Calhoun: Wake-Up Call

Robert White will be Denver's next police chief, and Gerry Whitman will not be his PIO

Mayor Michael Hancock's choice for Denver's new police chief, Robert White, was introduced at a hastily convened press conference at City Hall on Saturday.

The announcement of Hancock's pick for this most-watched post had been moved up several days because the news of White's appointment had already leaked out in Louisville, Kentucky, where White,a forty-year police-work veteran, has been chief since 2003.

White, who'd just flown in that morning, told those in attendance -- including Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey and outgoing Denver Police Department Chief Gerry Whitman -- that he reads fifteen newspapers a day, and the best way to get a feel for a city is to google the mayor's name and the police chief's name.

And when he Googled the name of Mayor Michael Hancock -- a man White had not met before throwing his chief's hat in the ring for this job -- what interesting things did he learn? First, that he's bald, said the also bald White. And second, that "he likes people -- that he's passionate about them." So is White: While he talked about the 1,400-plus men and women of the police department who are his constituency, he also recognized that the DPD serves the 600,000 residents of this city. "I will not disappoint you," he promised.

"This is one of the most challenging decisions I've had to make," said Hancock, who thanked Whitman for his service before announcing his successor. "Chief Robert White has the proven ability to transform police department culture."

And White, who has a record as a strict disciplinarian, made it clear that he will not hesitate to make needed changes in that culture. "I think there are some changes that need to occur," he acknowledged, promising that for starters, the DPD will be "more transparent."

Which could be why Whitman, who will stay on with the department, said that he'd do anything White asked -- "so long as he doesn't make me his PIO."

That comment highlights one of the major challenges facing the police department -- and Hancock's administration: public relations. White acknowledged there's a "perception" that Denver has an excessive-force issue, "and to some degree, the perception is deserved," he said. How deserved? He'll be studying that over the next few months.

At the same time, he and Hancock should get a handle on a public relations team that let Louisville leak the news of White's job switch, putting Denver into the awkward catch-up position of making a late Friday announcement, a time when usually only bad news is released -- when, by all accounts, White's appointment is good news. And just a week before, the city also botched how it handled the revelation that while the coroner had concluded the death of Alonzo Ashley was a "homicide," no charges would be filed, resulting in several days of sniping between various city departments -- a contrast to the carefully crafted announcement last spring that no charges would be filed in the death of Marvin Booker at the Denver jail in July 2010.

Some of the confusion could be cleared up as soon as tomorrow, November 1, when Alex Martinez takes over as Denver's Manager of Safety. White's first day has not yet been set -- his contract needs to be approved by Denver City Council, and owing to the speed of the announcement, that contract is not yet complete -- but it should be sometime in December. In the meantime, though, one thing is certain: Whitman will not be his PIO.

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun