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.