Relations between Denver police chief, officers sink amid protests

When vandals threw paint on a memorial for fallen Denver police officers, their actions — and Chief Robert White’s reaction to them — brought to a head long-simmering discontent in the department.

White ordered his officers to stand down as the memorial was desecrated, and that order led Nick Rogers, the head of the Police Protective Association, to call for White’s resignation.

“He is not our chief,” Rogers said after the demonstration.

It was a dramatic public disagreement between the chief and his troops — but only the latest in a string of disputes that has marked his three-year tenure.

Disgruntlement in the ranks “is a lot less about the memorial than it is about change,” Cmdr. Matt Murray, the department’s chief of staff, said Thursday. “The chief has been a fast-paced, aggressive change agent, and he is not done.”

Protests in Denver and elsewhere largely were fueled by riots that broke out in Ferguson, Mo., after police killed an unarmed black man. Policing experts suggest that the events have left officers across the country feeling under siege by critics and unsupported by their bosses.

Friction between police officers and their chief, whom Mayor Michael Hancock appointed in 2011 to change the culture of a department roiled by brutality charges, may have been inevitable.

The chief has taken his charge seriously, shaking things up by:

• Requiring detectives and others to reapply for their jobs.

• Demoting some and promoting others, a move that led to reductions in pay and shift changes for some officers.

• Creating a “team concept,” in which officers work in teams with their supervisors. Officers say it delays response times and puts officers in harm’s way.

Team approach

White, who also instituted major changes as police chief in Louisville, Ky., says the team approach ensures that officers work regularly with supervisors. And he says his changes have put more cops on the streets, helped officers work better together and allowed the department to be more efficient.

Red paint and stickers cover a memorial honoring fallen police officers on February 14.
Red paint and stickers cover a memorial honoring fallen police officers on February 14. (Brent Lewis, Denver Post file photo)
In December, the PPA accused White of jeopardizing officers’ safety when he barred them from wearing riot gear during protests. Then the union was particularly incensed by the order to stand down at the memorial protest in February.

“It doesn’t make sense,” Rogers said. “You have to draw a line and enforce order in the street.”

To the officers who stood and watched, the memorial is more than names chiseled in stone. The slabs of stone celebrate friends killed in the line of duty, Rogers said.

Officers should have been allowed to create a buffer around police headquarters, he said.

“(Avoiding confrontation) may have been the right decision, but the police standing there are thinking, ‘I’m not doing my job. They are not letting me do it.’ For the officers, that is a very personal hit to see the memorial defaced like that,” said Mary Dodge, director of criminal justice programs at the University of Colorado Denver’s School of Public Affairs.

Events in Ferguson have prompted a national discussion of ways in which police can de-escalate dangerous situations, according to a recent Police Executive Research Forum report on issues facing police chiefs.

Dallas Chief David Brown said officers should be trained that backing down is sometimes the best option, according to the report.

“Sometimes it seems like our young officers want to get into an athletic event with people they want to arrest. They have a ‘don’t retreat’ mentality,” Brown said. “But often there are reasonable alternatives.”

Murray echoed those comments.

“We are hearing from policing experts all over the country … that this is the best strategy” to ensure that neither police nor members of the public are hurt during demonstrations, he said.

Police later arrested the vandals, who were in a crowd of demonstrators. Many were protesting the January shooting of Jessica Hernandez, 17, who was killed after officers said she drove a stolen car toward them.

While engaging with the crowd at the memorial might have left officers with a sense of accomplishment, it could have led to their portrayal as “villains in the media,” the Denver Black Police Officer’s Organization said in a letter supporting White’s decision.

White’s stand-down order surprised City Councilman Charlie Brown.

At Brown’s request, City Councilman Paul Lopez, who chairs the Council’s Safety Committee, plans to hold a hearing on the issue. During the hearing, White will be asked to explain his decision, Brown said. “We need to know where this policy started and why, because I didn’t know this was the policy,” Brown said.

White is fine with explaining the strategy to the council, Murray said. “If there is a better way, we are open to doing that,” Murray said.

Former Safety Manager Fidel “Butch” Montoya, a frequent critic of the administration, said White’s changes were “kind of put in with a sledgehammer.”

Rogers said he had urged White to go slow with changes in the beginning.

” I tried to make this situation work, and obviously it hasn’t worked and there needs to be a change. I now look at (White’s actions) as a body of work,” Rogers said.

Any police chief needs the support of the mayor to do the job, Dodge said.

But a chief can respond effectively to the concerns of the administration while showing support for officers. “If a chief can’t juggle all those things, you are going to have problems in that department,” Dodge said.

White works for all the people of Denver, Murray said. “At the end of the day, he is going to do what he believes is in the best interest of Denver, what is in the best interest of the community.”

Police departments across the country are facing calls for greater restraint to prevent brutality.

The shooting last summer of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson was followed by a grand jury decision not to indict a New York City cop in Staten Island who placed another black man, Eric Garner, in a chokehold that led to his death.

In the aftermath of the Ferguson and Staten Island incidents, there were calls for new legal processes to be used in police-brutality cases, said Eugene O’Donnell, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and a former police officer.

The right to know

Some people suggested that officers accused of unnecessary force should be indicted even if a prosecutor believes the case shouldn’t be pursued, O’Donnell said.

In effect, he said, they were suggesting that the public’s right to know trumps officers’ right to due process.

“I think some efforts at reform are legitimate and are aimed at serious problems,” O’Donnell said. “However, some ignore realities such as the adversarial role of the police and the demands placed on them for more enforcement and proactivity.”

Those and other incidents left police throughout the country feeling abandoned, he said.

“I’m not sure that this would have happened had it not been for the incidents in Ferguson and New York,” Dodge said, referring to Denver’s police unions calling out White.

O’Donnell agreed.

“There is a national sense by the cops that they have been cut adrift by society, and that is exacerbated by a sense that political people are not standing up for them,” O’Donnell said.

“In some aspects, that is 100 percent true,” Rogers said. “We are not looking at the actions of the criminals; we are looking at the police. No matter what the crime, we are saying how can we criticize the way they handled this.”

Police chiefs are under more pressure now to take concerns of the community to heart and to communicate with the public, knowing that their decisions will be questioned, O’Donnell said.

For most chiefs, the job “is really a hot seat,” he said. “You inherit the history of your agency.”

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