Denver Police Chief Robert White says community concerns about the Department's new use of force policy will be addressed before it's finalized in March.

(Megan Verlee/CPR News)

Shortly after the new year, Denver Police announced it had created a draft highlighting changes in its use-of-force policy. Those changes focused on encouraging officers to work through conflicts with citizens before resorting to force, as well as minimizing the amount of force used when called for.

Much of the material in the 10-page document is based on national best practices, but, there's been criticism locally from, among others, the police union, community groups and Nick Mitchell, Denver's independent monitor.

In a letter issued responding to the DPD draft, Mitchell said the use of force standards being considered by Denver Police aren't as clear as those used in other cities, like Baltimore and Seattle.

Denver Police Chief Robert White said that by the time the policy is formalized, which is expected to be in March, concerns like Mitchell's will be addressed. Edited highlights and a full transcript of White's interview with Colorado Matters host Nathan Heffel appear below.

Interview Highlights With Denver Police Chief Robert White

On why this policy came into being:

"I had to make an assessment of the department to determine if we were ready for a culture change. And to be honest with you, I was of the opinion that we were not ready. So we sort of had to kind of create a foundation to be ready and that required demoting some people, promoting some people, changing our evaluation system, changing what we really value as a department, changing our mission statement. So we done a lot of those things. So after doing those things, now you can get to the policies."

On the biggest change this policy represents:

"The biggest change that you see in policing and the biggest thing that our policy speaks to is, we’re raising the bar. We’re not only asking officers to make sure their actions are legal, but make sure they’re absolutely necessary."

On whether this policy might have changed the outcome of the 2015 police shooting death of Jessica Hernandez:

"I had our planning unit go back ten years to look at all incidents involving police officers shooting into cars and as a result of that review, a decision was made that we would no longer shoot in cars where the car was the only thing that was perceived to be the deadly force. But along with that also we had to provide some training. So if the policy was in place now as it relates to what happened then, that’s hindsight and given that there’s probably pending litigation pertaining to that particular case so it would not be in the best, it would not be fair to the family or to the department or the city, to make a comment as it relates to what would have happened if that policy was in place at that particular time."

On whether the goal of the new policy overall is to create different outcomes:

"Yeah, absolutely. The goal of the new policy is to absolutely focus on de-escalation. Making sure, obviously officer’s going to do what is legal for the most part but we want to also factor in the factor of was it really necessary to do that."

Read the transcript:

Nathan Heffel: You’re back with Colorado Matters from CPR News. I’m Nathan Heffel.  Shortly after the new year, Denver Police announced it had created a draft highlighting changes in its use of force policy, with a focus on encouraging officers to work through conflicts with citizens before resorting to force and minimizing the amount of force used when called for. Much of the material in the ten-page document is based on national best practices but there’s been criticism locally by the police union, Denver’s Independent Monitor and community groups. Denver Police Chief, Robert White is here to discuss the new Use of Force policy. Chief White, welcome to Colorado Matters.

 

Chief Robert White: Thanks for having me.

 

NH: What was the thinking that led to the creation of this new Use Of Force Policy?

 

RW: Well you know I’ve been doing this a long time. I think as you well know I’ve been in five departments and I’ve had the opportunity to kind of travel around the country and speak on transformational change and 21st century policing. And when I was hired by the mayor he made it quite clear that we needed to change the culture of our department, which is one of the reasons I found this opportunity to be so challenging and a wonderful opportunity.  So the reality of it is is that I am kind of of the opinion after so many years and so many departments and talking to so many people around the country who are experts in law enforcement is, given what has occurred the last, maybe ten years or so, the reality of it is policing has changed. Expectations has changed but the police department and police officers have been a little behind. So the goal is to create a police department that meets the expectations of the 21st century. So one of the things that we, one of the things, I’ll say “I” when it’s not popular and I’ll say “we” when it is popular. One of the [unclear] things that when I first got here, I had to make an assessment of the department to determine if we were ready for a culture change. And to be honest with you, I was of the opinion that we were not ready. So we sort of had to kind of create a foundation to be ready and that required demoting some people, promoting some people, changing our evaluation system, changing what we really value as a department, changing our mission statement. So we done a lot of those things. So after doing those things, now you can get to the policies.

 

NH: And is that the changing of a police force, to a 21st century police force, that’s what you mentioned earlier, what does that mean exactly?

 

RW: That means actually have a police department that are meeting the expectations of the 21st century, of the demands. When I was a police officer pounding the beat some time ago, what citizens expected then is completely what they expect, different than what they expect now. Then we could go to a meeting, and even when I was an Assistant Chief in DC, which is some ten-fifteen years ago, I could go to a meeting and tell the citizens as a result of looking at crime these are the things that we’re seeing and pretty much kind of tell them what we’re seeing and tell them what we’re doing. Today that’s not good enough. Not only do they want you to share with them what you’re seeing and what you’re doing, but they want to have a voice in what you do and how you do it. And they’ve raised the bar.

 

NH: And they can also see with police cameras and things like that.

 

RW: Yeah, yeah, not to mention that everybody has a camera. So everything that you see is subject to become public.

 

NH: So what do you think will be the most different in this new use of force policy?

 

RW: I think the biggest difference in that policy is the biggest challenge that we have in policing across this country. You know traditionally we have trained officers on the legality of law, what they can do and what they can’t do, how to run, how to shoot, policies and procedures. Officers would get involved, and this is a problem that we have in Denver, it’s the same problem we have across the country and this is, kind of my opinion and the opinion of a whole lot of other experts in the field. Officers would get involved in a controversial incident, controversial, not meaning good or bad, just controversial and let’s make it an extreme, on a shooting. Someone loses their life, and in Denver that case goes to the DA, like it does in every other city. The DA looks at it and it doesn’t, it doesn’t raise to the level where it is a criminal offense so the DA exonerates the officer. Community is getting really frustrated now and then after the officer is exonerated from the DA, comes over to my office at the police department, we look at it for administrative violations. We look at it and say no administrative violations and I give it to the executive director of safety and she concurs with that. So now you have a community, you always have your critics no matter what you do, but now you even have citizens who traditionally kind of support the police, they’re saying these controversial things, they’re starting to ask themselves, “that officer didn’t get indicted, that officer didn’t get fired, that officer didn’t get suspended.” And a lot of people forming the opinion that the officer broke the law. I will tell you most of the time, not all the times, most of the times, the officer didn’t break the law but the citizens are really asking themselves were those actions necessary. So the biggest change that you see in policing and the biggest thing that our policy speaks to is we’re raising the bar. We’re not only asking officers to make sure their actions are legal, but make sure they’re absolutely necessary.

 

NH: Now an example of one of those instances I think that you’re speaking of was the death of Jessica Hernandez, a Denver teenager who was shot and killed by police in her car two years ago. The department changed its policy in how officers react in situations involving vehicles. Now officers cannot shoot inside a moving vehicle unless someone inside the vehicle is shooting at them. If that policy had been in place, is it likely there would have been a different outcome?

 

RW: Well that’s a great question. I’ve been asked that a lot.  First let me say that, let me say this. That policy change was not just a result of the incident as it related to Jessica. What we did after that incident, and after some other incidents that were close in proximity in time, went back, I had our planning unit go back ten years to look at all incidents involving police officer shooting into cars and as a result of that review, a decision was made that we would no longer shoot in cars where the car was the only thing that was perceived to be the deadly force. But along with that also we had to provide some training. So if the policy was in place now as it relates to what happened then, that’s hindsight and given that there’s probably pending litigation pertaining to that particular case so it would not be in the best, it would not be fair to the family or to the department or the city to make a comment as it relates to what would have happened if that policy was in place at that particular time.

 

NH: But is the goal of the new policy overall to create different outcomes than what you’re seeing right now?

 

RW: Yeah, absolutely. The goal of the new policy is to absolutely focus on de-escalation. Making sure, obviously officer’s going to do what is legal for the most part but we want to also factor in the factor of was it really necessary to do that.

 

NH: And when the policy’s finalized, what kind of training will officers undergo to ensure that they’re going to adhere to this policy?

 

RW: Every officer in the department will go through training that will speak to the changes in the particular policy. But you know, as you probably know, I’ve attended a lot of meetings as it relates to the policy but the one thing that I really tell citizens is that this is not just about a policy. This is about changing a culture. So the policy, policies are just one, we have hundreds and hundreds of policies. Policies are just one piece of changing a culture, like I had to mention earlier. First of all we gotta make sure that we’re in a position to change that culture and we had to change some internal things, even before we get to the policy. But I also want to comment on some of the criticism when you started off, that people have been, some of the critics have been upset, that they feel that they should have been sitting at the table, writing the draft with the police department. And I’ve gone to a few meetings where it got pretty aggressive because they felt that didn’t happen. And my response to them is you know what, that draft is not the words of Chief Robert C. White. That draft is the voices that I’ve heard from the mamas that have lost their children at the hands of police, regardless of the circumstances. The hundreds of meetings that I’ve attended across this country, I mean across our city, looking at what else is going on around the country, the thousands of conversations that members of my command staff have had as it relates to what they want so I didn’t want to draft, and it’s just a draft, but I didn’t want a draft that was done by my staff and six, or seven, eight other outside individuals that allegedly represent another handful of people. I wanted to draft that represented the voices of this entire community.

 

NH: Of the community.  And one of those community groups is the Colorado Latino Forum and Lisa Calderon of the Forum worked with the Denver Sheriff’s Department when it revamped its policy and she describes the differences between that process and your department’s in this clip and I’ll note she refers to Denver’s Manager of Safety, Stephanie O’Malley.

 

Lisa Calderon: We went through the policy, line by line, word by word with city attorneys, with command staff and deputies and community representatives, mental health people, etcetera, and so everybody got to see it from their angle and had a greater understanding. That’s why there’s no pushback on Denver Sheriff’s Department policy because it went through this robust community engagement process. The only difference between the two is that Stephanie O’Malley supported that process of transparency because the community demanded it. With Chief White, he’s the sole arbiter.

 

NH: What’s your reaction to that, Chief White, that you’re the sole arbiter of this new policy?

 

RW: Well I can say a couple things, some of them wouldn’t be as complimentary so maybe I won’t say those things. But I will say this as it relates to that, I’m not the sole arbiter. As I related, I wasn’t interested in sitting down with a group of individuals like Lisa Calderon and others that represent a small contingent of the entire community. I was interested in hearing the voice of the entire community. And that’s why that policy was the result of me going to hundreds of meetings, talking to thousands of individuals and after listening to those voices, that draft is the voices of the entire community, or at least the thousands of individuals that we spoke to versus the eight or nine or ten individuals that would sit at a table that allegedly represents another maybe hundred or two individuals. So we’re different as it relates to how the draft was put together. And again, that’s only a draft. We, I mean as a result of the draft, obviously we went public with it and asked the entire community to look at it, told them where they could get it and they could send us a response. Via email or via the three public meetings, and which two we’ve already had, we’ve already had two public meetings, where they can personally come in and share with me, I attend those meetings.

 

NH: But those meetings were, they were organized after the criticism that.

 

RW: Well, Lisa would tell you they were organized after her criticism but they were organized after what Lisa had to say, in fairness to some of her comments, but also as a result of some of the emails that we had already received electronically.

 

NH: The policy’s labeled a draft right now. When do you expect it to be finalized?

 

RW: Well my goal is to have a final policy no later than March.

 

NH: You’re listening to Colorado Matters from CPR News. I’m Nathan Heffel. We’re talking with Denver Police Chief Robert White about the department’s new Use of Force Policy, which is currently being drafted. I want to go back a bit to some of the words you were using earlier. De-escalation, use of force. One of the criticisms of the new policy is that it’s too vague. For example that these words seem to be open to interpretation. How do you ensure that the policy is clear and unambiguous for officers?

 

RW: Well if you look at the Colorado State Law, it states that officer’s actions should be appropriate and reasonable based on what they think is appropriate and reasonable. So I mean there are, and that’s not Robert White or that’s not necessarily the policy by itself. I mean to be perfectly practical, officer’s are going to have to have some discretion. They have to have some discretion and the consequences when that discretion is not in the best interest of whatever the scenario that they’re finding. I mean we have to make sure this speaks to discipline. Every police officer will receive training once this policy is in place. That, the training is going to take longer than, much longer than the actual implementation of the policy because we have 1500 police officers. We give examples, we give definitions of what necessity means, what appropriate means, what proportional, what’s reasonable. We give those definitions but you need to understand reasonable and appropriate are actually already in the state. Those are the same words and the same definitions that the state law requires. So it will be next to impossible to have something that is just absolute for officers to do. So what you try to do is make sure they have the training and they understand what reasonable really means, given the totality of the circumstances that they’re being confronted with, they understand what necessity really means. But there will always be some objectivity as it relates to asking officers to do their jobs.

 

NH: So other cities, including Baltimore and Seattle, have implicitly defined many of the same terms. In Seattle for example, officers may only use physical force when “no reasonably effective alternative appears to exist”.

 

RW: You used that word reasonable again. So think about that.

 

NH: Right. But again it’s written into the policy for Baltimore and Seattle where it might not be in ...

 

RW: Well actually it will be. That draft that you see, the old policy parts of that draft was thirty pages long and it factored in use of force and it factored in what happens when you have a Taser. It factored in a lot of things that are not particularly in that policy. The policy that you see basically is sort of the philosophy for what we stand for as a police department. There are ancillary policies as it relates to different tools, different uses of force, responsibilities that officers have that will be attached to that policy. So once this policy is in place, all of those ancillary policies, such as some of the things they’re doing in Baltimore, some of the other things that the Monitor and other people accuse us of not having, we actually do have. We just extract them from that policy and once that policy is in place, we’ll go back and look at all those ancillary policies to make sure that they’re very consistent with the foundation of what you’re looking at right now.

 

NH: Like you mentioned, you have some scheduled three community forums on this policy. Did the reaction from the community change your mind about including public input? For example, the Taser question. Denver’s Independent Monitor says that Tasers are not mentioned in your safety policy and that’s a concern for them.

 

RW: Well because it’s mentioned in another policy. The Monitor is accustomed to, the Monitor looked at our original policy, which was thirty pages and actually kind of looking at 21st, and everyone likes to use, they like to remind me of the 21st century, the President Obama’s 21st Century Taskforce when it’s convenient for them. So obviously the Monitor referred to it also. But that Taskforce also recommended that policies need to be shortened and more concise. So that is the more concise policy as it relates to philosophically what we’re about and all those ancillary policies will speak to tasers and all the other weapons that officers have.  So yeah, obviously, and we met with the Monitor and I think we’re meeting with him again and we’ll, to be honest with you, I think he already knows, but anyway, he decided that he needed to do what he needed to do and we’ll have a discussion as it relates to that. But his questions will all be answered, like the questions of many other citizens.

 

NH: And that’s Denver’s Independent Monitor, Nicholas Mitchell. Chief, if an incident occurs after this policy is implemented, what happens next? How will reports and investigations change?

 

RW: Well obviously we have a, first, let me say this, everybody’s entitled to due process. And that includes the officers. But there are consequences for their actions, regardless of what they are. We have a matrix, a matrix which determines the type of discipline given the particular scenario that they’re confronted with at the time. So if officers violate our policies, there are absolutely consequences as it relates to that that are attached to some form of discipline, depending on the nature of the violation.

 

NH: And in terms of the police, there has been criticism from the Police Union that you may be potentially paralyzing the police and making them do things that they may not feel just when they’re in the event.

 

RW: Sure. Yeah. You know I actually, the Police Union, the executive board, I met with them also. And obviously they think the policy is too restrictive and then I have citizens, particularly some of the activists think the policies, and the Monitor, don’t think the policy is restrictive enough. So you know, sometimes when you have these two forces, and they both have issues with you, some might say maybe I got it right because I got both sides are pretty upset for different reasons. So yeah, I mean and obviously I’m concerned about the troops. I met with the executive board of the union, attempted to hear what they had to say, attempted to articulate what that draft was saying, what I was willing to give on and what I wasn’t willing to give on, and obviously they’ve submitted their proposals like other proposals we’ve gotten from these meetings in the community and when it’s all said and done, we’re going to take all that information, we’re going to look at it and my commitment is, it was then and still is, if somebody is submitting something that would make the policy better, is consistent with what the desires of this community is, see because policy should speak to the desires of the community; if it is consistent with the desires of the community and if it’s legal and if it’s something that we can do it will be part of the final policy.

 

NH: What aren’t you willing to give on?

 

RW: I am not willing to compromise on the need to raise the bar from just reasonable and appropriate to necessity.  So the real give and the real disconnect we have in policing across this country citizens are asking were the actions of the officers are they really necessary. So we want to raise that bar.  You know, as the – I think the Constitution has Graham versus Connors which says “an officer’s actions have to be reasonable and appropriate given what the officer thinks is reasonable and appropriate at the time.” So, obviously, we want that.  We’re not going – I mean, we can’t lower what the law says but we’re raising the bar.  Not only does it have to be reasonable and appropriate but it also has to be necessary.

 

NH: But there is concern like we mentioned you may paralyze your officers in tense situations?

 

RW: No, we’re not going to paralyze the officers. You know, to be honest with you, just because it’s legal doesn’t always make it necessary. I’ve spent time talking with just officers, not even the officials, there’s a lot of ranks between me and the officers out on the beat that are providing our safety. I’ve cut away from all those ranks, this is so important. And I had meetings with over 500 officers, so no sergeants, lieutenants, captains, commanders or chiefs, talking about from their perspective what their concerns were but also assuring with them where I thought we needed to go as a police department.

 

NH: You say this is going to come out in March. That is your plan.

 

RW: That is the goal. Barring mitigating circumstances and I’ve kind of learned in the environment that we’re in right now, it always seems to be something that’s mitigating that throws a curve in what you’re trying to do.

 

NH: And so citizens and police officers can still submit questions and concerns to you as this draft moves forward?

 

RW: I absolutely welcome them and value them greatly.

 

NH: Chief, thanks for joining us.

 

RW: Thanks for having me.

 

NH: Chief Robert White and Denver Police are implementing a new use of force policy in the hopes of lessening conflicts between officers and citizens. We discuss facets of the new policy as well as criticism from local citizen’s groups. On tomorrow’s program we’ll speak with one of those critics, Lisa Calderon of the Colorado Latino Forum.