Independent Monitor Richard Rosenthal keeps a close eye on the Denver police
Richard Rosenthal is busy, as usual. "It's been an interesting day," Denver's Independent Monitor quips to the TV crew setting up in his office conference room, high up on the twelfth floor of the Wellington E. Webb Municipal Office Building. Rosenthal has spent much of the day interviewing potential deputy monitors, trying to fill a vacancy and plug gaps in a staff that's long been overworked and underfunded. And while it's nearly 5 p.m., the day is far from over: The man in charge of policing the police plans to spend much of his evening poring over files at the Denver Police Department's Internal Affairs Bureau, looking into the evidence behind recent disciplinary decisions. And his BlackBerry might go off at any moment: Whenever there's an officer-involved shooting, an in-custody death or other critical incident, Rosenthal immediately rolls to the scene, day or night.
Right now, though, there's this television interview, pegged to the release of Rosenthal's quarterly report on disciplinary actions involving the Denver police and sheriff's departments. The report highlights two incidents over the past few months in which Rosenthal believes the officers involved should have faced stiffer punishment; it's one of the harshest reports he's released during his six and a half years on the job. And while, as the city's civilian police monitor, Rosenthal doesn't have the authority to change discipline decisions, he does have the ability to speak out against them when he sees fit — which explains the cameras zeroing in on him.
"Don't do a close-up," says Rosenthal as he clips a microphone to his shirt. "Close-ups make me look like crap." But Rosenthal looks to be in a perennial state of dishevelment — tie wrinkled, jacket rumpled, hair tousled — and resembles the harried Los Angeles County deputy district attorney he was in the 1990s more than he does one of Denver's top officials. The look mirrors his no-BS, take-no-prisoners attitude, an attitude that's easier when you're not politically beholden to anyone.
And once the interview begins, it doesn't take long for the subject to shift from the quarterly report to the controversy that's exploded over the past year. "What is the perception of the Denver Police Department?" the TV reporter asks Rosenthal. In recent months, account after account of police misconduct and brutality has rocked the city's 1,400-officer department. Just a few days earlier, Denver City Council had approved a $795,000 settlement for Alex Landau, a Community College of Denver student who'd accused the cops who pulled him over in 2009 for an illegal left turn of beating him bloody with flashlights and a police radio ("Wrong Arm of the Law," January 20). It was one of the largest police-brutality settlements in the city's history, perhaps reflecting the fact that two of the three officers involved in the Landau incident were recently fired over two other high-profile cases of alleged police misconduct.
Through the window behind Rosenthal, downtown Denver stretches out in the serene, late-afternoon sunlight. But judging from recent headlines, the city is anything but tranquil these days: cops on the rampage, protesters demanding justice, heads rolling in City Hall. Can Rosenthal explain what's going on?
Denver doesn't have a bad police department, he says. Quite the contrary, he continues: "The reason we see these stories is because we have a good police department, a good, transparent process, so the public can see the good, the bad and the ugly.... In Denver, we have one of the most progressive civilian oversight programs in the country."
"If we don't have a bad system," the reporter replies, "can you provide any insight as to why our two remaining mayoral candidates are so hell-bent on getting rid of the chief of police and creating structural change?"
"My office does not get involved in politics," Rosenthal responds.
But that doesn't mean that politics doesn't get involved in his office. Public-safety problems have become a major issue for mayoral candidates Chris Romer and Michael Hancock, and some of the scrutiny has focused on the Office of the Independent Monitor. There will be more attention coming Rosenthal's way next month, when the Denver Auditor's Office releases a fast-tracked audit of Rosenthal's office.
It's about time somebody looked into Rosenthal's performance, say his critics — a population that includes police officers and police-accountability activists alike. Then again, having people on both sides fuming — and the entirety of the Denver Police Department's administration declining to comment for this story — may indicate that he's doing the job fairly.
At one point, when the camera's off, Rosenthal mentions that in Los Angeles, he carried a firearm for a while because of death threats he'd received because he was prosecuting gang members.
"Do you get death threats here?" asks the reporter.
"No," says Rosenthal, with a laugh. "Not that all people adore me, but I'm good."
Guys," Rosenthal says sternly to the dozen or so University of Colorado Denver students facing him, "all grades are off if you don't take a cupcake." It's the final class of Rosenthal's Crime and Literature spring-semester course, and if they don't eat the goodies he brought for the occasion, he's going to have to take the leftovers home — and the last thing Rosenthal's two hyperactive sons need is more sugar. (His personal cell phone — separate from his work BlackBerry — is always going off with reports of kids getting their fingers Superglued together or needing to go to the doctor.)
Once students have finally grabbed their snacks, Rosenthal starts up the movie. Over the past few months, they've analyzed books ranging from To Kill a Mockingbird to A Time to Kill and such films as 12 Angry Men and The Verdict, not to mention what Rosenthal considers one of the most accurate media portrayals of the justice system, My Cousin Vinny. Today they watch Witness for the Prosecution, a 1957 film based on an Agatha Christie story.
Once the final scene ends, the class begins picking apart the melodramatic production. The central conceit, involving secret marriages and conniving spouses, just doesn't make any sense. Courtrooms aren't anything like the one in the film, with all the emotional outbursts on the stand and bloody confrontations on the floor. And the film's hero? The bighearted, brandy-pickled attorney Sir Wilfred Robarts, the attorney who takes on a suicide mission of a case simply because he doesn't like to fail? Lawyers aren't really like that.
Except that when he was working in the district attorney's office in L.A., Rosenthal himself took on just such a case. After all, as he often puts it, "I hate to lose."
Growing up in Sherman Oaks, he'd recognized that he was destined for the courtroom when, in fourth grade, he found himself able to deliver sparkling extemporaneous oral reports. "It was at that point I realized that public speaking was my forte, especially persuasive public speaking," he remembers. So after studying law at the University of California, Berkeley, he took a senior law-clerk job with the Los Angeles County district attorney. It was a job that meshed perfectly with how he was wired. "I was pathologically self-righteous," he says. "I always follow the rules. I do the right thing, and you know what? If you are not going to do the right thing, I need to be part of holding you accountable for not doing it."
When he started that job, in 1986, there seemed to be a lot of people around L.A. not doing the right thing. Rosenthal tackled his first homicide case one year out of law school. Soon after, he was assigned to the office's major-fraud division, prosecuting doctors and lawyers for multimillion-dollar insurance scams. "I was having a ball. I loved it," he recalls. "I was able to hone my craft. And in court, you're like an actor who gets a regular salary, with an audience who can't get up and leave."
Then, while part of the district attorney's special investigations division, Rosenthal stumbled into his biggest courtroom drama of all. In 1999, he was prosecuting L.A. cop Rafael Perez for stealing cocaine from an evidence locker. To get off, Perez offered to snitch on bigger crimes — like the fact that his partner shot a gang member and covered it up. And that, he hinted, was just the beginning.
The beginning, it turned out, of the Rampart scandal, one of the most widespread cases of police misconduct in the country's history. The investigation that grew out of Perez's allegations would eventually implicate seventy anti-gang officers from the Los Angeles Police Department's Rampart Division in west L.A., in everything from dirty shootings to planting evidence, from drug dealing to bank robbery, with dirty cops even showing up on the payroll of Death Row Records. Only in L.A.: Echoes of the scandal wound up on TV in The Shield, in the movie Cellular and in the video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.
As the liaison between the cops and the DA's Rampart Task Force, Rosenthal got unprecedented access to the police internal affairs division, where he saw a side of police culture he'd never experienced as a prosecutor. "It wasn't until I went inside that I started to see how politics really affected police culture, all the way down to line officers," he says. "I saw how internal affairs could be used to harass and intimidate officers, and could be used to ignore bad conduct and cover it up. Nothing got out. That was the thing about the LAPD: They never wanted anything bad to get out to the public."
And that police culture seemed to stymie the prosecutors. The investigation eventually sputtered out, with most of the officers acquitted of wrongdoing as rumors swirled over political feuds and police coverups. But in the meantime, questions about police conduct led the courts to toss out 106 criminal convictions, with the city paying a record $125 million in civil lawsuits and the feds coming in to take over the LAPD at a cost of a hundred million more. "I saw a system where jurors and judges and prosecutors couldn't trust the police," says Rosenthal. "The entire system breaks down. If you don't have that, you have anarchy."
He also saw that it was time for him and his wife, herself a prosecutor, to get out of town. "I was not going to be able to live it down for a decade," he says. "Wherever I went, I would be the guy who started Rampart."
That's why, in 2001, he jumped at the opportunity to become the first police auditor in Portland, Oregon. While the job represented a major cut in pay, it was also an opportunity to confront police misconduct in a new way. "I used to think that through the sheer force of my will, I could change things and get things done," Rosenthal remembers. "But what I think I learned through Rampart was that if you are dealing with an entrenched bureaucracy, the frontal assault may not be the way to go. You have got to work with them to establish the long-term change."
That sentiment was spreading through the country. "In the wake of the Rodney King incident, which was played around the world, it validated for the first time on videotape that the police engaged at times in brutal tactics," says Merrick Bobb, director of the Los Angeles-based Police Assessment Resource Center. "It was shocking, from the President of the United States on down." If the cops weren't capable of policing themselves, then independent oversight agencies would have to break through the thick blue wall. So in the 1990s, cities such as Pittsburgh, Phoenix, Miami and Los Angeles set up police monitoring systems. And now Portland was replacing its volunteer-based Police Internal Investigations Audit Committee (a group the cops had reportedly nicknamed the Poorly Informed Ignorant Asshole Committee) with a more robust Independent Police Review Division, which had the ability to take police-misconduct complaints, monitor internal investigations and recommend policy changes.
Rosenthal arrived in Portland at a time when that city's police department was roiling with problems of its own. Cops were shooting suspects at a rate of one per month, and a spate of high-profile deaths had the public up in arms. The situation was so bad that citizens had put an initiative on the ballot to take all internal misconduct cases out of the police department's hands for good and put them under the authority of an independent investigator.
While that initiative failed, Rosenthal took it as a sign that he had his work cut out for him. As police auditor and head of the Independent Police Review Commission, he developed a mediation program so that citizens and officers in minor disputes could work out their differences. He created a complaint-management system so that grievances without merit could be dealt with quickly, and those that were valid could receive more attention and resources. And he commissioned Bobb's Police Assessment Resource Center to conduct an extensive review of shootings by officers and in-custody deaths. After the city implemented many of the recommendations in PARC's final report, suspect shootings dropped to one or two a year, reports former Portland city auditor Gary Blackmer, Rosenthal's boss.
Along the way, Rosenthal made a few enemies: In 2003, five members of the eight-member Citizen Review Committee, which collected citizen feedback and reviewed the functions of his office, resigned en masse because they said Rosenthal and his staff stifled public input. Rosenthal had his own concerns about the system. He didn't like that he had no ability to monitor use-of-deadly-force investigations until after the fact; to fully scrutinize the way a police department handled internal investigations, he needed access to the most difficult inquiries of all.
That's what he told the Denver city attorney who called in 2004, said Denver was setting up a similar program and asked Rosenthal what had worked in Portland. And then, when he discovered that Denver's Independent Monitor program seemed to follow his advice word for word — "They had taken the good, gotten rid of the bad and prettied up the ugly," Rosenthal notes — he put his name in for the job.
In August 2004, Denver unveiled plans for one of the most ambitious police-monitoring programs in the country, one that would have unparalleled access to the inner workings of the city's law enforcement agencies. It came as part of a citywide shakeup triggered by the 2003 killing of Paul Childs by Denver police officers.
The death of Childs, a developmentally disabled fifteen-year-old, sparked widespread public outcry. While Denver cops weren't known for the sort of mass corruption that plagued the LAPD or for being as trigger-happy as their counterparts in Portland, the Denver Police Department often appeared unduly antagonistic. As one veteran officer of another metro police department puts it, "The prevailing thought around other agencies is that the Denver police have traditionally had an old-school mentality of 'Knock heads first, ask questions later.'"
Al LaCabe, whom newly elected mayor John Hickenlooper named Manager of Safety — the civilian authority in charge of the city's police, sheriff and fire departments — seemed to understand where this mentality came from. As a former Marine and New Orleans cop, LaCabe knew how officers balance the need to serve and protect with the desire to make it home in one piece each day — and he knew how easy it was for the latter consideration to override the former. "A lot of what eventually happens in a police-citizen contact or encounter has to do with how both the officer and the citizen approach the encounter in the first place. It sets the tone for what may happen as things unfold," says LaCabe. "It's getting the department and individual officers in the mindset of being true community police officers and understanding the concept of customer service while still understanding that they need to protect themselves from danger."
Part of Denver's problem, he realized, was the lack of any consistent punishment for those who violated this concept of customer service. Like most police departments, the DPD didn't have hard-and-fast discipline guidelines, just a system that based penalties on how punishments had been doled out in years and decades past. The comparative discipline system allowed officers to keep their jobs even when their chief wanted them fired; for example, Officer Matthew Graves, videotaped in 1997 holding a loaded gun to the head of a female prisoner, had kept his badge.
Although that discipline system had withstood six previous attempts at overhaul, LaCabe was still determined to shake things up. He slapped a heavy suspension on the officer who'd shot Childs, overruling Denver Police Chief Gerry Whitman's recommendation and courting the ire of the Denver Police Protective Association, Denver's police union. A year later, he did the same for the cop who shot and killed 63-year-old Frank Lobato while he lay in his bed, unarmed.
By then, LaCabe and other city officials had realized that it was time to replace the city's Public Safety Review Commission (PSRC), a volunteer body established in 1992, with an independent monitor system. Whereas the PSRC, which consisted of mayoral appointees, would review complaints about the police after internal investigations were completed, the independent monitor would have access to every aspect of the disciplinary process and would have the authority to advise — but not override — both the law enforcement chain of command and city officials on discipline decisions and policy issues; the independent monitor would also be able to discuss his findings publicly. Although the PSRC would be abolished when the independent monitor post was created, the monitor's office would work with another volunteer group of citizens, the seven-member Citizen Oversight Board, which was charged with evaluating the effectiveness of the monitor. "What we looked at in the Hickenlooper administration is how do you combine the functions of the Manager of Safety's office with an ongoing function in civilian oversight that puts a person in an investigation from the very beginning," says LaCabe. "It would still be advisory, but the person would be present during the course of the investigation and could recommend steps in the investigation and make a determination if the investigation was complete. That put a totally different set of eyes and a totally different approach to the investigation."
Who to put in that position? "It had to be accomplished by someone who didn't appear to have a political agenda, someone who would make decisions based upon good law and good policy," says LaCabe. "Someone who understood police investigations."
Rosenthal looked like the right guy for the job, and was hired in 2005. He hit the ground running. "Everyone was ready for change, including the rank and file and the union," Rosenthal remembers. "As a result of that, what took me a year and half in Portland got done in four months in Denver." Those first, fast steps included a filtering system for citizen complaints and a citizen-officer mediation program that would become one of the largest in the country.
Meanwhile, any time there was an officer-involved shooting or any other critical incident, Rosenthal and one of his two deputy monitors were there for every step of the investigation, poking around the crime scene, listening in on witness interviews, weighing in on command staff's discipline recommendations. "I am the only person who follows the entire process," says Rosenthal. And since he never knows when he's going to get called out to a crime scene or incident, "I haven't had a drop of alcohol, really, in Colorado in six and a half years," he notes.
He may not have touched alcohol, but he hasn't avoided touchy subjects. Rosenthal was adamant that officers who lied during investigations should be fired, argued that internal investigations dragged on way too long, and spoke out about a police-union fund that covered officers who were suspended without pay. But at the same time, he also disagreed with complaints about how the cops handled protesters during the Democratic National Convention, determining that officers were operating within procedure when they engaged in mass arrests.
"It's a tough position to have," says Denver Director of Corrections Gary Wilson. "At times the decisions and recommendations he makes aren't going to be well-perceived by both sides. But what he does is he really understands his job and allows the evidence and facts of a case to drive his decisions."
Rosenthal and LaCabe didn't always see eye to eye on those decisions; every now and then, one of the Independent Monitor's quarterly reports would criticize a move by the Manager of Safety. Still, he and LaCabe shared "strong philosophical beliefs in the importance of accountability, the idea that with great power comes great responsibility," Rosenthal says, adding that those shared beliefs helped make it possible to reform the police discipline system.
In 2008, LaCabe introduced the new disciplinary matrix, a guidebook that established rules for police punishment, including the concept that lying during investigations or administrative proceedings would be cause for termination. "For the first time ever, anywhere, it establishes parameters, goals, and explains what is important in police discipline and ethics," says Rosenthal. "That disciplinary handbook, which I helped write, and its result is the most significant thing I have ever done in my 24-year career."
And Rosenthal wasn't the only one pleased with the results. Surveys found that both citizens and officers were happier with the new complaint system and mediation program that his office had put in place. At the same time, crime rates dropped as Denver placed more officers on the street. A 2008 PARC report on use of deadly force by the city's police determined that, more so than Portland, the city was in good shape: "The right people are in the right places to make these positive changes permanent and to continue building a force providing effective, respectful and accountable policing to all persons in the city and county of Denver."
The specter of Paul Childs was fading away.
In the summer of 2010, LaCabe left the Manager of Safety office, but stayed on an extra month to work with his replacement, Ron Perea, a former special agent in charge of the U.S. Secret Service's Los Angeles division, who'd helped run security during the Democratic National Convention in Denver. The first case Perea handled on his own was the beating of 23-year-old Michael DeHerrera outside a LoDo nightclub in April 2009 by officers Devin Sparks and Randy Murr. In August, Perea docked each of the officers three days' pay — even though a video of the altercation, captured by the DPD's High Activity Location Observation (HALO) surveillance system, showed the officers tackling DeHerrera, beating him with a sap and slamming his ankle in a car door after he'd apparently done nothing other than make a call on his cell phone.
That video quickly went viral, drawing national attention to Denver's police force. Rosenthal disagreed with Perea's decision (according to an Independent Monitor report that appeared to refer to the incident, he believed the cops should have been fired), and Good Morning America filmed both Rosenthal and DeHerrera's families speaking out. A day later, Hickenlooper, then running for governor, announced that he wanted the FBI to look into the incident. Protesters marched through the streets, demanding Perea's resignation. It didn't seem to matter that shootings by officers were down or that police complaints in general were dropping: The cops' own video system was broadcasting to all the world just how brutal Denver officers could be.
"When something like this is on video, I think the Independent Monitor is more willing to say, 'Yep, this happened, and something needs to be done,'" says Mark Silverstein, legal director of the ACLU of Colorado. "And I think video is very powerful for the public, too."
Behind the scenes, Rosenthal was more concerned about a second disciplinary decision that Perea had made, one involving a volunteer firefighter claiming that in November 2008, Officer Eric Sellers had put him in a chokehold, wrestled him to the ground, handcuffed him and screamed at him after the firefighter criticized the cop. While Perea found that Sellers had lied during an investigation, because the inquiry had taken so long he didn't fire him, as the new disciplinary matrix indicated, but just suspended him for 45 days.
"It had the potential of undermining all our reforms on force and lying," says Rosenthal. Perea seemed to be undoing everything that he and LaCabe had built — but as it turned out, the new Manager of Safety wouldn't get a chance to do much else. After both disciplinary decisions were rescinded, Perea resigned less than two months into his tenure. "No one ever asked me my opinion as to whether Perea should stay or go, and I didn't offer it," Rosenthal says, but he was clearly relieved.
Still, Perea's departure didn't end the controversy. Accounts of alleged police misconduct continued to make headlines, especially as other allegations of brutality surfaced — along with more HALO videos.
When Bill Vidal became mayor in January as Hickenlooper moved into the governor's office, he made police concerns his top priority, vowing to resolve all ongoing cases of alleged police misconduct before he leaves office in July. "Coming from Cuba, and my wife coming from Chile, we came from places where people were afraid of people in uniforms," Vidal explains. "To me, what makes the United States a great place to live is that we feel that the people in uniform are here to help us. These high-profile cases have confused that, and I felt a strong personal commitment that we have to change that."
So far, Vidal's administration has made good on that commitment. In March, in her last act before leaving the office, interim safety manager Mary Malatesta terminated two officers for lying about their pursuit of a stolen car. Vidal then appointed Charley Garcia, the former head of Denver's Public Defender Office, to be Denver's fourth Manager of Safety in less than a year — and one of Garcia's first acts was to announce the firing of Sparks and Murr, the officers involved in the DeHerrera case. A month later, Garcia fired two more officers —Ricky Nixon and Kevin Devine — over another incident caught on HALO cameras: cops shoving several women to the ground during a 2009 altercation outside the Denver Diner.
All told, six Denver police have been terminated in the past few months, more than in the preceding three years.
Another high-profile incident was resolved when the city agreed that Sellers, the cop who'd allegedly attacked the volunteer firefighter, would be suspended without pay for forty days. It was a punishment that Rosenthal appeared to criticize as too light in his most recent disciplinary report, but he was happy with another recent city decision: In April, Chief Whitman announced the elimination of the city's Discipline Review Board, a part of the internal investigation process that Rosenthal had argued was redundant and added, on average, 73 days to the complaint process.
And finally last week, one of the last, lingering headline-grabbing cases was officially put to rest: the jailhouse death of homeless preacher Marvin Booker after sheriff's deputies held him to the ground, put him in a chokehold and Tasered him in order to stop him from resisting. At a press conference at the new Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center, where Booker had died last July, Vidal, Garcia and jail director Wilson announced that the deputies involved hadn't violated policy and wouldn't be disciplined; to prove it, they released a forty-page report and multiple videos that captured the incident in vivid detail. Then, as the news cameras rolled, Rosenthal took the podium to announce that he concurred with the decision. "The internal affairs investigation into the incident is one of the most comprehensive and thorough that I have seen since I began monitoring activities six and a half years ago," he said, adding that the city was creating a task force to evaluate the Denver Sheriff Department's use-of-force policies.
This strong, unified front was a marked contrast to the way the DeHerrera incident had been handled. "All you can do is continue on the right track," explains Rosenthal, adding that in L.A., he'd seen for himself the damage that could be done when the process went off the rails. "Over time, as people understand that you have processes in place to make sure business is being taken care of, whatever faith that has been lost will be restored. But it takes time."
Restoring that faith still appears to be a work in progress. Since the city released the jailhouse-death decision last week, Booker's family and the ACLU of Colorado have called on the U.S. Justice Department to investigate Denver law enforcement. And a few hours after the announcement, a group of anti-cop protesters converged in front of the Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center. In the Justice Center plaza, festooned with fliers lamenting Booker's death and criticizing the police, thirty or so activists hollered, "Watch out for the Denver police! Cops killed somebody in this building!" and played squealing-pig noises over a megaphone.
When none of the news reporters stationed nearby to report on the Booker decision took much notice, the protesters repositioned themselves on the sidewalks along Colfax Avenue – where they attracted more interest. As they chanted, "No justice! No peace! No violence in our streets!," driver after driver honked in approval.
Members of the DPD's rank and file may not be the only ones to lose their jobs over the police-brutality scandal. Both Romer and Hancock have suggested that if elected mayor, they would replace Chief Whitman. (Romer also suggested he'd ax the Manager of Safety position altogether, only to reverse that last week.) And Rosenthal's six-employee office, with an annual budget of $636,000 in 2010 ($132,000 of that for Rosenthal), is coming under scrutiny, too.
"I think it's a good time to step back and assess whether or not [the Independent Monitor] has been effective," says Hancock. "It's one of the first things I am going to do once I'm elected."
After his Manager of Safety flip-flop, Romer is more circumspect. "Chris supports a swift and fair discipline process that includes the Independent Monitor to ensure transparency for our communities, clarity for our officers and timeliness for all," says Laura Chapin, Romer's communications director. "And Chris will make sure the Independent Monitor has the resources to properly oversee discipline cases."
But even before the new mayor is sworn in, the Denver Auditor's Office will release the audit of the Office of the Independent Monitor and the police-oversight system that it began last September. "We've had this audit on our audit plan for a few years," says Clay Vigoda, director of government and community affairs at the auditor's office. "We pushed it up a little bit quicker, mostly because of all the things that started to hit last summer. We started to wonder if what we were experiencing was a perfect storm of a number of unique incidents, or if there was something systemic the city better be concerned about."
And there might be another reason the auditor's office fast-tracked the audit. "We requested that they audit him," says Nick Rogers, president of the Denver Police Protective Association. "We definitely contacted the auditor's office and said, 'You need to look at this position.'" Rogers believes that Rosenthal is partly responsible for the controversy that's erupted over the past year. He says there's more to the DeHerrera case than what appears on the HALO video, information that justifies the officers' actions that night. And he insists that Rosenthal knows it — but as soon as the Independent Monitor saw the way the political wind was blowing, he spoke out on Good Morning America and helped make the case national news. "I think he's trying to solidify his position in the city of Denver," Rogers says. "I think he's turned up the heat in the past year knowing that a new mayor would get rid of him. I think he's trying to make himself appear indispensable to the citizens of Denver."
Rosenthal "was always looking for his Rampart here," Rogers continues. "He could never find his Rampart until the HALO camera footage." And because of the way Rosenthal handled such incidents, the streets are less safe than they used to be, he insists: "If discipline is unfair and unwarranted — and that's the belief now within the rank and file in the Denver Police Department — that tells the officers who patrol Denver that every time they contact someone, they have the potential to lose their job, no matter the facts, if it becomes a media-driven issue. That translates into less citizen contacts, which translate into less criminal apprehensions and contact, and that is going to drive the crime rate up. It makes for the citizens of Denver to live in a worse environment."
The month after the DeHerrera case made national news, Denver police reported that officer-initiated investigations had dropped by nearly 25 percent from the year before.
Rosenthal disputes Rogers's arguments. "I stand by my reports, and I think any reasonable person reading my reports would agree I have provided fair and objective oversight and that I continue to do so," he says. If anything, Rosenthal suggests, it's the police union that's changed its course since last summer: "The union's response has been baffling. They have just been doing an unrelenting attack on my office ever since."
While Denver has recently made some big settlements, including the $795,000 Landau payout, in police misconduct cases, the city was settling such cases long before the Office of the Independent Monitor was established. (Denver paid $1.3 million to the family of Paul Childs, for example.) "It's really impossible to say whether the Independent Monitor program has had an effect on litigation payouts due to the multitude of factors that can impact such payouts, including, but not limited to, crime rates, department culture, public perceptions, city attorney trial strategies, existence of video evidence, etc.," Rosenthal notes. "When the Office of the Independent Monitor was created, the city accepted the concept that even if a thorough investigation and the timely imposition of discipline might cause a higher settlement in a single case, it would be part of an overall risk-management strategy that would reduce liability in the long run."
But that strategy has also rankled some citizens. Echoing complaints once leveled against Rosenthal in Portland, critics say the Citizen Oversight Board, the group in charge of monitoring the monitor, does little more than rubber-stamp Rosenthal's decisions. "The Independent Monitor is the tail wagging the dog when it comes to the Citizen Oversight Board," says Joe Sandoval, a longtime member of the PSRC and the COB's first chair (his mayoral appointment was not renewed in 2006). "Rosenthal is the one who provides information on various cases to the oversight board. The oversight board has the authority to request that he investigate cases in greater depth, if they so desire. When it started in 2005 and 2006, the board never asked the monitor to look at any cases a little more closely. I don't think anything has changed." It doesn't help, Sandoval adds, that because of the way the Independent Monitor ordinance was written, all funding for the COB goes through the Independent Monitor's office.
Current COB chair Cathy Reynolds, a former Denver city councilwoman, disagrees with her predecessor; she says the board is constantly giving Rosenthal feedback. "It's fair to say that during investigations, we have asked Richard to make sure he's covering certain bases or looking at certain angles, and he responds beautifully," she says, then adds, "The office is so thorough we don't do it very often."
Rosenthal points out that it's not the COB's responsibility to pore over details of internal investigations; that's his job. "The well-thought-out ordinance behind this recognizes that the best place for volunteer citizens is looking at the big picture, and the best place for full-time professionals is evaluating the specifics of the cases," he notes, adding, "If the board felt I was trying to control them through their purse strings, do you think they wouldn't be publicly reporting on that?"
Still, he's not surprised by such attacks: Criticism comes with the job. "One of the things I have learned in this position is I can get attacked from both sides over the same issue," Rosenthal notes. "With any decision I make, there will be somebody I make unhappy." That's why he abides by the quote displayed in his office, alongside commendations from the President of the United States and a framed caricature of himself by Westword cartoonist Kenny Be: "You are going to be criticized no matter what you do, so you may as well be criticized for doing the right thing."
For anyone angling to oust Rosenthal, the Independent Monitor has a bureaucratic ace up his sleeve: As the ordinance is written, to terminate an Independent Monitor, the mayor must first receive council approval to do so and then launch a nationwide search to find a replacement.
"That puts me in a position where I am not beholden to politics," says Rosenthal. And so he's already working on a laundry list of things he wants to accomplish for Denver over the next few years.
There are plans to launch disciplinary reforms within the Denver Fire Department, for example, and Rosenthal still sees a need to address the DPD's reputation for being ill-mannered, to deal with the volatility that marks too many police encounters with citizens. "One of my goals for the next administration is to look at what we can do to deal with complaints about force and courtesy," Rosenthal says. That's an issue that will likely become more pressing as more camera lenses — on everything from HALO systems to cell phones — capture the cops at work, in very different movies from the ones Rosenthal deconstructs with his CU-Denver students.
"It is definitely a stressful job, and a difficult one," Rosenthal concludes, "but I want to stay as long as I am making a difference."
Doing anything else would be tantamount to failure. And this is a man who hates to lose.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.
- Reader: Bars Will Lose a Ton on Drink Sales If They Let People Smoke Weed
- Thirty Mind-Blowing Murals at the Heart of Project Colfax
- The Mexican Says Adiós to Denver