters ask a city staff member or public official a question, they are increasingly told, "Maybe you should call Gail Plewacki in the communications office."
Plewacki -- a veteran police officer and TV reporter -- denies she's muzzling city workers. No official policy exists requiring employees to get her permission before talking to the press, she said.
However, no public-relations department could prevent last month's controversy when the police department's spokesperson was moved into Plewacki's office. Police communications representative Cyndi Barrington quit over the switch. And as Barrington packed up her office, KMSP-TV was there to film the action.
Plewacki, who said she hadn't even set foot in her office that morning, suddenly found herself the center of "chaos and melodrama." She said the office move was part of a long-standing plan to consolidate resources.
Plewacki also said she intended to have less Barrington and more police officers in front of TV cameras. However, Olsen himself has joked about not being allowed to talk to reporters.
Plewacki insists, "I don't speak for anyone or tell anyone what to say."
She describes her position as more of a go-to person for the city.
Plewacki's current boss, Minneapolis City Coordinator John Moir, said Plewacki is establishing a city protocol for working with the media.
Moir said the city has faced two major problems. First, competing media outlets can pressure city workers to respond to breaking news before all the facts are in. And some city employees, he said, "think they have the facts when they don't, and they tell the media things only to later find out it's wrong. Then we have to come back and retract it. That's when it looks like we are trying to spin it."
Gary Hill, KSTP-TV's investigative-news director and Plewacki's former boss at the station, said he is concerned when information is passed through another set of hands instead of coming directly from the source.
Hill said that Plewacki's protocols are "a work-in-progress" but adds, "Once the system's in place, does it mean that we can accurately get more information, or will that information be spun and controlled? I think that what they are trying to do is questionable. It worries me when government entities attempt to speak with one voice."
According to Hill, Plewacki's effect on public information has been mixed. On occasion, a quick call to her has cleared the path for reporters having a difficult time retrieving information. At other times, he said, reporters have wanted to talk to officers involved in an investigation, only to have the cops refuse to talk, claiming policy forbade it.
Hill said he liked and admired Plewacki as a reporter and that she, for one, "wouldn't take being shunted off to the communications director when she wanted information from a cop."
Plewacki is wary of reporters who, she said, "bring their biases and assumptions to the job. Often what a reporter is trying to do is justify an assumption he already has. There is no such thing as objective reporting."
Covering criminals and cops
Born in Cleveland in 1953 to a Polish-American family, Plewacki moved to Duluth when her steelworker father took a job at U.S. Steel. This middle child of three graduated from Duluth East High School in 1971 and later the University in Minnesota, with a degree in women's studies.
After college, Plewacki was working with children when a friend decided to apply to the police force. On a lark, she accompanied her buddy through the application process. The friend did not get a call back. Plewacki did.
In 1980, Plewacki -- along with two Native Americans, one Hispanic, three African-Americans and four other women -- was hired on in the police department's effort to diversify. One of just nine women on the 250-person force, Plewacki endured the hazing, from curt remarks to pornography in her mailbox.
Plewacki paid no heed, said Greg Hestness, Minneapolis Deputy Chief of Police, who worked with her 20 years ago.
"Gail was a good cop," Hestness said. "She didn't seem to have any fear or equivocation about doing the job when I worked with her."
As a member of the robbery-suppression unit, Plewacki was regularly mugged. She'd put on a "Nancy Nurse" uniform, park her car by a hospital, pop the hood as if it had broken down and stand in front of it with her purse. Someone almost always took the bait, only to be nabbed by her backup. In two years, Plewacki and partners arrested over 400 felons -- including one mugger who threw her to the ground, started ripping off her clothes and choking her before her partners arrived.
That wasn't the worst of it.
In a dimly lit Hennepin County Medical Center basement hallway, a man -- hospitalized for gunshot wounds -- grabbed a guard's pistol and took a nurse hostage. Plewacki and her sergeant came upon the man, naked, with tubes hanging out of his body.
The sergeant commanded him to drop the gun. Instead, he pointed it at them.
Plewacki cocked her shotgun, aimed and fired just as the perpetrator put a 38-caliber slug from the guard's pistol into his own temple.
Plewacki received four commendation medals for bravery and was first runner-up for International Policewoman of the Year in 1984. She lost to a Detroit officer who was shot in the line of duty and returned to the force soon after recovery.
"It's a horrible thing to say, but I knew I was a finalist and that I was probably going to lose to the woman from Detroit," Plewacki said. "I remember looking at my calendar thinking, 'do I have time to get shot?' I really wanted to be number one."
Former Minneapolis Police Chief Tony Bouza called her one of the bravest cops he has ever known.
"Gail was a pioneer and a trail-blazer who made it easier for the women who followed after her," Bouza said. "She would have risen to high ranks . . . I always felt it was a mistake for her to give up policing. But she did the job, she proved herself, and then she wanted to go on and try something else."
Plewacki put down her badge when KARE-TV offered her a job as a reporter. On the other side of the camera, she had a chance to weave her police experience and communication skills to cover crime stories and investigative pieces.
KARE news anchor Diana Pierce described Plewacki "an incredibly hard worker [who] really had a nose for detail. . . . Because of her police background, she would look for stories that were up her alley, like drug busts or how open drug-dealing was in certain parts of the city."
Pierce recalled how Plewacki filmed drinking and drug use in the St. Paul Ford Motor Plant parking lot from an unmarked van. But because the car was not a Ford, workers grew suspicious and came over to check it out. She scared them away when she screamed out, 'Can't anyone take a decent nap around here?'"
"It's an example of her quick thinking," Pierce said. "Gail knew how to handle herself in tight situations."
Plewacki's favorite TV piece featured a stalking victim, a girl with developmental disabilities. The stalker had recently completed a 17-month jail sentence, Plewacki said, and told the victim's mother that a piece of paper -- a restraining order -- could not keep him from taking her daughter away forever.
Plewacki and her crew secretly filmed the stalker's release then staked out his home. After a week of cat-and-mouse, they caught him on tape following the victim. Plewacki showed the tape to local authorities and aired the story. The man was sentenced to 56 months in jail.
"By the time he gets out the girl will have turned 18 and will be out and on her own," Plewacki said. "She's been given the chance to grow up and become independent."
She was at KARE for a dozen years, followed by three-plus at KSTP, winning six Emmys in her 16 years. With her KSTP contract expiring, the station's parent company, Hubbard Communication, laid her off in 2002 during budget-cutting.
After a summer of gardening and boating along the stretch of the Mississippi close to her home, Plewacki applied for the communications director position, beating five other contenders.
"This job isn't boring; it's real life," said Plewacki. "It's tricky business running a city, and I get to watch it up close and personal."
Media relations, though a high-profile pursuit, said Plewacki, is a very small part of what she does. Through customer service, publications and a website, Plewacki and her staff of six strive to inform city residents, employees, legislators and groups of city services and public policy issues alike. She takes pride in the fact that since her department began publishing snow emergency literature in Somali, Spanish, Hmong and English snow emergency parking compliance is now at 95 percent.
"She brings sophistication to government communication and is very intense about seeing that the public gets accurate information in a timely way," said Moir.
Perhaps Louis Thiers would approve.