Search for Denver's Next Police Chief: "Politics Has No Business in That Spot"

Denver Police Chief Robert White in a 2016 photo.
Denver Police Chief Robert White in a 2016 photo. Photo by Brandon Marshall
The search is on to replace Denver Police Chief Robert White, who announced his retirement on April 24, and Nick Rogers, president of the Denver Police Protective Association, the city's most powerful police union, knows exactly the type of person he'd like to see in the post: "someone who has a tremendous amount of honor and integrity."

When asked to weigh in on White's departure, Rogers says only, "I wish him good luck in his retirement." But over the past several years, he's been among the chief's most persistent critics.

Last year, the DPPA issued a vote of no confidence in the chief's leadership, due in part to the handling of a 2016 letter to White from then-Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey. In the document, Morrissey castigated Deputy Chief Matt Murray for his role in the arrests of Angiella Arnot and Davin Munk, a Denver police officer, for alleged unwanted sex with a second woman. Morrissey didn't wind up charging either party, and he suggested in his communications with White that Arnot never should have been busted in the first place and felt it had happened only because of Murray's efforts.

After learning about the letter's existence, Rogers tried to get a copy via a public-records request but was rejected, supposedly because neither White nor Murray had it anymore. After the letter belatedly materialized, Beth McCann, Morrissey's successor as DA, investigated whether White and Murray had broken the Colorado Open Records Act by declining to disclose the missive; she eventually determined that she lacked the evidence to charge them with a crime. What followed has been described as an independent investigation by a law firm called Employment Matters, but no action was taken by Manager of Safety Stephanie O'Malley before she left her job to take a newly created position as special assistant to Mayor Michael Hancock, who eventually let White off with a warning.

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and Denver Police Chief Robert White during a 2014 appearance on MSNBC to promote the Denver Police Department's use of body-worn cameras. - MSNBC FILE PHOTO
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and Denver Police Chief Robert White during a 2014 appearance on MSNBC to promote the Denver Police Department's use of body-worn cameras.
MSNBC File photo
A subsequent statement from the DPPA reads: "The DPPA is very disappointed to have just learned Mayor Hancock has decided Chief White's actions in his TWO SEPARATE INTERNAL AFFAIRS COMPLAINTS did not rise to the level of discipline. As the person who filed the open records request complaint and knowing ALL the facts of that complaint, we summarily reject this absurd decision. Not only were both Chief Robert White and Deputy Chief Matt Murray misleading during the investigation, but they conspired to withhold a letter written by District Attorney Mitch Morrissey that clearly called into question Deputy Chief Murray's decision-making abilities. The DPPA is now tasked with explaining to the other 1,500 honorable and honest Denver Police officers how they move forward."

In a retirement letter posted on Facebook, White made no reference to this incident, and neither did Hancock in praise-filled remarks issued after the chief stepped down.

White has promised to remain on the job until a replacement is chosen, and the search is focusing on internal candidates. Rogers declines to say how he and his membership might react if Murray got the nod — but he has very solid ideas about his dream candidate.

"I think he or she should already have a tremendous amount of respect from the officers on the job," he points out. "For me, it needs to be someone who has been a good cop and who's been respected for their time out on the streets, or they're respected for their time in their administrative position."

Rogers then poses a rhetorical question: "When they make decisions, are those decisions based on politics, or what's best for the department and its citizens?" He adds, "I'd like someone who is not a politician — someone whose first and foremost concern is the citizens, the officers and making sure that crime is addressed properly. Politics has no business in that spot."

click to enlarge In 2016, Denver Police Chief Robert White appeared in "Ain't Too Cool," a Denver Police Department video. - DENVER POLICE DEPARTMENT VIA YOUTUBE
In 2016, Denver Police Chief Robert White appeared in "Ain't Too Cool," a Denver Police Department video.
Denver Police Department via YouTube
When asked if transparency is important to him, he says, "That's for sure the catchphrase these days, and whether that's really happening, I'm not 100 percent sure. But transparency only works when you know all the facts going into it. I just want a chief I can trust and absolutely believe in, and I think there are plenty of people already in this department who fit that mold."

Of the chiefs for whom he's worked, Rogers singles out for praise Dave Michaud, who retired in 1998: "He was a fantastic chief. He understood and got the streets, he understood what street cops went through on a daily basis, and he tried to do things to help out the officers on the street. He was a very respected man."

The general perception is that the risks involved in policing have grown in recent years, but Rogers isn't sure he buys that. "I'll be honest with you: I think this job has always been extremely dangerous. Social media and the way information is spread now publicizes more of the shootings across the country, but I think statistically it's roughly the same. I think the danger's always there, and I'm not sure a chief's going to be able to address that other than to press for more officers on the street, so officers will have more cover and more resources when they're on some of those dangerous calls."

In recent months, Rogers has had harsh words for Hancock, saying he'd lost the respect of police after revelations of inappropriate texts he'd sent to Detective Leslie Branch-Wise during the 2011-2012 period when she was on his security detail. But when it comes to the mayor's selection of a successor for White, he maintains that "I have to trust the process and trust the system — and I would hope he picks the best person for the job."

As such, he insists that "I'm very optimistic" about the job hunt for the next Denver police chief. "The glass is half full, until it's proven otherwise."
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts