Conduct Unbecoming

On October 24, Denver Police Chief Gerald Whitman's team of public-information officers hosted local reporters at a meet-and-greet session in the DPD's press room. The gathering was a throwback to the alleged good old days when cops and reporters sat barstool to barstool. This morning get-together, however, was fueled by bagels, hot coffee and orange juice.

In the back of the room, while a reporter from Channel 7 was still goofing around with a Fox 31 newsguy, another television personality loudly compared Denver's tight-lipped homicide unit to Boulder's. Detective Virginia Lopez winked. "At least we know how to get a conviction," she said to laughs, then added, "Now, that's off the record."

After the crowd quieted, Deputy Chief Mary Beth Klee got to the point. "This chief really wants to be the most accessible ever," she said of Whitman, who was appointed to replace Tom Sanchez on an interim basis last February and then officially on July 8. "We know you guys have a job to do," added Sergeant Tony Lombard, longtime department spokesman. "And we want to work with you."

Yet Chief Whitman, who did not attend the meeting, has also been working on cop-reporter relations independent of his PR department.

On September 7, Westword published "Up Against the Wall," my story chronicling the activities of the DPD's three-year-old Graffiti Unit, then headed by Sergeant Vince Gavito, a linguistic straight-shooter. "If I think a person was a boil on our butt, then I'm going to say, 'This person was a boil on our butt,'" Gavito said after the article came out. "I don't think saying that paints the department in a bad light. Look, this isn't just my job; this is my life. And I would never do something to make the department look foolish."

But Chief Whitman apparently thought Gavito's language shot a little too straight. After the Westword story appeared, the chief got on the phone and chastised Gavito. Whitman didn't take issue with the accuracy of the article (which was largely positive regarding the Graffiti Unit's work), but with whether Gavito's remarks presented the department in a "light unbecoming."

Whitman's interest in Gavito didn't end with that phone call. The chief also initiated an internal investigation to determine whether the fourteen-year veteran had acted "in an unprofessional manner." And last week, Lieutenant Ted Block called me at work to get a statement.

This wasn't the first time I'd been asked to give an official statement regarding Gavito's conduct. While reporting the graffiti story, I'd ridden along with him one Saturday night in late August, hunting for graffitists in dark alleys and under bridges. As we cruised, we responded to a few calls that had nothing to do with graffiti -- domestic disputes, mostly. At about 9:30 p.m., when a fight broke out in a bar parking lot in southwest Denver, we were the second car on the scene.

The bar manager, freaked to the core, shouted that one of the suspects, who was just climbing into a blue minivan, had waved a handgun. The first patrol car was busy ramming the minivan into a corner of the lot, trying to prevent it from fleeing. Gavito immediately steered his car into the melee at an angle, then got out, drew his gun and aimed it at the driver. Suddenly the minivan broke free from the phalanx of squad cars and sped right toward the exposed Gavito, a father of four.

As the minivan raced past him, Gavito spun like a matador -- still managing to fire three shots into the driver's window -- and fell to the ground. But then he popped back up, got into his car and joined the chase. A few blocks at serious high speeds later, the van pulled over to the side of the road and stopped.

The driver sprang out of the van and, despite officer warnings, began waving his arms wildly, stomping around in a circle and shouting, "Fuck you!" Gavito kept his gun trained on the man as he inched toward him, taking slow, cool steps. Once Gavito got inside the suspect's circle, he wrestled him to the pavement with one hand. Another patrol officer quickly piled on to help with the arrest.

Since I was an eyewitness to a shooting, I was taken to headquarters and interviewed -- standard procedure whenever a cop's gun is fired. The following workday, Gavito called to make sure I was all right. "I'm sorry if you felt like your life was in danger in any way the other night," he said. "That certainly wasn't my intention." No apology necessary, I said. As I'd told Lieutenant Jon Priest while making my statement, I'd thought the van was going to run down Gavito.

The Denver District Attorney's Office cleared Gavito of any wrongdoing, although the DPD file remains open. Gavito was subsequently promoted to lieutenant and moved to District One.

Yet last week, while I was being questioned for Whitman's internal investigation, it seemed like Gavito was still under the gun. Block wanted to know when I had talked to Gavito. He wanted to know how many times I had talked to Gavito. And he wanted to know why I had talked to Gavito.

Because it's my job?

Block was also interested in an unnamed source cited in my article and angled to find out whether Gavito had passed along that source. I told Block I wouldn't tell him where I'd gotten my information: Like cops, we have rules regarding confidential sources.

"In your opinion," Block then asked, "at any time, did Sergeant Gavito say anything, or act in any way in an unprofessional manner?"

No, I said, Gavito was candid and clear in all of his conversations with me. We never talked "off the record." As a public servant, Gavito had expressed an admirable "I've got nothing to hide" attitude.

After Block turned off his tape recorder, he confirmed that the internal investigation had been requested by Chief Whitman's office. "We're looking at some of the comments that appeared in the article," he said. "We're checking to make sure that the police department is conducting itself in a professional manner."

Whitman, the "accessible" new chief, did not return phone calls.

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Justin Berton