The Denver Police Department is the primary law enforcement apparatus for the city of Denver. Officially formed in 1859 as a small group of marshals, today’s Denver Police Department consists of more than 1,500 officers in sixteen units active in a metropolitan community of more than 620,000 residents. Its headquarters is located at 1331 N. Cherokee Street. As of 2020, Paul Pazen serves as chief.
In its early days, the Denver Police Department focused on bringing order to a fledgling city filled with drunks and prostitutes. In the early twentieth century, Denver’s explosive growth and changing demographics produced a gradual shift in police activity, from general maintenance of order to more targeted policing of specific groups and activities. The department grew in size and power during both the Progressive Era (1900–20) and alcohol prohibition (1916–33). These years established the Denver Police—as well as American police more generally—as predominantly a force for social and cultural control, in addition to capturing criminals.
Since then, the Denver Police has provided justice for many victims, offered many residents a sense of security, and had innumerable positive encounters with citizens. However, the department today continues to grapple with many of the problems of its past, especially the erosion of community trust stemming from continuous instances of police-citizen violence and discriminatory practices. These have continued despite ongoing efforts at reform, from both within and outside the department.
Before alcohol prohibition, police corruption and abuse of power occurred infrequently and on a much smaller scale than they did during and after. During prohibition, the massive scale of illegal booze activity necessitated an equally massive beefing-up of law enforcement. To drive the vice of drink from the land, lawmakers in Colorado and elsewhere essentially gave police free reign, resulting in a sharp increase in abuses. Corruption also increased during prohibition, as wealthy criminals paid dozens of officers to look away from their illegal liquor activities.
Although prohibition ended in 1933, the large police forces created to enforce it remained, and the abuses and corruption that became rampant in an era of expanding police power continued. Unfortunately, these hangovers from prohibition continued to plague the Denver Police Department throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
New Station, New City
In 1939 the Denver Police moved to a new headquarters, a three-story Art Deco building at Thirteenth and Champa Streets. The building was built by the federal Works Progress Administration during the New Deal. The new police station was not the only new thing about Denver at the time. The Great Depression had brought an end to the mining economy that had previously driven the city’s growth. In its place, Denver developed a multifaceted economy based largely on agriculture and manufacturing, with Great Western Sugar and Gates Rubber among the city’s leading businesses.
Into this new economy came new people. More African Americans arrived from the South, turning the Five Points neighborhood into a thriving black community. Latinx came from Mexico or other parts of the United States to work jobs in factories or sugar beet fields; they formed communities along the South Platte River, near today’s Lower Downtown Denver. The percentage of Denver’s population born in Mexico increased from .3 percent in 1910 (about 275 individuals) to 3.9 percent by 1940 (about 950 individuals)—not including those of Mexican descent who came from other states. Altogether, Denver’s population surged from just over 133,000 in 1900 to more than 320,000 by 1940. The growth of the city’s nonwhite working class would continue over the ensuing decades, prompting a shift in police activity that was largely driven by laws and perceptions crafted by Denver’s elite.
In the 1940s, Latinx residents faced blatant discrimination in housing, employment, and policing. The city used the formation of Latinx gangs as an excuse to pass broad vagrancy laws that criminalized all young Latinx people. For instance, young people were banned from congregating outside pool halls and other popular places, which gave officers cover for excessively policing young Latinx groups. Between 1945 and 1954, Latinx residents represented 31 percent of those arrested for vagrancy, even though they made up only 10 percent of the city’s population.
This racialized policing continued over the next few decades and ultimately sowed resentment and distrust toward the police in many Denver communities.
1960s–70s: Years of Unrest
Trust in the Denver Police was further undermined in 1961, when detective Arthur “Art” Dill uncovered a ring of thieves within the department. Overall, fifty-four officers were arrested for a string of burglaries from 1954 to 1962. The saga was detailed by one of the officers, Art Winstanley, in his 2009 autobiography, Burglars in Blue.
Statistics do not tell a complete story of crime, but FBI data indicate a sharp rise in violent crime in Colorado in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This period also saw frequent peaceful demonstrations for civil rights, as well as many urban protests against systemic poverty in communities of color. George L. Seaton, Denver’s Police Chief from 1968 to 1972, remembered the 1960s as a time of “social catharsis” brought on by decades of inequality—“and in the middle of that ‘catharsis,’” Seaton wrote, “was the American policeman who dealt with . . . the violence, hatred, frustration, rage of American citizens too long denied the American Dream.”
Seaton led a department in a city that was 11 percent black and 25 percent nonwhite, but where only 2 percent of police were black and 1.6 percent were Latinx. Art Dill, who succeeded Seaton as chief in 1972, tried to rectify that, bringing those percentages up to 6 and 13, respectively, by the time he retired in 1983. It did not help, however, that Dill inherited a department that according to two police historians, held “ass kicking” as a “hallowed tradition, especially with respect to minorities.” In predominantly black communities such as Park Hill, for example, a 1967 police-community relations program instructed black youth to cooperate with all police search requests of vehicles—an unnecessary level of compliance never expected of the city’s white youth.
Against this backdrop of rising crime, national unrest, and local distrust, the 1960s and 1970s were a period of intense mutual hostility between the Denver Police and the communities where it was most active. The police especially antagonized—and were antagonized by—members of the Crusade for Justice, a Chicano (Mexican American) activist group formed by Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales in 1966, and the Denver Black Panther Party (BPP), a militant black rights group formed by Lauren Watson in 1967. The organizations formed to resist the discrimination endured by communities of color in housing, education, employment, and especially policing. Throughout the heated street encounters of these decades, members of both groups often used or threatened violence against the police as well. In March 1973, for instance, a street confrontation between Crusade for Justice members and Denver Police escalated into a shootout that seriously wounded several officers and killed twenty-year-old Luis Martinez.
In addition to overpolicing racial minorities, the police were also active in the culture wars of the times. The mostly conservative Denver Police and city officials made no secret of their general disdain for a younger generation that embraced far different norms of dress and behavior and was constantly agitating for civil rights and protesting the Vietnam War. This led the police to profile and target young people—predominantly young, college-aged whites—as “hippies.” For example, in 1970 officers attempted raids on a music venue and health clinic popular among young people, with Chief Seaton telling The Denver Post that “hippie pads” were home to “nothing but degeneration.”
The department policed other cultural lines as well. Veteran gay rights activists recall the Denver Police tricking gay men into admitting homosexual activity, then arresting them for it. As they did in earlier arrests of Latinx youth, the police used a city ordinance—the Lewd Acts Ordinance, which criminalized homosexuality—to expedite the arrests of LGBT individuals. Activists got the ordinance repealed in 1973.
1980s–2000s: Spy Files, Crackdowns, and Attempts at Reform
Despite sustained community resistance and several attempts at reform, the Denver Police Department maintained its reputation for stoking community distrust into the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. From the 1950s through the 1990s, the department secretly collected information on more than 3,200 groups and individuals—most of whom were neither known nor suspected criminals. Denver Police continued targeting activists of color, including members of the American Indian Movement, on whom the department spied from 1986 to 2002 despite no evidence of criminal activity.
In 1993, after a series of violent episodes led the media to proclaim a “Summer of Violence,” the Colorado legislature passed a set of harsh sentencing laws and Denver Police established a forty-three-member “gang unit,” which worked with existing state and federal units focused on gangs. These units disproportionately targeted Latinx and black communities, where citizens repeatedly complained about a rash of unpunished police beatings, killings, and weapon brandishing; they also told researchers and interviewers that gang squads made their communities considerably less safe.
In 2000 Mayor Wellington Webb hired Gerald Whitman as police chief. An eighteen-year veteran of the department with a clean, impressive record, Whitman held the post for eleven years, making him the longest-serving chief in Denver Police history. He was given the job in part to bring change to a department that was experiencing high rates of turnover and low morale in the wake of its latest scandal, a no-knock SWAT raid at the wrong address that killed Ismael Mena, a forty-five-year-old Mexican national. One of Whitman’s first initiatives was to form a Clergy Advisory Team made up of local community leaders. He also reshuffled Denver Police leadership, created more training programs, and overhauled the department’s use-of-force policy in hopes of avoiding more unnecessary shootings.
Whitman’s reform efforts angered many longtime officers who felt that the chief was making their jobs more complicated and difficult. Part of the problem, according to one former officer, was an internal culture of violating citizens’ constitutional rights. Media reports based on internal sources referred to this set of unofficial (and potentially illegal) practices as “The Denver Way.”
Whitman’s tenure as chief was generally lauded by politicians and many citizens, even if his reforms did not stop police violence. “The Denver Way” prevailed on the street, and Denver Police continued to be plagued by use-of-force scandals. In 2011 newly elected Mayor Michael Hancock praised Whitman for his reforms but still replaced the city’s longest-serving chief with Robert C. White, another reform-minded chief whom Hancock sought to continue Whitman’s legacy.
Today: Protests, Response, and Reform
By the 2010s, the Denver Police were entrenched in a cycle common to police departments in other US metropolitan areas: the police would kill a person of color under questionable circumstances, protests and calls for justice and reform would follow, and then the cycle would go on, with or without justice or reforms. In particular, the 2015 killings of Jessica Hernandez, a teenager, and Paul Castaway, who was mentally ill, prompted fresh criticism of the department.
A year later, Denver allocated nearly $1.8 million for body cameras for its police department as a reform tool intended to provide clear evidence of either police misconduct or threats to officers. After all Denver officers were required to wear body cameras in 2017, the department reported that fifty-three officers were disciplined that year for failing to use them. Transparency issues, such as delays in release of footage or incomplete release of footage, hamstrung the efficacy of body cameras over the next few years.
In late May 2020, the graphic, highly publicized video of George Floyd’s killing at the hands of a police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota, sparked a historic wave of protests against police brutality across the nation. In Denver, protesters crowded streets for nearly two weeks, demanding police accountability and reform, as well as funding cuts to the police department. At one point, Denver Police chief Paul Pazen, who replaced White in 2018, marched with peaceful protesters in a show of solidarity.
However, in the first few days of demonstrations, police and protesters engaged in several violent altercations. Police as well as protesters and bystanders were injured. The city eventually settled a lawsuit with those injured during police response, and a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order against the department to limit its use of nonlethal weapons that had caused injury, such as tear gas and rubber bullets.
In the wake of the protests, Governor Jared Polis signed into law a sweeping police reform bill that included a stricter body-camera mandate, struck down the state’s “fleeing felon” law (used by police to justify shooting fleeing suspects), made it easier to file lawsuits against individual officers, compelled police to report all uses of force, and allowed the state attorney general to investigate alleged patterns of abuse in police departments. The Denver Police Department has stated its support for these reforms and began implementing them in mid-2020; embattled chief Pazen has further stated his willingness to “reevaluate every single thing” at the department.