The Denver Police chief sounds off on his past, learning to be a cop, and his vision for the department. Interview by Robert Sanchez
You grew up in Washington, D.C., without a father. How did your mother influence your life?
She believed you could be anything you wanted to be, but in order to get there, you need to understand that life is not about entitlements. Preparation for her was to work hard—harder than the person next to you—be respectful, and stay focused on what your goal was. Those are my values. The good things that there are about me, I got from my mother.
You started working at age 11?
I helped pay the rent. I had three paper routes: the Washington Post, the Evening Star, and the Daily News. Back in those days, you actually knocked on the front door and collected the money. I didn’t live in the nicest part of town. I got robbed a couple of times.
Why did you become a cop?
I was born in Richmond, Virginia, and right before we moved, when I was six, I was downtown with my mother and we saw this little girl and a police officer. I asked my mother, “How come the police officer is with the little girl? What’s wrong?” She said the girl was lost and the police officer was going to help. I decided that’s what I wanted to do.
What was your scariest moment as a police officer?
I was working with a younger officer, and it was the Fourth of July. I heard this fire. I thought they were firecrackers, and the guy says, “No, they’re guns!” I’m thinking I’m a seasoned officer at 24 years old. I said, “Man, you need to calm down. It’s the Fourth of July.” We look across the intersection, and I see a guy on his knees. There’s another guy with a gun, holding it to his head. He shoots the guy and he takes off. I chase the guy to this alley. This guy pops up behind an abandoned car and puts a gun to my head and pulls the trigger. It misfires. I chase him and eventually catch him. I go back to the station, and the sergeant says, “Hey, White, you might want to go home and change your clothes.” I said, “What are you talking about?” I looked down and my clothes were soaking wet. I apparently let everything inside me come out when that trigger went click. I guess everything in me went click, too.
You were once falsely accused of using marijuana. How did that shape your perception of the law?
It was my worst nightmare. But after I got over that, the good that came out of it is it reminded me that there are two sides to every story. I truly believe in due process.
You last worked as a chief in Louisville, Kentucky. Why did you come to Denver?
I’m a change agent. Normally if I get hired, it’s by some city manager or some mayor who wants to change something in their agency. I will tell you that, in Denver, I wasn’t hired to fix a broken department. The department’s not broken. I was hired to make a good department better.
Police abuse had been a lowlight of this department, though.
There’s a perception I inherited a department with a systemic problem in excessive force. Do we have a problem with excessive force? Yes, just like every major department in America. Is it systemic? I don’t believe so. I think the biggest problem we have in our department is communication.
Officers do not know how to communicate with people the right way, and that’s the biggest problem we have. I think the big disconnect in law enforcement is we do a great job in training people on the legality of the law, but what we don’t do is stress the necessity of the law. Just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s necessary.
You want to hire more cops, put more officers on the streets. But it seems you’ve been looking for a buy-in from politicians before getting it from the rank and file.
I’ve got to survive. I’m trying to create a constituency, knowing that change is tough. People are victims of their own environment. If this is the way we’ve done it in Denver for the last 40 years, people are comfortable with that. So, when you introduce a change, people are resistant. It was a matter of coming in and assessing where we were and where we needed to go.
You have 1,400 people in the DPD. How many of them should be on the streets?
Around 70 percent. When I first got here, it was 48 percent. Now it’s 63 percent, so we’re going to get there. Officers need to be out in these communities. That’s how you get to know the citizens. Getting officers close to the community is how you become effective at fighting and preventing crime.
Are there bad officers here?
Police officers are no different from doctors, teachers, or reporters. There are some who shouldn’t be officers. Part of my job is to see that they are no longer police officers. The great majority of men and women in this department come to work and they want to do the right thing. The train is going down the track. If you’re not on board, you need to get out of the way. And we’re going to help you get out of the way.