Captain Crunch

Too much brass has made the Denver Police Department a little top-heavy.

This month, a team of analysts will begin sniffing around the Denver Police Department, hunting for some fat to trim. They'll likely find a good amount stashed in one place: the rank of captain.

Former police chief Tom Sanchez, who held the keys to the big office for just a year and a half before being ousted in February amid a heap of controversy and criticism, promoted five people to captain, which is about average compared to years past. Yet at one point, Sanchez had thirty captains, six more than the department's own suggested "authoritative strength" number and an all-time high.

The situation has caused, at the very least, a temporary backlog in promotions. Sanchez, who is now a...captain at Denver International Airport, insists that "there was a need" for the captains he promoted. "We didn't create positions out of thin air," he says. "Every captain I promoted had a job. There was nobody who didn't have a responsibility."

But according to the department's 2001 budget, the city will spend $247,248 more than it intended on captains' salaries. The 27 DPD captains -- before Sanchez, the department got by with 21 or 22 -- pull down $82,416 each per year. It will be up to new chief Gerald Whitman and new manager of safety Ari Zavaras to fix such budget problems; when Zavaras asked the city council to hire Maryland-based PSComm to conduct the "organizational assessment," he admitted that the department was "a little top-heavy."

One of the things the PSComm auditors will notice is that in 1999, Sanchez created two new spots for captains in the patrol division, one for the east side and one for the west.

He had no shortage of applicants. Every two years, about 35 hopefuls take a test to make captain. Then, when the chief needs to fill a spot at that rank, he is required to select from the three highest-scoring candidates. Once a candidate is promoted, someone who scored lower moves into contention.

Some officers say Sanchez hired captains beyond the suggested limit of 24 so that he could "reach down" the list and promote his pals, some of whom may not have originally scored in the top three. "Everyone knows why he promoted so many," says one officer. "It was to get to his buddies." Namely, one officer grumbles, Captain Pete Garcia, a close friend of Sanchez's who was tapped to command District 1 immediately after his promotion.

"That is ludicrous, to say that I promoted on the basis on friendship," Sanchez argues. "Every person that was promoted has added to the cadre of commanders in this department. They certainly haven't detracted." Sanchez notes that Whitman has since transferred Garcia to District 6, the city's largest, which includes downtown and Capitol Hill.

Still, Sanchez claims he was unaware of the suggested "authoritative strength" number of 24. "I don't know where they get that number. You promote on what you need and what you're trying to accomplish." He also says his choices weren't his alone -- that the manager of safety at the time, Butch Montoya, was also involved.

One thing that's clear is that, for the first time in the department's history, not one of the candidates who took the most recent captain's exam in 1998 will be promoted by the time the list expires in March. (Promotions are essentially on hold in the department while the organizational assessment takes place.) The jam has left some of those in the ranks below demoralized.

"Some guys are perfectly content working the street and never want to make rank," says one sergeant whose name has sat on a list of potential lieutenants for more than a year. "But for those of us who want to move up and feel like we can contribute something, then it gets disheartening. You study for these tests for two and three months, just like you're in college again, and you go through the daylong assessments -- and you do all this just to sit on a list that never moves for two years? It has an effect on morale."

Zavaras, however, insists that attrition will free up the captain's rank within a year. "From my read, we don't have a bottleneck at [captain]. We may be over one or two, but that's a small number, one that can be made up."

Captain Marco Vasquez, who is assisting the PSComm auditors during their stay, adds that for those who made captain during Sanchez's tenure, these are the best of times. "Obviously, it's been a benefit for those people who might not have been promoted in a normal year," he says. "And it might not be very good for those who will have longer to wait. But your perceptions of how things are are based on what side of the coin you're on."

Captain Sanchez harbors little sympathy for the captains-in-waiting. "You take a risk when you take the test. Just because you take it doesn't mean you're going to get promoted," he says. "It's not like the bar exam. You're taking a competitive test. There's no assurances that you'll ever get promoted."

Not anytime soon, at least.

 
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