The Denver Police Department was formed in 1859 to bring order to a rowdy, dusty mining camp. The department grew up with the city and with broader trends in American policing. Denver Police spent most of the late nineteenth century focused on drunks, gamblers, thieves, and prostitutes. Later, a more professionalized police force developed during the Progressive Era (1900–20), and the increase in police power during alcohol prohibition (1916–33) formed the basis for a modern Denver Police Department that increasingly functioned as an apparatus of social control as well as capturing criminals.
Origins of American Policing
Boston formed the nation’s first public police department in 1838. Between then and Denver’s founding in 1858, many American cities developed public police forces distinct from the night watches or constable systems that preceded them. In the north, the need for public police grew with industrializing cities and was especially influenced by perceptions of new immigrant populations, including the Irish and Germans. In the south, police departments had their origins in slave patrols that dated back to the early eighteenth century. In both regions, the formation of police stemmed more from a need to control populations that elites saw as disorderly than from a need to control crime in general.
Controlling Rowdy Denver
In this context, public police were seen as a necessity for maintaining order in towns that sprang up in freshly colonized Western territories. During the chaotic Colorado Gold Rush of 1858–59, thousands of white immigrants streamed into the area that became Denver. Saloons, brothels, and gambling dens riddled the fledgling city; brawls and shootouts were common, and gamblers won and lost entire blocks of the early town in card games. As in many of the earliest white settlements in the West, vigilantes and lynch mobs carried out “frontier justice” before the arrival of governments, police, and courts.
When Denver was chartered in 1859, its first leaders sought to get a handle on the rough-and-tumble settlement. They commissioned Wilson E. “Bill” Sisty as a marshal—the city’s first law enforcement officer—for the joint settlements of Denver, Auraria, and Highland. One of Sisty’s first jobs was to punish Denver’s first official murderer, John Stoeffel, who had shot his brother-in-law over a bag of gold dust (such crimes were common in early Denver). Sisty carried out Stoeffel’s sentence—death by hanging. After five months on the job, Sisty abruptly resigned for reasons unknown.
1860s–70s: A “well regulated and judicious police system”
While the marshals did Denver’s first police work, the new city’s charter gave the city council power “to establish, regulate and support night-watch and police, and define the powers and duties of the same.” In January 1860, inaugural mayor J. C. Moore directed the new city council to establish a “well regulated and judicious police system.” That year, P. P. Wilcox was elected the city’s first police magistrate, a role similar to today’s police chief. In 1862 the city hired George E. Thornton as its first police chief, and the force got its trademark star badges two years later.
The first Denver Police headquarters was on Market Street near Fifteenth Street, a location chosen on account of its proximity to many brothels, gambling dens, and other common sites of criminal activity. In its early years, the Denver Police were largely concerned with thieves, drunks, street violence, and prostitutes (the city passed prostitution ordinances in the 1860s and 1870s, stepped up its red-light enforcement in the 1880s, and eventually banned the sex trade outright in 1913).
In 1873 Denver remodeled its police department along the lines of New York City’s, giving its officers standard badges and uniforms. By 1874 the department had thirteen officers, all of whom were listed in the Denver Daily Times. Operating out of a new headquarters at 1517 Lawrence Street, the force was split between day and night shifts.
1880s: Standardization and Growth
Colorado joined the Union in 1876, and the state’s reinvigorated mining industry made Denver into a booming city during the 1880s. By 1881 the police department had grown to “fifteen regulars and eleven specials,” in addition to the chief and a sergeant, patrolling a city of more than 35,000. This included the city’s first black police officer, Isaac Brown, hired in April 1880. The department was now operating more like its contemporaries across the nation, conducting investigations, raiding brothels and opium dens (its first racially targeted anti-vice activity), and making thousands of arrests per year. On May 5, 1881, the police department held its first annual ball, a popular and much-anticipated event in many cities.
While they often harassed the Chinese community for its opium use, the Denver Police were instrumental in protecting Chinese from a white riot on October 31, 1880. Riding a wave of anti-Chinese populism that swept the West at the time, a huge mob of white Denverites descended on Chinatown, burning buildings, smashing goods and property, and beating up Chinese citizens, including one who died from his wounds. That day, Mayor Richard Sopris made an emergency appointment of Dave Cook, the city marshal, as Denver Police chief. Cook’s officers, along with hundreds of emergency-deputized citizens, eventually drove the white mob out of Chinatown.
The next year, one of the earliest accusations of brutality against the department came in an anonymous letter to the Great West newspaper. Denver officer Jim Connors allegedly “jerked” local farmer John Wolff out of his wagon, “pounded him on the ground, took his valuables,” and then “broke Wolff’s nose with his club”—all because Wolff apparently “did not start his team from a watering place quite quick enough.” Wolff was later released and had his valuables returned, but the letter opined that “the policeman deserves to be made to pay a heavy fine, and to serve a term in prison.”
In 1886, with the city’s population fast approaching 100,000, the Denver Police started using patrol wagons for multiple suspects and installed a system of call boxes so officers could be more quickly dispatched across the city. As raids on brothels increased during the decade, the department hired its first matron, Sadie Likens, in 1888 to look after female prisoners.
1900–20: Corruption, Consolidation, and Crackdowns
The Denver Police became known for violence and corruption under chief Michael A. Delaney, who held the post in 1894–95 and 1904–08. The local News Free Press labeled the chief an “official anarchist” who had not only “assaulted scores of prisoners” but also “used his power to extort graft” from criminals and “played favorites” in enforcing the law. In 1905 it was discovered that Delaney, a Democrat, had played a major role in a voter fraud scheme to benefit the Democratic Party in the previous year’s election. Nevertheless, Delaney remained chief, but later resigned in 1908 amid public pressure from his broad-daylight beating of a man who turned out to be innocent. Delaney was eventually indicted for taking money from “red light denizens” while serving as police chief.
The department looked ahead to brighter days in 1909, when it celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. Delaney’s disastrous tenure even prompted some calls for reform. In June 1912, investigative journalist George Creel was appointed as Denver police commissioner and sought to end the force’s use of billy clubs. Yet most residents worried more about disorder than police violence, so Creel’s proposal was never enacted.
By the 1910s, the Denver Police force had grown to more than 200 officers and became more organized with the administrative reforms of the Progressive Era. Formal police training began during this era, stemming from August Vollmer’s pioneer 1908 training program in Berkeley, California. An Army veteran-turned-cop, Vollmer was one of many reformers who believed the police should function more like a military unit to achieve better discipline and maximum efficiency. Overall, police departments during this period adopted their now-familiar rank hierarchy (with associated pay grades) as well as mounted patrols.
The 1910s also saw the Denver Police grappling with labor disturbances and the increased popularity and danger of the automobile. During the Western Federation of Miners strike against the American Smelting and Refining Company in 1903, dozens of Denver officers were called in to protect company property, with one sustaining an eye injury. Later, in the wake of a violent Tramway Strike in 1920—during which the state militia was called to assist the city police—the department added 100 more officers. Meanwhile, the department’s first traffic division was formed in 1910; it consisted of the largest officers on the force so they would be easily seen in traffic.
1920s: Ku Klux Cops
In the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan experienced a national revival amid broad anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic sentiments, and new populations of southern blacks in northern (and western) cities due to the Great Migration. In Colorado, noted Klan members included Governor Clarence J. Morley, Denver mayor Benjamin F. Stapleton, and nearly two dozen Denver Police officers, including chief William Candlish.
A former state senator from Leadville, Candlish was appointed by Stapleton in 1924 and quickly turned the department against the city’s growing population of immigrants and ethnic minorities. In October, for instance, he issued an order to “oust all white girls from establishments of any kind owned and operated by Greeks, Japanese and Chinese within the city.” Despite such xenophobic policies, the Klan’s power at this time stemmed from institutional influence and intimidation more than outright violence. Its power in Colorado was also short lived. In June 1925, Colorado Klan leader John Galen Locke was arrested for tax evasion, and the group began a steady decline nationwide. Forced to renounce his Klan ties, Mayor Stapleton fired Candlish.
Prohibition and Effects on Policing
Meanwhile, much of the Denver Police’s day-to-day operations were consumed by the enforcement of prohibition. Owing to the heavy demands of policing a widespread black market in booze, Denver added hundreds of new officers, including its first accredited female officer, Edith Barker. To assist police efforts, lawmakers in Colorado (and elsewhere) essentially gave police free reign, resulting in a sharp increase in excessive force incidents, brutal interrogations, and warrantless searches and wiretaps.
However, the increase in police power during this time did not translate into a decrease in criminal activity, especially in black-market liquor. Instead, bootleggers became more sophisticated, deadlier, and wealthier. Heavily armed mobsters, such as associates of the Smaldones and the Carlino Brothers, shot at each other and the police in broad daylight, or led police on deadly automobile chases. This led to a kind of arms race between major bootleggers and the police; for instance, the Denver Police began using armored cars with mounted machine guns at this time, foreshadowing the continued militarization of police throughout the twentieth century. Meanwhile, criminal wealth led to police corruption, as dozens of officers took bribes to look away from illegal liquor activity.
Although prohibition ended in 1933, the Denver Police Department did not downsize, but rather settled into its newly expanded power. Unfortunately, corruption and abuse—two huge hangovers from prohibition—continued to plague the Denver Police throughout the twentieth century and to the present, even as the department continued its work to improve public safety in the city.