Is Denver Really a National Model for Policing?

Chief Robert White at the State of the City.
Chief Robert White at the State of the City.
Brandon Marshall

“The Denver Police Department, under Chief Robert White, has become a model for criminal-justice reform across America,” said Mayor Michael Hancock during Monday’s State of the City address at Denver International Airport.

That came as news to criminal-justice reformers and activists who have long criticized the department for targeting communities of color.

“What exactly is he talking about?” asks Pastor Reginald C. Holmes, a member of the Greater Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance, a group of African-American clergy members who have blasted the city for excessive force and on-duty killings.

“I'm actually a bit flabbergasted by the statement,” says Sasha McGhee of Black Lives Matter 5280. While the mayor delivered his address, her group was in the midst of a 135-hour vigil in front of the Denver City & County Building, mourning the loss of 135 black people killed by police across the United States this past year.

“I’m not sure what he’s talking about in terms of police reform,” notes Lisa Calderon, chair of the Denver chapter of the Colorado Latino Forum, who serves on the Denver Sheriff’s Department use-of-force task force that worked on revamping that department’s use-of-force policy.

In 2010, Denver ranked as the number-one worst department in the country when it came to excessive force. But that was under Chief Gerry Whitman, whom a newly elected Hancock nudged out of the job in 2011.

The city is facing a lawsuit filed by Ryan Ronquillo's survivors.
The city is facing a lawsuit filed by Ryan Ronquillo's survivors.
Courtesy the Ronquillo family.

Hancock hired White to reform the department, but its tarnished reputation has lingered through the high-profile police shootings of Jessica Hernandez, Paul Castaway, Sharod Kindell, Ryan Ronquillo and many others — and none of the shooters have been charged by Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey. Adding fuel to activists' ire, the city has paid millions in settlements to victims of police violence and violence at the Denver Jail.  

Critics of the department agree that there have been some positive changes in recent years; Calderon says that White has been easier to work with than Whitman. But neither she nor Holmes can point to anything at the Denver Police Department that makes it a national model. 

Sam Walker, one of the nation's leading experts on criminal-justice reform and author of The New World of Police Accountability, says he has never heard of a Denver model of policing. Nor has he heard Denver cited as a national model, or Chief White touted as a leader of criminal-justice reform. "The mayor was off base by making some unsupported claim," Walker says. "I’m an expert — I devote my life to this, and I’m not sure I could say this department or that department is the best in the country. I spend my week looking at these things." 

For Walker, the best measure of police reform comes from the President's Taskforce on 21st Century Policing Implementation Guidebook, enacted in response to the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.  Nowhere in that document is the Denver Police Department mentioned as a model. The Dallas Police Department is. So are departments in Sarasota, Florida; Fort Wayne, Indiana; New York City; New Orleans; Spokane; Philadelphia; Boston; Baltimore; and Oakland, Los Angeles and Palos Park, all in California.

Since the Dallas shooting that left five police officers dead, both the media and President Barack Obama have celebrated Dallas police chief David Brown as a leader in police reform. Walker's book begins by profiling Brown's eight-point plan to reduce police shootings as a national model. 

The Denver Police Department is meeting some of the standards laid out by the President's Taskforce: Denver police are working to become more accessible to the press, just like other departments. Denver police are using social media to communicate with the public and to tell their own story, just like other departments. Denver police are improving their relationship with the Office of the Independent Monitor, which reviews excessive force claims, just like other departments that have similar offices. Denver police are prohibited from using derogatory and racist language, just like police in other departments. In his speech, Hancock celebrated that officers will soon be required to wear body cameras — but that's nothing unique to Denver. 

Denver law enforcement officials at the State of the City address.EXPAND
Denver law enforcement officials at the State of the City address.
Brandon Marshall

Despite pleas from the Office of the Independent Monitor, the DPD does not publish demographic information on traffic stops and arrests, which is only available to the public through an open-records request. (Dallas's department does.) Although the Denver department does not have traffic-ticket quotas, there is also no ban on quotas. 

Deputy Police Chief Matthew Murray does not appreciate questions about the mayor's claim that the DPD is a national model. Murray says he's tired of the media — including Westword — reporting on police shootings, racial inequity in the department and the advocacy work of Black Lives Matter while ignoring the majority of Denver police work, which he says is good and too often unnoticed. 

As Murray tells it, the police department’s reform efforts are a work in progress. The city uses a hodgepodge of tactics, he adds; some are borrowed from other cities, while others are homegrown. He says the changes were sparked by a desire within the department for reform — not from years of sign-holding, finger-wagging protesters decrying the force.

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White, who prides himself on being a chief hired to shake up status-quo departments and lead them into the 21st century, has pushed for change, Murray notes. Among those changes: The department is revamping its trainings to emphasize ethical considerations in use-of-force decisions and rewriting its policy manual to ensure that officers prioritize de-escalating interactions with the community.

In addition, White is asking officers to rebuild trust with people of color, to weed out racism in the department, and to learn from excessive-force lawsuits that have cost the city millions, Murray says. Officers are encouraged to blow the whistle when their colleagues commit crimes, including excessive force and murder, and the department will protect whistleblowers, he adds.

White and Murray have been asked to travel to cities including Phoenix, Baltimore, San Francisco, New Orleans and even Scotland, presenting on police-reform work in the Denver Police Department. This, Murray says, is evidence that Denver is a national model.

Murray points to the 2015 Denver Independent Monitor report that shows community complaints against law enforcement are down by 27 percent from 2014: There were 539 grievances in 2014 and 396 in 2015. He highlights dozens of examples of officers building relationships with nonprofits serving communities of color.

That the press doesn’t pick up on these stories frustrates Murray. So the department has taken to social media, garnering more than 100,000 Twitter followers as of this week. The social-media managers answer questions about crime scenes, cheer on the Broncos and Rockies, mourn the lives of officers killed on duty, and occasionally wax philosophic about the challenges of managing a police department’s public perception.

“But trust is not built overnight,” says Murray, who repeatedly notes that people of color have ongoing and legitimate concerns about racial profiling in Denver.

Mayor Michael Hancock delivers his State of the City address.EXPAND
Mayor Michael Hancock delivers his State of the City address.
Brandon Marshall

One way the department could build that trust is by changing the way that it works with the families of people killed by officers, says Calderon: “I think it’s always interesting when we look at these national incidents and these politicians compare Denver to other cities, as if we were some kind of bastion of change, when in actuality, we can’t even get our people's issues here paid attention to at a more comprehensive level.”

To address those concerns, Calderon is working with the Department of Safety to form a community-engagement committee that will develop a plan for how the police and sheriff departments interact with the community.

“There is no model yet,” she says. “That’s what the committee is supposed to come up with. I think it’s interesting that the model is being touted before it’s even been developed.”

"We believe the changes the department is making are effective because they are made in collaboration with and in response to the Denver community," says Hancock spokeswoman Jenna Espinoza, when asked about the mayor's claim. "The Denver Police Department is better trained, more accountable, effectively structured and staffed and more immersed in our communities today. But this does not mean our work is done. Rather, that we are headed in the right direction and will continue our efforts to create a 21st-century department."

For Calderon, there is one major standard the community can use to assess whether reforms are working: “Cops won’t kill any more people who are unarmed.... Denver hasn’t arrived at that.”

This story has been updated to clarify Holmes's position. Holmes says he has found it easier to work with White than Whitman, and that he and Whitman had a strong relationship and that he does not have the same strong relationship with White.

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