Pulling the trigger was almost too easy. I stared down the barrel, lined up my shot, and psst, psst. I pulled the first bullet high and left, burying it in the hotel room’s drab wall. My second shot hit and—I hoped—ripped through the man’s chest, past his ribs, and into his heart. I couldn’t make out exactly what was happening, as his limbs were tangled with a police officer’s in something like a lover’s embrace. I wanted it all to be over. I paused like I was playing a video game, waiting for a buffering processor to catch up with the action. Except I was in the game.
I’m not a cop. I’m a taxpayer taking a class in the Denver Police Department’s Citizens’ Police Academy, a multiweek course designed to better acquaint the public with law enforcement’s inner workings. On this night, I stood before the Range 3000, the DPD’s shooting simulator, and held a red plastic toy gun fitted with a laser beam that interacts with the life-size screen, on which recorded actors simulate real-life situations police face every day. The officers want us to see how difficult their jobs are, how rapidly things can develop—or deteriorate—and how muddled, imperfect, and frustrating it can be to wear the badge. Before me, one student correctly identified a shooter in a crowded bar, but another mistakenly took down an innocent man.
When my turn comes, I almost get myself killed right away. On the screen, I find a guy in an auto shop during what may be a robbery in progress. The scenarios are pseudo-interactive, meaning the playback allows time for me to yell stereotypical police commands. (Get down! Hands up! Denver Police!) Sometimes the actors stop; sometimes they don’t. This one doesn’t, and I watch, stunned, as he levels a gun at my face. The instructor yells at me to shoot—so I do. A box flashes on the screen: “You have used lethal force. Please debrief with your supervisor.”
The class applauds. I found the bad guy and handled the situation, like a cop is supposed to do. Before I can digest it all, the instructor loads the second shooting scenario and tells me to trust my gut. This time, I walk down a hotel hallway to meet another officer who quickly debriefs me. There’s a guy inside threatening to commit suicide, which makes this more of a welfare call than an emergency. (On the academy’s first day, the officers warned us that most of what they do is social work, something one policeman called a “four-letter word.”)
I feel more relaxed this time because I actually know what to do. I’d completed more than 40 hours of mental health training while working on a previous story, so I understand concepts such as verbal de-escalation and how to move in a nonthreatening way. I watch my fellow virtual officer approach the white-shirted man, who’s staring out a window, and I immediately notice the cop’s mistakes. He moves too fast and gets too close. He insists on using the screechy radio instead of letting me relay the information. Then the man reaches for the cop’s gun.
I know I’m supposed to shoot him. If he gets the gun, he could shoot himself, a civilian, the other officer, or me. It’s my job to minimize risk, and I don’t have a Taser. I’m not a good enough shot to wing his arm—even the best snipers struggle with such precision, which is why cops are taught to shoot at the “central mass.” The men continue to scuffle, and I can’t get a clear shot. Instinct takes over. I wait until I see an exposed section of white shirt, like some sort of surrender flag, and pull the trigger.
If its goal was to reveal how complicated modern policing is, the DPD has succeeded. But instead of feeling sympathy for my fellow cop, I’m furious. I know from my mental health training that he reacted poorly. He should have addressed the man more deliberately and calmly. If he’d done his job better, I wouldn’t have had to shoot the guy.
The use-of-force warning pops up, and the instructor repeats the same sentence he’s used in every scenario: “Did you feel imminent threat of bodily injury or harm?” The official answer is a simple “yes.” I can’t say it, though, because taking a life can’t be that simple. I lower the plastic gun to a tabletop as if it might accidentally fire again.
“That’s what I’ll tell my supervisor, at least.”
I just killed someone. According to the DPD Operations Manual, the shooting was probably justified. But as the program illustrated—whether it was intentional or not—the truth is far more complicated.
On a June night this summer, I was sculpting Play-Doh figures with my two-year-old son. I molded a miniature vehicle, handed it to him, and asked, “What is this?” Without hesitating, he yelled, “CAR!” He got a contemplative look on his small face, grabbed a blob of blue dough, added it to the top of the model, and, with a toddler’s unabashed joy, yelled, “POLICE CAR!”
Children revere cops. The occupation perennially makes top-10 lists of little ones’ dream jobs, but that sense of awe and trust changes as we mature. Our worlds expand beyond the bright lights and cool uniforms; we establish our identities and realize where our passions truly lie. We find our places in the social world. Consciously or not, we often rebel in small ways against the ultimate power symbol—law enforcement officers—by speeding, jaywalking, or switching lanes without signaling. It’s mostly innocuous. Our fear of what police can do is not.
Denver has endured numerous incidents that fuel these suspicions, even if they haven’t risen to the national publicity levels of the Michael Browns, Eric Garners, Sandra Blands, or Walter Scotts. Since 2000, Denver police have shot and killed citizens at least 44 times. As of press time, the Denver district attorney’s office refused to press criminal charges in every case. If those officials were correct, the DPD’s 100 percent justifiable record is a staggering achievement.
It’s also a dubious one. As much as law enforcement might want to dismiss police shootings as isolated incidents, they become more difficult to ignore when you realize that the DPD has established a long pattern of brutality, as well as a resistance to change so entrenched that it has been called the “Denver Way.” It’s a cryptic term that describes the legacy of an intransigent police force. Its actions in the past 11 years have led to more than $8 million in settlement payouts to citizens over complaints that often involve brutality, lying, and wrongful deaths. (The Denver Sheriff Department, which manages the city’s jail system, has also faced intense scrutiny, especially after a $4.65 million jury award in 2014 to the family of Marvin Booker, who died in custody in 2010.)
Denver is still a relatively safe city with comparatively low crime rates. But in some corners of our community, there’s hopelessness, a lingering sense that a seismic shift in our police department won’t happen—no matter how much it might be needed. That’s partly what prompted Denver Mayor Michael Hancock to remove DPD Chief Gerald Whitman soon after Hancock took office in 2011 and replace him with Robert White, a DPD outsider. “We needed a cultural shift, someone from the outside,” Hancock says. “Wherever [White’s] gone, he’s instituted change.”
Pictured, above: A memorial service for fallen Denver Police Department officers; photo by Natasha Gardner
The concrete plaza outside the DPD’s administration building is usually deserted but for a simple red granite memorial that lists police officers killed in the line of duty. On May 14, 2015, though, the plaza is packed for a memorial service to honor the 72 names etched in that stone. Rows of officers in pressed blue uniforms stand at attention. Their chief, Robert White, addresses them from a temporary podium; he talks about how law enforcement has changed dramatically since the first DPD officer died in 1889. “But despite the many changes that have occurred, there are two things that have remained the same and will always remain the same,” White says. “Citizens call, and we come.”
A week earlier, I’d heard him recite that same line in his office. Although he was sitting behind his desk, 63-year-old White never seemed still, his hands, shoulders, and legs moving with an incongruous adolescent energy. White oversees Denver’s peacekeeping force with a $213 million budget and 1,463 police officers who respond to more than half a million 911 calls each year (about one per minute). As the city’s 69th chief of police, White is only the second who didn’t come from DPD’s ranks. That’s intentional, says Hancock, whose mayoral campaign promised major changes in Denver’s law enforcement agencies and practices. With White, Hancock found someone who just might be willing to discard the Denver Way, or at least reinvent it.
The reform-minded White worked in Washington, D.C.; Greensboro, North Carolina; and Louisville, Kentucky, before Hancock hired him. In Denver, White quickly found ways to lose friends and alienate people. Within months, he had several spats in the media with Mitch Morrissey, Denver’s veteran district attorney, over the use of civilians in crime-lab jobs. (Morrissey would like to see cops perform these tasks, but White’s take is, “If it doesn’t require a gun or a badge, I’m really questioning if a police officer should be doing it.”) He obliterated the department’s command structure by redistricting the city and requiring high-ranking officers to reapply for their jobs, which resulted in a 30 percent turnover. This past July, he reassigned, promoted, or demoted another 55 officers. Naturally, these moves weren’t popular with many members of the Denver Police Protective Association (DPPA), the department’s once-powerful union.
For some citizens, White’s changes foster hope. He’s encouraged officers not to don riot gear when responding to peaceful protests. He wants officers to wear body cameras. He requires them to find ways to interact regularly with the community, explaining, “We’re not like firefighters. Everyone loves the firefighters, but when you see a policeman, for the most part, you are getting a ticket or you’ve been the victim of a crime.” White expects his officers to “put deposits” in the community’s goodwill bank to rebuild morale and trust.
Pictured, above: Chief Robert White is trying to reform Denver’s troubled police department.
As White outlines these changes, he pulls out some graphs and traces trend lines that demonstrate progress, such as a 111 percent increase in officer productivity. “What’s not on that chart is them focusing on things that actually impact crime,” he says. He insists that what might look like racial profiling is based on data about given areas or crimes, not cultural biases. He believes if the department can demonstrate that more clearly to community members, they’ll eventually get it, too. “I think we have to do better, as police departments across this nation, [to] make sure we’re communicating,” says White, while acknowledging the need to retrain cops on the concept of restraint. “Just because it is legal doesn’t make it necessary.”
“It smells like vomit out here.”
Jeffrey Heinis walks by garbage bags leaking rancid liquid. He’s a nine-year veteran and a corporal in District 1, which covers a broad swath of west Denver, including Highland, Federal Boulevard, and parts of the Cherry Creek bike path. He’s been to this address before—a dilapidated warehouse on the edge of LoHi—to check on a triggered security alarm. He has to respond to each of these alerts even though he estimates that about 90 percent of them turn out to be false, and even though the call log—the to-do list for a shift—shows people elsewhere waiting up to 161 minutes to make statements about alleged incidents of sexual assault, auto theft, and domestic violence. Police dispatchers prioritize calls the way ER doctors triage patients, and this one jumps to the top of the list.
After the Citizens’ Police Academy’s class, I wanted to see the real thing, so I asked to follow a cop for a shift. Now I’m behind him, watching as Heinis opens the door, his left hand poised on the butt of his gun. It’s standard cop stuff: His movements are deliberate, quick, and decisive. “Denver Police Department. Anyone in here?” When a female voice responds, Heinis asks questions to make sure she isn’t a hostage. He inspects the garage and logs her name and birthdate.
Back in the car, Heinis sighs. It’s the start of his 10-hour Friday night shift. He’s not a big guy but has broad shoulders that make him seem solidly grounded. He grew up in South Dakota and settled in Denver in 2004. As we drive down Speer Boulevard, along the Cherry Creek bike path, Heinis notices a possible drug deal in progress and points out the money guy, the person holding the drugs, the buyer, and a lookout. He could stop, but if he were able to catch the perps in a foot race, they’d probably only get possession charges. Even though that’s a felony, on this night it’s too small-time to pursue. It’s one of many choices Heinis will make about what policing is necessary and what isn’t. In America, where “innocent until proven guilty” forms the bedrock of our legal system, I ask him if it’s hard for police to see people as innocuous. “Absolutely,” Heinis says. “Especially when you’re new. I’m kind of over that, where you look at everybody, ‘Oh, they’re a bad person.’ I don’t think that anymore, but you’re still very cautious.”
After so many recent instances of questionable police incidents across the country, it’s natural to wonder if it could happen in Denver. That’s why I signed up for the Citizens’ Police Academy: to find out how the police department is growing and evolving with Denver and to examine the culture that created the Denver Way. The class of 20 or so was comprised of retirees, average Joes, and people who want to be cops. Technician Dean Christopherson, a law enforcement veteran of about 24 years, runs the program, which first launched in the early 1990s and recently expanded to ensure that Denver’s six police districts have at least one session per year. “We try to get people an honest perspective on what we do,” Christopherson says. “To come in and see all the other things that occur behind the scenes.”
Technician Dean Christopherson
Under Christopherson’s guidance, we covered topics such as search and seizure, internal affairs investigations, and weapons. A lanky man who speaks with the long vowels of an upper Midwesterner, Christopherson lectures in refrains, like a teacher who’s answered all your questions before. He rambles about “clues,” behaviors or observations that tip off officers. He complains about the ineffectiveness and added weight of “less lethal” weapons such as Tasers. He proffers historical facts about the department (he also heads up an effort for the nonprofit Denver Police Museum, which will archive the city’s police history). He even describes how it’s actually cops who need to be leery of civilians, as in, “There was a time when the police could have a lot more trust in the public.”
In fact, history proves that more often than not, the DPD has failed to earn the public’s trust. Since the city and county consolidated in 1902, in every subsequent decade there have been public calls for police reform and investigations into police brutality. In 1905, a writer at the Colorado Statesman, an African-American newspaper, asked, “Can it be possible that the Police Department of Denver, in the ferreting out and suppression of crime, has adopted a certain rule of action where whites are concerned and an entirely different one when the victims happen to be colored?” Another article in that paper described how police profiled and arrested Black men walking in Capitol Hill after dark. Strip out the antiquated language, and both stories could have run in the 1920s—when the KKK ran Denver’s political scene—or in the 1970s, when Denver’s Hispanic and African-American leaders demanded the cessation of high-speed car chases and increased visibility in alleged brutality cases.
This embarrassing track record peaked in the 1960s, when a burglary scandal implicated about six percent of the DPD in more than 200 crimes. These officers robbed businesses—and then returned to “investigate” (the crimes remained unsolved unless the cops turned on each other). Life magazine published several stories about the melodrama and joked that kids were now playing “cops and cops” instead of cops and robbers. “The metropolitan area had growing pains,” wrote Life’s Keith Wheeler in May 1962. “Denver was no longer the quiet, clean, and old-fashioned city it always thought it was.”
This cycle of police overreach followed by cries for reform has fostered the narrative that Denver just can’t get policing right. One reason this cycle persists is that police are still taught that anybody can be lethal. That attitude might keep names off the police memorial, but it can also make cops feel separate in—and hostile to—their own community. It helped create the Denver Way, and it begins to explain why, as recently as the 2008 Democratic National Convention, the DPPA printed shirts that read, “WE GET UP EARLY, to BEAT the crowds,” an ill-advised bit of wordplay that echoed the 1968 convention in Chicago, when cops did exactly that.
Many officers undeniably have protective instincts that first attracted them to the profession, particularly if policing has been their family’s business. “A lot of my students are drawn into policing because they want to get into dealing with the tough problems, to play that hero role,” explains Lonnie Schaible, an assistant professor of criminal justice in the University of Colorado Denver’s School of Public Affairs. “It’s easy for people to forget that the people they are dealing with are human, no matter what they do.”
Joseph G. Sandoval, a retired criminal justice professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver and a one-time cop in Arvada, has stood on both sides of the so-called “thin blue line” and dedicated himself to reform. Some years after Federico Peña was elected mayor in 1983—the first Latino to win that spot in Denver and an eventual Clinton cabinet member—Sandoval and others began the process of creating a civilian oversight board for the DPD. After one particularly heated city council meeting, a council member approached Sandoval and implored him to drop the campaign. Now that the city had a Hispanic mayor, the politician argued, that alone should be enough to undo decades of distrust. Today, with minority municipal leaders commonplace throughout the United States, the tension between police and citizens still boils. “There is no panacea, but it’s not hopeless,” Sandoval says. “It is one conversation at a time, one police officer at a time, one citizen at a time. All while realizing that one hothead cop will try to undo all that I’ve worked for.”
If Denver had a memorial to Black men killed by police officers, Paul Childs’ name might be listed first. On July 5, 2003, four officers responded to a 911 call in Northeast Park Hill. They knew the address well; there had been 47 police visits to the home in recent years, many relating to 15-year-old Childs, a legally blind, developmentally disabled boy who suffered from a seizure disorder. (Although 47 seems high, it isn’t uncommon in a society where our strapped social services system forces cops to plug the gaps.) Childs had recently run away from home again—such a common occurrence that his mom put extra locks on the doors to try to keep him in.
Pictured above, right: 2004 protests for Paul Childs; a 2015 memorial for Jessica “Jessie” Hernandez
That day, Childs’ sister called the police after he began to follow their mother around the house with a kitchen knife. The cops rushed the family outside, and when Childs—still holding the knife—advanced toward them, they didn’t use Tasers; they shot and killed him. His death garnered national headlines. Johnnie Cochran of O.J. Simpson trial fame represented Childs’ family in a suit against the city, which settled the complaint and agreed to pay the family $1.325 million in installments that will run through 2024. The officers involved were never criminally indicted.
Childs’ death could have been Denver’s Ferguson, but it wasn’t. It didn’t cause much national outcry, and local public protests weren’t violent. It did, however, radically alter the career paths of two politicians: former Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper and former city councilman Michael Hancock. Each took office the same month Childs died, and both advocated for DPD reform, including the creation of the Office of the Independent Monitor (OIM), a law enforcement watchdog, and the expansion of Crisis Intervention Team training (CIT). The CIT program was born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1988 to help officers work with special-needs populations, including those suffering from mental health issues and disabilities. The program was available in Denver beginning in 2002, but only a few dozen officers (including one of the four at Childs’ house that day) had taken the voluntary course.
After Childs’ death, the DPD vowed to train every new cop in CIT—until a recession-fueled hiring freeze in 2008 stalled that promise for five years. (Under White’s command, every cop should be CIT trained by early 2016.) The curriculum also has shifted from medical diagnoses to behavior, so that instead of learning the clinical definition of, say, schizophrenia, cops learn to recognize symptoms of mental illness and what to do about them. “We’re not asking them to put on a doctor’s hat,” says technician Susan Gann, who leads the DPD’s CIT training. “This is a program for cops, by cops.”
At one session of the weeklong CIT training this past May, 14 officers attended. Some of them described real-life scenarios, such as a use-of-force incident that left a suspect unconscious and a chillingly calm murderer who had tried to grind up his victim in a garbage disposal. Gann and the instructors talked through each incident, offering tips on what they could have done. Her approach mimicked the internal conversation I’d had in the shooting simulator—trying to uncover better ways for police to address these situations in the field.
This training still isn’t a mandated part of the DPD’s curriculum and occurs only after new recruits’ 18-month probationary periods. (Chief White says the department is currently reviewing the academy’s entire program.) The DPD’s reasoning is that officers need time on the street to better identify situations where CIT could be helpful. Why that category of instruction requires experience isn’t clear when you consider that new officers learn weapons training, evasive driving, and any number of other unfamiliar skills before they ever go on duty.
Ask an adult about being a teenager, and you’ll likely find a common thread: relief at surviving adolescence. Science backs this up; the brain doesn’t fully develop until it’s about 25 years old. The immature prefrontal cortex welcomes rewards more than it fears risks, which is why teens do so many things that confound and enrage their elders. “You cannot look at teenagers as small adults that make decisions as adults do,” says Guido Frank, an associate professor in psychiatry and neuroscience at Children’s Hospital Colorado. “They do not.”
Research suggests authority figures—particularly the police—should treat youth differently. Despite this, current CIT training merely skims the topic. Cops learn to treat a stolen car call the same whether the driver is 17 years old or 47, for example. The differences between these two types of offenders became tragically apparent on January 26, 2015.
Jessica “Jessie” Hernandez had been joyriding in a stolen car, drinking, and smoking pot with four friends. The 17-year-old eventually pulled into an alley in North Park Hill, and all of the occupants fell asleep. A resident of the neighborhood noticed the car around 6:30 a.m. and called 911. Two officers approached after one identified the vehicle as stolen. Hernandez awoke, and for reasons that remain unclear, she started the Honda and began driving in a way that made one of the officers fear he would be hit. Both officers fired their guns; they discharged eight rounds combined. None of the passengers were hit, but Hernandez sustained four bullet wounds, including two in her central mass. She was declared dead at the hospital, and the medical examiner’s report classified her death as a homicide.
Pictured, above: A memorial for Jessica “Jessie” Hernandez; photo by Natasha Gardner
Confusion dominated the subsequent public discussion, raising questions about whether the officer was actually in jeopardy and whether the driver’s Hispanic identity was a factor. At the Citizens’ Police Academy two days later, students peppered the cops with questions, most of which they sidestepped because the case was ongoing. After a four-month investigation, the DA’s office found that “the force used by both officers was legally justified, and not unlawful, under Colorado law.”
To DPD critics, the report didn’t clarify some of the more disturbing elements of the case; namely, why the officers’ actions were justifiable and whether Hernandez was capable of understanding her actions because of her age. The DA’s report noted that Hernandez had several interactions with law enforcement before that night, including being caught with a stolen vehicle, speeding, and “head-butting” an officer. Police and their defenders could argue that law enforcement had shown considerable and consistent restraint with Hernandez in the past, despite her escalating criminal actions.
It could also be argued that she was simply young. The United States has a separate juvenile justice system because we’ve recognized that while teenagers have the capacity to do harm, they also have a limited ability to understand the full ramifications of their actions. That concept is the impetus for a new OIM program. “We saw the same scenario play out time and time again, with slight variations,” says Nick Mitchell, Denver’s independent monitor. “We saw a young person with some kind of low-level contact with a police officer that would escalate very quickly.” To figure out what can be avoided, Mitchell’s office launched a pilot program this summer that connects police officers with youth. During the one-day classes, kids learn about rights and responsibilities, cops learn about de-escalation with teens, and everyone works together on role-playing exercises. No one knows yet how effective this will be, and it could be years before the training becomes mandatory—if it ever does.
Concerned citizens might be pleased that the DPD is participating in programs whose messages seem to realize that police are not omnipotent and that policing strategies should constantly be tweaked. Unfortunately, such changes usually happen only after the unthinkable occurs. Take the DPD’s reaction to Hernandez’s death. A few days after the DA’s report, the department announced a revision to its policy about shooting at moving vehicles—at the time of Hernandez’s shooting, officers could fire on moving cars they felt were being used as weapons—that fits new national standards, which ask officers to get out of the way and not shoot. It was a response aimed at balancing justified and just. The change won’t bring Hernandez back, but it does suggest the DPD is at least willing to rethink the Denver Way and acknowledge that, just like certain teens, officers themselves must find new ways to rein in their occasional impulsivity. “In addition to training officers on the laws, and how to shoot, and how to drive, and all that other stuff that they do very well,” White says, “we have to train them about the necessity of those decisions.”
Pictured, above: Corporal Jeffrey Heinis responds to calls in his squad car.
A few hours into my ride-along with Corporal Heinis, Colfax Avenue is revving up for Friday night. Heinis is finishing a routine traffic stop when the dispatcher calls a code 10, which demands an all-hands response. Heinis flips on his sirens and careens toward Colfax through traffic along Sheridan Boulevard. The officer in jeopardy is someone he trained.
Heinis arrives at the scene to see eight other officers already there. The suspect sits in cuffs while the arresting officer evaluates his own cuts and scrapes from the foot chase. When the officer tried to initiate contact with the suspect, who was riding a bike, the suspect fled. The officer pulled his Taser but didn’t use it, and there’s some confusion about whether the bike fell over or the suspect heaved it at the cop. The suspect has a small amount of meth and admits to being high, crying as he weakly says, “I’m trying so hard to leave this city.”
I ask Heinis if eight cops were necessary to subdue this lone man. He says a code 10 means they all come. “The good thing about working in Denver is you get a lot of help,” Heinis says. “In a smaller county, you might get one or two. Here, we roll deep.” Nearby, several cars have pulled over, and the occupants sit inside, watching. This civilian patrol isn’t there to help the cops; it’s keeping an eye on things, smartphones poised.
The phenomenon of citizens policing the police can unnerve DPD officers because it adds complexity and accountability to their routine actions. In general, though, most officers I spoke with welcome civilians’ videos and want to wear body cameras, which White plans to roll out to most of the force (for a $6.1 million price tag). The cops believe the tapes will show that they act appropriately, even if they don’t love the hassle and extra weight. Like the soldiers in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, cops already tote around a lot of gear, and their most controversial piece of equipment is probably the Taser.
Weighing a mere seven ounces, the less lethal weapon should be able to neutralize most threats before they escalate—if only cops felt they could trust it. During one Citizens’ Police Academy demonstration, Christopherson’s Taser cartridge partially deployed; he fiddled with it until he ended up shocking himself. When the students pressed instructors about de-emphasizing guns in favor of these electrically charged tools, the officers sidestepped, claiming Tasers are too expensive. (Although Tasers and handguns cost about the same—starting around $600—bullets are cheap, while one-and-done Taser cartridges cost about $35 each.) “[People] want a cookie-cutter answer on how to use force,” Christopherson says. “That’s why we try to show you the less lethal options that we have available to us but also explain that they’re not perfect.”
He did say that if a weapons manufacturer could produce a foolproof Star Trek phaserlike less lethal device, it would sell. But he doubts anyone is close to developing one. He says police departments have always had to adapt to the weapons they face on the street, like when Prohibition-era gangsters started wielding Tommy guns. This up-armoring has limitations: Municipal police departments—despite the continued militarization of their gear and guns—don’t need to carry bombs or drive tanks on a daily basis to keep the peace or quell criminals. In several countries overseas, law enforcement groups face numerous lethal threats, including well-armed terrorists, yet often don’t carry guns. Of course, many of those countries also don’t have some 300 million guns in circulation, legally or otherwise.
American cops often use guns to protect lives, and no one, including civilians, wants to see another name added to DPD’s memorial. But although policing is obviously dangerous, it isn’t quite as lethal as you might think: The FBI, which began tracking police homicides in 1972, reports that about 51 officers were killed nationwide in 2014—making policing a less deadly profession per capita than being a farmer, rancher, or garbage-truck worker.
The murder of a police officer will always be a tragedy. But so are the deaths of Paul Childs, Jessica Hernandez, and the dozens of other people killed by the DPD since 2000. “What else do you need to see that these lives are equivalent?” says Lisa Calderon, co-chair of Colorado Latino Forum, a local advocacy group. “That’s what Jessie Hernandez is about. Why do we have to be in the streets burning stuff down for you to know that we are outraged?”
On a rainy June night, about 25 people gather in the humid basement of Park Hill United Methodist Church for the Second Tuesday Race Forum. The meetings have been held regularly since 1997, when President Bill Clinton called for a national “racial reconciliation” discussion as part of his One America initiative. Nearly two decades later, the group still seeks answers. Tonight’s theme is emancipation. A woman talks about growing up knowing former slaves. Another woman describes moving to Denver and fighting overt and covert residential segregation. It’s a quintessential Denver gathering: No one raises a voice or gets too upset; they mostly just nod and listen. Even so, a quiet, consistent weariness runs through the room like a faint electrical current.
Pictured, above: Graffiti in the Park Hill neighborhood; photo by Natasha Gardner
The Park Hill community is diverse; more than half its households were nonwhite in the 2000 census. But a closer look reveals three gentrifying neighborhoods. South Park Hill, the area below 23rd Avenue, is more than 76 percent non-Latino white. Northeast Park Hill—which was 70 percent African-American in 2000—had dropped to 50 percent in 2013. A similar shift occurred in North Park Hill. The area underlines Denver’s balkanization and is partly why, in the 1970s, we became the first city outside the Deep South to be federally ordered to bus students in order to break up racially segregated neighborhood schools. The policy ended 20 years ago this month, but not before it spurred widespread white flight to Denver’s suburbs.
Hillary Potter, associate professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, grew up in North Park Hill and spent years being shuttled to faraway schools. Now she’s a sort of storm chaser for police and community interactions. In the past year, she’s visited Ferguson, Missouri, Baltimore, and Cleveland. “There’s a common theme around communities of color, relationships with police, and seeing the police on the other side,” she says. “It’s not something new; it just feels like it.” In Denver, she says police communication with faith and community leaders could help ease tensions around racial profiling. “If [police] deny it, you are denying the people their experience,” Potter says. “You don’t have to say that it is true, but you have to address it.”
There’s a perception that the DPD disproportionately targets minorities, which Chief White vehemently denies. “There is zero tolerance [for that] in this organization,” he says. Christopherson pointed me toward a 2007 study, which found that in shooting scenarios, American cops (including Denver’s) were slightly better than civilians at ignoring race and focusing on behavior.
Still, as I realized during the first week of the Citizens’ Police Academy, these perceptions endure for a reason. That day, a representative from the City Attorney’s Office explained the legality of search and seizures and traffic stops when a white parent—most of the class was Caucasian—asked what he should tell his children about interacting with the police.
“Just do what they say,” she said.
“What if I know my rights are violated?”
“Do what they say,” Christopherson echoed. “I’ve seen people at gunpoint try to argue. That’s not the time to argue.”
While the conversation appeared colorblind, I know that it—like any conversation about policing in America—is not. As a white woman, my experiences with law enforcement will be dramatically different from other citizens’, and that dichotomy means that “just doing what they say” has different implications for me than for other Denverites. As I struggled with this, Christopherson explained that cops only question people if they have a reason: They’re looking for information about an ongoing crime, see suspicious activity, or think you fit a description. Often, and logically, that description includes race. When I asked White about this, his answer was similarly generalized and carefully elided the racial component: “The most appropriate answer, and I’m not saying this as a police officer, but I’m saying it as someone who has dealt with these complaints. I’m saying it as someone who is a father. And I’m saying it from the result that I know how police officers do operate: Comply with their requests, and if you have an issue, address it once the incident is over with. That is the safest and the smartest thing to do. I know it is not pretty. I know that you do not like that answer. But you want to resolve that issue, and you want to resolve it where it doesn’t escalate.”
Mayor Hancock saw racial profiling firsthand as a teenager. He was driving in the Cherry Creek neighborhood after a school dance, near the Village Inn restaurant, when a cop pulled over his 1982 Firebird. Hancock asked why he’d been stopped and received a startlingly frank response. “He said, ‘You’re driving in this neighborhood. In this car. And you’re Black,’ ” Hancock told me. “It was one of those moments you never forget. I felt a chill in my spine. I know my reaction to police is invoked by my experiences.”
Even Nick Mitchell, the independent monitor who handles citizen complaints on these matters, says: “I would want a kid in that situation to get out of the interaction and be safe—and call us right away.” Mike Roque, a onetime Hickenlooper staffer and current executive director of the nonprofit Colorado Progressive Coalition, agrees: “One thing is knowing your rights, and the other thing is the reality if a cop puts a gun to you.”
Implicit in these hypothetical and actual scenarios is the accepted notion that cops get “hot,” police jargon meaning fired up or too aggressive. That’s why it’s up to you, the unarmed person, to de-escalate the situation, even if you believe you’ve done nothing wrong. But if personal accountability is the mantra, shouldn’t it apply even more so to an armed cop who’s been specifically trained to deal with high-pressure situations?
In reporting this story, I did find one person who defended the right—the need—to stand up to police. Like so many kids, Alex Landau once wanted to be a cop. Growing up in Colorado, he had family in the force and believed that most of the folks in blue were “outstanding characters.” His perceptions changed on January 15, 2009. Early that morning, a squad car pulled over the then 19-year-old Black college student for making an illegal left turn in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. The cops ordered him and his white passenger out of the car. According to Landau, he didn’t object to a pat-down search, nor did his passenger, who was carrying a small amount of marijuana. Landau says he didn’t agree to a search of his car, whose trunk held more than 3.7 ounces of pot, a potentially serious trafficking offense in marijuana’s pre-legalization days.
When Landau questioned the officers, the cops moved to restrain him, and the scuffle turned violent. (The officers later claimed that Landau tried to grab one of their guns, which he denies.) Landau’s passenger yelled “Chill, man!” as several cops beat Landau using their fists, a flashlight, and a radio. Landau blacked out. In the ER, he received 45 stitches in his face; the scars are still visible.
In 2011, the city awarded him a settlement of $795,000. Today, he teaches know-your-rights training. “I think it is always more appropriate to interact with the police [from] an investigative standpoint,” Landau says. “Why are you interacting with me?” He notes that, thanks to 2010’s HB-1201, officers must give Coloradans an “oral advisement and [obtain] written consent prior to search.” Most important, he says, people who suspect that their rights are being violated must speak up: “In the court of law,” Landau says, “silence is consent.”
One encouraging moment in DPD’s recent history unfolded at an unlikely spot, and it was noteworthy because nothing happened. On Valentine’s Day 2015, two men interrupted a peaceful protest in front of the police administration building by throwing red paint on the memorial to fallen officers. After simply arresting the vandals, the police officers stood down. The fire department helped wash off the paint, and in the following days, Denverites heaped flowers and notes of tribute around the restored monument.
Afterward, community activists lauded White for his inaction. The DPPA had a different take, calling for White’s resignation because he didn’t aggressively prevent the vandalism, which could have turned a peaceful protest violent. Nick Rogers, the union’s president, said White was “not our chief.” The media and public subsequently blasted Rogers’ statement for its tone-deafness and asked why the union wanted to bash skulls when a peaceful resolution was possible. In late June, the union released a survey of some of its members; 88 percent replied that White is not doing an “effective” job. The same survey showed that 95 percent of the respondents believe they deal with Denver’s minority community fairly. (Rogers declined to be interviewed for this story.)
At the Citizens’ Police Academy graduation a few days after the incident, the officers spoke in tight voices about the memorial’s sacredness. “They call them anarchists,” said one of the officers, of the vandals. “I’d call them cowards.” Christopherson tested the class’ mood by saying, “My goal, when you are done, is if you still don’t support the police, you are at least informed.” The 20 or so graduates of the program took pictures with officers and left with diplomas, bumper stickers, and DPD coffee mugs. It seemed like a lot of effort to change a few minds, but White and the other cops I met insist that these small interactions build trust.
The word “trust” comes up a lot when the topic is the police. Trust in the job. Trust with the community. Trust that cops are striving for perfection and telling the truth when they fall short. Trust that we could train Super Cops, social work–schooled community advocates who know how to shoot guns—and when to holster them. “We’re always going to work on this,” Hancock says. “We always want to know who can start a protest, and who can stop a protest, and that you need to work with both.”
Rosemary Lytle, president of the NAACP Colorado Montana Wyoming State Conference, wants even more community outreach. “A more effective paradigm in today’s ‘Black Lives Matter’ world might be a shift from citizens coming to police, but police genuinely coming to citizens,” she says. “How can we change the blue line to at least a lighter shade and work together to make our communities what they should be?”
In principle, White agrees—even if his officers’ union is resisting his new policies. “Community policing is a two-way relationship,” he says. “We look at it from a statistical perspective, but we also have to look at it from a perception of the community, of the citizens we are policing.”
His words add weight to what unfolds when Heinis responds to a call near Sloan’s Lake during that Friday night ride-along. The dispatcher tells him to look for a man who’s been drinking all afternoon and has been banging on his mom’s door after she kicked him out. Heinis parks the cruiser down the block and runs the guy’s name through a criminal database. “No mental health history,” Heinis says, “but he is an alcoholic.” He approaches the house and greets a fellow officer. They take a quick look around, noting the multiple beer cans littering the lawn, before knocking on the door. There’s a weathered sign on it that reads “No Shoes,” and they apologize to the elderly woman inside for not removing theirs.
The house is a time capsule, complete with plastic chair coverings, porcelain figures, and a framed picture of a young man in a dress military uniform with spent shell casings from a funeral arranged in a perfect row in front of it. The officers chat with her, check the basement, and circle the yard. The son has obviously split, but the woman insists they find and help him. There’s really nothing for them to do, so they just listen. “OK, we’ll go drive around for a minute,” Heinis says. “See if he’s in the area.”
Heinis does as promised, but not before performing a simple act of preventive community policing—what could become part of a new Denver Way. On the way out, he picks up a tallboy can, still cold and full. He pauses, then turns it upside down and walks away as the beer foams up on the cement.