Longform

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."

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Joel Warner is a former staff writer for Westword and International Business Times. He's also written for WIRED, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Slate, Grantland and many other publications. He's co-author of the 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster.
Contact: Joel Warner

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