Hancock names Kentucky chief to head Denver cops

The Colorado Statesman

In a long-anticipated announcement that still came a couple days earlier than planned, Mayor Michael Hancock named Louisville, Ky., Police Chief Robert White as Denver’s next chief on Oct. 28.

White will be the first Denver chief in more than 50 years who didn’t rise through the local ranks, and he will also be the first African-American chief of the roughly 1,500-officer force.

Vowing to bring transparency and a new spirit of cooperation between the police force and the community to the job, White, 59, on Saturday said he was “honored” to join Hancock’s team.

Denver’s outgoing police chief Gerald Whitman, left, says he’ll help incoming Police Chief Robert White in any way he can, except with media relations, during White’s introduction to the public on Oct. 29 at city hall.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“We share the same values around building a world-class police department,” White said. “We both believe the primary responsibility of police is the prevention of crime, and that you can only achieve success through collaboration with your community. We have to have their trust and we have to create opportunities for them to work with us.”

Calling it the toughest decision thus far in his 100-day-old administration, Hancock said that when it came down to it, the choice to offer the job to White was easy.

“He raised the level of transparency and accountability in the department,” Hancock told The Colorado Statesman after naming White. Referring to a “secret shopper” his administration sent to Louisville to gauge reaction to the chief on the ground, Hancock added, “One of the people there said to us, very clearly, before he got here, we wouldn’t talk to police, we wouldn’t engage with police, and now we do.”

White was recruited by a national search firm engaged by the city when Hancock took office and was among 61 applicants for the job to replace outgoing Chief Gerald Whitman, who has led the department since 2000.

Hancock administration officials, from left, Communications Director Wil Alston, Chief of Staff Janice Sinden, City Attorney Doug Friednash and political strategist Broward “Beage” Atwater, watch Mayor Michael Hancock introduce the city’s new police chief, Louisville, Ky., Chief Robert White, on Oct. 29 at city hall.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“With the addition of Chief White and (Public Safety Manager) Alex Martinez to the safety team, I now have the needed leadership to implement my vision of restoring public trust in the department and delivering to the people of Denver an even better police force,” Hancock said.

Hancock had intended to unveil White’s appointment on Halloween, but those plans were stymied when the Louisville brass let the cat out of the bag a few days earlier with its own announcement that the city was seeking a new chief. Hancock’s team scrambled on Friday afternoon, assembling a hastily called press conference that included the members of the search team but not the new chief — he hadn’t been scheduled to fly into Denver until Sunday but changed flights to arrive on Saturday for a proper introduction to officials and the public.

“We knew it would be a miracle” if the news stayed under wraps, Hancock joked with reporters on Friday.

Hancock made a point of thanking Whitman, who promised to do everything he can to ease White’s transition into office. During the mayoral campaign, Hancock — and most of the other candidates — said they would seek a replacement for Whitman, who plans to remain on the force with the rank of captain.

White said that coming from outside the department’s ranks could make it easier for him to make substantive changes in the way Denver’s police force operates. In particular, he said, he’s ready to tackle discipline issues that have arisen over numerous accusations of excessive force by Denver officers. He called it “irrelevant” whether there exists an excessive force problem or there’s just that perception.

“Whether it is a reality or whether it is a perception, the bottom line is that it’s a problem that has to be addressed,” White said, adding that he believes “to some degree, that perception is deserved.”

Hancock said he made the final decision — and the offer to White — on Oct. 24. White was one of several finalists — city officials wouldn’t say how many — who visited Denver for interviews as the selection process neared a finish. During one of his two visits, White took a late-night tour by automobile of the city with Martinez, his future boss, and that time chatting helped Martinez decide that White was a top prospect.

Louisville, Ky., Police Chief Robert White, left, talks to the press after Denver Mayor Michael Hancock announced that White will be Denver’s next chief on Oct. 29 at city hall. Looking on is White’s new boss, Denver’s Manager of Safety Alex Martinez, who stepped down this month as a Colorado Supreme Court justice and was sworn in to the city post on Nov. 1.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Noting that White had visited Denver during the Democratic National Convention a few summers ago, Martinez said the two took a drive to “see the sights” and help orient White to the entire city.

“I was his tour guide,” Martinez smiled, “and, as a matter of fact, if he gets some of these locations mixed up, you can blame me.” But the particulars of the sightseeing weren’t what mattered that much, Martinez said. “What was more important about it was the spontaneity — we just bonded over driving around. It was far less important where we went, what we looked at. What was more important was that we just hung out for an hour and a half or so.”

Martinez said the easy rapport he developed with White was a sure sign they could work together.

It’s a sentiment echoed by White’s soon-to-be former boss, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer.

“Chief White has been a high-caliber leader who has made our city safer and who has earned tremendous respect across the city,” Fischer said in a statement. “It’s not a surprise that, over the years, many cities have tried to hire him. Denver is gaining a police chief of high integrity.” During a press conference held in Louisville, Fischer called White “a policeman’s policeman.”

Under Denver’s charter, White’s appointment must be approved by the Denver City Council, and that process gets started next week with a committee hearing. The hire should receive a final vote on Nov. 21 and execution of the new chief’s contract can take an additional two weeks, city officials said.

White’s salary as Denver chief will be $161,706, a slight drop from his Louisville salary. The Kentucky force has about 200 fewer sworn officers than Denver.

White took over in 2003 as Louisville chief and soon supervised a merger between the city police force and a county department. He began his career and spent more than 20 years working for the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C. and was chief of police in Greensboro, N.C., before moving to Louisville.

White is married — he says he’ll leave it up to his wife to decide where the couple lives, though he promised it will be somewhere inside city limits — and the couple have three children and two grandchildren.

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com