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."