Longtime Denver Police sergeant files whistleblower complaint against the department, citing discrimination and a culture of harassment

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Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Sgt. Carla Havard, a 24-year veteran officer with the Denver Police Department, is filing an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint against the department alleging race and gender discrimination, sexual harassment of female officers and disability discrimination and retaliation. Photographed Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022, at CPR News studios in Denver

Sgt. Carla Havard smiled wide and shook hands with attendees as live music played last month during the Taste of the South festival at the Civic Center in Denver. 

“Haven’t seen you in a while!” one woman said as she approached Havard. “Can you tell me how to get inside the festival?” another gentleman asked her. Other civilians stopped to say hello and some jested with dance moves as they walked past.

Dressed in her usual navy blue police uniform, she was doing what she does best while on duty at such events — leading her team of officers to ensure safety and being a friendly, familiar face within the community.

And Havard says she loves her job, which is why filing a whistleblower complaint against the very department she’s grown up in is not only difficult, but at times, painful. 

“It pains me to be at this place, certainly in my 24th year,” Havard said. “I’m not anti-police. I consider myself to be an employee that was always hopeful that things would get better. And they are, but progress doesn't mean that harm is not being created.”

When female officers are outspoken about harassment, discrimination or other egregious behaviors against them, they face an uphill battle — especially when you’re a Black woman whose calling for systemic changes, Havard said. 

She’s spent more than two decades as an officer at the Denver Police Department, rising through the ranks to become a sergeant in 2013. She recently filed a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which is an initial step before being potentially granted the right to sue, according to Havard’s attorney Jenipher Jones, of A People’s Law Office in Denver.

Havard said she was retaliated against after calling for the investigation of some of her peers following revelations last year that several women within the DPD have been experiencing unwanted touching and advancements from their superiors and colleagues. 

“You know, Martin Luther King once said that a riot is the voice of the unheard,” Havard said. “I believe that a lawsuit is the voice of the hopeless.”

Denver police declined to speak on the matter, citing an ongoing review of the complaint.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Denver Police motorcycles parked at the funeral for Arvada Police Officer Gordon Beesley in Lafayette on Tuesday, June 29, 2021.

Havard’s EEOC complaint 

During a Women’s Collective meeting last September — a group DPD formed in March 2021 after it pledged to focus on improving the representation and experiences of women in policing — Havard stood up and asked for a formal investigation into several anonymous claims of sexual harassment. 

“My Sgt. regularly caresses and plays with my hair and rubs my back,” one anonymous testimony said. 

“My Sgt. came up behind me and put his hands around my neck and pretended to choke me. He thought it was funny. Once he removed his hands, I placed mine next to my neck on instinct due to a trauma-related reaction. He is aware of this trauma. He told me to chill out and put my hands down. It was just a joke,” reads another testimony.

Other testimonies shared at last year’s meeting include stories that sly comments are often made about women's bodies daily without any concern of discipline. As the conversation progressed, Havard made a public call for an investigation into the matter and identified the alleged conduct as both policy and law violations — to which she received resounding applause from meeting attendees, the complaint states.

The DPD’s Operating Manual highlights a policy that stands against discrimination, harassment and retaliation based on physical appearance, gender/sex, military status, mental disability, religion and more. Sexual requests and unwanted advances are also prohibited, according to the policy. Violations can lead to termination, training or mediation.

Havard believes the harassment claims brought up at last year’s meeting weren’t ever addressed, although she was told this spring that it is being investigated. 

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David Zalubowski/AP
Denver Police Department caution tape, Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020, north of downtown Denver.

Alleged retaliation

Sometime after the Women’s Collective meeting last year, Havard noticed that her duties as supervisor of DPD’s Citywide Impact Team were shifting to more patrol work and less community engagement and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion — the type of work Havard is known and lauded for. According to the complaint, those duties appeared to be reassigned to a lower-ranked male officer. 

Havard said she received no clear answers regarding the shift in her assignments, and she continued to make inquiries about it. 

In March she received a “non-disciplinary” Performance Improvement Plan letter, dated Feb. 15, from her supervisor that claimed several of her peers, including some women, found her to be aggressive, alarming, threatening, abusive and demeaning.

"The letter stated Havard's peers were supposedly afraid to come forward with their complaints due to her perceived connection within the department, but it also egregiously stated that the PIP was proffered due to concerns about potential allegations of race and gender discrimination," Jones said.

Havard said she tried to get clarification about the allegations made against her but to no avail.

In addition to this, between March and August, Havard was subjected to seemingly small insubordination infractions that other DPD officers were not subject to, the complaint states. This includes punctuality citations for being two minutes late to a meeting, the length and position of her shirt sleeves when moving heavy boxes, and applying her initials rather than her full name to informational documents. Havard said she viewed this as further retaliation. 

The complaint also states that Havard’s supervisor told her during one of their scheduled meetings, “nobody likes you.” She was also told, “If you’re going to complain on others, they will complain on you.”

“Sometimes when they can’t control you or control your authentic voice, they create false conflict surrounding you, which is the basis for my allegations,” Havard said. “I am being targeted because I am outspoken on issues when others in the department are trying to drive a different and perhaps untrue narrative.”

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Police lights on a Denver Police Department vehicle.

Systemic patterns

Havard’s experience is nothing new, according to Tracie Keesee, a former DPD sergeant and co-founder of the Center For Policing Equity. Black women have been complaining about systemic issues of discrimination and harassment in policing for decades.

“The fact that there's a history here and, and it's not a new history, this is 30, 40 years ago,” Keesee said. “And the fact that we are still doing this today tells you something.”

A complaint of similar parameters was made in 2019 when DPD Cmdr. Magen Dodge — a white woman — sued the city and the DPD for gender discrimination after Dodge claimed former Denver Police Chief Robert White made sexist statements to her, including asking her to prostitute herself for the department. Dodge complained that her concerns were often dismissed. The city and police department reached a settlement of $280,000 with Dodge in 2020. 

When minorities challenge these actions, they are often portrayed as the conflictor or the problem, Keesee added.

“I know for [Havard] this was not an easy decision,” Keesee said. “She didn't want to make this choice and she wears her badge proudly and loves what she does and loves being in the community.”

Women didn’t start joining DPD until the late 1960s, and Black men have served as officers in the DPD since the late 1800s. The DPD recently honored three Black women — Rae Beth Hunn, Carol Hogue and Laura Tinnin-Whitney — who were rejected after applying to work for the department in the early 70s. They sued the city and county, Denver Civil Service Commission and the DPD for discriminatory hiring practices — a settlement known today as the Hogue Decree. 

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Brother Jeff Fard documents Denver's Juneteenth Parade on June 19, 2021.

Historian and community organizer Jeff Fard, known as Brother Jeff, said issues within the department mirror what’s happening in the community.

“I've talked to a lot of Black officers in a lot of different departments and trust me, they may not say it inside of the departments they work in, but many of them don't feel safe,” Fard said. “Many of them don't feel respected. Many of them don't believe that they are taken seriously.”

In addition to being a longtime officer and sergeant, Havard is also President of the Black Police Officers Organization, which gives her the right to speak on equity issues freely without retaliation, she said. But there’s an unspoken maxim of law enforcement culture where officers do not publicly raise concerns about internal wrongdoing, she said.

About 20 out of 1,435 police officers at the DPD identify as Black women and about 100 officers identify as Black men, according to the complaint. Havard said her passion about equity, harassment and discrimination issues did not begin in the last two years since the death of George Floyd. She said she’s been championing for women and best equity practices for decades.

Havard has led the Citywide Impact Team since 2018 and has initiated and been involved in several race and gender equity initiatives within the department.

“But you will not slander my name,” she said. “This is about the actual environment that Black women have historically had to survive in, especially courageous ones with an outspoken voice. We’ve had to survive and be subjected to these systems that have been historically racist and sexist.” 

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Sgt. Carla Havard, Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022, at CPR News studios in Denver

What steps are the police taking?

Although they declined to speak on Havard’s complaint directly, Denver police officials said there are numerous steps they’ve taken in recent years to address gender and race issues.

Among them are the creation of the Shared Leadership for Institutional Diversity and Equity founded in 2020 and the Legacy Of Black Police Officers in Colorado. Other examples include the formation of the Denver Police Protective Association and the Racial and Social Justice Academy, which provide tools for collaboratively building antiracist strategies for city policies, programs and budgets. 

The creation of the Women’s Collective last year came about as DPD also pledged to advance women in policing, with the goal of having at least 30 percent of officers be female by the year 2030. Right now, women make up a little less than 20 percent of DPD’s force. The department said it also worked with the mayor’s office to develop an Equity Action Plan so that when recruits graduate from the Academy, they must attend an eight-hour cultural awareness training. 

“This is not every one of the steps taken recently, but gives an idea of the direction the department is heading,” police said in an emailed statement. 

Havard commended the department for its efforts, but specified that just because progress is happening, doesn’t mean harm isn’t being created. She said navigating retaliation and gaslighting has taken a toll on her physical and mental health.

“I tried to address my concerns internally and it wasn’t taken seriously,” Havard said. That’s why going this federal route is the only way to get serious eyes on this. The creation of an org or group does excuse us from accountability.”

Havard is looking to formally sue the department for discrimination and asks that the DPD be investigated broadly for systemic patterns and practices of discrimination and harassment.