The Chief Concern

February 2005

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

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."