Walking into the office of Denver’s new Chief of Police, you don’t see a lot of clutter. His neatly organized desk is almost militarily-like in appearance. The stacks of work that sit there have either been completed or are next on his list of ‘things-to-do.’ From paper clips to pens, everything seems to have its place.
The office is sun-dappled and precise in every way. Even the creases in the chief’s uniform seem to have gotten the memo. They are razor-sharp on both his slacks and shirtsleeves. Even the gold stars providing symmetry to either side of his collar give the look of straight line constellations.
But, despite the strack-troop, no-nonsense appearance of the surroundings and the man, new Denver Police Chief Robert C. White greets visitors with a firm handshake and a warm, friendly smile. They are tools that will come in handy as he comes to know the city and as he tries to right the image of a department that has been squandered by a few officers in a fog of arrogance or ignorance. Job one for White is to restore the city’s confidence in a department that has lost some of its trust.
A number of well-publicized incidents of excessive and seemingly arbitrary use of force by officers along with firings and suspensions of maladroit cops over the last couple of years have been exhaustively played out on local television and in the paper. They have taken a toll on the department. But, well before he took the job, he knew all about DPD — its pluses and minuses. His thirty-nine years in law enforcement have exposed him to all kinds of departments. He is certain Denver’s problems can be fixed and the department can be made better.
“In my vocabulary,” White said, “complacency is a bad word.” And, in Louisville, Kentucky, where he was chief for eight years prior to signing on in Denver, White says he may have been getting “a little complacent.” It was time to move on. But he wasn’t going to just any department. About the same time he was thinking of becoming Denver’s chief, he was also in the running to take over the Dallas Police Department.
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock chose White for the job in late October. He relished the idea of coming to a new city and making over a department that had taken on the same complacency that he disdained. He wanted a department he could be proud of, but more importantly, one the city could be proud of. “We all need to reorganize the department.”
White has just announced a total restructuring of the department leadership matrix. Instead of four division chiefs, there will now be two. Division Chief of Patrol David Quiñones and acting Division Chief of Research William Nagle will take charge over six new district commanders. There will also be community input in naming the district commanders.
After meeting with a number of groups both inside and outside of the department, White determined he needed more officers on the street. Too many cops were inside riding desks instead of outside writing reports or meeting face-to-face with citizens.
White’s planned reorganization will put many of them back on the street---where he says they belong. “With very little argument amongst police administrators they will tell you that the backbone of policing is patrol,” he says. Most cops “get it,” Chief White says. For them, it is “in their DNA.” But others will grumble. “They don’t get it and they’re not going to get it. My job is to encourage them to find something else to do for a living.”
White’s arrival in Denver also introduces him to a city with a significant non-immigrant Hispanic population. The 2010 census counts about a third of the city’s residents as Hispanic. And while it might appear to present itself as a challenge, White says he’s up to it. “You need to understand the culture of the individuals you interact with,” he says. “Everybody deserves equal treatment.”
But he also says that his time as a commander of the Mt. Pleasant district in Washington, D.C., where most of the District’s immigrant population resided, did provide an education into many of the issues that the Hispanic immigrant population deals with daily. “I’ve had the opportunity, the experience and it was a good experience.”
To get the department’s 1,459 sworn officers to buy-in to these changes, White says he is depending on that constant among the rank and file that truly defines any department, its sergeants. “That’s the person who’s out there every single day,” and who has the job of holding underlings accountable. “They make sure the job gets done right.”
The department has nearly 270 officers holding the rank of sergeant. He wants to make sure that over the course of the next year that each takes a three-week leadership course that emphasizes integrity, ethics and management. When they’ve completed it, White says he will have reinforced the backbone of the department with an ethic that will make the city proud of a department that has been put under the microscope.
White understands that the changes he envisions will not sit well with the whole department, including the department’s Internal Affairs section. But it, along with everyone else, will have to deal with it as professionals. “I think Internal Affairs has some perception issues,” White says. “It could do a better job with respect to the quality of some investigations.”
But, while having a force that likes its job is important, what is more important is serving the citizens of Denver who call on the police more than 500,000 times each year.
The new chief says the majority of the department’s calls are handled efficiently and exactly the way they should be handled and citizens are satisfied. “The bigger issue is that we have a good number of officers who really don’t understand the importance of how you communicate with citizens.”
White says that he believes in his new approach and is confident that the city will see and benefit in the improvements. But institutional change doesn’t always come easy, he acknowledges. It is a challenge, but one that can be met. “I do think we have to change the culture.”