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The Chief Concern

Police Chief Gerry Whitman is respected by ministers and reviled by his own cops. Should Denver be worried?

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Gerry Whitman, the chief of Denver’s troubled police department, has a decision to make.

Driving his unmarked SUV east on First Avenue, he’s stopped for a red light near the Cherry Creek Shopping Center and finds himself at a fork in the road. Two blocks up the street to his left there’s a police commotion-from my perspective in the passenger seat, I see at least two cop cars with lights flashing and officers unraveling yellow crime-scene tape. A few blocks up the street to the right, at the Assumption Greek Orthodox Cathedral, there’s a funeral mass for Taki Dadiotis, the politically connected owner of the Greektown Café. The funeral likely will draw a who’s who of Denver politicos, and when the chief left police headquarters on this fall morning he planned on being there himself. Now this.

Behind the steering wheel, Whitman, a tall and lanky 49-year-old dressed in the DPD’s dark-blue uniform, cranes his neck to inspect the cop action. “Something’s going on,” he deadpans. I point to the dashboard and suggest that whatever’s going on is probably being talked about on the car’s police radio. “Yeah,” he says, without turning it on. The traffic light turns green, and Whitman turns right, toward the funeral.

Outside the church Whitman meets his wife of 14 years, Nancy, who appears to be two feet shorter and 10 years younger than her husband. The couple melds into the crowd loaded with local muckety-mucks, including former Mayor Wellington Webb and Webb’s successor, John Hickenlooper-the two men who have made Whitman Denver’s Top Cop. It was Webb who first appointed Whitman chief, in February 2000, when relations between police and the community amounted to a scandal-soaked tinderbox. A Denver SWAT team recently had executed a no-knock drug raid at a wrong address and inside killed Ismael Mena, a 45-year-old father of nine children. Webb installed Whitman in the chief post with a mandate to set things straight.

Three and a half years later, in June 2003, Hickenlooper was elected mayor and the smart bet was that Chief Whitman would be history. On his watch, the city’s crime rate had barely improved (a measly 0.2 percent drop between 2002-2003), departmental morale sank below sea level, and scandals continued: The DPD amassed “Spy Files” on hundreds of peaceful activists; officers assigned to provide post-9/11 security at DIA watched football in a breakroom; and only four weeks after Hickenlooper was elected, a Denver cop killed a 15-year-old, developmentally disabled black kid named Paul Childs, prompting outrage and calls for Whitman’s dismissal. That summer, a citizens’ group, Denver CopWatch, posted on its website an open letter citing some of these incidents and encouraging Denverites to contact the mayor and tell him “Why Chief Whitman should go.” Even Whitman talked like he expected to be replaced. “I’m not sure if I’m going to reapply for the job or not,” he told the Rocky Mountain News. Whitman did reapply, however, and he became only the second chief in five decades to outlast an administration change. This February marks his fifth anniversary as boss of Denver’s 1,400 police officers, the 28th largest city police force in the United States. As chief, Whitman has survived two mayors, four managers of safety (his immediate boss), and bunches more bad news.

Whitman’s supporters say he has endured because he’s not afraid to cross the Blue Line of police solidarity in order to make positive changes. “I think the chief is a good man at his heart,” says the Rev. Reginald Holmes. Holmes is the pastor of the New Covenant Christian Church, and until this year was the president of Denver’s Ministerial Alliance, a politically active group of interdenominational pastors. “He’s dealing with an embedded culture in which police officers close ranks during times like the Mena shooting and Childs shooting. Chief Whitman doesn’t seem to close ranks and do a lot of spinning. What I’ve observed is he takes a look at the situation, tries to assess, and always tries to make some form of improvement.”

Whitman’s critics, particularly those within his own police department, have a very different take on the chief’s controversial five-year run. Among the rank and file, the rap against Whitman is that he’s a lame cop who happens to be a brilliant careerist. They say the secret to his success is that whenever Whitman comes to one of those forks in the road where he must choose between being a cop or appeasing political powers, he chooses the latter. To hear some veteran cops tell it, Whitman has shrewdly ingratiated himself with key minority leaders like Holmes by implementing changes that have put unreasonable expectations on cops and that have made the city unsafe. “Gerry is one of the brightest people down there at headquarters,” says Jim Collier, a recently retired Denver officer who was chief of police during the early 1990s. “But Gerry is all about Gerry. It’s more important to Gerry to be the chief, than to be the chief. If the DPD was a radio station our slogan would be ‘All Gerry, all the time.’ I’m telling you, he is taking this department and this city in a dangerous, dangerous direction.”

After the Dadiotis funeral ends and Whitman has leaned down and kissed his wife goodbye, I ask him about some of his detractors. As we get back into his SUV, he shrugs his shoulders, raises his eyebrows as if to convey “What’s a chief to do?,” and he says, “Whiny mopes.”

Gerry Whitman didn’t grow up wanting to be a cop. “Actually,” he says, “I wanted to be a meteorologist, like on TV. I thought that would be cool.” It’s a few hours after the Dadiotis funeral, and the chief is sitting in his large, fourth-floor, corner office at police headquarters, behind a desk covered with neat piles of papers and thick binders. His uniform is pressed-perfect, and his shoes are polished to a nearly reflective shine. Not one of the dark hairs on his head is out of place, and his smoothly shaven face appears to have the moistened sheen of skincare product. Take away the badge, and Whitman could easily pass for a mature, metrosexual TV weatherman.

Listening to him talk about growing up in Burlington, Iowa, it’s not hard to understand why Whitman once thought that a career spent predicting the “five-day” on the tube might be cool. His father painted houses for a living, and his mom worked as a school secretary. The family of four-Whitman has an older sister-lived modestly in the small town. But Whitman was a sharp, analytical kid who dreamed of making it in a big city. He decided to be a cop after discovering a federal program that would pay his college tuition-getting him out of Burlington and freeing his parents of the burden-if he went on to become a lawman.

While still a senior at the University of Western Illinois, Whitman landed his first policing job with the Ames Police Department. It was back in small-town Iowa, but so was his homecoming queen girlfriend, whom he promptly married. Whitman, though, had no intentions of settling in, or for, Ames. And in 1978, after only two years on the Ames force, he joined a bigger and better department, in Lakewood, Colo.

The Lakewood PD was a new police force and because it was well-funded, and only took officers who had at least a bachelor’s degree and trained them well, the department quickly gained a national reputation as a cutting-edge police force, whose officers were regularly recruited for better jobs across the country. For Whitman, Lakewood seemed like the ideal place to hop on the career fast track toward what had now become his ultimate career goal-becoming a big-city police chief.

He showed up for his first Lakewood roll call (and every one thereafter) dressed to impress. “He looked like he stepped out of the pages of GQ magazine,” says John Patterson, the police chief in Cherry Hills Village who was one of Whitman’s peers in Lakewood. “I couldn’t get him to put a helmet on, because he didn’t want to mess up his hair.” But Whitman’s Lakewood colleagues soon realized that his sartorial fastidiousness wasn’t solely about vanity. It also reflected his respect for the oath to serve and protect. “Gerry was not Super Cop,” says Jerry Garner, one of Whitman’s superiors from those days. “But let me explain that. The best police officers I have known were not Super Cops, they were solid, ethical officers.” Garner, who is now the Fort Lupton police chief, adds that, “Super Cops can put a lot of crooks in jail, but they are high-maintenance and sometimes problematic. Gerry didn’t cheat. He did everything by policy and procedure. He was a good, solid police officer.”

The Lakewood and Denver police departments have a long-standing friendly rivalry. Lakewood cops see the DPD as an army of unpolished high-school toughs who bend rules and crack skulls to make arrests, while the Denver troops regard the suburban officers as college academics who memorize all of the “best practice” policing theories but who can’t cuff the kind of seriously bad guys who frequent the Mile-High City. In 1982, Whitman left the rarified world of Lakewood policing for the nitty-gritty of Denver. There were personal reasons for the move. He and his homecoming queen wife had grown up and grown apart, and Whitman had begun dating a female Lakewood cop, which complicated things around Lakewood headquarters. There were also compelling professional motivations for Whitman’s move. He figured his future would be brighter in Denver-that is if the by-the-book recruit could get the job done in big city.

The Denver PD gave Whitman a baptism of fire. He was assigned to busy District Three, patrolling the dicey neighborhoods of Capitol Hill. He proved to be a valuable hybrid of brain and restrained brawn. One night, Whitman and his partner, Joe Costello, responded to a car theft in progress near 11th Avenue and Emerson Street. The two cops found the suspect on the scene, and the situation quickly became tense. Costello remembers chasing the man between apartment complexes. Halfway down the dark, narrow path, the man turned, pulled out a blade and swung it at Costello, who stumbled back over bottles and trash, trying to unholster his gun. The man ran into the alley behind the houses and Costello pursued. “The alley was lit,” says Costello, now a Denver police sergeant. “I could see him and he had a knife. He stopped in the alley and tried to slice me again. He missed and took off running onto a main street. I cornered him against a car. I had my gun on him. Then I saw Gerry out of the corner of my eye. He motioned to me: Don’t do it. He had a nightstick and mace. Gerry was always level-headed; he thinks fast on his feet. He struck the guy’s hand, knocked the knife away, and we made the arrest.”

Chief Whitman has thought about that night often. Every time one of his officers has fired a controversial and fatal shot, and Whitman’s had to decide whether or not the shoot was “clean” and necessary, the first question he’s asked himself is, “What would I have done?” Take the Childs shooting, for example.

Chief Gerry Whitman raises his right hand, swears to tell nothing but the truth, and sits behind a microphone propped on a folding table. On this October morning, a few weeks after the Dadiotis funeral, Whitman is inside the Denver Civil Service Commission building, testifying in a proceeding that will determine the professional fate of Officer James Turney, the cop who killed Paul Childs. “I guess when you’re the chief,” one of the attorneys asks Whitman, “you’re sometimes on the hot seat.” The chief straightens in his chair and smoothes a kink from his tie. In the same deadpan delivery he’d used that day, sitting in his SUV, he replies, “Always.”

Whitman had soared through the ranks, from patrol officer to the hot seat of chief. The quick thinking he demonstrated with the knife-wielding car thief served him well on the streets and during tests for promotions. In a little more than 12 years-a remarkably short period by DPD standards-Whitman advanced three ranks to captain. In 1995, at the age of 39, he was put in charge of patrol for District Six, which encompasses the high-crime corridor along East Colfax Avenue. There, he started the department’s first bike-patrol unit, not because he wanted to pick the uniforms (though he did), but because he wanted his officers as close to the community as they could be. Only five years later, in 2000, during the tense months following the Mena shooting, Mayor Webb was so impressed by Whitman’s record that he asked him to serve as interim chief of police. Whitman agreed to step into what he thought was his dream job and began the process of formally applying for the post. Six months later, in July 2000, when Webb officially offered Whitman the position, he had a pretty good taste of the job, and before he accepted he replied that he needed time to first talk with his wife.

Whitman met Nancy in 1989, while working a second job as security guard at the state credit union where she was an administrative assistant. He was single and 34; she was 24 with a boyfriend who thought he wanted to be a cop. Whitman took the kid on a ride-along that “must have scared the shit out of him because the next week he enlisted in the Army or something and disappeared.” Two years later, Whitman and Nancy married. Nancy didn’t need to be talked into her husband taking the Top Cop job. By then, they’d had two children and been together for almost 10 years. She knew, as she says, that “being chief was always his plan.” By talking things through with his wife, Whitman, at least in part, was reminding himself why, knowing what he did after six months on the job, he would want to continue managing the DPD. He told his wife, “Here’s the deal: When you get into something that’s perceived as political and you’re so high profile, people criticize you a lot. Internally and externally. But with that comes an ability to change things the way you want. Instead of going, ‘Boy, here’s what I’d do,’ now’s your chance to do something.”

Chief Whitman did many things, swiftly and dramatically. First, unlike any of his predecessors, he reached out to minorities by establishing a “Clergy Advisory Team,” comprised of local leaders of Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, and Baptist faiths. Whitman listened to their complaints and their advice, and he gave them his word he would do his best to restore the image of the department in the eyes of the community.

The chief then embarked on the closest thing to an overhaul the DPD has ever experienced. He began at the top, replacing the old guard of leadership with his own appointments. He elevated lieutenants to division-chief posts, breaking with a long-accepted informal policy that only captains be promoted to that position. “It was about getting the right people in the right jobs for the right reasons,” Whitman says. Hoping to prevent another Mena tragedy and give his officers alternatives to the use of deadly force, he implemented “Crisis Intervention Training,” redefined tactics, and secured funding for Taser stun guns. In an effort to track “at-risk” officers-and problematic “Super Cops”-he created a review system in which officers are assigned one point for each citizen complaint and multiple points for actual infractions. An officer with seven points in a single month could get anything from a sit-down with his superior to a suspension.

Whitman made it clear that bad business as usual would not be tolerated. In 2002, after the news broke that the DPD had been compiling “Spy Files” on peaceful activists and Mayor Webb had ordered that the files be turned over and made public, Whitman acted decisively when he learned that some of his Intelligence Bureau detectives were not following the mandate. Locks on the division’s doors were changed, desks inside got sealed with crime-scene tape, and the detectives were forbidden from entering their offices until Whitman was satisfied that the bureau was in compliance.

Every step Whitman took to improve the department was met with rank-and-file resistance. “The chief is trying to make police work an exact science and it’s not,” says Denver Detective Nick Rogers. Rogers is also the vice president of the Police Protective Association (PPA), and he maintains his opinion is held by the majority of Denver cops. “He’s lost touch with the department. The troops don’t believe they have his support.” Retired Capt. Jim Collier, who was still on the force during the personnel changes, says Whitman “ostracized the people in command. It was like [he decided] this was a new day-what happened before was all bad and all wrong.” Departmental morale plummeted, at least according to a poll conducted by the PPA, whose members gave Whitman miserable ratings. Intelligence Bureau detectives even left the crime-scene tape dangle from their desks as a sign of protest. Then, a new mayor was elected and a cop killed 15-year-old Paul Childs.

It happened on the afternoon of July 5, 2003. A radio dispatch announced the report of a teenage boy attempting to stab his mom. Officer James Turney, the first cop to arrive at the home in Northeast Denver, ran to the front door and with his pistol drawn, ushered out the teen’s single mother, sister, and cleared the house of visitors. He then trained his gun on Childs, who stood about six feet away and was crying and clenching a kitchen knife under his chin as if he were carrying a candle. Several times Turney ordered him to drop the blade. So did three other officers who by then were on the scene; two of them were each armed with stun guns. Childs took a step, and Turney shot the boy four times.

Childs was mentally slow, enrolled in special-ed classes, and on prescribed medications. With the scent of injustice and money in the air, L.A.-based attorney Johnnie Cochran of O.J. Simpson fame flew into town to represent the Childs family. While he and the city negotiated a $1.3 million settlement for Childs’ mother, Rev. Holmes and his Ministerial Alliance met with Mayor Hickenlooper. Holmes feared that “the city and in particular the black community could go the wrong way­-violence.” He and his fellow ministers urged the mayor to take swift and just action against Turney. When District Attorney Bill Ritter opted to not file criminal charges against the officer, the Childs case and all eyes passed to Chief Whitman.

In many regards, Whitman’s hands were tied. City regulations require that discipline imposed on an officer be consistent with precedent, and examples of Denver officers suspended for use of deadly force are extremely rare. A 2001 report by the Rocky found that in the previous decade, 126 Denver cops shot people, killing 35. No more than five were suspended. Whitman’s response was to out-smart the system. Last April, as required by city charter, he submitted a recommendation to Denver Manager of Safety Al LaCabe, who is charged with making the final decision on police discipline. In the report, the chief agreed with Ritter that Turney’s use of deadly force was acceptable. But he also argued that the decisions Turney made in the “final frames of the confrontation” that led to his use of force violated tactical rules of “efficiency and safety.” Whitman handed LaCabe an offense that had never before been leveled against a Denver cop, freeing LaCabe to impose whatever punishment as he felt appropriate. Two weeks after receiving Whitman’s brief, LaCabe upped Turney’s suspension to 10 months.

Hundreds of enfuriated cops rallied in front the City and County Building, chanting “Chickenlooper.” And with their support, Turney appealed his suspension with Civil Service, arguing that Whitman and the Hickenlooper administration concocted the discipline under political pressure.

The hearing room at the Civil Service Commission is a long box, with a drop ceiling, poor lighting, and a thermostat that seems stuck on “Sweltering.” Now, four hours into Whitman’s testimony, suit jackets are off, water pitchers are empty, and one person in the gallery has fallen asleep. Yet the chief looks Dragnet-dapper, as he calmly walks Turney’s lawyer through his rationale. Whitman says Turney failed to back up and put distance and a barrier (the Childs’ front door) between himself and Childs. Whitman had calculated it took Turney seven seconds to get from his car to the Childs’ front door, and there were 33 seconds between the time the “hostages” exited the home and Turney pulling the trigger. “That’s not a lot of time,” he says, “but it was enough time to consider options.” Whitman adds, Turney would have given himself a “world of options” if he’d “simply stepped back and let the front door close.”

Turney’s lawyer asks: “Generally you wouldn’t wait for yourself to be stabbed before shooting?” He appears satisfied that Whitman’s backed into a corner.

The chief rolls his eyes like a man suffering fools, Super Cops, and their lawyers. “Well, if we’re talking about a 10-year-old girl with a needle,” he says. “I’d take the needle.”

The truth is, according to one of Mayor Hickenlooper’s advisors, the mayor thought “it would have been nice to find somebody new” from outside the department to be the chief of police. So nice, that days after the Childs shooting Hickenlooper chief of staff, Michael Bennett, called Bill Bratton, the former New York City police chief now charged with the gargantuan task of rebuilding the beleaguered Los Angeles PD. Bennett explained to Bratton the details of the Childs case, mentioning that, amazingly, throughout the ordeal Whitman had the support of Denver’s Ministerial Alliance. Bratton responded that a lot of cities are looking for chiefs; he rattled off seven or eight towns comparable to Denver, pointing out there aren’t a lot of good chiefs floating around. He explained that a national search would be costly. Finally, he advised Bennett that if you’ve got a guy that the community feels good about, and you don’t have a reason to think there are ethical issues, you’re better off keeping him. And so, with a city budget strapped for cash, Denver’s newly elected white mayor-who can’t afford to alienate the minority vote if he wants to move onward and upward-chose to reappoint Whitman.

“I could detect anxiety about me,” Whitman says, describing his re-interview process with Hickenlooper. “There’s no doubt about that.” During those first discussions between the mayor-elect and the interim chief, they talked less about the Childs controversy and more about their theories on policing. “This is my third police department,” Whitman says. “And there’s always turbulence. And that’s a politically unpopular thing. All I was after is, were we, [the mayor and the PD] going to do the right things for the right reasons. Because sometimes it’s going to be difficult. When you push people to intervene into tense situations, it’s a dirty business. And I was very satisfied [with the mayor’s response]. I think what he wants to do is ‘reform’ the police department, and my term for that is ‘modernize.’ Somewhere, I think they’ve got to connect.”

Reform, modernize. Police chief, politician. Right reasons, political reasons. Tomato, tomahto, it’s all the same as far as Whitman’s concerned. And despite all of the political backbiting and criticism from disgruntled cops and citizens, the package that is Chief Whitman might be just what this city needs. Because beneath his stoic spit-and-polished exterior, there is, at least, a soul. During the Turney hearing, the chief mentioned that he was “out of town” when he was first informed of the Childs shooting. On that Fourth of July weekend, he was with his family at their mountain home just outside Denver; the chief, his wife, and their two children were at a neighbor’s house. “His cell phone rang and he went outside,” Nancy says. “He was gone 20 minutes, then 40 minutes, then an hour, and it dawned on me: Where’s Gerry? I went up to our house and he was sitting in a chair. The minute I saw him I knew something terrible had happened. He was very serious. Very sad. Then he told me. He was sad because there’s a dead kid, a family suffering and a police officer-a group of officers-who would forever be changed, and because the one who did the shooting would deal with this for the rest of his life.”

“I wasn’t at that Turney shooting,” Whitman’s old partner, Sgt. Costello, said when I asked him for his take on how the chief handled the incident. “I didn’t investigate it. But just because a guy has a knife doesn’t mean there’s a high threat level. On a scale of 1 to 10, when that guy came at me with the knife it was a 10. … As a chief, Gerry has always been able to make difficult and unpopular decisions. He expects the best. He expects us to be professionals out there. He expects us to meet the same standards that he sets for himself.”

Not long after Whitman came to that fork in the road near the Cherry Creek Shopping Center and decided that instead of driving to his officers he would go to the Taki Dadiotis funeral, I sent him an e-mail, asking him about his decision that morning. Many of the people I spoke to about Whitman described him as “unflappable,” “socially awkward,” “sarcastic,” “aloof,” “political,” “ambitious,” and “smart”-the PPA’s Nick Rogers told me that he thought “Whitman’s intelligence and abilities are wasted on the Denver Police Department. He should be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.” In the days I spent with Whitman I saw evidence to support all of those descriptions. But it was Whitman’s e-mail response to my last question that seemed to be the most personally revealing.

In his e-mail, Whitman explained that what had appeared to me to be a police commotion was, in fact, a run-of-the-mill auto accident. Attending the funeral was important to him because, he wrote: Taki was a good person. He had an amazing life story. He could tell stories from his perspective of the way Denver was decades ago, when I was a patrol officer along East Colfax, where we both worked for many years. Also, Taki’s son-in-law is a Denver cop. When Mayor Webb appointed me in 2000, Taki had been lobbying for another candidate. After I [was] appointed, one of the first things I did was go to his restaurant so he could buy me lunch, and so he would know he was still my “buddy”-Taki’s line was always (with his thick Greek accent) “How you doing, buddy? You doing OK?” He would faithfully call after any media event or police tragedy to say, “Hi.” He would never ask for anything in return, and he was always asking what he could do for me and everyone else. Cool guy. I miss him.

Last July, almost exactly one year to the day after the Childs shooting, a Denver cop responding to a 911 call climbed into an apartment window and fatally shot 63-year-old Frank Lobato as the innocent senior citizen rose from his bed and reached for a soda can. It’s yet another strike against a department that’s already way behind in the count in the eyes of many of its citizens. Whitman has not yet rendered a public decision on that case. Because there are similarities between the Lobato and Childs cases, the Turney appellate verdict will almost certainly influence Whitman’s thinking in the Lobato matter. Turney has asked that his suspension be reduced from 10 months to one day. Manager of Safety LaCabe has said the outcome will be a “watershed moment” for the DPD.

It’s only a matter of time before another police shooting happens. Almost certainly sometime soon, while most of the DPD is out there trying to protect us from ourselves, some knucklehead cop will make headlines doing something stupid or illegal. And Gerry Whitman, the guy who wanted to be a weatherman but instead became a chief in a shit-storm will find himself at another fork in the road. He will make his decision, and as he puts it, he will make sure the public “gets the accurate information, so people know that I wasn’t neglecting something, that I was just doing the best I could with what I had at the time.”

On January 13, the hearing officer who presided over Turney’s appeal made his decision public. John A. Criswell reduced Turney’s suspension from 10 months to five days and fined the officer for an amount equal to a single day’s pay. Criswell disciplined solely for an offense unrelated to the Childs shooting; he ruled that no discipline at all be imposed for the “Child’s incident,” stating, “the ideal tactic … might have been to close the security door … I am convinced that no reasonable police officer with Officer Turney’s training and background would have thought of this tactic.” Criswell might have thought differently if he’d reviewed Whitman’s tactics on that night back in the ’80s, when the young officer swatted away a knife, saved a life, and made the arrest. Immediately following the release of Criswell’s findings, Chief Whitman had no comment. m

Maximillian Potter is 5280‘s Executive Editor.

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